Library contracts and journals 101

Dec 01 2010 Published by under How Libraries Work, Tactics

Libraries sign a lot of contracts to get access to content. A LOT. Think of your household and multiply by it by a thousand or more. The bigger the library the more contracts they sign.

Because we do this with so many publishers, organizations, societies, etc. there are other companies set up to manage all these subscriptions, standing orders of book series, and the like. We call them "subscription agents." These agents are so important that they usually give the biggest parties at the largest library conferences. And we all know that's  the true barometer of clout in a profession.

The American Chemical Society, or ACS (there they are again) recently sent out information on next year's journal subsciption costs to libraries. Now, you may have guessed from earlier posts of mine that the ACS can be a little conservative with regards to publishing. Well, they are conservative with respect to ownership of content, copyright, and open access, but with repsect to licenses and pricing they seem to be quite different.

One good example of this is our library agreement with ACS journals. We pay annual costs for both the new content (called the ACS web editions) and the archive (the Legacy Archive.) This two-tier pricing scheme has been in effect for some time. There are other societies that have access to journals set-up differently (one price for all content, or no archive is available) but most commercial publishers have a similar two-tier system in place.  One example of this is JSTOR in the humanities and social sciences.

Another option publishers have is to bundle journals together into packages. Since ACS journals are in high demand, most larger academic libraries have an all titles (or All Publications) package. This is convenient because when a new title is released you don't have to start a new individual subcription.

All well and good - these systems have been in place for some time and usually eliminate unncessary paperwork in renewing subscriptions. Long story short is our state-wide agreement with the ACS ended, and we had to negotiate with them to renew our subscriptions. In our case, the price increase was manageable (maybe 5%). Some of the possible reasons for the price increase, which were explained to me from our ACS rep, are as follows:

1)     Many places received an early payment discount in the past, which was not factored into the base price for next year. So the base price was raised. While this is odd, it wouldn't surprise me if ACS was in fact doing this and/or it wasn't clear on the invoice. I would recommend libraries check their previous invoices to see if this is reason for part of their increase.

2)     ACS added two new titles to the web editions package, so this subsciption was raised accordingly. This seems to fair to me and in line with previous increases.

3)     The ACS legacy archives costs increased for many schools, and in some cases the cost doubled.  In our case this didn't happen but if a school was in a consortial arrangement this may be the reason why the bill is so much higher.

So there you have it. I don't think this is an evil plan from the ACS but rather an opportunistic way to redefine the parameters of the contract without breaking them. When you sign a contract, as long as the terms are obeyed there's little recourse.

I have seen so many confusing pricing deals from the ACS that after this renewal was settled I moved on. I didn't realize until later that some libraries are seeing very large increases, 20% or more. There's more discussion of this on friendfeed.

I predict we will see more of this pricing instability, especially as newer publishing models develop and mature.  Unfortunately this is an area, as we've seen with the Nature situation earlier this year, where information it's not possible to openly  share this information. So speak up, tell your stories, and make some noise when there's a big price increase.  Tell faculty why journals are being cancelled.  In most cases it's not because of content but other reasons. I predict this increase will cause some libraries to cancel some ACS subscriptions, because the increases will be too large for them to sustain and the increase is coming late in the year, when it's harder to absorb a larger hit.

12 responses so far

  • Thanks for the explanation. I always feel like these price increases will be unsustainable- and makes me wonder if my current institution just ponies up, or if we're losing content.

    • ebrown says:

      I agree the price increases will likely be unsustainable long-term. In our case the cost increase was within our budget for inflation, plus new content was added. Like another commenter mentioned, always ask your library if access appears to be lost. Most libraries post this information when titles are cancelled, and other times server access or another technical issue may be the explanation.

  • Serials Librarian says:

    Unfortunately, ACS is one of the worst publishers I've encountered with unreasonable price increases. For many libraries, we are stuck with them because their journals are considered important for accreditation. When I talk to people about the difference between society and commercial publishers, I say that ACS hardly acts like a society publication. Their practices are worse than many of the commercial publishers.

    • ebrown says:

      My frustration with the ACS is that the terms of the contract and license are complicated and confusing. I don't think their increases are necessarily higher than other publishers - in our previous agreement with them the increases were quite small. There is an article on today's Inside Higher Ed that does give more detail on their usage-based pricing for non-academic libraries:

  • anon. lib. says:

    Candid Engineer - talk to your librarians. They will be able to give you the low down. MPOW has been very fortunate to have stable library funding and a strong Canadian dollar which has mitigated a lot of the price increases in the last few years (and publishers holding the line on prices during the recession was pretty helpful too). Even with those advantages we are starting to feel the pinch. Thankfully, we haven't had to start cutting yet but I imagine the day will come in the not too distant future.

    • ebrown says:

      I agree - some academic institutions are in much worse financial situations with the recent econominc downturn and loss of endowments. Unfortunately I think the insitutions getting these large increases from the ACS seem to be the ones least able to absorb the higher costs.

  • Related note: I've often wondered whether this space ("subscription agencies") was ready for a reverse-takeover of some kind. The service is useful, namely consolidated purchasing, and apparently the margins are supposed to be small, so it looks to many like the model should remain intact and it's a healthy 'win-win' relationship.

    But I see this as yet another bungled library opportunity. We created a market ("subscription agencies") but let our passive approach let the market run against our better interests and healthier engagement. Here's some summary points I would argue:

    * We didn't clearly scope and demand our interests in metadata management, leaving these subscription agencies with valuable metadata that we pay them to 'manage' so that they can in turn *sell it back to us* via A-Z, link-resolver and related add-ons. This was IMHO a big missed opportunity for us to more directly control the related services ourselves. So instead, we are becoming bit-players (aka "consumers") in the goldrush to turn metadata into dependent services that we have to pay for. Our role should be more of "investors" rather than "consumers" in this game, helping us reduce costs and have more opportunity for our clients.

    * This situation is reinforced by our bungling of the ILS space, namely, allowing the market to move towards extreme vendor lock-in, and overly segmented product offerings (where functionality has been doled out in a dysfunctional 'pay per use' model, rather than more organically). For example, how many "serials modules" are dysfunctional with respect to ERM, because of all the add-ons that have to be purchased to make it all work. But yet we still pay for support & maintenance on this "serials module" and can't afford the add-ons. We allowed our ILS vendors to position managing and acquiring electronic resources as "something extra special" (and thus the plethora of add-ons to manage core business functions etc.) We can see this at play in how many of us actually manage A-Z *outside* of our ILS. Ditto for the "acquisitions module" too.

    * We've missed opportunities to be better organized on consortial purchasing, pricing activism, and stronger leadership towards open access. Again, these have factored into to how the marketplace has left us in a weakened position imho.

    E-contracts and licensing figure prominently in our budgets. For many, it even matches or surpasses our entire HR salary budget. We need to be more creative and aggressively engage ourselves in testing alternative configurations in this marketplace.

  • Bonnie says:

    Our subscription to the ACS legacy archive went up 110% this year because they are "standardizing" their fees based on Carnegie classification. Theoretically the price went down for someone? I had to talk to the chemists to let them know that this wasn't sustainable and we will probably need to make some cuts in the near future. I think they were surprised at how much everything cost.

    • Beth Brown says:

      I think your inst. must have been caught in the pricing adjustment from the ACS once the SUNY contract ended through NYSHEI - it looks like our price increased 5% this year. We pay more for the ACS journals than we do for Scifinder. I agree faculty do get suprised at prices but we've had enough serials reviews over the years our chemistry faculty are more aware than others.