Cites & Insights: Crawford at Large
ISSN 1534-0937
Libraries · Policy · Technology · Media

Selection from Cites & Insights 4, Number1: January 2004

A Scholarly Access Perspective

Tipping Point for the Big Deal?

Walt Crawford

While several aspects of scholarly article access remain active, I believe one recent and ongoing story may be most important for librarians and libraries. A growing number of academic libraries are finally saying “Enough!” to Elsevier and ScienceDirect, and the faculty at some universities are lining up behind the libraries—and even, in at least one case, calling for scholarly boycotts.

California Digital Library and the Call for Boycott

The biggest splash may have come when the California Digital Library (which serves all University of California campuses) announced it was spending roughly $8,000,000 for electronic access to Elsevier journals: half of all the money it spends for ejournal access, for a whole lot less than half of the ejournals. Let me repeat: Eight million dollars in 2002. That doesn’t include the six Cell Press journals.

On October 19, two faculty members and researchers at UCSF sent an open letter to “colleagues and friends” on behalf of the UCSF Mission Bay Governance Committee. That letter, posted on the SPARC Open Access Forum (SOAF) and in various weblogs, begins by pointing out the need for effective online access to STM journals—particularly at sites such as UCSF Mission Bay, a subcampus that relies exclusively on electronic access. “UC has successfully negotiated contracts for almost every on-line journal. The glaring exceptions are the Cell Press titles.” The letter goes on to say UC has been trying to reach a deal since 1998, Cell Press is owned by Elsevier, and Elsevier reported 34% and 26% profits in 2001 and 2002 for its science and medicine enterprise. Then comes the $8 million dollars hammerblow and this:

Elsevier now seeks a new contract with annual increases several times above the consumer price index, plus an additional levy for the [six] Cell Press titles that rapidly reaches $90,000 per year, with hefty annual increases thereafter. After exhaustive negotiation, the UC libraries, with the recent support of the UC Council of Chancellors, has declined to accept these rates.

After noting that Cell Press cites the potential loss of personal subscriptions as the basis for a high institutional price, the two get to the heart of the letter:

It is untenable that a publisher would de facto block access of our published work even to our immediate colleagues. Cell Press is breaking an unwritten contract with the scientific community: being a publisher of our research carries the responsibility to make our contributions publicly available at reasonable rates. As an academic community, it is time that we reassert our values. We can all think of better ways to spend our time than providing free services to support a publisher that values profit above its academic mission. We urge four unified actions until the University of California and other institutions are granted electronic access to Cell Press journals:

i) decline to review manuscripts for Cell Press journals,

ii) resign from Cell Press editorial boards,

iii) cease to submit papers to Cell Press journals, and

iv) talk widely about Elsevier and Cell Press pricing tactics and business strategies.

If you agree, please let Cell Press know why you take these actions. Our goal is to effect change, but to be effective we must stand together.

A few days later, Lynne Herndon, president and CEO of Cell Press, wrote a response claiming that the discussions “contain several misconceptions” but doesn’t say what those misconceptions are. Herndon claims that $90,000 breaks down to “roughly $1.50 per top quality journal per year for each active user within the UC system” by claiming that 10,000 UC researchers will actively use Cell Press content.

Cell Press site license pricing has been historically fair and reasonable. Except for the UC system, nearly every other major academic institution in the US has licensed electronic access to Cell Press content. We appreciate the current budgetary constraints facing the UC library system, however in fairness to our current customers we need to maintain our equitable pricing structure as it applies to all institutions.

On November 1, a new message appeared—this one from the UCSF Academic Senate and University Librarian, addressed to UCSF faculty, department chairs and directors. The new item didn’t focus on Cell Press, but on ScienceDirect as a whole. UC is Elsevier’s second largest customer—and “among the online publishers, Elsevier’s price increases have been the most severe.” This letter notes that 50% of UC’s total online budget pays for 25% of total online journal use, and notes other factors:

UC faculty members are important contributors to Elsevier’s journals: 10-15% of the content is written by UC faculty, 1000 faculty are on the editorial boards, and 150 UC faculty members are senior editors for these journals.

After discussing the difficult ongoing negotiations, the letter suggests

that all UC faculty consider alternatives to publishing in and editing Elsevier journals. New initiatives, such as Public Library of Science and BioMed Central, promise high-quality peer-reviewed content at affordable prices. The Committee also suggests that faculty consider taking action by retaining certain intellectual property rights, such as including the right to post their work with an institutional repository.

It goes on to recommend that faculty members “give serious and careful consideration to their association with Elsevier and consider the following actions,” essentially the same as points i-iv above. “Authors may also consider crossing out the provision in a standard publication contract that gives exclusive ownership of a published article to the publisher and thereby retain the right to publish the work in an electronic medium (e.g. UC’s eScholarship Repository or others).” The original call, and other UC resolutions (including a strong one from UC Santa Cruz), continue to spread.


According to a December 19 Chronicle of Higher Education report, the University of Missouri decided over the summer to stop subscribing to ScienceDirect. The University of Iowa is considering abandoning the big deal.

At North Carolina State University, the faculty and staff senates both approved a resolution opposing bundled content and “essentially authorizing the library not to renew its bundled deal with…Elsevier,” according to a December 8 Library Journal news item. NCSU’s deal costs $1.4 million—38 percent of the library’s serials budget for 11 percent of NCSU’s journals. NCSU’s Suzanne Weiner said the major issue was inflexibility:

“[Bundling] is becoming a real problem. Research libraries cannot afford to pay for content that we don’t want, and cannot afford to be locked in long-term. It’s not good fiscal management, and it doesn’t give us a good return on our invenstment.”

The NCSU Student Senate also passed a resolution of support—unanimously.

Harvard University announced that it was unlikely to sign a new multiyear ScienceDirect deal. According to Library Director Sidney Verba as of October 15, “We haven’t finished negotiating, but in all likelihood we will not be signing the renewal offer through NERL, in the way in which they have put it forward.” [NERL is the Northeastern Research Library Consortium, with 21 research library members.] Inflexibility and the inability to cancel unwanted serials were prime reasons. In Paula J. Hane’s wrapup of Elsevier cancellations in the November 17, 2003 Information Today Newsbreaks, she quoted Ivy Anderson saying that Harvard plans to cancel a substantial number of Elsevier journals.

In an ARL survey, 22 of 57 responding libraries indicating that they were “planning to cancel or were considering canceling a bundled package this year.”

According to a Cornell Chronicle story, Columbia University is maintaining electronic access—but will be eliminating almost all print copies.

Cornell University Library

Cornell University Library posted a superb and highly recommended web presentation from Ross Atkinson, “Issues in scholarly communication,” at

The problem: Over the past fifteen years, prices of serials have increased by 215% while the Consumer Price Index increased by 62%--and while Cornell’s Ithaca campus spends 149% more on materials than it did 15 years ago, it only manages to buy 5% more serials, even though there are 138% more serials. (Could that 138% figure be part of the problem?)

First among “the reasons” cited:

[T]he growing commercialization of scholarly publishing, especially in the sciences and social sciences. Commercial publishers charge far more for their materials than scholarly societies or university presses. Elsevier, which publishes mainly science journals, is the best example. Universities support research, and then scholars give that research to commercial publishers, who sell that research back to universities for very large profits.

That page also cites cost pressures in traditional publishing—and the need for serious research libraries such as Cornell to purchase traditional materials as well as digital holdings.

“The solutions” page is worth quoting in its entirety (and, Ross, I hope I’m not exceeding fair use in this case…):

First, methods need to be developed that will allow us to rely far less heavily on commercial publications. This can be done in part by working with scholarly societies and university presses to ensure that they are able to publish quality scholarship at reasonable prices.

Second, methods presently used for the exchange of scholarly information in individual disciplines need to be reviewed, and practicable alternatives need to be developed and considered. Several initiatives are now underway to study or facilitate scholarly communications….

Third, scholars need to retain some rights to their own work, rather than signing them over completely to publishers. When submitting materials for publication, Cornell scholars should consider stipulating at the very least that their publications be freely available to the Cornell community for purposes of instruction and research. Preferably scholars should also negotiate to ensure that they retain the right to post their own publications on their own or on their institutions Web sites…

The next page is the longest (other than a well-chosen set of links on these issues, including Cornell’s wonderful “stickershock” page): “The Elsevier subscription.” Atkinson notes that libraries have “often been able to conceal” the rapid rise in scholarly journal costs “by canceling other journals, reducing purchases of monographs, and general reallocation.” But Elsevier’s pushing too hard. “We now pay ca. $1.7 million dollars for Elsevier journals. (Those journals account for less than 2% of the serials to which the Cornell Library subscribes, but that cost is equal to over 20% of the Library’s total serials expenditures including the Medical School.)” Cornell just can’t keep accommodating Elsevier’s increases “at rates that are invariably much greater than the rate of increase in our budget.”

Elsevier’s big deal works so that canceling anything causes the prices for other journals to increase substantially. “The only way to save any real money is to cancel a great many journals—inevitably eliminating access to some journals that scholars and students depend upon.” Atkinson notes that the pricing strategy is “understandable…and a perfectly legal one—we’ve checked” but also very risky: “If we reach a situation in which we absolutely must save money, then we have no choice but to cancel a great many Elsevier journals.”

Special funding provided a one-time bailout for 2003—but that won’t work for 2004. “We can no longer subscribe to so many Elsevier journals…that we no longer need. We must now free up some of the money spent on Elsevier journals to pay for journals published by other publishers that are more needed by our users.” Cornell has tried to broker a reasonable agreement, “but Elsevier has been unwilling to accept any of our proposals.” Cornell plans to cancel “several hundred Elsevier journals in 2004.”

The last page states “six key issues about the crisis in scholarly communication.” Summarizing what are already terse statements: The current system is not sustainable. This has been a problem for decades. It’s not [just] a serials crisis; it’s a broader crisis in scholarly communication—but the biggest increases are in scientific serials. The problem can’t be solved by increasing budgets. Some publishers are using the demand for electronic access to further increase their control and prices. Finally, “the core of the crisis is neither economic nor technical, but rather cultural: it is driven primarily by the publishing conventions of the academy.”

A December 1 report at is titled “Elsevier hits back at journal cuts.” The piece quotes Elsevier’s Erik Merkel-Sobotta claiming that negotiations were going much better than “all the hype written about them would suggest.” He asserted that the Cornell figure would be closer to 100 journals than the 200 suggested earlier, and that “It’s all about rationalising and making access to our journals more efficient.” And, of course, he justified the big increases as reflecting three-year lockins. Then there’s poormouthing the universities, as he did referring to Cornell, Harvard, and UC: “Not all universities are poor, and these certainly aren’t.”

The last word, for now, comes from the Cornell Chronicle for December 11. Cornell has dropped the big deal for 930 journals, and will instead subscribe to a smaller number (unstated) of individual titles. University librarian Sarah Thomas noted, “The big deal was an unsustainable model for Cornell. We were going to have to start canceling high-value journals from societies and nonprofit association publishers that we needed, in order to pay for Elsevier journals we didn’t need, but couldn’t cancel.”

The eclectic librarian ( commented on Merkel-Sobotta’s poormouthing, including his claims that cancellations were just about dropping print versions in favor of e-only, and experience at el’s own institution (unnamed).

When I looked into the pricing of online v. print subscriptions from Elsevier, there was no savings to go online only. They tout that on their website, but when we got into negotiations with them, we discovered that the online discount is almost exactly the amount they tack on for an electronic access fee. With our budget in shreds, we had no choice to cancel some of our most expensive and under-used journal titles. Coincidentally, many of those happen to be Elsevier titles.

I think what ticks me off most about the above quote [“But not all universities are poor, and these certainly aren’t”] is the assumption that if a university has money, it would want to throw a disproportionate amount of it at one publisher… I applaud institutions like Cornell University and the University of California for standing up and saying to the Dutch Pirates, “No more!”

The Numbers?

Peter Suber cited excerpts from Bear Sterns’ 9/29/03 report on Reed Elsevier in a SOAF posting. “Reed recently informed librarians that it is to hike science journal prices yet again in 2004, by 6.5%. Our channel check of science libraries suggests that users are under funding pressure but they will pay up. Pricing power in journals, together with margin expansion as revenues migrate on-line, are key to Reed’s ability to deliver earnings growth and hence its share price valuation… Reed’s Science business…is in our view a shareholders’ dream… We believe that science margins will increase from their already high level as libraries drop paper subscriptions and opt for internet-only access. We believe Reed’s only problem will be hiding this margin increase from regulators.” The report goes on to call each of Reed Elsevier’s journals “a mini-monopoly enjoying huge pricing power” and asserting that SPARC and Open Access journals won’t change the nature of publishing any time soon. [Emphases added.]

Libraries and academics have been trying for over a decade to develop new ways of disseminating academic knowledge and research, but the barriers to entry enjoyed by the incumbent journals are just too high (loyal readership, brand recognition, ‘boards’ of academics who peer review research), as is the value proposition (they bring order to an anarchic process—the development of knowledge.)

The analyst believes that libraries will “switch away” from society-published journals to journals “in the same niche supplied by a larger publisher who can use bundling strategies.” There’s a truly silly assertion—that, even though shifting to online-only means even bigger profits for Reed Elsevier, it’s “a win-win situation” because libraries can cut staff so much if they’re not handling print.

Things can change. In mid-October, another analyst (BNP Paribas) expressed “its concern regarding [Reed Elsevier’s] current subscription based access, as compared to the newer and more successful article-fee based open access system” and downgraded the stock.

The Guardian reported on December 12 that the British House of Commons science and technology committee planned to conduct an inquiry into scientific publication early in the new year. “The committee will look at access to journals, with particular reference to price and availability.” The committee will specifically “ask about the importance of open-access journals and whether the government should support the trend towards free scientific information. Such a move could spell disaster for Reed Elsevier.”


I sense momentum. Iowa, Missouri, Harvard, Columbia, Cornell, UC Berkeley, UCLA, UC Davis, UC San Diego, UC San Francisco, North Carolina State: That’s a fairly impressive lineup.

I hope there’s momentum. I hope faculty members pay attention—that they find alternative routes to publication and support necessary cuts to keep the system alive. I hope some scholarly associations start to see that their first purpose in publishing should be to make scholarship widely available—and that accepting or matching outrageous commercial prices is no way to do that. (Some scholarly associations do see that, and quite a few commercial publishers aren’t gouging.)

My own absurdly optimistic scenario for a workable “endgame” in scholarly access has been forming in my mind, and will make it to paper or the web one of these months—either here or in American Libraries. It may not be a probable scenario, but it’s one many of us could live with. Could Elsevier live with it? Not at their current size, not at their current profitability. Somehow, sometime, something’s gotta give. Maybe the sometime is now.

Cites & Insights: Crawford at Large, Volume 4, Number 1, Whole Issue 44, ISSN 1534-0937, is written and produced at least monthly by Walt Crawford, a senior analyst at RLG. Opinions herein do not reflect those of RLG. Comments should be sent to Cites & Insights: Crawford at Large is copyright © 2004 by Walt Crawford: Some rights reserved.

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