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What's the Big Deal: the Unbundling

by Sandra Sawchuk on 2017-11-21T15:00:31-04:00

Librarians at Université de Montréal began to discuss splitting apart their journal subscription packages in 2014 (Gagnon 2). This process is commonly referred to as 'unbundling'. So far we have used an analogy about cable subscriptions to explain the structure of the journal publisher's Big Deals, but unbundling is where that comparison starts to fall apart. University libraries don't have a singular Big Deal; they have many of them. Each publisher offers a number of different journal subscription packages, and the prices of the bundles are unique to each university library. In some cases, the university library is not even allowed to share the prices they pay for their bundled subscription packages with other libraries or the public (*ahem* here's looking at you Elsevier). 

In the last post we mentioned that that up to half of all academic publications are controlled by only five publishers. Who are they?

  • Elsevier
  • Wiley
  • Springer
  • Taylor & Francis Group
  • Sage

This statistic is the result of research by Dr. Vincent Larivière, Université de Montréal’s Canada Research Chair in Transformations of Scholarly Communication. He also found that despite the large number of journal titles available through publisher bundles, almost 30% of those titles were never once accessed. In fact, Dr. Larivière and his colleagues found that just 3% of the available journals accounted for 80% of all downloads. These numbers are not unique to U de M; they reflect usage from 28 university libraries across Canada.

U de M conducted extensive research on their own collection before they began to 'unbundle'. This research involved the collection of quantitative and qualitative data. Quantitative information included download statistics and citations used in faculty and student research covering a five-year span, as well as the impact factor or 'prestige' of the current journal titles (Gagnon 3). Qualitative information was collected from faculty members and graduate students about journal titles that they considered essential to their teaching and scholarship, and to their respective disciplines as a whole (Gagnon 3). 

An analysis of the data showed that less than half of U de M's current journal subscriptions were useful (Gagnon 3). Using this data, the researchers applied an 80% x 3 threshold to the journals identified as useful or essential. This means that for each major field (Humanities, Law and Arts, Health Sciences, Natural Sciences and Engineering, and Social Sciences), journals had to meet three criteria: 80% of downloads, 80% of researcher citations, and 80% of recommendations from the university research community (Gagnon 3). After some slight tweaks to their methodology, and a little more community consultation, U de M researchers determined that only 12% of their journal subscriptions were considered essential to their academic community (Gagnon 3). 

But data collection and analysis doesn't mean that U de M was able to pull the plug on all of their big deals. These deals are the result of complex negotiations and Canada-wide university consortiums, and as mentioned earlier, each publisher negotiates their own pricing and terms. Journal collection analysis is just the beginning of what will be a years-long process for U de M, though they succeed in unbundling their subscriptions with Wiley, one of the 'big five' (Gagnon 5).  

Other issues arise when libraries begin discussing changes to their journal subscriptions: sometimes the university community pushes back. In fact, this is exactly what happened at Memorial University in Newfoundland when they embarked on a nearly identical research project involving their journal subscriptions. One professor described the unbundling research at MUN as "very very bad", and said the faculty were in "panic mode" over the potential cuts (Howells). The story made headlines across Canada. Aside from U de M, MUN was one of the first universities in Canada to pursue unbundling, so their librarians and university administration struggled to convince their faculty and graduate students that MUN was only one of many Canadian universities considering journal cancelations (Ambi et al.). 

As of February 2017, Gagnon writes that journal collections research has been implemented in 28 universities across Canada as part of a Journal Usage Project led by the Canadian Research Knowledge Network (CKRN) (6).  

Who are these universities? What is CKRN? How has the 'big five' managed to become so powerful in the world of scholarly publishing? Stay tuned...


Ambi, Alison, et al. ‘Using Data to Break Apart Journal Packages’. Evidence Based Library and Information Practice, 11.4 (2016). https://journals.library.ualberta.ca/eblip/index.php/EBLIP/article/view/28486/21047.

Gagnon, Stéphanie. 'Journal Publishers’ Big Deals: Are They Worth It?' (2017). https://papyrus.bib.umontreal.ca/xmlui/bitstream/handle/1866/18507/Gagnon_Stephanie_2017_article.pdf

Howells, Laura. 'Memorial University to cancel thousands of journal subscriptions.' CBC News. 8 Dec. 2015. http://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/newfoundland-labrador/memorial-university-to-cancel-thousands-of-journal-subscriptions-1.3354711

Larivière, Vincent, Stefanie Haustein, and Philippe Mongeon. "The oligopoly of academic publishers in the digital era." PloS one 10.6 (2015).

 

 


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