The way to start spending less on toll access literature is to start spending less on toll access literature. Start today. Libraries should slowly but surely divest from the biggest vendor oligopolies and invest instead in open alternatives. For decades they’ve been steadily growing their prices at rates that consistently outstrip inflation, the CPI, and our own budgets’ rate of growth, and they long ago outgrew any value proposition associated with the Big Deal. It is time to divest. Call it the “Negative 2.5% Commitment.”
This commitment is a natural counterpart to ideas like the 2.5% Commitment and Scholar-owned or Scholar-led OA, which call for increased investment in research communication infrastructure that our institutions own and/or control. In part, divesting from Big Deals is a necessity: if we are going to invest in new platforms that actually serve our users’ deepest interests in the long run, and we have not yet located a buried treasure somewhere, we have to find that money in our current budgets. What better source than the ridiculously inflated prices we are paying the biggest vendors?
Divesting is also a natural move given that the value of Big Deals (meaning what we libraries get for the money, that we can’t get (legally) elsewhere) is only going to go down from here on. More and more funders are following the NIH, the Open Research Funders Group (incl. the Gates Foundation), and the Plan S group in requiring the research they support to be freely available. More and more of the most interesting research will be wrenched from the big vendors by the people who actually pay for it. Governments and institutions are getting more and more savvy in supporting green OA. Tools like Unpaywall and OAButton are making finding free, legal copies of research articles ever more painless and easy. Our own Center for Open Science is making it easy to tie together all the open places where your research workflow might live. The preprint ecosystem is exploding. Vendors will never proactively acknowledge these factors, though. We will have to assert them and divest accordingly.
Finally, divesting from these outlets follows logically from where we all know scholarly communication is going. Toll access journals are the past. Even Elsevier knows that open is the future, and they are changing their investment strategies (and even their description of their business) accordingly. Why should we continue to steadily increase our investments in a broken model (and in vendors who are demonstrably misaligned with our values), rather than turn our attention to the future and the race to own that future, rather than have it, too, somehow enclosed by the biggest vendors? How do you ask a non-profit publisher or scholarly association or university press to be the last partner to be cut from our budgets to make room for a mistake?
Libraries have long discussed acting in solidarity to resist the insane increases in price that we’ve seen over the last several decades, but they’ve been stymied in part by concerns about antitrust law. I’m not an antitrust lawyer, but it seems to me that a general consensus in favor of changing the direction that prices are moving is rather different than setting a particular price threshold or cost-per-use as a collective demand. (We could of course drop the “2.5%” number, which is completely arbitrary.) Setting a collective price threshold might be an exercise in monopsony power, but agreeing as a matter of principle that prices should stop going up and start going down is simply a collective recognition that a paradigm shift has occurred and we should act accordingly.
The French have already started. In an announcement(English translation) on Wednesday, the CNRS library explains that it is not renewing its subscription to Springer’s bundle deal because “in a context of transformation of the economic model of scientific publishing,” the French have developed a national plan to pivot to open access in order to “significantly reduce the budgets dedicated to contracts with publishers.” (Note that, as I read this, it precludes OA Big Deals with the same vendors, which have no prospect of containing costs for research institutions.) Springer had actually made a proposal to the French consortium “which includes, for the first time, a continuous decline in the cost of subscriptions over 3 years” (with a concomitant reduction in journal titles), but CNRS wants to bend the curve more dramatically in a downward direction. And they are willing to walk away to get it. Vivre les réductions!