23, No. 18, April 22, 2004
find creative ways to stretch subscription dollars
By Andrea Lynn,
News Bureau Staff Writer
by Bill Wiegand
prices for scientific journal subscriptions -- coupled
with budget cuts in recent years and an increasing
demand for electronic access -- are forcing university
librarians such as the UI's Paula Kaufman to find
creative ways to continue delivering services and
providing breadth in their collections.
Behind the bricks
and mortar, behind the stately architecture and inspiring carved inscriptions,
enormous pressures, most of them hidden to the casual observer, are
mounting in our nation's research libraries--the UI among them.
Caused by the demand for digital access to information, by cuts in library
budgets, and more than anything else, by the skyrocketing prices of
scientific journal subscriptions, the pressures are forcing tough decisions
that have powerful and pernicious ripple effects.
The pressures are forcing unprecedented changes in the ways university
libraries deliver intellectual content, and in fact, in the array of
intellectual content they are able to deliver. The casualties on this
information battlefield are the books and journals that might have been.
During the last five years, journals have raised their subscription
rates 10 to 20 percent on average, but some have spiked to 50 percent.
Meanwhile, some commercial publishers, taking advantage of inflated
rates, have developed lucrative "bundling" plans, packaging
a few critically important titles with a large number of rarely used
titles, and then selling the bundles to universities at premium prices
in multi-year non-refundable contracts.
The good news is that librarians and scholars on campus committees and
in large professional associations and confederations, are fighting
back -- creating inventive ways to deal with the pressures, while hanging
onto the quality of their libraries' services and collections.
In fact, rebellion is in the air. Several universities, including the
University of California at Berkeley, have put out attention-getting
price comparison wheels and value calculators.
Rotate the Berkeley "Sticker Shock" wheel and you find, for
example, that a one-year subscription to the Journal of Geophysical
Research goes for $5,760 -- equal to a half-carat diamond solitaire
from Tiffany. "Venerable traditions often determine where we publish
our research," the wheel reads. "Unfortunately, some publishers
have made a gold rush from our habits."
The wheel also asks scholars to, among other things, retain the rights
to their work, post their findings and articles to public archives and
to decline invitations to review in "unreasonably" expensive
- Stanford University's
faculty senate passed a resolution in February that mirrored Berkeley's
suggestions, including asking faculty and libraries to refuse big
deal or bundled subscription plans that limit librarians' abilities
to make "best interest" collection decisions -- the industry
giant Elsevier was singled out.
- Three scientists
founded PloS, the Public Library of Science, an open source, peer-reviewed
journal, and won a Wired magazine Rave Award for their efforts.
- A consortium
of Eastern schools threatened to drop their Elsevier contracts, as
did the 10-campus University of California system after opening Elsevier's
subscription proposal last year that exceeded the school's entire
Threats to yank for-profit publishers' bundling contracts seem to work.
In January, the UC system got a rare temporary reduction in its subscription
fees for Elsevier-published journals. Elsevier publishes nearly 2,000
titles, some 20 to 22 percent of the science, technology and medical
What about Illinois? Are we in a crisis?
Not exactly, said Paula Kaufman, the UI's university librarian. It's
more like a continuing state of erosion, punctuated with periodic catastrophic
"We more and more often have to cancel or can't buy critically
important materials, but overall, the core of the content that our faculty
and students need to do their work is just shrinking away."
Karen Schmidt, the UI's associate librarian for collections, agrees:
"The staggering costs of serial publications today are pushing
out the margins of our collections, so that the richness that we all
have become accustomed to seeing in great research libraries is beginning
to be lost.
"The landscape is completely changing," Schmidt said, "so
we have to figure out how we can apportion what we do so that we have
some flexibility and can respond not just to the marketplace, but more
importantly, to changes in the curriculum. We're here to meet the scholarly
needs of the teaching faculty, the students, the researchers. This is
a cutting-edge university; we have to have cutting-edge collections.
But it's very hard to be flexible when the publishing field is changing
The UI Library now spends about $6.6 million a year -- 60 percent of
its collection budget -- on serials, Schmidt said. Subscription rates
vary widely. On the low end is Metalsmith, $29 a year. But Combustion,
Explosion and Shock costs $3,051, and the Journal of Magnetism and Magnetic
Meanwhile, the Library pays Elsevier about $990,000 a year for print
copy subscriptions and another $268,000 for electronic access to them.
It spends more than $300,000 for subscriptions to other major commercial
publishers, and another 7 to 10 percent, on average, for electronic
Other factors are challenging the UI Library, including the insatiable
demand for electronic content.
"And for a library like ours, which has always been committed to
maintaining archives of what we've invested in, this creates tensions
and difficult decisions about what now constitutes archival material,"
The strong Euro also is making life difficult, limiting the Library's
ability to purchase European books and journals. This year there's a
20 to 24 percent price increase for Western European journals. The UI
spends about $2.5 million on international serials -- about 38 percent
of its serials budget.
"There are just startling price increases causing very difficult
choices," Schmidt said. "Faculty in the humanities are particularly
affected because the library is their laboratory."
Thus, for a variety of reasons, the UI Library during the past five
years has canceled nearly $1.4 million in subscriptions. In the fiscal
year 2000, cancellations amounted to $117,465, but four years later,
$716,276 in subscriptions were cut.
Even more important to the library's overall collection health, Schmidt
said, are the unique-title journals it offers. In FY2003, she said,
202 serial titles unique to the campus were dropped, compared with 19
the year before.
"Unique titles are those that make rich scholarly collections,"
Schmidt said, noting that 30 to 40 of them are canceled each year.
With fewer unique titles, Interlibrary Loan activity -- and costs --
pick up. Lynn Wiley, head of the Illinois Research and Reference Center
and acting head of the undergraduate library, has seen requests for
interlibrary loans during the past eight years rise from 24,000 annually
Budget pressures and changes in scholarly publishing have hurt all of
the collections. Paula Watson, director for scholarly communication,
says the library has had to cancel "very important" titles
For example, the Grainger Engineering Library no longer subscribes to
Standards, published by the American National Standards Institute, or
to the publications of the International Society for Optical Engineering,
"serious losses for a top-ranked engineering college," Watson
But the steady erosion of the overall collection is as much a concern
as the loss of individual high-profile titles, she said. The biology
library canceled nearly all of the journals dealing with particular
groups of plants and animals, including Molluscan Studies, Nematology
and American Fern Journal. The History and Philosophy Library dropped
the History of Psychiatry, even though it's "a major source"
in this area, said librarian Mary Stuart. "Its price more than
doubled when the society publishing it handed it over to a commercial
In new research areas or changed research emphases, the library is now
"much less able to maintain a collection that can anticipate needs,"
Watson said. "For example, budget pressures caused us to cancel
geriatrics and gerontology journals before the campus Initiative on
Aging was launched." And too, escalating journal costs "suck
up funds that could be used to build up areas where the Library has
not collected aggressively but now are assuming increased importance,"
Watson said -- particularly in philosophy, non-Christian religions and
Native American studies.
But sharing costs is easing some of the UI Library's pain.
"We try very hard to join in cooperative purchases with the Consortium
on Institutional Cooperation and state organizations where we can maximize
our dollars," Schmidt said. "For example, we have electronic
access to every Kluwer title held by any CIC library. If we went this
alone, we would have electronic access only to the print subscriptions
In another creative move, the UI and its sister campuses, UIC and UIS,
negotiated a strategic alliance with each other and a one-time deal
with Elsevier whereby one print copy of a journal is held at the campus
where it is deemed most critical, and all three campuses get 24/7 electronic
access, "a huge step forward in managing our journals budget, and
the move has enabled us to acquire more electronic back runs of journals
as well," Schmidt said, noting that the three UI campuses have
access to more than 950 Elsevier-published journals.
"There are many models out there," Kaufman said, "but
I'm not aware of any other university system that has done a similar
Elsevier deal. Everyone is scrambling to find the best model, and Elsevier
is just the first of the big publishers that we are going to be dealing
"But our cleverness can only go so far," she said. "We
can try to get good deals. We can work collaboratively, but in the end,
the content is available only for a price. This is a one-time deal with
Elsevier, a one-time big savings. There will be price increases in the
future, and we'll have to find the money from somewhere -- or cancel."
Kaufman is proud of some other emerging models the UI has been in the
forefront of, including its work with the Association of Research Libraries'
Global Resources Program to "leverage the resources that we have
in North American research libraries to provide access to content from
around the world."
Kaufman also pointed to various new models in scholarly publishing that
the UI Library and faculty members are working with, including the "Open
Access Initiative" and "PubMedCentral," which is run
by the National Institutes for Health.
In the case of the Open Access Initiative, funds to pay for refereeing
and editing come up front from author submission fees, and the material
is accessible to everyone.
If it works, it will rely on scholars taking control of the marketplace,
and our universities having the capacity to archive the output of their
"One of our major goals," Schmidt said, "is to make sure
that we have a sustainable archive in the future, whether it's here
in our Library or at the NIH. But a lot of the publishers aren't there
yet, which is why we don't feel secure in saying to Elsevier, "Sure,
we'll go totally electronic," because we know that they don't keep
all of their print material electronically."
most publishers don't.
"We're not railing at publishers," Kaufman said, "or
seeing this as only a library problem. These are problems of the scholarly
community. These are problems that everyone needs to own.
"Libraries can't change the way the market works. None of us can
by ourselves. But together, librarians, faculties, scholarly societies
and universities can. After all, we all have the same aim: We want to
get the literature out."