We in libraries have now been complaining about the Big Deal for just over a decade. We complain about it in some of the same terms — and for all the same reasons — that a junkie complains about heroin. We love the Big Deal, we have to have it, it solves some serious short-term problems for us and makes us feel really good, and we know it’s going to kill us eventually.
The problems with the Big Deal are easy to see, and they are primarily two:
- It’s not viable in the long run. With the typical Big Deal, you cordon off a very large chunk of your materials budget, assign that chunk to a single publisher, agree (in the case of a multi-year contract) to an annual price increase just a couple of percentage points lower than the ruinous market rate (which has historically averaged between 9-10% annually for STM journals, but may be starting to decline), you accept the effusive gratitude of the faculty who are thrilled with their greatly-expanded access, and then you wait for the deal to take over your entire serials budget, which it eventually will do — more slowly if your budget is increasing from year to year, more quickly if (as is often the case these days) your budget is flat or flattish. The short-term benefits are both real and significant: your patrons get access to lots of content that you could never provide them at market prices. But the end game is disastrous.
- It’s terribly wasteful in the short run. The Big Deal is explicitly structured such that you’re buying access to journals you don’t want or need, in order to secure affordable access to those that you do. Depending on your existing subscription list and the content of the Big Deal package, your waste quotient could range anywhere from 20 to 90%. Again, the short-term benefit is huge: dividing the annual price of your deal by the annual number of downloads may show a per-article cost of anywhere from 25 cents (this was the actual per-article cost to one library I once worked for) to a few dollars. The extremely low per-unit cost for manifestly in-demand content makes it easy to ignore the waste, in much the same way that it’s easy to ignore a leaky faucet if you’re paying very little for the water. The difference being that with a typical Big Deal, the faucet isn’t dripping—it’s running constantly, day and night, all that cheap water going steadily down the drain.
OK, so the Big Deal has structural drawbacks. What are the solutions?
I don’t see one on the immediate horizon. This is partly because the dynamics that give rise to the Big Deal are so firmly and deeply rooted in the structure of our scholarly communication system, and have been for hundreds of years. It’s easy to think of the Big Deal as a product of the World Wide Web, as if it were brought into being by the nearly wholesale movement of journal publishing from the print to the online world. In a sense this is true; the networked digital environment creates the economies of scale that make the Big Deal possible.
But in another sense it’s the opposite of the truth. The Big Deal is really just a caricature of an access model that came into being precisely because of the limitations of the print environment: the journal subscription — or, as I like to call it, the Medium Deal.
I’ve taken to calling the journal subscription the Medium Deal because it’s just like the Big Deal, only smaller — it’s scaled to the article rather than the journal title. With the Big Deal you buy access to journals you don’t need in order to get reasonably-priced access to journals you do need. With a journal subscription you do exactly the same thing, only with articles. This was never a good model, but back when information could only be distributed in the form of printed documents, it was the only feasible one. Now, in the era of networked digital information, we still have that print-based mindset, thinking of journal “issues” as meaningful units (which they obviously aren’t, except in the unusual case of a themed issue) and going along more-or-less willingly with the proposition that the only way to get reasonably-priced access to a desired article is to pay for it in an annualized bundle with a bunch of others you don’t want.
I don’t see a solution to this problem either. What would obviously make the most sense is a Tiny Deal, one based on articles rather than journals, one that involves the efficient purchase only of what’s actually needed rather than the preemptive and wasteful purchase of large blocks of unneeded articles. But just because such a model would make sense doesn’t mean it’s feasible. For the Tiny Deal to work for libraries, the price of an individual article would have to be very low (as it is with a Big Deal). For it to work for publishers, the price of an individual article would have to be very high, because relatively few articles would be sold (cf. Joe Esposito’s recent posting on the projected economic impact of patron-driven acquisition on book publishers).
Some of my colleagues reading this will say, “Who cares whether it works for publishers? If a bunch of publishers go out of business, so much the better.” Those who think that way are very often people whose careers depend on their ability to provide access, not people whose careers depend on having prestigious journals in which to publish their papers. Driving a lot of publishers out of business might make some of us feel good temporarily, but I’m not sure it’s a realistic recipe for a better scholarly communication economy.
“Fine,” I can hear my colleagues say, “then this is why we need Open Access.” And maybe they’re right. But no one, not even Stevan Harnad, thinks that OA is going to take over for traditional toll-access models on anything like a broad scale in the foreseeable future. We need a solution for the near- and midterm.
I think the only way we’re going to find a workable solution is if at least two things happen:
- Librarians have to let go of the idea that profit is evil. A healthy scholarly communication system is almost certainly going to include publishers that make a profit, and in some cases very substantial profits. I would say this to my colleagues in libraries: if you don’t like that, then tough luck — deal with it, or find a different job. Our task is not to bring about the death of capitalism, but to make possible the scholarship our institutions are charged with creating. As my man Stanley Fish has said, “save the world on your own time.”
- Publishers have to commit to creating selling models that are both rational (i.e., not predicated on waste) and viable (i.e. economically feasible in the long run). Why do I say that publishers need to do this? Shouldn’t all members of the content supply chain—authors, librarians, publishers, etc.—contribute to this endeavor? Theoretically, yes they should. Realistically, the innovation is going to come from the commercial side. It almost always does. Commercial entities are driven to innovate by competitive considerations that really don’t exist in academia. In libraries, we generally innovate out of a sense of obligation, whereas companies tend to innovate out of a sense of terror, which is a much better motivator than obligation.
Once again I find I’ve written a posting that raises vexing questions and offers no concrete solutions. I’m not sure how many more of these I’ll be allowed before Kent fires me. In the meantime, maybe you commenters can bail me out: What might a solution to this quandary look like?