Over the past several years, a number of major consortia have been taking a stronger position at the negotiating table with scholarly publishers. None has gotten more attention than Projekt Deal, whose member universities are steadily losing access to Elsevier journal content as subscriptions lapse, while asserting that there is little unmet faculty member demand for access. I have observed that North American consortia are likely to take a rather different approach than those in Europe, but at the same time I am focusing much greater attention on consortial rhetoric and behavior in North America.

It was for this reason that I was so interested to learn about this year’s tumult around Taylor and Francis’s (T&F) efforts to further mine its backfile — and to follow the pushback from library consortia against its plans. The Big Ten Academic Alliance (BTAA) is one of the most interesting consortia in North America, comprised of more than a dozen principally public flagship research universities and governed by its chief academic officers, and it was at the forefront of a joint effort among a group of consortia to engage on this issue. I was fortunate enough to be able to speak recently with Kimberly Armstrong, BTAA’s Director for Library Initiatives, and, regardless of where you stand on the particular issue at hand, the tactics pursued are notable, as is the outcome.  

Antoine-Louis Barye, Tiger in Repose, ca. 1850–65


Tell me about the Big Ten Academic Alliance. How active are you in licensing? What other kinds of programs do you prioritize?

We are a consortium of 14 member universities with a 60-year history of collaboration. Licensing is a big part of our portfolio and we handle several significant STEM contracts as well as a suite of database and e-book packages. Our members also invest in a central pool that allows us to make strategic content purchases on behalf of all members. In addition to licensing, we have investments in: shared print serials; Google digitization/HathiTrust Digital Library; resource sharing; cooperative cataloging, and accessibility testing.

The Big Ten Academic Alliance is governed by the Provosts of the member universities who act as a “board of the whole” to lead, guide, and fund the enterprise. Most recently our library leadership has engaged the provosts in potential collective actions related to the unsustainability of the current scholarly publishing system.

Kimberly Armstrong, Big Ten Academic Alliance, BTAA.
Kimberly Armstrong, Big Ten Academic Alliance.

What is your view on the overall state of scholarly communications?

It is a complex system that the university faculty and researchers rely on, with libraries as the middlemen grappling with the realities of smaller budgets and the demand for more content in all forms. The economics for libraries are unsustainable, and yet promoting alternatives to our scholars has been insufficient to change or even normalize the environment. Library and consortial efforts to reduce and manage their spend with commercial publishers most often results in a loss of content, which is in direct opposition to the goal of disseminating research as widely as possible. Publishers are designing new products and services marketed to other segments of the university which further complicates any action a library might take to manage down reliance on the existing for-profit publishers.

We often talk about the Big Deal as if it were a single thing. Do all of the Big Deal models that the Big Ten libraries license include access back to a fixed point in time regardless of when a subscription was initiated?

The Big Ten Academic Alliance is selective about the licensing activity we undertake since we have many other programmatic initiatives. Additionally, most of our member institutions are served by exceptional state consortia for a portion of their licensing business as well. Not all of our publisher deals have “fixed point” access; however, in each case this was set at the outset of the contract and our libraries had the opportunity to evaluate the benefits and limitations of entering into an agreement with those terms.

Taylor and Francis attempted to shift to a “moving wall” model in which a current subscription provides access to a trailing number of years of content, such that in every new year the libraries would lose access to an older year. It seemed that this was designed to enable the sale of additional years of the backfile.  Is there any meaningful difference between “buying” the backfile and “licensing” the current subscription content?

Absolutely there is a difference between courtesy access to backfile content and purchasing the backfile. In the former, libraries and users have access to the backfile as long as a current subscription is maintained, without rights to post-cancellation access. In some cases, where a discipline does not rely heavily on historical material to advance teaching and research, courtesy access is sufficient. Pricing can also be an issue when libraries evaluate the purchase of backfiles. When libraries do purchase backfiles, the additional investment is made because historical articles are deemed to be still of value. In the case of the Big Ten Academic Alliance, our members also purchase electronic backfiles as part of an overall strategy to manage their print collections and space allocation efficiently.

Under some pressure from the library community, T&F  stepped away from this model for customers who purchased their full Big Deal, but left it in place for those who have more a la carte models. Later, they announced that they would backtrack on their proposal, restoring what they call complimentary access to that fixed point in time, at least in North America. It seems that the outcry in the library community about this proposed model yielded a real success in terms of restoring the original model. Is that how you read it?

T&F had reversed the moving wall decision earlier in 2018 after a group of UK and Irish libraries wrote a public objection to the policy. However, T&F restored access only to the subset of customers who had “full access” subscriptions, meaning a larger investment in T&F content. Most of the BTAA libraries did not have journal package deals with T&F and did not benefit from the reversal. Our members are title-by-title subscribers for journals.

The Big Ten Academic Alliance libraries agreed that they wanted to work together to oppose the change in policy, because their collective voice could be marshaled to signal to T&F that there was widespread dissatisfaction with the moving wall. Ultimately the BTAA had many more voices to add to the opposition letter sent to T&F.

T&F had given no indication that there would be such significant change in policy during negotiations with libraries, nor in selling backfile packages with coverage only up to 1996 as late as the fall of 2017. By February 2018, T&F  took the first step to restore the original access for full access customers. Without the BTAA-led letter and subsequent multi-consortium meeting with T&F, it is unclear if T&F would have ever rolled back the decision for customers with smaller accounts.

After preliminary work on the letter to T&F, the BTAA circulated a draft to the ICOLC Community and ultimately nine consortia joined our letter to articulate opposition to the new moving wall policy. Our group’s objections focused on three key issues:

  • the creation of an opportunity to monetize content that previously had been included with subscriptions;
  • the breach of good faith under which our libraries had conducted business with T&F; and
  • the disservice to the user community who would find an annual loss of content problematic for their work.

T&F had given no indication that there would be such significant change in policy during negotiations with libraries, nor in selling backfile packages with coverage only up to 1996.

With consortia representing libraries with over $60 million in annual spend with T&F, we were able to accomplish something that none of us could have done alone. I want to publicly thank: Austrian Academic Library Consortium; Florida Academic Library Services Cooperative (FALSC); Greater Western Library Alliance (GWLA); Midwest Collaborative for Library Services (MCLS); NorthEast Research Libraries consortium (NERL); OhioLINK; Orbis Cascade Alliance; Statewide California Electronic Library Consortium (SCELC); The Triangle Research Libraries Network (TRLN); The Virtual Library of Virginia (VIVA).

This attempted change in the T&F model, and the pushback against it, seemed to occur outside of the dynamics of a consortial negotiation with a vendor. Should we conclude that there may be other “holes” in license agreements as well? Or, that there is an opportunity for collective action outside of what we can expect to see at a negotiating table?

Absolutely there are “holes” in a license agreement. A license often represents a fixed point in time. In this time of increased consolidation in the scholarly publishing industry while content output is increasing, it would be virtually impossible to craft a license to cover or predict all the possible scenarios that could develop over multiple years.

One approach that has been tremendously successful recently is libraries and consortia joining together to advocate for change in unfavorable terms from publishers. In this particular case, nearly a dozen consortia representing roughly $60 million in annual spending with T&F, came together to publicly oppose this change. More powerful than this collective voice of opposition, however was the immediate action libraries took to limit new business to T&F and to evaluate existing business for reductions. At a meeting with T&F this summer, the participating libraries and consortia indicated that until the moving wall policy was rolled back to the original fixed point access, they would act to:

  • Pull any active T&F offers under consideration
  • Turn off auto-shipments for T&F titles on approval plans
  • Suspend any new major purchases (e.g., backfiles, primary source databases)
  • Refuse meetings/sales calls with T&F representatives
  • Review existing subscriptions for cancellation and freeze the addition of new journal subscriptions

Another important development this summer is the signing of the first Read and Publish agreement in the US, between the Royal Society of Chemistry (RSC) and MIT, which is positioned as a pilot. Do you anticipate the Big Ten universities pursuing these kinds of models? What else does the future hold?

At the BTAA consortium, we are currently in discussions with several publishers to explore new models as alternatives to the standard “Big Deal.” Our member universities engage in nearly $10 billion annually in funded research so we rely on publishers to both validate and distribute that scholarship. Emerging models, such as the RSC/MIT agreement, recognize the important contribution of faculty/researcher authors and provide the widest dissemination of their work. This is exactly the type of approach that aligns with the missions and collective goals of the Big Ten Academic Alliance.

Academic libraries support alternative publishing solutions, whether created institutionally, or through investment in open access strategies. While many are successful, we are still hindered by projects that do not scale sufficiently, are too costly or cannot be sustained. Forging partnerships with publishers in recognition of the total university investment in creating, evaluating, and sharing knowledge is a critical evolution in a necessary alliance for the foreseeable future.

Roger C. Schonfeld

Roger C. Schonfeld

Roger C. Schonfeld is the vice president of organizational strategy for ITHAKA and of Ithaka S+R’s libraries, scholarly communication, and museums program. Roger leads a team of subject matter and methodological experts and analysts who conduct research and provide advisory services to drive evidence-based innovation and leadership among libraries, publishers, and museums to foster research, learning, and preservation. He serves as a Board Member for the Center for Research Libraries. Previously, Roger was a research associate at The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation.


1 Thought on "Advocating for Change by Limiting New Business: An Interview with BTAA’s Kimberly Armstrong"

Back in the first half of the 1990s CIC (now BTAA) libraries and presses met regularly to discuss possible joint ventures, and out of these discussions came a concrete proposal in 1996 to establish an electronic monograph publishing project in three fields, which would be “open access” within the consortium and licensed outside. The proposal was submitted for finding to the Mellon Foundation, which having just launched Project Muse and JSTOR declined to support the CIC venture, which then died. Have any other such cooperative efforts been undertaken in recent years between the libraries and presses of the BTAA? (I was on the project’s steering committee.)

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