Unsub is the game-changing data analysis service that is helping librarians forecast, explore, and optimize their alternatives to the Big Deal. Unsub (known as Unpaywall Journals until just this week) supports librarians in making independent assessments of the value of their journal subscriptions relative to price paid rather than relying upon publisher-provided data alone. Librarians breaking away from the Big Deal often credit Unsub as a critical component of their strategy. I am grateful to Heather Piwowar and Jason Priem, co-founders of Our Research, a small nonprofit organization with an innocuous sounding name that is the provider of Unsub, for taking time to answer some questions for the benefit of the readers of The Scholarly Kitchen.
As background, what is the origin story of Our Research? Where are you today with respect to mission, funding, and staffing?
Origin story: We got started in 2012 in a hackathon.We worked all night on the Impactstory Profiles website, and then when we got home we couldn’t stop! Eventually the Sloan Foundation gave us a grant that allowed us to do it full-time. Since then, a number of projects have branched off from Impactstory Profiles.
Mission: Research (as distinct from, say, alchemy) has always been done together with a community, making it less mine and more ours. Our Research works to make research effective by making it more ours. To do that we build scholarly communications tools that make research more open, connected, and reusable — for everyone.
Funding: We have been funded by grants, including from Sloan, NSF, Clarivate, OSF, and Shuttleworth. We have a current grant from Arcadia, a charitable fund of Lisbet Rausing and Peter Baldwin. However, these days most of our funding comes from premium services built on top of our free Unpaywall database.
Staffing: We have a very small staff of three permanent full-timers. We do a lot of contracting out as well; we’ve found that this helps us stay agile and cost-effective.
What is Unsub?
Unsub is a tool that helps librarians analyze and optimize their serials subscriptions; it’s like cost-per-use (CPU) analysis on steroids. Using Unsub, librarians can get better value for their shrinking subscription dollar — often by replacing expensive, leaky Big Deals with smaller, more custom collections of a-la-carte titles.
How’s it work? There are three stages:
1. Gather the data: Libraries (or consortia) upload their COUNTER reports; we take it from there.
For each journal, we collect:
- Citation and authorship rates from researchers at the library’s institution,
- costs of different modes of access (e.g., a-la-carte subscription, interlibrary loan (ILL) or document delivery fulfillment), and
- rates of open access and backfile fulfillment.
This last category is where a lot of the value of the analysis comes from; we find that up to half of content requests can be fulfilled via open access, for free.
2. Analyze the data. We process all of this data into a customized forecasting model that predicts a given library’s costs and fulfillment rates for the next five years, for each journal. Libraries can customize all the model’s assumptions, reflecting different levels of risk tolerance and creating worst-case and best-case scenarios.
3. Act on the data. In most cases, the models demonstrate that the Big Deal delivers great coverage, but poor value. By relying on open access, and strategically subscribing to high-value titles, libraries can often deliver around 80% of the fulfillment at 20% of the cost. Armed with this data, librarians can a) negotiate with publishers more successfully and b) support decisions to cancel, should they decide to.
You can explore a free demo of the tool on our website, but here’s a quick summary of what the reporting looks like:
This demo institution uses real data from an anonymous university. On the right we see the journals in their Elsevier Big Deal, arranged by cost-per-use (CPU), accounting for open access.
By subscribing to the 206 most valuable (low CPU) titles, one can see on the left that:
- They’ll spend about $535k per year on subscriptions and ILL/document delivery. That’s only 23% of their previous Big Deal spend.
- They’ll deliver instant access for 77% of content requests, via a combination of a-la-carte subscriptions, perpetual access backfile, and open access. The remaining 23% will be met via ILL/delivery.
It is up to the library, of course, how it uses the data from Unsub. But, regardless of what a library does, it will do so better informed.
We’re sustaining the service by charging $1,000 annually per institution (consortia pay $800 per member institution). We’ve set that price as low as possible; for us, this service is about fulfilling our nonprofit mission, not maximizing revenue. We think it’s a pretty solid value.
How are libraries using Unsub? Are there uses besides driving the cancellation of journal subscriptions?
We are really focusing on “driving cancellation of journal subscriptions” for now. We are hearing from our users (about 300 libraries) that this service is a game-changer for them, and that seems especially true in these challenging times.
Most institutions will be making cuts. That’s unfortunate. But in most cases, it’s not as bad as librarians or faculty fear. Open access provides a lot of headroom that didn’t exist even five years ago. Librarians can limit the impact of cuts, while hitting budget goals, if they have the data they need.
We think it’s a bit like the early days of “Moneyball” (true story and later a Brad Pitt movie), when the Oakland A’s realized that they didn’t have the budget to sign the big-name baseball stars. Their solution? They started bringing better data and more advanced statistics into evaluating players, focusing on signing players who were good value for money rather than big names. And it worked. Data-driven decision-making turned the A’s into a winning franchise. A lot of libraries are about to go from New York Yankees budgets to Oakland A’s budgets. We think Unsub can help them flourish, even as they cut costs, by bringing more and better data to their decision-making.
We’re happy to report an early success story (many thanks to SUNY Library Senior Strategist Mark McBride for permission to reproduce this quote):
“Unsub was instrumental in SUNY’s decision-making process that led to us cancelling the ‘big deal’ with Elsevier. Their efforts resulted in us saving our campuses nearly $7 million.”
How are publishers responding to Unsub? Have any used it to analyze the titles they publish?
We’ve received off-the-record feedback from several publishers amounting to this: “Unsub is going to kill our subscription model…thanks! We’ve wanted to flip, but haven’t had the courage yet.”
We were surprised at that, but pleased.
We haven’t heard much other feedback from publishers. But we are looking forward to working with them. Unsub provides a new, more complete picture of the value publishers provide. We reckon that’s great news for publishers: If you’re delivering solid value right now, fantastic! You’ve got a new way to prove it. If you’re delivering less value now, you’ve got a great opportunity to make some changes.
You also have a project called Unpaywall, which is a free database of open access scholarly articles. What is Unpaywall and how are Unsub and Unpaywall related?
The question covered it pretty well: Unpaywall is a free and open index of all the world’s open access articles. We use the data in the Unpaywall database to assess open access prevalence by journal, which makes it a very important data source for the Unsub tool.
Until recently, I would have said your most well-known project was Impactstory. How is that project progressing with the current attention on Unsub?
Unfortunately Impactstory is in a bit of a holding pattern for now. The plan was always to move from grant funding to charging users for sustainability. We did that, but the user demand wasn’t sufficient to cover our costs, so we’ve had to put that plan on hold.
That said, we deem the project a big success, because it helped further the conversation around alternative means of evaluating researchers — and it led directly to the creation of Unpaywall, which was originally just a feature designed to enrich Impactstory profiles.
How do you get your ideas for projects and do you have any new/upcoming projects that you can tell us about?
We’ve got a big long list of project ideas, and 99% of them never amount to anything. But sometimes all the forces align: folks have a real problem, we can fix it, it aligns with our mission, and (this is key!) it looks like fun. Then we start talking to people about it. If it still looks good after that, we try to launch a prototype ASAP, to get more feedback, and then we iterate from there. That’s probably from our hackathon roots…all our projects are Skunkworks projects.
Right now we are very focused on Unsub. It’s growing very quickly, and so we’re pretty full-on keeping up with demand.
How are you evaluating your success as a nonprofit?
Well, there was an era when “did we die this month” was our main evaluation criterion! Like many nonprofits in this space, we’ve struggled to make ends meet at times. Our stance on Open Everything (we insist on all open source code, all open data, etc.) closes some revenue doors, which adds to the challenge.
But we’re happy to say that we’ve been doing very well on that particular criterion — ability to stay operational — for many years now! And the future is looking quite bright as well. It feels nice to be able to say that! And of course, we are still Open Everything.
We also measure various smaller KPIs like everyone else does. For instance, we track the number of API requests fulfilled by Unpaywall (about 2 million/day). For Unsub, we’d like to see 1000 library subscribers by the end of the year, which we’re on track to hit. It’s hard to make short-term goals for subscription savings (since libraries’ contracts with publishers are often multi-year), but we expect to see Unsub collectively save libraries more than $10 million by year’s end.
Is there anything I haven’t asked you yet that you hoped to be able to tell me about?
Nope! Other than that we’re delighted and honored to be interviewed in the Kitchen — thanks very much! Oh, and also we’re super excited to hear feedback about Unsub, good and bad, from anyone. It’s still early days and we know we have a lot to learn.