Over the last decade, we have seen a steady increase in the number of academic libraries cancelling big-deal subscription packages. While other Scholarly Kitchen Chefs have examined the contours and implications of this shift, I’ve been interested in the kaleidoscope of solutions replacing the bulk-rate bundling of journals and databases from scholarly and professional publishers, and how these “little deals” will impact libraries and their users.

We’ve known for some time that alternatives to the “big deal” look somewhat different for different institutions, in part based on regional policies and economies. But, there are some clear trends developing in the menu of options available to academic libraries — in particular, pay-per-view article-level services, a-la carte subscriptions, and the rise of open-access, transformative agreements, and modes of “alternative access.” Together, these “little deals” are shifting academic library purchasing power closer to the point of need, echoing the gravitational shift toward serving individual information experiences that has been observed across the industry of scholarly communications.

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Libraries have been cancelling big deals and experimenting with on-demand alternatives to “feeding the beast” (for both journals and books) for several years. Some have observed that the big deal has been devalued by the proliferation of “leaks” in the scholarly communications ecosystem. There are known limitations to the “just-in-case” model of library acquisitions, which often bloats collections with unwanted content. So, on the face of it, growth in the “just-in-time” approach and an increased focus on “little deals” is not novel on its own.

However, some librarians are changing their negotiating stance in collection development, emboldened by high-profile cancellations and armed with analytics that offer sharper tools for decision-making in breaking up the mega-deals. As I see it, the substitutes have some important aspects in common: The most popular of the “little deals” taken up by academic libraries (at least those in North America) are following the industry shift toward the individual researcher, learner, or scholar as the economic center of gravity.

Article pay-per-view options

Buying journal articles, rather than buying access to the full corpus — also known as the “tiny deal” — is not a new concept, but the measurable increase in this method is one of the more interesting developments on the rise in academic libraries. Libraries are leveraging both mediated and automated options to access articles at the point of need, stitching together pay-per-view solutions using publisher token programs and aggregated solutions. Get It Now was one of the first cross-publisher options on the scene for libraries to plug into their existing discovery and delivery systems.

The move away from mega-subscriptions and toward on-demand services isn’t new, but some librarians see methods for stitching together open access, document delivery, interlibrary loan, resource sharing, and other options as the future of library access. Although copyright policies vary globally, I would guess that the likes of ILLiad, RapidILL, and other interlibrary loan services will see increased usage from some countries in the coming school year.

There are limits, however, in scaling ILL solutions and ensuring they meet time-sensitive reader demands. The market seems ripe for an advanced automated solution that libraries can configure for article-level fulfillment. Over the last year or two, Reprints Desk / Research Solutions has shown strong performance and seems poised to offer new avenues for  libraries who are increasingly willing to think the unthinkable in order to maintain continuity of service in the turbulent months ahead.

Á la carte subscriptions

While they come with higher price points, libraries are embracing the smaller journal collections and custom packages that meet the specific demands of their patrons. In a move that is often called “unbundling” the discounted batches of journals, libraries are successfully partnering with faculty and other stakeholders to rationalize subscriptions and manage smaller lists. The goal is to winnow their holdings to those titles that best meet campus needs through subscription, comparing demand to the various options for a given resource. As publishers witness erosion of big packages, more flexible buying options are on the rise.

Open access options

The growth of open access (OA) publishing has opened up other channels for libraries to meet their patrons’ information needs. Some are adding Google search links or Unpaywall integrations to their discovery layers, for easy options to surface OA versions of articles outside the library’s holdings. While OA has had expansive impacts on the big deal, which some have called “rebundling” the big deal or striking an even “bigger deal,” it is also indicative of the paradigm shift toward meeting distinct researcher demands, both in the production and consumption of scholarly literature.

Alternate routes

Finally, libraries are demonstrating notable resourcefulness in cobbling together all these new modes of “alternative access” when big deals are canceled. There is a greater willingness to collaborate with faculty and researchers in developing solutions that meet campus needs. There may also be some degree of resignation that, in many cases, readers are finding their own way to desired content, even if they leverage less reputable platforms or services the library would not endorse. Notably, I’m hearing a number of libraries willing to devote their already stretched resources to trial new models, tools, and services as they come online.

Takeaways for publishers?

The future vision of how academic libraries facilitate access to scholarship is still being written and, as usual, it is unevenly distributed. So, what are publishers to do at this moment of disruption and despair?

This is an ideal time to assess sales strategies and customer relationships. If you’re not already engaging in an identity strategy, the time is ripe to leverage digital identity infrastructures and build on your direct engagement with readers, authors, and others in your user communities. Publishers are well served to re-evaluate resource sharing and inter-library loan allowances. I encourage providers to embrace diverse avenues for article-level sales and rentals, from document delivery services to e-commerce and bespoke token programs.

This is not a time to be forcing one-size-fits-all solutions. Continuing on the development path toward robust transformative agreements is in line with these market trends. And, if you’re not already surveying the market and soliciting input, this is the moment for library outreach and needs assessments. Let’s ask ourselves: What customizations can be easily pivoted to meet the demand? What are the most pressing stressors on universities can your organization help address? How can you positively contribute to our industry’s shift toward individual information experiences?

Users’ journeys through the changing states of library access will be important to watch. Although the spread of “little deals” are, in part, responding to the power of individual users in today’s information economy, the impact of these demand-driven solutions on academic reader experiences is yet to be seen. Options like interlibrary loan face challenges in meeting expectations for speed and simplicity, and some library users may be forced to change research practices based on availability.

As published content continues to multiply exponentially, how will learners and scholars adapt? Where some have enjoyed the all-you-can-eat access of “big deals”, will “little deals” drive changes in information seeking and management routines? How will these impacts vary regionally? Let us know what you think — leave your comments and reflections below!

Lettie Y. Conrad

Lettie Y. Conrad

Lettie Y. Conrad, Ph.D., is an independent researcher and consultant, leveraging a variety of R&D methods to drive human-centric product strategy and evidence-based decisions. Lettie's specialties sit at the intersection of information experience and digital product design. She currently serves as Product Experience Architect for LibLynx, Senior Product Advisor for DeepDyve, and a part-time lecturer for San Jose State's School of Information. Lettie is also an active volunteer with the Society for Scholarly Publishing and the Association for Information Science and Technology, among others.


3 Thoughts on "“Little Deals” Everywhere: Is Demand-driven Collection Development Catching Fire?"

In regards do university libraries, how do you see the role of SaaS platforms that can segment access to resources. Allowing libraries to purchase smaller deals based on specific user category needs?

Hi Doug, you bet — I can see SaaS platforms segmenting access by user type, budget allowance, title / publisher, etc. Such a service could allow libraries to purchase at the article, issue, volume, or title level, and more. I hope software developers out there are dreaming big!!

It will also be a classic case of whoever can create user journey identities to be seamless, will stand a better shot than those who have a more nebulous relationship to their readers. This might give society publishers an edge, if a small one.

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