Is the Big Deal Unsustainable?

by Katina Strauch, Editor,

In light of a recent blog post at Open and Shut? ( we are discussing the “Demise of the Big Deal.”

An exerpt:

Claudio Aspesi — an analyst based at the sell-side research firmSanford Bernstein — predicts a difficult future for Reed Elsevier, particularly for its scholarly journal business. He also predicts the demise of the Big Deal, the business model in which scholarly publishers sell access to multiple journals by means of a single electronic subscription.

In a report published last year Aspesi warned that a combination of the global financial crisis and the rise of the Open Access (OA) movement would impact negatively on the revenues of scholarly publishers. Yet, he said, Reed Elsevier appeared to be “in denial on the magnitude of the issue potentially affecting scientific publishing”.

We are keeping our big deal with Elsevier at the College of Charleston. We get too many ILL requests for their materials to give it up. ILL would cost us more in terms of staff time and processing costs. What is your reaction to this? Is the big deal unsustainable?

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2 thoughts on “Is the Big Deal Unsustainable?

  1. Rick Anderson May 2, 2011 at 9:38 pm -

    Sustainability is not a function of access model; it’s a function of price. If your Big Deal is going to eat a larger and larger portion of your materials budget from year to year, then it is by definition unsustainable — the year will eventually come when it eats all of your budget, and the following year it will outstrip your budget. Boom! It can no longer be sustained.

    On the other hand, ILL (or any other per-article acquisition model) will also be unsustainable if the per-article price is so high that you can’t afford to buy all the articles your patrons need. The difference is that you can ration articles; you can’t ration access to the Big Deal. Nobody likes rationing, of course, but it’s what we do every day — we decide to subscribe to this journal and not that one, or we cancel a subscription that we wish we could keep because the price of that journal (or other, more essential ones) has gone up to the point that we can’t keep paying for it.

    So here’s the bottom line: as long as the cost of access to journal content keeps increasing at a rate higher than the rate of increase for serials budgets, you have an unsustainable situation, no matter what acquisition model you choose. Access will deteriorate at the rate of difference between budget increase and price increase. That’s not a value judgment on particular models or libraries or publishers; it’s a simple observation of financial reality.

  2. I would be very interested to get some hard data on these issues. How many Big Deals have in fact been cancelled (as distinct from those under review)? How are the publishers whose Big Deals have been cancelled responding? How is the money saved by cancelling a Big Deal being spent, or is it simply going into the bucket with all the other reduced expenditures? How will libraries respond to the reduced number of publications when a Big Deal has been cancelled? And if a Big Deal has been cancelled, which individual journals have then been subscribed to that formerly were part of the Big Deal?

    Joe Esposito