Another day, another bad deal

Photo Credit: Tim & Selena Middleton via Compfight cc

I had a brief email conversation today with one of our vendor-service middlemen. You may not work with the same ones I do, but you know the type: the organizations that negotiate on behalf of libraries to get good deals for online resources and then they sell them to us so we don’t have do go direct. We love our middlemen, and we rely on them to save us time and money. Unfortunately for all of us involved, today’s conversation was an extension of a conversation from last month, both of which focused around why we can’t get clear, reliable, understandable, transparent pricing from SAGE for their Premier package.

There are a ton of details, not all of which are relevant, interesting, or worth repeating. But one part is worth repeating, and here’s the key:

We declined to resubscribe to Sage’s Premier or All Access packages because we do not have faith in their pricing model.

When I announced that at our faculty luncheon last week (an event I host each semester to share our news and updates and have a discussion with library liaisons about their departmental needs and our issues), the first response I got was puzzlement. “What does that mean, no faith?” And then I explained.

What started as a deal that was presented to us as a classic Big Deal package became something less clear, and less acceptable. We started with a price — meticulously negotiated and described between SAGE and our Collection Development Coordinator, Marianne Hebert over the course of several months — that was based on our previous print + online holdings in SAGE titles, and included a fee for access to the full collection, with an agreement on an annual price increase negotiated by the middleman. We budgeted in 2014 for the 2013 price, plus that negotiated percentage increase.

What we got in 2014 was a quote for about 7% more than we expected, and a lot of email correspondence that included phrasing like “inflationary uptick” and “fee for the upgrade” and “holdings top-up”.

What we also got in 2014 was an email from a vendor rep that said “If a customer has a final cost of $50,000, it’s going to be $50,000 for the package no matter if their holdings are $25,000 or $10,000.”

And so we were left, after 16 emails in just one of the threads of emails on this, with no idea how pricing was actually being calculated, but a strong feeling that it goes something like this: SAGE looks at our spend from last year, decides what they think we should spend this year, and then bills us for that, but is willing to justify it however will make us happy through some combination of negotiated price increases, holdings values for a time period defined by them, top-up fees, upgrade fees, and inflationary upticks. Very few of those phrases have actual definable meanings. Every email we got seemed to offer us a new set of prices, broken down in new ways, with a slightly different bottom line. Each exchange produced more questions, and few answers. (And, perhaps, the whole thing can be explained by saying that the vendor has a perfectly explicable pricing policy but we just didn’t get it… but if two experienced collection development and administration librarians “can’t get it”, isn’t that a problem in and of itself?) So, as I explained to our faculty, as a steward of this institution’s funds, as a steward of our students’ tuition dollars, and as a steward of resources dedicated to providing good, appropriate access to information for our teaching and learning community, this is not how I choose to do business.

Our faculty got it. They really did. And when I said it was our fault, and therefore our job to change it, they got that, too. How is this our fault, you wonder? What did I mean by that? Well, when I vented about the experience to a group of librarians, one made a very good point: we brought this on ourselves. And she’s right. We did.

Who told publishers it was a great idea to offer us Big Deal packages? We did.

Who signed on to purchasing agreements via middlemen when we hadn’t negotiated the terms ourselves? We did.

Who agreed to a purchasing system in which we don’t sign our own licenses or participate in setting the terms of our purchase? We did.

For the last 20 years. We did. We agreed. We said yes. We went along.

Well, I’m done, people. Done. I cannot continue doing more with less. I cannot continue signing onto deals that are unclear. I cannot continue agreeing to egregious terms and conditions, to nondisclosure agreements, and to crushing price increases justified only by corporate profit goals. I cannot continue drinking snake oil, and I cannot continue smiling through the pain. I’m done. And so is my library, for every choice in which I have the agency to make smarter, more thoughtful decisions than we’ve chosen to make in the past. So yes, we told the publishers through word, deed, and dollar that this was okay, for a very long time. But for me, that stops now. I’m going to be telling them it’s not okay. It’s not business as usual. It shouldn’t be. It can’t be. And it won’t be.


  1. Well done for resisting, but only a librarian (and I am one, so I sympathise) could take all the blame for this.

    Who gave away all their rights in the first place? The researchers.

    Who insists that they “must have that journal”? The researchers.

    Who have ignored 10+ years of Open Access advocacy and continue to prop up the system by giving away their work and IP, thus giving the publishers the whip hand to this day? The researchers.

    Librarians may not have done everything right, but the current state is not our fault.


    • Well said. Speaking as a researcher myself, and on behalf of my colleague, I recognise the justice of this analysis, and accept my share of the blame. My last five papers have all been in open-access journals, but I wasn’t so consistent before those. Never again.


    • We must acknowledge that we aren’t blameless. We aren’t the only ones involved, or the ones with ill-intent, for sure, but we must note: We agreed to what was offered. We signed on (gleefully!) to the Big Deals. We can’t pretend that’s not true. We need to own that as we work to move forward.


      • There is plenty of blame to go around. Yes, the libraries (for accepting these terms for too long), the faculty (for signing their full rights away to publishers in the first place), campus administration (for often not giving libraries adequate resources and failing to establish needed infrastructure) and the library associations (for failing to make a bigger issue out of this dilemma as if they were being held hostage by the publishers).

        But wherever you want to put the blame, this is an encouraging story and other librarians should follow your example! From the Canadian perspective, signing contracts that derogate from established users’ rights is particularly egregious because of the much improved copyright environment we now have what with the passage of Bill C-11 (adding education to fair dealing) and the Supreme Court’s pentalogy (again upholding fair dealing as an important users’ right which is integral to the Act).

        Faculty: Stop signing away your rights to publishers (and it’s not just the commercial ones with bad practices) (Use the SPARC addendum or something similar if you don’t want to redraft the whole contract) Senior faculty with a bit of security must set an example here, and junior faculty and grad students should be encouraged to publish in open access journals without fear of judgmental reprisals.

        Colleges and Universities: Establish proactive open access programs and institutional depositories if you don’t already have one.

        Granting councils: Insist that the results of publicly funded research be placed in open access depositories (The Canadian funding agencies now have a draft plan to do this and are currently conducting a consultation on it); and finally

        Librarians: Here is a great example of taking effective action. It is time to just start saying NO to some of the more egregious terms and packages.

        Samuel Trosow, Associate Professor
        University of Western Ontario


  2. I’ve been talking to vendors directly for quite a few years about the fact that I don’t care about their new journals in my packages or any other gimmick which ups their stock prices. And the last time I was part of a big deal I did ask the agent if they were conveying exactly how upset we were at these type of details. I’ve ended up cancelling some semi-large deals, but never a really big one. Need to start thinking about how we would do this here.


  3. Well said! I presented a similar unsubscribe possibility here recently when given a 3 year deal with a 10% 1st year increase and “only” a 5.5% increase after that, but heard only crickets from my colleagues and boss. I suspect, because it’s easier in most peoples’ minds, to just pay up rather than spend the time explaining the decision, finding substitutes, updating links, etc. Plus we have a tiny staff (budget & vendor/subscription mgt is “supposed” to be just a small % of my workload). Sigh…


  4. So what’s the alternative? You’ve said “no”, but now what? With the chemistry journals you had alternatives. how are you planning on filling the SAGE hole?


  5. As Coordinator of Collection Development, I have called a special meeting of CD librarians next week to brainstorm options. We have until January to come up with an alternative. I have Sage journal title use stats and single subscription costs ready to consider. One option is to pick up some the high use Sage titles individually. But if Sage Premier pricing is based on your current subscriptions (i.e. the “holdings”) another option is to NOT subscribe to any Sage products for 2 years, then see what our price would be. What does Sage charge new customers who haven’t ever had a Sage journal? Our current Sage use is in music education, criminal justice, sociology, health and education titles. A bit all over the place, so I don’t think there are any other “packages” that would fit. Hand crafted all the way, and that is the path we will probably take. Meanwhile, advocating for Open Access…


  6. I know we aren’t allowed to know the price of the Big Deal, but is it really cheaper than relying on peoples’ ingenuity in finding copies of articles (preprints/repositories/arXiv/SSRN/Authors websites/friends with benefits/etc) and otherwise buying them individually from the publisher?


    • We didn’t say that we were going to be relying on “peoples’ ingenuity”. As Marianne noted, we’ll be looking at our local use data of the SAGE package from this year, and we’ll be looking at ILL statistics, and we’ll be deciding, title-by-title, what we need to buy to serve our community’s needs. Those titles will then be added to our catalog and discovery layer, and will be no less discoverable than they are now. There will simply be fewer of them, for a more affordable bottom line for this institution.

      And the truth about Big Deal packages, for institutions like mine, is that they ALWAYS contain titles which are pointless for our community of scholars. As Marianne noted, our use is largely in Music Education, Criminal Justice, Sociology, and Health. We’ll focus on those areas, ignore the zero- or low-use titles (assuming, based on our experience, that ILL will fill that gap admirably), and make subscription choices that will have a strong impact for our users. As librarians have always done.


  7. “And so we were left, after 16 emails in just one of the threads of emails on this, with no idea how pricing was actually being calculated, but a strong feeling that it goes something like this…”

    Sounds like my Dad describing his days in the car selling business. Didn’t matter what the customer wanted as a trade-in value on his car…the price and fees on the new car would always add up to the profit the dealership needed to get on the deal.

    Tell them you want an itemized invoice which you will be posting to your web site in accordance with New York State public information laws. 🙂


    • “itemized invoice?” HA! They would never.

      We have another vendor that sent us two invoices in this fiscal year for the same dollar amount, with no line item description included. We know, internally, that one is the (VERY LATE) invoice for 12-13’s subscription, and the other is the (on time) invoice for 13-14’s subscription, but the vendor is not responding to our statement that we cannot pay the second invoice unless there is some way to distinguish it from the first one, else someone along the way (campus, state, etc) will reject it as a duplicate. They can’t figure out what to *do* about that request…


  8. For many years I’ve been telling colleagues when they were raging about price increases and incomprehensible terms and “don’t the publishers realize that this is unsustainable” that as long as you keep paying the bills, YOU are sustaining it. And as long as we, collectively, keep paying the bills, the publishers and vendors would be very foolish to change their behavior. And they are generally not foolish people (they’re not evil, either — just more hard headed about business than librarians are.) When we cancelled the Elsevier big deal several years ago, our reps were shocked that I did exactly what I said I was going to do. They were convinced that I must be bluffing because librarians don’t behave this way. But we did.

    What I think is most crucial about Jenica’s example, however, is that it demonstrates that you can make these tough decisions with faculty support if you’re willing to do the work of explaining the issues and enlisting them in the process. Too many librarians say they can’t make these decisions because the “faculty won’t let us.” In the past five years I have gotten exactly one angry email from a faculty member challenging a decision. Since I already had the support of his Dean that wasn’t a problem. We get lots of email from faculty who are very concerned and want to know what they can do to help. Those are people that we can work with.


  9. The faculty support issue is crucial, and I’m frustrated by how often I see it used as a crutch for why libraries can’t do “it”. Yes, it’s hard to build support around library issues. Yes, it takes work. Yes, it sometimes fails. But if you never, ever try, you are guaranteed not to succeed. And sometimes you find the people who are deeply concerned and want to help, and then you’ve begun something.


  10. Good for you. I know when we got the runaround from SAGE, we asked for the electronic price of a set of journals we chose. They gave us a quote that was $90,000, at the time more than twice the cost of ALL of their journals, an insulting FU. And of course we had until Wednesday to decide.

    I’m not sure what our bill is this year, but it’s around $55,000. We have 2,500 students.

    Oh, and yes, when they acquired a bunch of journals we had no interest in, we were sent the bill. They are holding the journals we want badly hostage because they can.


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