Six Things Mason Faculty & Researchers Need to Know About the UC System Walking Away from Elsevier

Adapted for Mason Libraries with permission from Brandon Butler, Director of Information Policy, University of Virginia Libraries.


In March 2019, the University of California system (the UC) made a remarkable announcement: they would not be renewing their “Big Deal” subscription with Elsevier journals. While they were not the first institution to make this break, their stand in support of open access to publicly funded research, as well as the number of universities in the UC system and the extent of their scholarly output, caused many to take note.

Here are six things Mason researchers need to know about the UC’s decision and about the nature of “Big Deal” subscriptions:

1. Big Deals are journal bundles sold by a few major vendors (Elsevier, SpringerNature, Wiley et al.), and their prices have escalated unsustainably, dramatically affecting library collections.

Journal Big Deals were first sold to libraries decades ago as a way of getting access to more content for less money, but the value proposition has not held up. Over the last two decades, costs for journals have far outpaced both inflation and library budgets, and that explosive growth has crowded out other resources. Mergers and acquisitions have resulted in a few oligopolies who dominate elite scholarly publishing. Library collections investments now go disproportionately to this handful of massive firms, with Elsevier in the lead. Press coverage has emphasized the UC’s demands around open access, but it’s fairly clear from public statements that what really broke the negotiations was the UC’s equally strong insistence on containing the runaway cost of the “Big Deal.”

2. Big Deal prices are artificially high, while their value is decreasing.

Vendor profit margins are astronomical – 35% and up for the main Big Deal purveyors. Elsevier’s profit margins exceed those of both Apple and Google. Vendor profits at this level can only reflect monopoly power grounded in copyright and prestige, not real value added by the vendor. A landmark study comparing prices charged by for-profit vs. non-profit vendors found for-profits charge substantially more, even adjusted for citation rates and other proxies for “quality.” Additionally, journal bundles contain an excess of filler content almost nobody uses, but that the vendor touts as evidence of value. In reality, bloated Big Deals are providing less value today, charging more and more for the same fraction of literature we use and hiding costs behind mountains of unread and rarely-read content.

3. University libraries are tired of paying three times for journal literature, only to see faculty work locked behind paywalls.

UC was concerned about cost, but they also walked away because Elsevier would not accept a “transformative” deal that would have made future UC faculty research openly available to the world rather than locked behind paywalls. That proposal is an attempt to escape the dominant publishing paradigm, under which universities pay at least three times for journal articles, only to see that knowledge locked away and monetized:

  1. Universities pay faculty who conduct research and write articles as part of their employment, a major subsidy to vendors, who do not pay their authors for the articles they publish.
  2. Faculty also edit and do peer review as part of their university duties, again without compensation from vendors.
  3. Universities pay vendors for access to the final articles, which were created, edited, and curated by our own faculty.

The paywall system hurts faculty as well as their home institutions. Faculty experience reduced reach and impact when their articles are paywalled, and they can’t even share their own work online without fear of publisher takedowns.

4. The prestige economy is broken.

Perhaps the most conservative thing about the UC’s proposal was that it would have made UC faculty work open access without disrupting the existing system of journal prestige. More than any other factor, promotion and tenure processes that outsource evaluation to journals ensure a steady flow of free content to Elsevier and other Big Deal vendors. A primary reason faculty give away their valuable copyrights (and their valuable time) to for-profit journal vendors like Elsevier is that the academy has vested particular journal titles with prestige by making placement in those outlets an important credential, implicitly (or in some cases explicitly) required for promotion and tenure. It doesn’t have to be this way. Over 1,000 institutions and nearly 14,000 individuals have signed the San Francisco Declaration on Research Assessment, which offers an alternative vision for evaluating research, one that disrupts the cycle of prestige that keeps research flowing into vendors’ hands. The National Academies of Science is also investigating ways to create better alignment between incentives and open practices. Individual scholars have also proposed compelling alternatives to the status quo; a local example is the “Scientific Utopia” (Part I, Part II) proposals co-authored by two founders of the Center for Open Science.

5. The UC’s walkaway is a significant moment in a larger, ongoing trend of Big Deal Breakups.

As you can see on the SPARC Big Deal Cancellation Tracker, UC is as much a continuation  of a trend as a trend-setter. Domestically, Florida State University (FSU) is a recent high-profile example of an institution rebelling against the Big Deal. While they didn’t walk away, they did cut their spending in half. FSU then used the savings (more than $1 million) to acquire much of the backlog of material that faculty had specifically requested in recent years, but that Big Deal prices had crowded out of the collection. In other countries, where negotiations often take place at the national level, walkaways are even more common. Germany and Sweden both walked away from Elsevier in 2018. A consortium of 250 research institutions in France cancelled their Big Deal with Springer  in 2018 and repurposed that money to invest in open access. More cancellations and break-ups have followed, and more are sure to come.

6. Better communication is key to confronting bad deals.

Researchers don’t pay directly for journal access, so it is often the case that they do not know its cost, the financial models that support it, or the tradeoffs and sacrifices involved in acquiring it. Conversely, while libraries feel the weight of the cost, they don’t always know enough about how resources are used, which ones are most valued, and (most importantly) which trade-offs would be acceptable to researchers. Here at Mason, we have begun these conversations with the Provost and the Deans of our academic units, and we look forward to talking to faculty and more members of the university community as we move forward with our own rethinking of Big Deals. We've also created a website where we will share more information about big deals and disclose some of our data on cost and use of our “Big Deal” journal packages.