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British Research Libraries Say No to ‘Big Deal’ Serials Packages

As some U.S. research libraries back away from so-called Big Deals with journal publishers, a major British library group has also taken a stand against high serials prices. Late last year, Research Libraries UK announced that its members would not sign any more large deals with two of the biggest journal publishers, Elsevier and Wiley, unless they agreed to significant reductions in what those deals cost.

The association represents 30 of Britain’s major research libraries, including those of the Universities of Cambridge, of Edinburgh, of Oxford, of Warwick, and of Kings College London, as well as the British Library and the national libraries of Scotland and Wales. The group’s members have collective deals with publishers that are negotiated on their behalf by JISC Collections.

David C. Prosser, executive director of the association, said it is pushing for a reduction of 15 percent in the cost of Big Deals, and that it focused on Elsevier and Wiley because those contracts expire at the end of 2011. “It was a slow and gradual realization” that they had grown too expensive, he said. “There are many benefits to the library community of the Big Deals. So for quite a while, those benefits were outweighing the major concerns.”

But like their counterparts in the United States, British research libraries have endured financial strains lately. In Britain that included not only the global recession and a major reorganization of higher-education financing but a crash in the value of sterling in 2008. Mr. Prosser said that hurt libraries in Britain because they pay most of the larger publishers in euros or dollars, not in sterling.

“So we lost hundreds of thousands of pounds of buying power overnight,” he said. “That was the point at which people began saying, ‘We’re tied into things over which we don’t have a lot of control.’”

According to Mr. Prosser, Elsevier and Wiley have both proposed deals with new terms, but neither comes close to satisfying the group’s conditions. “We are having to reconcile ourselves to the fact that we may not be able to reach a deal,” he said.

With that prospect in mind, the group has been working to get support from various constituencies within academe, including university administrators as well as faculty members and students. It has also been talking to other publishers, especially scholarly societies, to make it clear “that this is in no way an antipublisher move” but an attempt to support “a healthy publisher economy,” Mr. Prosser said. “We’re trying to get a better deal for the whole community, not just RLUK members.”

The association would still like to reach deals with Elsevier and Wiley—but only if the terms are right. Otherwise its members are prepared to make do with title-by-title subscriptions. “The types of agreements we’ve entered into are not sustainable in the current environment,” Mr. Prosser said.

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