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Collection Analysis

How much do journals cost?

Many libraries and library associations have tried to draw attention to the "serials crisis," which resulted because the cost of journals typically inflated at a (much) higher rate than the consumer price index for many, many years, dating from at least the nineteen-eighties to the twenty-teens. There were many attempts to communicate about the growing costs of journals. One popular technique was to single out the high costs of especially prestigious journals, which might have cover prices higher than the cost of a car. The problem with these efforts was that they were not true for all journals or all libraries. Journal pricing is not at all straightforward.

Most libraries subscribe to the bulk of the journals they provide through "big deals" and aggregators, aside from individual subscriptions. Big deals and aggregators (sometimes also confusingly called "databases") are packages of journals which include discounts on the cover prices of the journals in the packages. Big deals were originally formed as a deal between a library and a major publisher. When these deals were originally started, libraries would have some number of subscriptions to the journals published by a publisher. They would enter a big deal by committing to continue the same "spend" on those subscriptions, or a comparable mix, for which they would also retain "perpetual" rights -- and by doing so, they would gain access to all or nearly all of the publisher's other journals. When these big deals were originally formed, the additional access did not typically include "perpetual" rights -- it was called "leased access" -- but the cost of leased access was very low compared to the cover prices of the added journals. Aggregators work differently. They provide only leased access and libraries have no control over what is included in aggregators.

Big deals have been reviled by some librarians, but the truth is pretty complicated. It's true that big deals have tended to cannibalize library budgets, but even this fact is complicated. Big deals include negotiated inflation caps. These have always been lower than cover price inflation, so these deals have actually led to enormous savings. However, these inflation caps have typically been higher than library budget annual increases, if any, so the big deal is seen as eating away at the budget, "forcing" the library to cancel individual subscriptions or to reduce budgets for other kinds of learning resources. But library funding for big deals, or the collections budget more broadly, is only the corner of a bigger picture, which extends beyond the library, where we might also see the growth of the costs of university administrations and campus information technology eating away at the rest of the university. Additional factors include changing demographics and the politics of education funding. Suffice it to say that big deals are a much easier target than the bigger issues.

It should be noted that the costs of big deals vary tremendously across libraries, because they depend mostly on historical subscriptions. Inflation rates vary too, depending on how they are negotiated -- and we know that Mankato has typically negotiated better inflation rates than other libraries for at least a decade. At Mankato, we have big deals with all of the "Big 5" publishers. For all of these deals, we enjoy discounts of 95% or more on the sum of cover prices for the journals in the deals. Do we need all of these journals? No, certainly not. But we gain access to far more journals than we could otherwise afford to access -- and we do certainly need many of these journals to support university and student aspirations. We gain access to far more journals through these deals than we could afford if we didn't have them. If we had to rely on individual subscriptions only, it's unclear how we could supply sufficient resources to support the curriculum, while aggregator access does not generally provide the same quality profile.

When we say that the prices of big deals vary enormously, we are not kidding. One of our librarians formerly worked for a research university. Upon coming to Mankato, this librarian saw that Mankato was paying less than 10% of the amount paid by the research university for the "same" big deal. In fact, the research university was paying as much for one particular big deal as Mankato pays for ALL collections. This is typical. As previously mentioned, the price of a big deal is most often based on historical subscriptions. The research university in question had far more historical subscriptions than Mankato and so the price of the deal was much higher. Because of package inflation and because the Mankato collection budget has not risen above what it was a decade ago, the research university probably now pays far more than what Mankato pays for all collections.

How do costs factor into Collection Analysis?

For the CPBI, we show only proportional costs within the journal subscriptions budgets. For example, see the picture of a CPBI graph above.

For the Collection Review and sometimes for other reports, we provide several price variables, depending on price information availability.

Core Price: For big deals, we provide "core price," which is the price of the subscribed journals within the deal, based on inflation rates agreed since the start of the deal.

Nominal Price: When price lists are available, we provide "nominal price." The nominal price is the "cover price" of the journal -- the price we would pay if we individually subscribed to the journal outside of the deal. The nominal price is always higher than the core price. For individual subscriptions, the actual price we pay for the subscription is the same as the nominal price.

Distributed Price: We also calculate a "distributed price." The distributed price is calculated based on the overall discount we get for all journals through the deal. Basically, we divide the total cost of the big deal by the total of nominal prices of journals in the deal. We then multiply that ratio by the nominal price to calculate the distributed price. If the nominal subscription price of a journal is $800, the distributed price, depending on the deal, might be anything from $10 to $40.

Comparative Price: For some journal packages, the journals are not individually priced. For these we calculate a "comparative price," which is simply the cost of the package divided by the number of journals in the package. The comparative price is not meaningful in itself, but it is helpful for some analyses and for data visualization purposes, when comparing packages. For big deals, the distributed price is used as the comparative price. For individual subscriptions, the actual price is used as the comparative price. The comparative price is the apple of our price comparisons, while core prices are oranges. 

We use a variety of prices in order to understand the value we gain from our journals. We calculate several different "cost per use" or "cost per usage" variables (CPU). While the actual value of a journal in a big deal is probably best understood as distributed price divided by a usage variable (see Journal Data: Usage), it's also important to be able to see what we would pay if we cancelled the big deal and tried to continue to provide access to at least some of the most highly used journals in the deal afterward. The nominal price divided by a usage variable would be indicative of the actual value of the journal if we subscribed to the journal individually. We've used several different usage variables over time. We don't believe there is anything like an actual cost per usage, for the simple reason that usage varies qualitatively. For our purposes, cost per usage functions as a comparative indicator of the value of the journal for our campus. We sometimes refer to the CPU as the Value Indicator (VI) to avoid confusions about use and usage. We want a stable indicator, so when we calculate the VI, the usage variable in the denominator most often includes three years of data, to smooth out usage anomalies, which occur frequently and are usually contained within a year -- most often relating to faculty and graduate student research projects.

What about Open Access? What about Transformative Agreements?

To learn about Open Access generally, or how Mankato engages with Open Access issues specifically, please see the Open Access guide.

So-called "Transformative agreements" are sometimes in the news, especially as large systems with high research volume, like the University of California system, engage with major publishers to support Open Access. Mankato is currently (2022-24) piloting a "Read-Publish" agreement with Cambridge. Faculty at Mankato can publish open access without paying article-processing-charges to Cambridge during the period of this pilot. For more information, see this explanation.

For Collection Analysis purposes, we include holdings information for Open Access journals if these journals are included in collections in the library management system, Alma. We also include usage information for Open Access journals if our data sources include that information. The library also provides access to Open Access journals via the Unpaywall integration with Primo (locally branded as MavScholar).

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