Developing a Sustainable Research Collection

By Michael Doylen, Associate Vice Provost & Director of Libraries

The mission of the UWM Libraries is to advance teaching, learning, and research at UWM by providing scholarly resources and services. We fulfill our mission on a daily basis—even during pandemics—and doing so requires responding to many challenges. A long-standing challenge is development of a sustainable and affordable research collection in the face of escalating cost increases for subscriptions.

Ninety-one percent of the Libraries’ collection budget supports subscriptions, and the majority of this is for academic journals. While our budget remains flat or declines year to year, publishers increase their prices by 5-7% annually. Consequently, we have decreased spending power to support subscription access to resources.

About 15 years ago, publishers began consolidating their journals into packages that they license to libraries at a flat rate. These packages provide access to a large number of journals with a favorable cost per use overall. But packages include many titles that may receive little, if any, use. They also capture large amounts of library funds, usually over multiple years, and decrease our flexibility to make difficult cancellation decisions. Finally, they perpetuate an unjust publishing system that locks up scholarship behind paywalls, making it accessible only to those who can afford it.

In 2017, the UWM Libraries broke up our packages with academic publishers Springer and Wiley. We continued subscriptions to the most heavily used individual titles and dropped others, relying mainly on interlibrary loan to fulfill requests.

We are in the final year of a five-year contract with publishing giant Elsevier. This year, we paid $659,663 for access to the Science Direct Complete/Freedom Collection, a package of 2,200 titles. This amount represents 20% of our total collection budget for the year.

Going forward, it will be important for the UWM Libraries to determine the research value, as well as affordability and sustainability, of this package to the UWM community.

In February 2019, the University of California system, one of the nation’s largest research entities, announced a boycott of Elsevier over journal costs and open access. Since then, several top-tier research institutions have broken up their packages with Elsevier in favor of à la carte subscriptions. These include Florida State University, Iowa State University, Louisiana State University, and the University of North Carolina Chapel Hill.

Elsevier is the world’s largest publisher of scientific information. In 2019, its parent company, RELX, posted revenues of $9.8 billon, 40% of which came from Elsevier. The UWM Libraries have paid over $3,000,000 to Elsevier over the duration of our contract. Costs have increased at an annual rate of 4.25%, which means that we pay more every year for essentially the same content.

As demonstrated following the break-up of our packages with Springer and Wiley, the UWM Libraries are able to provide quick access to many resources to which we do not subscribe. Interlibrary loan delivers journal articles in 24 to 48 hours. Additionally, many articles are available in open access format for free, with tools like the Open Access Button and Unpaywall making them easy to find.

The UWM Libraries are committed to providing our faculty and students with the resources that they need to advance research and expand knowledge. In some cases, we fulfill that mission by providing access through subscriptions. Increasingly, we fulfill it through on-demand services such as interlibrary loan and open access alternatives.