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Cost of electronic journals rises dramatically

Vilim, Laura | Wednesday, April 7, 2004

Due to the inflation of rising costs of electronic journals, the University Libraries materials funding has seen a decrease in purchasing power over the past three years, forcing the library staff to cancel journal subscriptions in an effort to balance budget costs. The Libraries have already made several major cancellations of journals over the past two years. Six hundred and nineteen titles were eliminated in the spring of 2002 and several hundred more were removed from the database in the spring of 2003 for a total of over 1,500 cancelled subscriptions. Despite these cuts, the Libraries are still paying approximately $250,000 more for journal subscriptions than their budget allows. Hoping to manage this budget deficit, the University has allocated a one-time fund to cover these costs and is currently seeking ways that additional funds can be set aside for the Libraries in the 2004-05 academic year. This funding may provide financial solvency for this year, but it will not fix the long-term underlying problems that plague the Libraries.The problem of inflationary costs for electronic journals was unforeseen in the early 1990s when technological advances made electronic library resources available over the Internet. For the first time, students, faculty and staff members of major universities, including Notre Dame, had new and unique access to periodicals and journals that were not available in print. They became a vital tool in conducting research in all academic departments. The foundation for the current trouble was also laid in the 1990s when commercial publishers of electronic journals and university research libraries began negotiating deals to provide access to as many subscriptions as possible for the lowest possible cost. Several years ago, Notre Dame joined the Northeast Research Library Consortium (NERL), a group that represents Ivy League research libraries in order to take part in these journal deals. According to electronics resources librarian Carole Pilkinton, one of the most expansive deals negotiated was with Elsevier, the largest commercial publisher of electronic journals. Under the plan, members of the NERL continued to pay for the Elsevier journals to which they were already subscribing, but also received hundreds of other journals free. At Notre Dame, the University Libraries were subscribing to 400 journals prior to the Elsevier deal. After the deal, they gained access to another 800 journals with the cost of this new package amounted to the same as the previous one.Initially, this arrangement proved to be beneficial for the University Libraries. Almost immediately, every academic department received new journal resources that filled the gaps in their previous collection. In addition, the deal put a cap on the quickly rising inflation rates and charged only a cross-access fee instead of the entire cost for subscriptions. “At first glance, it sounds like a very good deal,” Pilkinton said. “[But] when times are tough, all of a sudden, people look at things in a harsher way.”In times of economic hardship, as in the years of 2001 and 2003, or during budget cuts, libraries cannot afford to pay for as many subscriptions to journals as in other years, yet the cost of the journals continues to rise. For example, the cost of journals has increased by an average of nine percent a year since 1986 while the consumer price has only increased by 3.4 percent yearly. At Notre Dame’s University Libraries, the annual library budget did not receive an increase in funding for two years. The following year the budget was cut by five percent and funding from endowments decreased by another 3.5 percent. At the same time, inflation on electronic periodicals increased ten percent so that the five percent cut in budget actually amounted to a decrease of about 15 percent. In addition to these economic difficulties, further hardships have arisen as a result of the stipulations placed on the Elsevier deal at the time it was negotiated. While the stipulations appeared harmless at the time, they have come to become negative consequences not only for Notre Dame, but also for research libraries across the country. The transaction with Elsevier prohibits participating universities from canceling any journal subscription from the original package at the beginning of the agreement. For Notre Dame, this means that it cannot cancel any of the original 400 subscriptions without negating the Elsevier deal and losing the 800 free journals. Because the cost of these 400 journals has risen exponentially at the same time the University Libraries budget has been cut, Notre Dame can no longer afford to keep all of its current subscriptions. Faculty members understand this crisis and are willing to cut back on the amount of journals to which they subscribe. Some of the journals they use though, are the ones under the Elsevier deal that cannot be cancelled. This creates another problem that the University Libraries are then forced to keep journals that are not often used while they must cancel those subscriptions that are important but not covered under the deal. Pilkinton said the University Libraries are now trapped in a difficult position. If they choose to end the contract with Elsevier, they lose the journals that allow students and faculty to conduct such extensive research. If they chose to continue with the contract, they lose solvency and risk long term budget deficits. “It’s definitely a tug of war right now,” she said. “This economic model is not sustainable.” According to Pilkinton, the University administration is aware of both the economic hardships that the University Libraries are facing and the importance of having electronic journal access for students. With other departments facing budget cuts, there is little that can be done to increase funding for electronic journals.”There is only so much money no matter what,” Pilkinton said. “[The deal] has caused budget inflexibility.”There is no question that the journals are a staple of academic research on campus. Nearly 330,000 full text articles were accessed between the months of July 2003 and Feb. 2004 alone. The question is rather how any university can continue to cover the ever increasing costs of education on a fixed budget.