University drastically cuts Elsevier subscriptions 

University Librarian Elaine Westbrooks explains the decision to end a decades-long contract with one of the world’s largest academic publishing houses. 

Elaine Westbrooks poses in the library
Elaine Westbrooks (Jon Gardiner/UNC-Chapel Hill)

On April 8, the University Libraries announced that Carolina would end a long-standing subscription contract with academic publishing giant Elsevier when it expires April 30. Instead of paying Elsevier’s package price of $2.6 million for nearly 2,000 journals, Carolina will subscribe to a much smaller set of individual Elsevier titles (395) for $1.6 million. The University will use part of the savings to provide on-demand, free access to the publisher’s other journals through interlibrary loans and a third-party expedited delivery service.

University Librarian Elaine Westbrooks, Vice Provost for University Libraries and University Librarian, talked with The Well about the decision and the changes it will bring to campus.

Q. The University has subscribed to academic journals through Elsevier for decades. Why change now? 

A. We used to believe that part of the price of being a research university is paying lot of money for journals. But the world has changed, and technology has changed. We have to think about information delivery differently. The scholarly publishing world that Elsevier thrives in is a for-profit model, and they are not interested in changing. We articulated our values. We told them we didn’t think it was reasonable to pay at these rates. And, fundamentally, we simply could no longer afford them. Not renewing the contract is liberating in many ways. We’ve always been locked in. But when you don’t have a multi-year contract, you’re free to do what you think is best for the University.

Q. What was the process behind making this decision?

A. We started this conversation two years ago. The license for Elsevier ended in December 2018. We signed on for another year for $2.6 million, and used that time to look at our organization: What are the practices of the library? What do our faculty need? How aware are the faculty and students of the challenges that we’re facing? We started the Sustainable Scholarship Initiative and began having town hall meetings across campus to share our concerns and to hear what our faculty and students needed. And then, equipped with that data, we were better able to negotiate with Elsevier.

Q. Why is it important to make this stand?

A. Access to research is really important. To put this research behind paywalls is unconscionable, and it’s not working for us as a community. We want a world where paywalls do not determine who gets access to information. Private publishers are leaning on taxpayers and universities to foot the bill for research and for the cost of its publication. Yet, if you are a member of the taxpaying public, much of this original research will be unavailable to you, hidden behind subscription paywalls. The life-changing research that’s coming from this University should be available to the citizens and taxpayers of this state. They have paid for it.

Q. How did you decide which journal subscriptions to keep and which to drop?

A. We launched a surveyfor scholars in March to find out which titles they used, why they used them and how quickly they needed them. In the midst of the COVID-19 crisis, in the first week of the survey, we had more than 1,000 responses. By the end of the month, we had close to 3,000 responses from faculty and students. Getting that feedback was critical for us. We coupled that feedback with the data we already had about usage – for example, how many times articles are viewed and how many times they’re downloaded — to come up with roughly 400 titles.

Q. How would you describe the journals that made the cut?

A. The titles that we are keeping are mostly on the medical side of the house. The need for immediate access is extremely high. Our scholars have told us, “This is something that I need for patient care. I can’t wait for two days.” The other factor is usage. For example, Lancet is a weekly, peer-reviewed, prestigious medical journal that is highly used on this campus, so it made sense to keep that.

Q. How will scholars get access to the cancelled journals?

A. One way that we’ve used for decades is document delivery through interlibrary loan. We also have set up a new online expedited document delivery service that will provide unmediated access on weekends and late at night. This new service will get the content into the hands of our community members in as quickly as two hours.

Q. How will this change research on campus?

A. The University’s subscription decision does not limit a scholar’s ability to publish, edit or peer review for Elsevier or any other publisher. But scholars will no longer have instant access to as much content they did before. They will need to plan farther ahead to get access to titles. That’s a shift but not unsurmountable.

Q. How will you monitor how the new system is working? 

A. We are going to look at what the interlibrary loan statistics and other data are telling us. If a cancelled title is being requested very often, it may be less expensive to subscribe than use interlibrary loan. We still want feedback from our scholars to tell us the content that they need and when they need it.

Q. What has been the reaction on campus to the decision?

A. When we set up the core values of affordability, sustainability, transparency and open access, our faculty totally got it. They understood how flawed the scholarly ecosystem is. I feel tremendously optimistic about the direction we’re headed.