University of Iowa Libraries drops 820 subscriptions

'These cost increases are simply not sustainable'

The Pentacrest on the campus of the University of Iowa including the Old Capitol Building (center), Macbride Hall (top l
The Pentacrest on the campus of the University of Iowa including the Old Capitol Building (center), Macbride Hall (top left), Jessup Hall (bottom left), Schaeffer Hall (top right), and MacLean Hall (bottom right) in an aerial photograph. (The Gazette/file photo)

IOWA CITY — In light of soaring price hikes for scholarly journal, database, and e-book access — along with tightening budgets and limited campus resources — University of Iowa Libraries has identified 820 subscriptions to cancel, saving the department about $600,000.

UI Libraries this month unveiled the list of journal, database, and e-book subscriptions officials have decided to discontinue or cancel as early as July 1 following a campuswide discussion and data analysis of subscription cost, use, and benefit.

The UI Libraries strategy — based on each discipline’s number of journal and database subscriptions, available funding for those resources, and cancellation restrictions — was to cut subscription spending proportionately by 10 percent in the basic sciences, engineering, and health sciences; 7 percent in social sciences; and 5 percent in the humanities.

Disciplines hit the hardest include English, with more than 100 titles on the cancellation list; music, slated to lose 50-plus titles; and medicine, exceeding 40 planned cancellations.

Specific titles on the dropped list include the Princeton University Library Chronicle; Sky and Telescope; Psychiatry; Education Week; Columbia Journalism Review; and the World Bank E-Library, a government database.

UI also is dropping subscriptions to Penthouse and Cosmopolitan — identified as “print journals” within a “general” category — and nearly 30 print or electronic journals under the “health and human physiology” label, like Runner’s World, Golf Digest, Bicycling, and Amateur Wrestling News.

Subscription savings won’t be realized until the new budget year, which starts July 1. UI Libraries — excluding the Law Library, which wasn’t included in the reduction process — spent $12 million on subscriptions in the 2018 budget year, down from $12.1 million in 2017 and $12.7 million in 2016.


The university as a whole has struggled of late to absorb state funding cuts — after lawmakers slashed support for the Board of Regents by more than $43 million in the 2017 and 2018 Legislative sessions before restoring $8.3 million of that in 2019 and now $12 million for the 2020 budget year.

In response to the state’s disinvestment, UI administrators halted construction for five months; froze faculty pay for six months; eliminated some centers, programs, and scholarships; and increased tuition. But UI Libraries asserts its need to drop subscriptions is more about the soaring prices.

“This cancellation project is necessary because subscription price increases far outpace budget increases,” according to a UI Libraries FAQ on the cuts.

Scholarly publishing companies have been upping prices 5 percent to 7 percent a year — amounting to a 521 percent increase in subscription costs for libraries since 1986. Meanwhile, the UI budget for materials has remained largely unchanged for the last three years.

“Such an environment diminishes our purchasing power, and these cost increases are simply not sustainable,” according to UI Libraries.

Other university libraries nationally have taken similar steps in addressing the rising costs, according to UI officials, who pointed to the universities of California-Berkeley, Missouri, Maryland, and Alaska as research institutions canceling subscriptions.

“It is likely to be a recurring feature of the landscape for the indefinite future as long as publishers’ prices continue to rise at rates beyond the general rate of inflation,” according to UI Libraries, which highlighted past and ongoing efforts to increases in the cost of resources.

When the university in October announced plans to trim $600,000 in subscriptions, it solicited campuswide feedback that produced 510 survey responses along with email responses from some faculty and graduate students.


During a Faculty Senate discussion on the issue in December, one professor praised UI Libraries for its “transparent and collaborative process,” noting it “exemplifies the spirit of shared governance,” according to the meeting minutes.

Others at that meeting noted research faculty — like those at Iowa — create the content from which many of the journal publishers profit, and they asked how to change the inflationary trajectory. UI Library officials cited efforts around “open access,” which supports the Internet’s potential to make information free to everyone and not just those with access to costly journals.

“Open access efforts focus on making scholarly information accessible to everyone, regardless of their affiliation with well-resourced institutions,” UI associate librarian Linda Walton told The Gazette via email. “This enables information-based decision making on the part of consumers and also enhances international research collaborations.”

UI Libraries helps to identify open-access publishing models allowing researchers to share their work widely at little to no cost, while also maintaining a publicly accessible online library — Iowa Research Online.

Administrators encouraged faculty to use that repository, and Walton said UI librarians offer consultations and workshops on publishing, journal contracts, licensing, and open access.

“In the future, open access publishing will probably be implemented to a greater degree than it is now,” Walton said. “Progress will most likely be determined by market pressures and government actions on a global scale.”

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