Education

University of Iowa Libraries looking to cut journal, database, e-book subscriptions

The Old Capitol Building and Jessup Hall (left) on the Pentacrest on campus of the University of Iowa in Iowa City on Wednesday, April 30, 2014. (Stephen Mally/The Gazette)
The Old Capitol Building and Jessup Hall (left) on the Pentacrest on campus of the University of Iowa in Iowa City on Wednesday, April 30, 2014. (Stephen Mally/The Gazette)

University of Iowa Libraries must trim spending on journal, database and e-book subscriptions by $600,000, and it’s initiated a campuswide discussion about which resources to drop.

Subscription price hikes paired with a flat UI budget have compelled the cuts, which UI Libraries must identify by April 2019 in time to implement for the 2020 budget year that begins July 2019, according to UI officials.

Although university officials have been vocal about the impact of state budget cuts and a generational disinvestment in higher education, UI Libraries reports soaring subscription costs are more to blame for this particular shortfall.

Since 1986, subscription costs for libraries nationally have spiked 521 percent.

Publishing companies in recent years have doled out 5- to 7-percent annual increases while UI’s annual budget for the materials has remained mostly flat.

“Such increases are simply not sustainable,” according to a “frequently asked questions” document produced by the UI Libraries.

Iowa is not the only research university canceling subscriptions. The universities of California-Berkeley, Missouri, Maryland and Massachusetts have taken similar measures.

In an effort to involve faculty in its decisions on what to cut, UI Libraries leaders this week delivered a message asking for help “reviewing current subscriptions, with a goal of identifying those that can be eliminated due to low use, high cost per use, and lack of strategic importance to research areas.”

Subscriptions managed by the UI Law Library will not be included in the reduction.

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UI officials noted its libraries already have trimmed spending on printed books and underutilized subscriptions. It’s achieved savings through joint purchases with Big Ten peers “to ensure we are receiving the best possible pricing.”

“We also closely align ourselves with national efforts to encourage publication in and support for open-access journals,” according to a campuswide message from University Librarian John Culshaw and UI Interim Executive Vice President and Provost Sue Curry.

UI Libraries recently consolidated scholarly journal purchases through its EBSCO Subscription Services contract — increasing payment to the vendor 70 percent from $4.4 million in 2017 to $7.5 million in 2018, according to online state records.

Despite the increase, the consolidation is expected to save on acquisitions and staff time — with a projected $99,000 dip in spending expected next year. And yet, according to the Culshaw and Curry message, “These cost-saving efforts have not been enough.”

“We must cut about $600,000 in annual subscriptions if we are to maintain access to the information resources that are vital to research and scholarship,” they wrote.

The university’s strategy is to trim spending for basic sciences, engineering and health sciences subscriptions by 10 percent; for social sciences by 7 percent; and for the humanities by 5 percent. Officials reached that breakdown based on number of journal and databases per group, funding to buy those resources and subscription packages that can’t be canceled due to multiyear commitments.

A review will occur in three stages, beginning now through November with the UI Libraries sharing a list of proposed cancellations with colleges and departments — based on usage and cost.

The next stage, from November to December, will gather input from UI faculty and researchers. UI Libraries also will host an open forum during this period to involve campus governance groups.

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From March through April, the university will share initial cut projections and a final list of journal cancellations.

“These will be subscriptions generally agreed to be most expendable,” according to the Culshaw and Curry message, which stressed UI officials will research alternate ways to access lost material.

A final list of cancellations will come by April. Chosen databases will be canceled as early as July 1, 2019, and journals will be discontinued Jan. 1, 2020.

“The most critical element of the decision-making process is consultation with faculty, staff, and students about the journals they consider most critical to teaching, learning, and research,” according to the FAQ document.

Although this isn’t the first time UI Libraries has been forced to review subscriptions for cancellation savings, it’s the biggest cut. The entity canceled $237,733 in 1991; it canceled $126,166 in 1994 and about the same in 1996; and $440,000 in 2000.

In considering possible solutions to the national problem of soaring publication costs — which hinder researcher access to information, forcing them to spend more time searching and distributing their own work — UI officials are promoting “open access,” which means free access to research articles.

They are not alone, in that funders nationally have issued mandates requiring open access publication of results, open access journals have been established, and efforts to replace scholarly journals altogether have emerged, according to the Open Access 2020 Initiative, a global alliance aiming to accelerate open access.

But, according to UI officials, “A clear solution would be if publishers were required to reduce cost increases, not to exceed the national rate of inflation.”

l Comments: (319) 339-3158; vanessa.miller@thegazette.com

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