First introduced by Academic Press (AP) in 1996, the Big Deal—in which publishers sell online subscriptions to large bundles of electronic journals—is now the principal means by which academics access research literature. When it was introduced, the Big Deal was widely seen as a solution to the so-called serials crisis, and both publishers and librarians embraced it enthusiastically. However, the Big Deal today is the biggest bugbear for librarians and currently the focus of a face-off between U.K. librarians and publishers. How did an initiative that was once viewed so positively become an object of dislike and derision? What is the solution?
In the early 1990s, scholarly publishers were increasingly concerned about what had become known as the serials crisis. With journal subscriptions rising at about 10% per annum, library budgets were struggling to keep up, and every time the price of a journal increased, a few more libraries canceled their subscriptions. This led publishers to increase prices further, which triggered another round of cancellations. It was a vicious cycle that many felt threatened to destroy the 350-year-old scholarly publishing system.
One of the publishers puzzling over this problem was Jan Velterop, then-European managing director at AP. Velterop created a graph extrapolating what AP would have to charge for a typical journal if its subscription base fell away, down to a single remaining subscription. It was a scary picture of the future publishers faced unless something changed.
To add to the challenge, publishers knew they needed to start making their journals available electronically, which they saw as a major organizational challenge. As Velterop explains today, “We feared there would be massive administrative overhead of authentication of different portfolios of journals to different customers.”
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