Peter Potter

Peter Potter, director of publishing strategy for University Libraries at Virginia Tech.

Universities across Virginia, including Virginia Tech, are paying close attention to what’s happening in for-profit scholarly publishing across the globe. Universities, especially public research universities, strive to create and publish new knowledge to solve societal challenges such as disease, water quality, safety, defense and technology. However, if this research and scholarly work is not available to those who need it or is only accessible to those with deep pockets, the impact of important research is limited.

This sets the stage for the clash between for-profit scholarly publishers and researchers around the world. This year, the biggest STEM publisher, Elsevier, failed in negotiations with the University of California (UC) System. At issue was containing the cost of subscriptions of Elsevier’s academic journals while making research by University of California System’s faculty publicly available to anyone with an internet connection.

The University of California wants its research to be available to a global society that can build upon the latest discoveries. This increases the societal impact of its faculty’s scientific research.

At the heart of UC’s dispute with Elsevier is what is known as the “big deal.” A big deal is a contract between an institution (often a university library but sometimes a business or government) and a publisher to purchase access to a large bundle of the publisher’s academic journals.

Over the past 30 years, the cost of journal subscriptions has increased 500%, far outpacing libraries’ annual budget increases. Meanwhile, Elsevier’s annual revenues exceed $3 billion and its 37% profit margin rivals that of Apple.

Much of the research conducted at public universities and published in expensive subscription-based scholarly journals is funded by tax dollars — in the form of faculty salaries and federally funded grants.

Research is produced for the public good, but it is not always available to the general public who paid for it. This is where open access or public access to research will change the traditional landscape of publishing research.

Throughout the country, universities are saying “no” to big publisher contracts because the unsustainable cost of these multimillion dollar contracts. If public universities continue to say “no,” we are building a foundation for a more effective and inclusive way to broadly and publicly share important research.

Virginia’s big deal agreement with Elsevier began in 2004 when seven Virginia research universities (George Mason, James Madison, Old Dominion, University of Virginia, Virginia Commonwealth, Virginia Tech and William & Mary) negotiated a five-year, $27 million contract, which at the time was considered a good deal. (See “Tech Bargains Its Way to Better Journal Deal,” The Roanoke Times, 6 April 2004). Now, the current five-year contract costs the seven universities a whopping $46 million.

Virginia’s seven universities are collectively re-evaluating the current scholarly publishing model and looking ahead to 2021. It is possible that some or even all will walk away from Elsevier as UC has done, but before this happens much work needs to be done.

At Virginia Tech, the University Libraries will be leading a campuswide conversation with deans, administrators, academic departments and faculty groups to determine what our next step should be. The starting point of this conversation must be a reaffirmation of the values that bind us together. These values include fiscal responsibility and equity. As a land grant institution, can we justify continuing to support publishers that restrict access to the scholarship we produce, all the while returning billions of dollars in profits every year to their shareholders?

Fortunately, we are not alone in facing this problem. Other American universities besides UC have canceled big deal packages with Elsevier, and the movement is growing internationally. Hundreds of institutions in Germany, Sweden, Norway and the Netherlands are demanding open access to their researchers’ articles, even imposing concrete deadlines.

What ultimately comes of this movement is unclear, but one thing is certain. By 2021 we will know much more than we do now. Virginia research libraries are watching what is happening around the world and are planning for every possible outcome. One possible outcome, of course, is to opt out of another big deal agreement, but even if this happens it is only the first step.

What comes next is the hard part — replacing a broken business model with a new one that is both more fiscally responsible and more equitable. We owe it to the stakeholders on our campuses to engage with them in coming up with a solution (or solutions) that truly reflects our values.

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Peter Potter is the publishing director at Virginia Tech. Contact him at

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