Persistent Serials Crisis

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Academic libraries have been subject to a persistent “serials crisis” during the past four decades. The term “serials crisis” refers to the rapid increase in journal subscription costs above the rates of inflation and library budgets. According to the Association of Research Libraries, the latest subscription expenditure statistics available between 1998 and 2018 showed a 166% increase, three times the inflation rate of 54%.1. The Association described an “egregious price increase” when the subscription costs between 1986 and 2004 increased close to 4 times the inflation rate (increased by 273% while CPI increased by 73%).2 Furthermore, Canadian academic libraries experienced a 5 to 7% subscription cost increase yearly between 2011 and 2015, approximately 25% during the 4 years, aggravated by the weak Canadian currency.3. At most Canadian academic libraries, a large proportion of the collection budgets, 70-89%, is allocated to covering the costs of e-resource subscriptions.4 This constant increase in subscription costs further aggravates library budgets in the prevailing climate of declining public funding for universities and colleges in Canada. A collective of library workers, pseudonymously Camille Marcos Noûs, asserts that the persistent serials crisis epitomizes a larger systemic inequity inherent in scholarly communication, affecting institutional purchasing power, access, and who is represented. They regard the serials crisis as closely connected to the larger systems of exploitation in the capitalist structure.5 Furthermore, they critically point out the commercial scholarly publishing business “as evidence of the commodification of knowledge, collective imperialism, and some of the deep contradictions within capitalism.”6.

Librarians have analyzed the serials crisis since the 80s and shared the results at conferences and publishing papers. The earliest instance of the word “crisis” used in describing the rapid rise of subscription costs of academic journals is in 1981.7 Hamaker discussed it in 1987, alerting that “It is in crisis because a system which has served Western civilization well no longer works,” and urged American academic libraries to drop titles from the international scientific and technical journals.8 While others attributed the crisis to the U.S. dollar devaluation in the late 80s affecting the price of international scientific and technical journals, his analysis spotted the real cause in the top publishers’ titles representing 50% of his library’s serials budget. Hamaker also made interesting observations about the common publishers’ responses to librarians’ complaints regarding their pricing policy, which included harassment and what he called “public relations nonsense,” as well as offers of possible room for negotiating subscription rates.9

The Rise of Big Deals

By the turn of the millennium, major scientific journals had shifted to e-journals. This shift led to a new model of managing and administering journal subscriptions, moving away from the traditional method of managing subscriptions title-by-title. Libraries responded strategically to the rise of big deals, a new model of negotiations with major publishers, forming national and regional consortia and strengthening resource sharing in the networked environment.10 The new model was framed as an innovation to combat the persistent problem of the serials crisis experienced by libraries in the 1990s. Frazer noted in 2005 that big deals became the preferred model and anticipated it to become the standard model for acquiring mainstream scientific and medical journal collections. Frazer defines:

“A Big Deal is a comprehensive licensing agreement in which a library or library consortium agrees to buy electronic access to all or a large portion of a publisher’s journals for a cost based on expenditures for journals already subscribed to by the institution(s) plus an access fee.”11

According to the detailed article addressing “[t]he evolution and revision of big deals” by Rodríguez-Bravo et al., Frazier, then director of the libraries at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, coined the term “Big Deal” in early 2001 and became a vocal critic of the emerging trend.12 He warned that the model would “create dependency on contracted products, enable large commercial publishers to control prices, shift tasks traditionally performed by large journal publishers and subscription agencies to libraries, and increase the vulnerability of libraries to any change in content subscription.”13

Despite the early warning by Frasier, Rodríguez-Bravo et al. note that the big deal model lasted more than two decades “without suffering major changes in most cases.”14 The notable reason why it survived this long is that the model was positively received by researchers, in general, for its apparent benefits of having easy access and use of the content for a wide range of journals, thus enhancing academic productivity. Rodríguez-Bravo et al. observe that the model helped entrench the commercialization of the publishers’ products when most large research libraries continued with the deals.15 Moreover, the big deal model was subject to non-disclosure agreements, not allowing libraries and consortia to make pricing comparisons.16 As Rodríguez-Bravo et al. cite Stachokas, most libraries had to take the big deals as “a functional reality.”17 Although the big deal model has been sustained for over two decades, package renewal increases between 5-15% outpaced library budgets, forcing many libraries and consortia to question the model and leading to some cancellations.18 The price increases were especially acutely experienced by the libraries in the States after the 2008 financial crisis, which badly affected higher education in the country.19

The big deals seem to provide a positive online research environment for researchers while they financially challenge libraries. How are they using the journals included in the packages? Which titles are most frequently used? What is the distribution of usage across the packages? Are the big deals good deals for the institutions? Rodríguez-Bravo et al. refer to the results of the studies investigating how researchers used big deal packages, showing a skewed pattern: 80% of the downloaded articles represent only 20% of the titles in the packages. Similarly, the study from Singapore shows 75% of the downloaded articles from 10% of the titles.20 Furthermore, Rodríguez-Bravo et al. refer to studies indicating cancellations have had fewer negative consequences than expected and that libraries could support researchers without additional strains on the interlibrary loan and document delivery services instead of committing themselves to the big deals.20 These investigations helped more libraries undertake big deal cancellations and triggered wishes by libraries and consortia to seek alternative ways to negotiate with the publishers. Beyond informing librarians how to respond to and manage the big deals, the use studies highlighted the dominant research publication patterns concentrated in a small number of journal titles and the relationship between the dominant commercial publishers and the prestige economy of scholarship.

Moving on to OA and Transformative Agreements

Funders, governments and universities are steadily adapting to Open Access (OA). Both Plan S, introduced by cOAlition S in 2018, and the 2022 announcement by the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP), stipulate non-embargo OA publishing, with a target timeline of 2025. Transformative Agreements (TAs) were highlighted in Plan S as a new business contract model between a publisher and libraries and their consortia, replacing the subscription-based one, framed as the next step toward Open Access.21 Despite the dominant trend of TAs becoming standard practice across academic libraries, Rodríguez-Bravo et al. point out:

“many libraries may not be able to…replace…[the big deals] with even more expensive, transformative deals.”22

As I have already posted in response to the White House OSTP announcement, TAs would further entrench multi-level inequity in scholarly publishing and sustain and reproduce the prestige economy for researchers.  The academic publishing industry’s oligopolistic nature continues or worsens as we transition to OA publishing. Following Puehringer et al.’s analysis of the scientific publishing market, it would not be a surprise if the dominant publishers demanded steady increases in the publishing-to-read component of their TAs in the subsequent negotiation phases.23 We can easily anticipate a repeat of what happened to the big deals in the last two decades, first negatively affecting resource-challenged institutions. Noûs insightfully equated TAs to “bailing out the housing and auto industries”:

“As is often the case with crises, the private sector is often bailed out with a large cash infusion from the state.”24


In this blog post, I situated Transformative Agreements in the context of the last four decades of the serials crisis. As in the past decades, the current serials crisis epitomizes the unequal system inherent in scholarly communication, and the inequity is being exposed as it transitions to Open Access. It economically benefits big oligopolistic publishers while continuing the status quo: the inequities in knowledge production.


1. Association of Research Libraries. “Graph 4.” In Expenditure Trends in ARL Libraries 1998 – 2018.

2. “The ‘Serials Crisis’ Explained… – Copyright, Open Access & Publishing Support.” Accessed November 4, 2022.

3. Haigh, S. (2016, February 3). Falling Canadian dollar raises longstanding issue of journal costs.
Canadian Association of Research Libraries.

4. Scott, David R., and Nicole Eva. “The Canadian Dollar versus the Collection: How Canadian Academic Libraries Are Coping.” Partnership: The Canadian Journal of Library and Information Practice and Research 11, no. 2 (February 9, 2017)., Figure 4, page 7.

5. Noûs, Camille. “Message from the Grassroots: Scholarly Communication, Crisis, and Contradictions.” Canadian Journal of Academic Librarianship 7 (December 15, 2021): 1–27.

6. Grathwol, Mary. 1982. “Sul H. Lee, Ed., ‘Serials Collection Development: Choices and Strategies’ (Book Review).”The Library Quarterly 52 (4): 408., as cited in Noûs.

7. Noûs, 4.

8. Hamaker, Charles. “Library Serials Budgets: Publishers and the Twenty Percent Effect.” Library Acquisitions 12, no. 2 (1988): 211–20. The quote on page 211.

9. Hamaker, 217-18.

10. See, for example:

Reader, Evan A. 1999. “Purchasing Resources Collectively: What Makes a Consortium Successful?” Charleston Advisor 1 (2): 43–44.
Strauch, Katina. 1999. “The Good, the Bad and the Flexible: Three Experiences in South Carolina.” Charleston Advisor 1 (1): 29–31.

The Canadian Site Licensing Project was created with 64 library members in 1999.

11. Frazier, Kenneth. “What’s the Big Deal?” The Serials Librarian 48, no. 1–2 (May 23, 2005): 49–59. , Page 50.

12. Rodríguez-Bravo, Blanca, Andrés Fernández-Ramos, Marta De-la-Mano, and Marina Vianello-Osti. “The evolution and revision of big deals: a review from the perspective of libraries.” Profesional de la información 30, no. 4 (August 14, 2021).

13. Rodríguez-Bravo et al., 2.

14. Rodríguez-Bravo et al., 4.

15. For example, Rodriguez-Bravo et al. refer to the investigation of research libraries and big deals by Strieb & Blixrudd, indicating that most Association of Research Libraries members continued to subscribe to the big deals. Page 7.

16. Fister, Barbara. (June 23, 2014). “Shocking Secrets Revealed! What Big Libraries Pay for Big Deals | Inside Higher Ed.” Accessed November 11, 2022.

17. Rodríguez-Bravo et al., 6. Rodríguez-Bravo et al. cite Stachokas, George (2018). “The library in the information marketplace”. In: George Stachokas (ed.), Reengineering the library: Issues in electronic resources management. Chicago: ALA, pp. 119-135. ISBN: 978 0 8389 1621 6

18. Scholarly Publishing and Academic Resources (SPARC) keeps track of big deal cancellations:

19. SPARC.

20. Rodríguez-Bravo, 5.

21. Hinchliffe, Lisa Janicke. “Read-and-Publish? Publish-and-Read? A Primer on Transformative Agreements by @lisalibrarian.” The Scholarly Kitchen, April 23, 2019.

22. Rodríguez-Bravo, 15.

23. Puehringer, Stephan, Johanna Rath, and Teresa Griesebner. “The Political Economy of Academic Publishing: On the Commodification of a Public Good.” PLOS ONE 16, no. 6 (June 17, 2021): e0253226.

24. Noûs, 15.

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