Big Deal Cancellations Research and Practice: an Interview with Jaclyn McLean

January 30, 2020

Heading into the 2019-20 fiscal year, the University Library at the University of Saskatchewan (USask) faced an approximate $1.1 million deficit for the acquisitions budget. In the face of this deficit, the decision was made for the University Library not to resubscribe to the big deal journal packages from Wiley and Taylor & Francis (a saving of approximately $1.5 million). This left $400K with which to resubscribe to the most essential journals in those packages.

“We’ve done some cancellations every year, at least since 2013 – that’s how long I’ve been here – it’s just that this year the deficit got too big and we had to do something big,” says Jaclyn McLean. Jaclyn is the Electronic Resources Librarian at USask, and she sat down with me to talk about these recent big deal cancellations.

“A lot of other Canadian universities had to do significant cancellations in 2015 when the Canadian dollar really took a dive. So we were able to look at what colleagues across the country had already done,” Jaclyn said. After some discussion and planning, Jaclyn and USask librarians DeDe Dawson and Charlene Sorensen launched a research project in 2017 about how best to communicate with campus communities about large-scale journal cancellations.

The key themes* in Jaclyn, DeDe and Charlene’s findings were:

  1. University Librarian’s role
  2. Relationships and in-person interactions
  3. Stewardship and expertise
  4. Internal library communication
  5. Intersection of cancellations and scholarly communication
  6. National leadership and community sharing

*Themes list: Slide 11 of EBLIP Conference Presentation Slides – “Communicating Collections Cancellations to Campus” by Jaclyn McLean, Charlene Sorensen and DeDe Dawson (CC BY 2.5).

“Having our Dean Melissa [Just] be so actively, publicly involved was awesome,” Jaclyn says. “We did in-person presentations to the colleges, and some departments, through April and May 2019 and a small number in June. We always had a team at the presentations – Melissa or Rachel [Sarjeant-Jenkins] always attended to answer high level admin questions and Ken Ladd or I always went so there was someone to answer data-related questions.”

These in-person sessions were part of a larger communication strategy, which included presentations to library staff members about how to help the campus community with alternative access to cancelled resources and a dedicated “Balancing the Collections Budget” webpage on the library’s website. The webpage has a message from the Dean of the University Library, news and updates, FAQs and a graphic of the project timeline.


Timeline image by Jaclyn McLean (CC-BY)

“Ken and I started analyzing usage and financial data in October 2018, in anticipation of a January 2020 cancellation, and 15 months in advance almost wasn’t early enough” Jaclyn shares. “The way the academic year runs and the timing of the license agreements, we had to have decisions mostly made by September 2019. This was a challenge for our required timeline, because our survey had to run in the summer when fewer people are on campus.” Foreseeing this challenge, the team of librarians working on the project reached out to faculty and graduate students before summer 2019 to request that they watch their email in the summer for a survey about their journal usage.

“In the presentations we gave to the colleges, we framed this as a budget issue and then we brought up the oligopoly and serials crisis. It was so encouraging to see how well-informed so many faculty already are about these issues,” Jaclyn said. “In the midst of us starting our communications to campus, the University of California cancelled their big Elsevier deal which hit the news, and then I think faculty became immediately more aware. The questions we were getting in the sessions were things like ‘How can I support alternate forms of publishing? How do we change tenure and promotion standards? How do I negotiate my copyright transfer agreement, and post my work in the institutional repository?’”

I asked Jaclyn if there was anything that stood out in her mind that she would want to do differently in the next big deal cancellation project.

“There was a group of journals that we decided early on in the process to buy back based on their cost-per-use being $5 or less. However, as we got deeper into the analysis process, we realized that the reason that the cost-per-use was so low for some of these journals was because they were inexpensive journals – not because they were heavily-used. Next time we won’t slice the data that way; we won’t make decisions based just on that one metric because some of these journals we decided to automatically buy back based on cost-per-use only had much lower usage than others that we didn’t have the money to buy back later.”

For more information on the data analysis for this project, you can see the presentation slides for Jaclyn and Ken Ladd’s session “The Evolution of Big Deal Analysis” presented at the Canadian Library Assessment Workshop in October 2019.

As a USask library staff member, I have witnessed much of the excellent and incredibly hard work Jaclyn and the team working on this project have done. “Everyone had told me how much work this would be, and how much time it would take, and Ken and I were still a bit like ‘Oh wow, no one was joking!’” Jaclyn says with a hearty laugh. “[Ken and I] could’ve both spent a lot more time on it – endless time assessing the data – so we talked a lot about ‘When is it good enough, and when can we stop? When is it enough to make a decision from?’ It was a really intense year!”

My sincere thanks to Jaclyn for her time, and to all the librarians and library staff at USask who have helped make this project successful!