Gavia Libraria

Permission to walk away

From the Loon’s outsider perspective, JISC made major strategic errors in its transition to Jisc: it divested just about all its (previously excellent) research and development, and it bet the revamped organization’s farm on serials negotiations. The Loon is no great organizational strategist herself, but she knows a bad move when she sees it, and that was a bad, bad move. Serials negotiations are as dangerous as walking through active lava flows barefoot, and will only get worse.

So, yes, Jisc is in trouble with vocal UK faculty after a license-renewal run-in with everyone’s friend Elsevier. Let us unpack the situation, with a view to improving library negotiation strategies and positioning.

From Gowers’s account, Jisc first went around to faculty and administrators making promises. Dear all library license negotiators everywhere: if you do this, stop immediately, and if you don’t, do not start. The Loon is as serious as she knows how to be: never, ever, ever promise anything to faculty.

Jisc demonstrates beautifully how making promises damages your BATNA. Does anyone think Elsevier didn’t know about the promises Jisc had made UK faculty? Of course it knew. With that knowledge, it knew to the millimetre exactly how far over a barrel it had Jisc. Elsevier also knew that it would escape negotiations with impunity regardless of the results, as faculty are selfish, ignorant blame-spewing prima donnas who invariably blame the librarians; check the Twitter tag #elsexit after rereading Gowers’s post if you do not believe the Loon. (The Loon is sorry-not-sorry to include Gowers in her unflattering portrait of faculty. Often he rises above. This time? Not particularly.)

Now let us look at the actual promises made, per Gowers (if anyone has better intel, please do pass it on in the comments):

  1. No real-terms price increases.
  2. An offsetting agreement for article processing charges.
  3. No confidentiality clauses.
  4. A move away from basing price on “historic spend”.
  5. A three-year deal rather than a five-year deal.

Gowers calls the first goal above “unambitious.” Pray excuse the Loon momentarily while she retreats behind some cattails for an ugly-cry. This is an extraordinarily ambitious goal! It is especially ambitious for a consortium as big as Jisc negotiating with a vendor as squatty as Elsevier. Big Deal purveyors are accustomed to licenses with at minimum 3–6% annual increases, and they see no reason they should not be. What is a library or consortium going to say, “no”? Especially to Elsevier? Where Big Deal purveyors have priced otherwise during the Great Recession, it has been with a posture of “out of our immense magnanimity, we are helping this poor benighted library/consortium out of its self-dug hole—but just this once.”

Taking historic spend out of the equation runs up against essentially the same problem: serials pricing is purely notional, what the market (which, remember, cannot realistically say no—the Loon’s apologies for the earworm) will bear. So much for that goal. The offsetting agreement would have been nice, but could probably have been dispensed with; it is the least-crucial item on the list.

If the Loon ran Jisc’s negotiating arm, she would have stood pat on the third goal, striking non-disclosure agreements. It is the only goal in the list that might help Jisc get closer to achieving its other goals. Moreover, one promise stands stronger chances of success than five.

Be that as it may, Jisc apparently struck out on all five goals. Ouch. Why?

Ado Annie knows. It isn’t that Jisc doesn’t know what it should do. It isn’t (contra Ado Annie) that Jisc somehow enjoys rolling over for Elsevier. It’s that Jisc cain’t say no to Elsevier, and that inability has indeed landed it in a turrible fix.

Are you a UK faculty member who took a poke at Jisc on Twitter? Are you Tim Gowers? Congratulations. You just made the UK’s serials problem worse, you senseless mugginses. You made it harder for Jisc to say no—not only to Elsevier, but to every serials squatter out there. Bravi bravissimi. Clods.

Are you Jisc? Have you lost your collective mind, you muttonheads? Why are you promising anyone anything? You know you can’t reliably deliver; nobody can in the present environment. Why make your public relations yet worse by breaking promises?

The strategy question, then, reduces to something fairly simple: What would enable Jisc to say no, mean it, and stick to it? What would need to be different for Jisc to be able to upend the negotiating table into Elsevier’s lap and walk away dusting its hands together?

If you haven’t figured out the Loon’s answer yet, reread; it should be obvious by now. No? Well, the answer is “faculty backing.” Jisc cain’t say no to Elsevier until its component institutions empower it to. Those institutions will not empower Jisc to say no to Elsevier until they know their selfish ignorant blame-spewing prima-donna faculty will not shred them alive for losing access to Elsevier’s journal stable. Gowers’s complaint and the accompanying Twitter tsuris were the lightest of feather-brushes compared to the torrent of abuse, firings, and other pitchfork-and-torch actions that UK faculty would aim at their libraries and Jisc if Elsevier’s journal stable were to vanish suddenly from the UK.

Faculty being faculty, unanimous accord on this or any point is not possible. Fortunately, it is also not necessary. The small-but-growing library literature on Big Deal cancellations indicates that a library’s well-planned advance communication strategy can reach enough faculty who care (that number being far less than the totality) to mitigate backlash significantly, and sometimes even to build faculty allies. Note well, the communication must not start with “We promise…” It must instead say “We are in a cleft stick; we cannot avoid damage try howsoever we may, so let us decide together what the damage must be.”

So far, so proven-track-record. The Loon wonders about going beyond it, though. What if every multi-year Big Deal negotiation included a tenured regular-faculty observer? A library might see fit to ask the Faculty Senate or similar body for one. A library might even approach specific local faculty members who look likely. (The Loon desperately wants to paddle about unnoticed in the water cooler during a serials negotiation that includes Ariel Katz. Would that not just be perfectly priceless?) If there is any particular stricture forbidding this, the Loon does not know of it; librarian-only negotiations are the norm through tradition and the librarian service ethic, as best the Loon can tell.

The benefits are many. One or a few faculty actually learn how sausage is made; one may perhaps hope for fewer “no price increases? unambitious!”-style gaffes. Vendors’ standard blame-the-librarians tactic loses power when it smears a faculty member as well. A sausage-making whisper network will likely develop among faculty, be non-disclosure agreements whatever vendors care to make them.

With this sort of faculty-relations foundation laid, a library might prepare for a crucial renewal negotiation by drafting a Faculty Senate resolution in advance, to the effect of “We the faculty support our library in walking away from this putrid guano-sack of a so-called deal.” Look at that! Suddenly Ado Annie can say no!

Consortia make this approach more difficult, granted; the extra layer of indirection frustrates faculty relations (as, indeed, we see with this Jisc mess). For many library consortia, there is no Faculty Senate analogue to request support from. Support from institutional administrations, while helpful, is not the same, and introducing resolutions in a dozen or more Faculty Senates from a remote organization most faculty won’t even have heard of is a tall order.

This need not be an insuperable barrier, however. California, comprising what, some several dozen institutions? has historically succeeded in presenting a fairly united front to Elsevier and Nature Publishing Group. Canadian universities managed to bat down Access Copyright despite a marked lack of unity. It can be done. Where it cannot be done, it may indeed make sense to return license negotiations to the individual-institution level. The deals won’t get any better, to be sure; the advantage is that the ability to seek sufficient backing to say no to bad deals will improve.

Gowers and likeminded faculty need not even await a library’s or consortium’s go-ahead to start moving in this direction. Ask to be a (silent, please, at least at first) faculty observer at the local library’s next multi-year Big Deal negotiation. Start buttering up—or at least preparing—the local Faculty Senate to act usefully next time; this Jisc mess is a lovely excuse to bring the matter up, and the Loon of course invites all and sundry to steal any arguments she has made that may be useful in such an effort.

Faculty labor boycotts—no authoring, no editing, no reviewing—are also serious business. They are not rabbits and cannot be pulled from hats at will. All the more reason to start laying groundwork for them now; the Loon would suggest a variation on Arthur Sale’s one-department-or-school-at-a-time “patchwork mandate” method.

In public, Gowers and likeminded faculty need to blame the vendors, blame the vendors, blame the vendors, just as librarians need to, and for the same reason: vendors are in the driver’s seat until they suffer acute and visible consequences for their behavior. Instead of Gowers’s “why didn’t Jisc at least try to extract further concessions from Elsevier by letting the negotiations continue until much closer to the expiry of the current deal?” try “why can’t Elsevier say yes to perfectly reasonable and straightforward terms?” and “Jisc can’t say no unless and until we support them, so let us do that.”

Indeed. Let us do that.

5 thoughts on “Permission to walk away

  1. Mike Taylor

    “Pray excuse the Loon momentarily while she retreats behind some cattails for an ugly-cry. This is an extraordinarily ambitious goal! It is especially ambitious for a consortium as big as Jisc negotiating with a vendor as squatty as Elsevier. Big Deal purveyors are accustomed to licenses with at minimum 3–6% annual increases, and they see no reason they should not be.”

    Wasn’t the idea that Jisc, negotiating for the UK as a bloc, would have more muscle than the individual universities have had? That doesn’t seem like an obviously silly thing to have thought.

    1. Library Loon Post author

      It was not, though the ACRL NY event just today indicated that new research suggests scale advantage is nil in license negotiations. (The Loon finds this plausible, though of course she has not seen the research yet and cannot speak to its quality. She may write a post explaining its plausibility.)

      Scale and the feasibility of the goal in question are orthogonal, however. That scale might provide negotiating muscle in no way obviates the ambition of a no-real-price-increase goal. Even consortia typically accept 3 to 6 percent annual price increases! So Jisc was absolutely swimming against a strong tide.

  2. Pingback: Does consortial scale matter in content licensing negotiations? – Gavia Libraria

  3. Stanislaus Jones

    Iaybe less invective and more engagement with the substantive points in Tim Gower’s post would have been informative for people trying to understand your point of view. As it is, I read his post, and this paragraph:

    ‘A particularly irritating aspect of the situation was that I and some others had organized for an open letter to be sent to Jisc from many academics, urging them to bargain hard. We asked Jisc whether this would be helpful and they requested that we should delay sending it until after a particular meeting with Elsevier had taken place. And then the premature deal took us by surprise and the letter never got sent.’

    and then I read “Jisc can’t say no unless and until we support them, so let us do that.”. It seems rather like you are arguing with someone other than Tim Gowers about a situation other than the one at present.

    1. Library Loon Post author

      You are correct; the Loon missed that bit, and she apologizes, for it is indeed material. Her thanks to faculty (including you?) for the attempt, and a pity Jisc was unprepared to avail itself. (The Loon can understand some part of their reluctance—a potential loose cannon is not an asset to a negotiation, and in this specific situation, Elsevier was inordinately likely to balk—but that only suggests that these things need to be planned beforehand, not that they are a poor idea.)

      The Loon hopes you will not give up in disgust, though she will not blame you if you call for Jisc’s dissolution—indeed it appears to have declined since its reorganization, and possibly outlived its usefulness. Barring that, the thing to do might be to go back to Jisc to insist upon and plan for faculty involvement in the next big relicensing. Jisc, if they have any sense, will be more open to that if they can prepare for it.

      Should that happen, please remember that you and Jisc (and even the Loon, whatever her distraction) are on the same side, and the vendor is the enemy.