Skip to main content

Virginia Research Libraries and Big Deals

Information about negotiations with Elsevier.

Virginia Research Libraries (VRL) and Big Deals

ODU Libraries is a member of the Virginia Research Libraries (VRL) group, which consists of seven public academic research libraries:

  • George Mason University
  • James Madison University
  • Old Dominion University
  • University of Virginia
  • Virginia Commonwealth University
  • Virginia Tech
  • William and Mary

What is a Big Deal?

“Big deals” for journal content are similar to cable television “deals” that bundle channels into an attractive package but leave the subscriber without the option to save money by only paying for channels they routinely watch.


VRL formed in 2001 to negotiate a “big deal” license for online access to Elsevier journals. Currently, VRL is taking a close look at the current five-year Elsevier license agreement which expires December 31, 2021. With the current budget environment, it is possible that some VRL participants will not be able to meet their obligation for the final year of the contract. In the case of an early exit from the contract in December 2020 or renegotiation of the December 2021 contract, ODU and its VRL Group partners will need to be prepared for changes in access to Elsevier journals.

VRL cost sharing is allocated on the basis of prior use, collection expenditures, and enrollment. Below is the allocation of costs for 2020 and 2021.

Institution Allocation 2020 2021
University of Virginia 27.11% $2,634,700 $ 2,740,100
Virginia Tech University 22.48% $2,184,900 $ 2,272,300
Virginia Commonwealth University 20.44% $1,987,200 $ 2,066,600
George Mason University 11.78% $1,141,400 $ 1,187,000
Old Dominion University 8.39% $   815,800 $    848,400
William & Mary 5.03% $   489,000 $    508,500
James Madison University 4.77% $   463,200 $    481,800
Total   $9,716,200 $10,104,700

The Big Deal creates two key problems for VRL institutions.

1.  The prices associated with Big Deals are too high, and have grown too fast, relative to the value of the journal titles they contain. Big Deal prices reflect monopoly power and sharp bargaining practices. The academic journal ecosystem is dominated by five highly profitable commercial firms: Elsevier, Sage, Springer Nature, Taylor & Francis, and Wiley. The portion of Big Deal content that scholars cite has gone steadily down over the years, reflecting increasing bloat in the overall package.

Big Deals consume a portion of VRL budgets that exceeds their value to our researchers, crowding out other investments and threatening to undermine our support for broad and diverse research collections.

At ODU, Elsevier consumes 22% of the Libraries’ materials budget. 

A growing cohort of research institutions have broken up their Big Deals and realized substantial savings, balancing their budgets and addressing other unmet research needs without harm to the research enterprise. At a time when all VRL institutions are asked to tighten our budgets due to the COVID crisis, these deals are prime targets for reduction.

2.  The commercial publishing model is misaligned with our values. It relies on appropriating faculty work and prestige, locking it up behind paywalls, and selling it back to us, reducing access to Virginia research and blunting its impact in the process.

In the commercial publishing model, funding for research (including peer review) comes from research institutions, governments, and others, but when a scholarly article is accepted by a commercial journal, authors typically sign away their rights or else pay high article processing charges (APCs) to make their work available through open access. To be sure, commercial publishers provide infrastructure such as editorial staff, content platforms, and distribution networks, but they do not charge based on the cost or value of these services. Instead, they charge based on the value of faculty copyrights (in the case of subscriptions) and the prestige associated with journal titles (in the case of APCs). This model diverts billions of dollars from investment in research into the coffers of a few commercial firms, and in the process it makes publicly funded research harder to access and reuse. As such, the commercial scholarly publishing model is fundamentally broken and misaligned with our mission and values as public institutions.

In sum, the Elsevier Big Deal and others like it are unsustainable. Ending or fundamentally reforming these models is necessary if we are to continue to serve our mission as public research institutions. The VRL Group, including ODU Libraries, has started this process with the Elsevier Big Deal.

The following open letter has been prepared and released by the Deans and Directors of the seven research libraries at public doctoral institutions in Virginia. It is part of an ongoing conversation with our campus communities about responsible stewardship of our investments in research.

April 9, 2019

Dear Virginia Research and Learning Community,

As Deans and Directors of Virginia research libraries, our core mission and our highest priority is to ensure that our research communities have access to a rich, diverse, and sustainable ecosystem of information resources. Recently, our colleagues in the University of California system took an important stand in defense of that ecosystem by refusing to renew their $50 million "Big Deal" contract with Elsevier, the world's most profitable vendor of information products. We write to express our gratitude and our support for them and the brave step they have taken, the latest in a global trend of libraries rethinking their biggest expenditures.

Like our UC colleagues, we have serious concerns about continuing to support Big Deal journal bundles, whose initial value proposition has eroded steadily over time. After years of price inflation, these deals have become too costly, consuming more of our budgets each year, crowding out every other kind of information resource (including that most elemental library asset, books). Big Deals also seem to be more and more comprised of titles our campuses rarely or never use. In addition to cost, we are concerned that the subscription model locks away publicly-funded research, reducing the relative impact of scholars on our campuses at a time when other countries and research funders are increasingly requiring full and immediate open access. As the global research community reaches consensus that open access is the future, Big Deal vendors have worked to extract profits from fast-growing publishing fees, another unsustainable model. Firm, principled action is needed to steer our investments in these vendors in a responsible direction.

Like many of our colleagues who have already spoken publicly about this issue, we have begun conversations on our campuses about the costs of Big Deal journal packages and the concerns we have about their value. We, too, hope to find a way forward that will be transparent, affordable, and sustainable. The UC system's stand and the growing chorus of support from other institutions strengthen our conviction that collectively, research institutions can find a new way forward, with or without the bundled journal deals that have seemed, in the past, too big to refuse.


Carrie Cooper, Dean of University Libraries, William and Mary
George Fowler, University Librarian, Old Dominion University
John Ulmschneider, Dean of Libraries and University Librarian, Virginia Commonwealth University
John Unsworth, Dean of Libraries and University Librarian, University of Virginia
K.T. Vaughan, Associate Dean, and Bethany Nowviskie, incoming Dean of Libraries, James Madison University
Tyler Walters, Dean of Libraries and University Librarian, Virginia Tech
John Zenelis, Dean of Libraries and University Librarian, George Mason University

Our Commitment to ODU Faculty and Students

We assure you that the ODU Libraries are committed to providing access to materials critical for research and teaching. We want to ensure that our spending commitments align with community needs, that we are responsible stewards of our budget in a rapidly evolving information landscape, and that we contain and control costs wherever possible.

Our commitment is to get you what you need in the most timely manner possible, whether through direct subscription, interlibrary loan and rapid document delivery, or access to venues that provide open access to the same subscription materials.
chat loading...