Read our COVID-19 research and news.

This tool is saving universities millions of dollars in journal subscriptions

In April, when the State University of New York (SUNY) system canceled a big subscription deal with Dutch publishing giant Elsevier in favor of a smaller, cheaper package of subscriptions, headlines focused on how much money the university would save: about $7 million. But behind the savings was a careful cost-benefit analysis and a software tool, Unsub, that helped SUNY work out how to get the most out of its subscription dollars. Many expect the approach to catch on more widely as cash-strapped universities try to weather the COVID-19 pandemic.

SUNY was facing an annual $9 million bill for its subscription to about 2200 Elsevier titles. But Unsub revealed that by spending $2 million a year for just 248 of the journals, the university could give researchers at its 64 campuses immediate access to roughly 70% of the Elsevier papers they are likely to read in the next 5 years. The tool produces its forecasts by analyzing data from each university’s library journal usage, and by scouring the web to see how many of the papers that faculty and students access are already available for free.

Unsub is a “game changer,” says Mark McBride, SUNY’s library senior strategist in Albany, and “I don’t think I’m the only one who thinks that.” Like many universities chafing at high subscription fees and fearing the budget impact of the COVID-19 pandemic, SUNY was looking for savings. And with the help of Unsub, McBride says, it concluded “a big deal is no longer necessary in order for a library to function effectively.”

Unsub, previously called Unpaywall Journals, was launched in November 2019 by Jason Priem and Heather Piwowar, co-founders of the scholarly services firm Impactstory. Funded in part by the U.K. charity Arcadia Fund, the project grew out of another tool the pair developed, called Unpaywall. Launched in 2017, it scours the web for versions of paywalled papers that are freely available on online repositories, preprint servers, and institutional databases, helping scholars circumvent paywalls legally. A 2017 study by Priem and Piwowar found that about half of the papers Unpaywall users sought were free to read somewhere on the web. But many librarians said they still weren’t clear on whether that finding meant they could scale back their subscriptions, Priem says.

To solve that problem, Priem and Piwowar built Unsub, for which they charge $1000 per library per year. Priem says 300 libraries have already signed up for the tool,  and he expects it to lead to more cancellations on big deals in the summer. “This is about returning powers to libraries,” he says. (A tool with a similar purpose called 1figr, produced by 1Science, a scholarly services firm, was discontinued after Elsevier acquired 1Science, and its parent company, Science-Metrix, in 2018.)

For SUNY, Unsub showed that a modest number of subscriptions would be enough to supplement the large numbers of Elsevier papers already available outside of paywalls. Of the papers SUNY researchers can access under the new arrangement, about 30% are already free to read through open access and 25% are available from SUNY’s backlog because the university has subscribed to these journals for several years. McBride says SUNY did its own calculations about which journals it needed to continue paying for, and the results are in line with Unsub’s numbers.    

As for papers not available under the new deal, he says, individual campuses can subscribe to additional journals they deem necessary, or buy temporary access to papers from other libraries through interlibrary loans. Another option, he says, will be paying for individual papers through document delivery services. Despite these extra costs, the overall savings will be substantial, he says.

With the help of Unsub, SUNY is now rethinking its deals with other subscription-based academic publishers. Nathan Mealey, associate university librarian for discovery & access at Wesleyan University, which also uses Unsub, says it’s inevitable that the pandemic will prompt other universities to do the same. “There is a drastically growing disconnect between the fees vendors charge for their content and the prices libraries are able and willing to pay for them. It seems probable that COVID-19 will bring this tension to a head.”

An Elsevier spokesperson tells Science: “No matter which options customers prefer, our aim is always to provide open and frictionless access to the highest quality content at the best possible value.”