Previous   Contents   Next
Issues in Science and Technology Librarianship
Spring 2001

URLs in this document have been updated. Links enclosed in {curly brackets} have been changed. If a replacement link was located, the new URL was added and the link is active; if a new site could not be identified, the broken link was removed.

[Board Accepted]

E-Journal Bundling and Its Impact on Academic Libraries: Some Early Results

Jonathan Nabe
Manager, Gerstenzang Science Library
Brandeis University


Electronic journal packages, or bundles, have become standard resources in academic libraries in just the last few years. The impact on collections and budgets will be significant, but are largely yet unmeasured. A survey was designed to begin to provide some data concerning the financial and collection implications of these bundles, and was distributed to the fourteen academic libraries within the Boston Library Consortium. Results are presented and discussed.


Journal bundling refers to the practice of aggregating all titles produced by a publisher into a single product, or subject-based subsections. This comprehensive product is then marketed and sold as an all-or-nothing deal: a library can purchase access only to all of the titles within the package, or to none at all. Within the last five years, these packages, or bundles, have become the favored subscription model for the dominant commercial publishers of Science, Technology, and Medical (STM) electronic journals.

The implications for academic libraries are enormous. On one level, bundles offer the opportunity of providing access to a broader and deeper range of titles than most libraries currently can provide their communities. This is particularly true concerning consortium-purchased bundles, when all institutions gain electronic access not only to the titles in their subscriptions, but to the titles of any and all of their consortial partners. For librarians and their institutions' faculty and administrators, such an expanded collection is of obvious benefit. This explains the large number of institutions and consortia that have signed on to journal bundle subscriptions.

The benefits come with a price, however. What do we surrender when we agree to pay for these packages? There has been a great deal of speculation and theorizing about the potential and real costs; now, after several years of having these subscriptions in place, it is possible to begin to measure the actual impact -- in terms of collections, costs, access, etc. This paper will detail the impacts felt and predicted for a representative group of academic libraries -- those within the Boston Library Consortium (BLC) -- as determined by a survey. [View survey]

The BLC is a consortium of fourteen academic libraries, the Boston Public Library, and the Massachusetts State Library. "Founded in 1970, the Consortium supports resource sharing and enhancement of services to users through programs in cooperative collecting, access to electronic resources, access to physical collections, and enhanced interlibrary loan and document delivery" (BLC). Since the objective was to evaluate the impact of journal bundles on academic libraries, only they were asked to participate.1 The universities within the BLC include a range of institutions, including a four-year college and an Ivy League school, public and private institutions, old and new, etc. Thus it is hoped it will serve as a useful representative for other institutions and consortia across the country.

The survey was sent to collection coordinators at the selected institutions. Participants were asked to provide information on the following bundles: Academic IDEAL, Blackwell Synergy, Elsevier ScienceDirect, Springer LINK, and Wiley InterScience. While not an exhaustive list, these five are the leading commercial STM publishers, and have bundled their electronic journals into single packages.

Survey Results

Twelve of fourteen BLC academic institutions completed the survey (86%). Two of the twelve (17%) provide access to none of the packages, though some access is available to the full text of those titles that are subscribed to by the institution (Springer allows this, for example). More institutions subscribe to ScienceDirect (9) than any other package, followed by IDEAL (8), LINK (5), Synergy (4), and InterScience (3).

When asked to rank reasons behind a decision to purchase, content (a category that includes subject matter, impact factors, relevance to institution, etc.) not surprisingly ranked highest or second highest, or in one case, fourth highest. For IDEAL, ScienceDirect, and LINK, the second most important reason was the additional titles provided. For Synergy, the second highest ranking was faculty demand, while for InterScience, the license agreement and platform/format held this ranking. Print cancellation policy was consistently ranked low, as was public relations. Otherwise, the rankings were dependent on the package. [Full table of results]

Participants were also asked to list those bundles that had actively been decided against. The most rejected was IDEAL (27%). Synergy, ScienceDirect, and InterScience had been refused by 18% each. Only one institution had actively decided against LINK.

Price was consistently given as the foremost reason for declining a bundle, though the print cancellation policy was also ranked high. Other reasons listed as important included the lack of access to additional titles and "content."

Only one institution claimed to have canceled other print subscriptions in order to purchase one or more of these packages; however, 55% stated that they expected to cancel subscriptions in the future in order to maintain access. Twenty-five percent of respondents said they had shifted money away from monograph funds to subscribe to the chosen bundles. No library had cut back on capital or staff funds for such purchases.

Seventy-one percent said that consortial purchase was the only way that they could afford these bundles. Sixty percent stated that they had investigated more than one consortial arrangement. The majority of institutional subscriptions were arranged through NERL2 (80%); the rest were BLC arrangements, except for one through NELINET3. Eighty-six percent said they would consider purchasing access to unsubscribed bundles, if new consortial arrangements became available.


It is no surprise that the quality of content of the journals in each package was deemed of greatest importance. When applicable, the increased access to additional titles was also a key component of the decision-making process. Beyond electronic access, these are the appealing attributes of the five bundles under discussion. If the two libraries unable to afford any deals are omitted, twenty-nine of a possible fifty (five bundles and ten libraries) subscriptions have already been purchased. As noted above, 86% would consider additional purchases if new consortial arrangements become available. Taken together, this represents substantial interest in and commitment to these resources, and by extension, to journal bundles.

Consortia have obviously become crucial for large purchases such as those under analysis. If the BLC is typical of other regional groups, commercial publishers have a vested interest in encouraging the formation of consortia and negotiating favorable terms with them; this is because, as the survey shows, the vast majority of institutions would be unable to purchase their bundled products otherwise.

The fact that so few libraries (one of ten with subscriptions) had to cancel titles to afford access to one or more bundles is surprising, given that access requires a considerable outlay above existing subscription costs. However, when combined with those that moved money from monograph funds, 40% of the libraries had to sacrifice other parts of their collections in order to buy in. Nevertheless, just where and how institutions are coming up with the extra funds for such purchases remains unclear and deserves further study.4

It is clear that librarians realize that the impact of subscribing may still be to come: over half anticipate making cuts in print subscriptions in order to maintain access to their particular bundles. This is certain if, as Kenneth Frazier, Director of Libraries at the University of Wisconsin, claims, "An annual price increase of seven percent will double the cost of the [commercial journal bundles'] licenses over the period of a decade" (Frazier 2001). Even at half that rate (and some subscription increases are capped), bundles will consume a growing share of collection budgets in the near future.

This raises the question, will libraries be dropping titles which have an historical, institutional reason for being taken in order to provide access to titles of unknown worth? If cancellations are inevitable, will we see not-for-profit societies or university presses losing subscribers more so than commercial publishers? Such a movement towards increased market share for the commercial publishers seems likely, especially for those who cap the possible number or price of print subscription cancellations as a part of the license. Journal retention decisions will, as a result, be taken out of the hands of individual librarians and their institutions. Awareness of this is demonstrated by the high ranking of the importance of print cancellation policy in the decision NOT to subscribe (average rating of 2 or 2.5 for four of the five publishers).

Despite the fact that archiving concerns are consistently presented in the literature as one of the fundamental reasons that libraries refrain from purchasing subscriptions to electronic journals, or at least maintain a print copy along with the electronic version, this issue did not appear to be a significant reason for subscribing or not subscribing for the respondents. Of course, this ranking should be expected to be low, if the libraries are maintaining print subscriptions as the archival copies. Nevertheless, research conducted in order to assess libraries' true efforts at guaranteeing archival access is warranted. If we are placing ourselves at risk of not providing such access, out of a spirit of optimism or faith in a future technological panacea, we are obligated to acknowledge it.

While the results of this survey present some clear implications of subscriptions to journal bundles, additional research is needed. Long-term impacts will require more time before they can be assessed. In particular, print cancellations (which are largely anticipated but not enacted at this point) and decreasing monograph purchases warrant attention. The market share of commercial versus non-profit publishers as influenced by bundles should also be monitored. The extent to which librarians are surrendering collection development decision-making on an individual journal level also needs further study.

The average ranking for each of the categories within each of the packages is reported below. Rankings were from 1-10, one being most important, ten least important.

Table 1. Reasons for subscribing
IDEAL ScienceDirect LINK InterScience Synergy
Price 3.1 4 3.25 3.7 4
Content 1 1.3 1.25 1 1.25
Faculty demand 4.6 3.9 3.5 3.3 2.75
Friendly license agreement 6 6 4.3 3 6
Public relations 7.6 6.8 7.7 7 5.7
Archiving issues 5.8 5.6 4.3 4 5.25
Platform or format 5.6 5.2 5.7 3 6.7
Additional access to nonsubscribed titles 3 2.7 3 8.5 4.25
Print cancellation policy 6 7.8 6.3 8 7.3

Table 2. Reasons for Not Subscribing
IDEAL ScienceDirect LINK InterScience Synergy
Price 1.7 1 1 1 1
Content 6 2 6 4.3 6
Faculty demand 4.7 4.5 3.5 3.5 3.5
Friendly license agreement 2.3 4.5 5.5 5.5 5.5
Public relations 6.5 6 6.5 6.5 6.5
Archiving issues 2 3.5 7 7 7
Platform or format 8.5 8 5.5 5.5 5.5
Additional access to nonsubscribed titles 3 2 4.5 4.5 4.5
Print cancellation policy 6 2 2.5 2.5 2.5


1. Libraries receiving the survey were: Boston College, Boston University, Brandeis, Brown, Marine Biological Laboratory/Woods Hole, MIT, Northeastern, Tufts, UMass Amherst, UMass Boston, UMass Dartmouth, UMass Lowell, UMass Medical, and Wellesley.

2. NERL is a group of 18 academic research libraries in the northeast (

3. Nelinet is "a member-owned, member-governed cooperative of more than 500 academic, public, and special libraries in the six New England states" ({})

4. It should be remembered too that two of the twelve respondents were unable to afford subscriptions to any package, despite having the opportunity to participate in consortial purchases. The most significant result of this is in an increasing information resource gap between the haves and the have-nots.


Boston Library Consortium. About the Boston Library Consortium. [Online]. Available: {}. [May 10, 2001].

Frazier, K. 2001. The Librarians' Dilemma: Contemplating the Costs of the "Big Deal." D-Lib Magazine 7 (3) [Online]. Available: [March, 2001].


The Survey

February 2, 2001

Name of Library ________________________________

To which of the following do you provide access?

Academic IDEAL

Blackwell Synergy

Elsevier ScienceDirect

Springer LINK

Wiley InterScience

Please indicate the name of the consortium through which you have purchased access, if any

Academic IDEAL

Blackwell Synergy

Elsevier ScienceDirect

Springer LINK

Wiley InterScience

If applicable, was consortial purchase the only way your library could afford these packages?

Did you investigate arrangements from more than one consortium?
Order of importance

Was it necessary to cancel journal titles in order to purchase one or more of these packages? If yes, how many titles were canceled?

Did you cancel titles from the publisher whose package you subscribed to? How many?

Do you expect to cancel journal titles in the future in order to maintain access to your package(s)?

Has your library reduced expenditures in the following areas in order to provide these packages?

Capital expenditures ______________

Monographs _______________

Staff _____________

Other (please describe) ________________

Does your library pay for electronic journals by

Subject discipline funds ____________

General electronic resources fund _______________

Both of the above ___________________ If both, approximately what percentage of the overall cost is provided by subject funds ______________ and general funds ____________________?

To which of the following have you decided against providing access?

Academic IDEAL

Blackwell Synergy

Elsevier ScienceDirect

Springer LINK

Wiley InterScience

Would you consider purchase of any of these if new consortial arrangements become available?
Order of importance

Previous   Contents   Next

4.0 Checked!