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The Article Galaxy Blog

How to Supplement Subscriptions with a Data-Driven Approach to Article Access

David Stern
David Stern
April 6, 2021
4 min read

Just-in-case or just-in-time. Meeting adequate turnaround time for scholar access to articles no longer necessitates just-in-case collection development models. For heavily used materials, traditional just-in-case subscriptions provide a predictable, measurable, and effective way to provide immediate and unlimited access to users. For lesser-used materials or when you need to supplement publisher or aggregator packages, there are now cost-efficient, on-demand alternatives to expensive subscriptions or packages. 

The determination of when to use just-in-case subscriptions or just-in-time on-demand delivery methods should be made strategically, based on evidence. The evidence should move from simplistic package-level cost-per-use evaluation—to deeper and more sophisticated types of use analyses. Consider a more nuanced approach to analysis that focuses on the publication years of used material to address embargo and archive considerations, as well as the appropriate selection of packages versus on-demand access options.

It is now possible to design a suite of options from subscriptions, through commercial document delivery services, to free reciprocal ILL networks. With new use tracking technologies, it is even possible to alternate between these options mid-year based upon real-time use and cost data. This means decisions are more complicated, but if options and behaviors are reviewed carefully, it is possible to provide adequate delivery of desired material at a lesser cost than if relying completely upon just-in-case methods.

New technologies provide seamless connections between discovery tools, institutional resolvers, and document delivery platforms that can offer multiple access options for specific articles. There are new intermediary on-demand article delivery services that can provide seamless and immediate article delivery options to satisfy quite a number of research-needs scenarios. By assessing actual local use data, you can identify when it might be advantageous to migrate from subscriptions or package plans to more efficient and equally effective article delivery alternatives.

One key assessment method involves moving beyond simple package-level cost-per-use evaluation. These package reviews offer only rough relative value package calculations. Journal package analyses should be performed at the title-level, which would encourage more sophisticated package assessment. Typical package use analysis shows a long tail of titles that receive little or no use. However, these titles are not only supported annually in the package, but also receive equal inflation protection every year—despite the fact that they have lower value than the heavily used titles. Price models for larger consolidated packages are traditionally designed and promoted to emphasize the overall value as a way to discourage such title-level evaluation.

Now that there are seamless and adequate alternative delivery mechanisms for access to these many lesser-used materials, it is possible to reconsider the title-level approach (while remaining fully aware that publishers do not want to break packages and will continue to provide price models that seem advantageous for keeping the entire package). The new alternatives can, in some cases, provide adequate coverage of lesser used materials at a lesser long-term cost. And these alternative just-in-time article delivery approaches can provide some level of predictable or modifiable pricing, which is the other key concern when breaking known package costs. More on this later.

In order to make appropriate access model decisions, new levels of analyses should be considered. One important measurable that is often overlooked is using local use data to consider and properly assess value. Local journal title use, citation Impact Factors determined from locally produced articles, and the local use of articles as demonstrated in article references are examples of defining local impacts and weighted variables. Of course, these emphases can change over time with changing researcher interests, but in general they provide a good snapshot that can be used in combination with other standard Impact Factor measures.

In addition to local use considerations, new granular levels of use data can be examined. This is especially important when looking at infrequently requested journal titles. One key variable to consider is the publication year of used material, as this information may indicate situations where logical alternative delivery options might be equally satisfactory—perhaps at reduced costs. Based upon the profile of title use per year, the range of alternatives to subscriptions could include: relying on aggregators (with their embargo limitations), only purchasing archival materials, using pay-per-view options, and/or relying on traditional reciprocal ILL (don’t forget the hidden staff and operating costs).

When using any of these variables to design appropriate alternatives, there is one major concern to consider before adoption: predictable costs.

Some annual cost models currently exist for controlling individual article access via journal titles or across packages (e.g. tokens that offer predictable annual limits). New cost models and price controlling feature options are being developed. Research Solutions, for example, offers profiles of cut-offs and mid-year reviews of title-level use, controlled by population criteria such as faculty status, department affiliation, and years of coverage. It also allows a library to review and design models using considerations such as acceptable delivery time—with the option for a redirect to your existing reciprocal ILL service when appropriate. These criteria can be manipulated and modified at any time if necessary, based upon real-time reviews of use and cost data. These variables provide customizable options that offer more targeted pricing control.

There is one other variable that can be implemented across the services to control costs: the strategic reduction of what is exposed to specific populations in order to control costs. This is already happening as the byproduct of libraries cancelling deep journal indexes, but it could be further tailored by selecting what is shown by default to users (e.g. limiting the first screen of results to only immediately available articles). The presentation of a seamless and immediate commercial delivery option can be restricted to populations by variables such as researcher level, by discipline, or by journal title.

Is such prioritization of services an allowable and desirable option for certain research populations, such as beginning undergraduate students? If so, then using granular data to design the appropriate suite of access options is now more customizable than ever before. We can expect additional technology options to appear that will more seamlessly blur the distinction between just-in-case subscriptions and adequate just-in-time document delivery options.

It is time to start digging into the data to uncover more efficient and equally effective document delivery options.

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The Author

    David Stern

David is the Library Director at Saint Xavier University in Chicago, IL. He was the Associate University Librarian for Scholarly Resources at Brown University, and the Director of Science Libraries at Yale University. In addition, he has taught library science courses at the University of Illinois and at Southern Connecticut State University. He has degrees in Biological Sciences (University of Connecticut), History & Philosophy of Science (Indiana University), and Library Science (Indiana University).


scholar access, cost-efficient, on-demand access, just-in-case subscriptions, publishers, just-in-time on-demand delivery, ILL networks

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