When entering a journal negotiation where loss of ready access to current content is a potential outcome, alternative access planning — identifying existing and new options for access to articles in lieu of subscription access — is critical.


1. Simplify your messaging and approach.

Scope and refine alternative access options so that they are relevant to the need and can be summarized in an easy and straightforward manner. Where possible, use existing and/or known tools (e.g., plug-ins, internet search strategies, link resolver, interlibrary loan). Given the one-click simplicity that users were accustomed to under a Big Deal license, the importance of this cannot be overstated.

2. Raise awareness of existing library services, like interlibrary loan or document requesting.

Existing alternative access services, like interlibrary loan, are used by only a subset of our communities, particularly since online access to articles has been ubiquitous and seamless under Big Deal licenses. This makes building awareness of these services important even though they are not new options. Communicating about interlibrary loan turnaround can reassure new or occasional users.

3. Consider strategies to expedite access to subscription content.

The occasional need for immediate access to an article beyond the bounds of traditional interlibrary loan hours or turnaround time is a valid concern that should be strategically considered, particularly for clinicians and faculty (e.g., the “I have a grant due tomorrow” use case). Investigate document delivery through a commercial provider and potentially the library reimbursing select users for purchased articles.

4. Incorporate data and pilots into your planning.

Employ usage data, and data from other libraries, to develop ballpark estimates for direct alternative access costs. Assess potential impact on interlibrary loan, frontline, and other library staff. Pilot different access strategies to meet potential spikes in demand.

5. Develop a communications plan.

An alternative access communications plan should be developed well in advance of losing subscription access and include a web presence and FAQ. Test the plan with faculty, and incorporate their questions into messaging. Ensure library staff and advocates are well-informed about alternative access, and prepared to answer questions and assist with searches for open access versions of articles.

6. Prioritize ongoing research and strategic planning.

Develop a continuous alternative access assessment and improvement plan to implement if and when direct access is lost. Focus on user experience and needs, and collect data to inform strategies for content acquisition.

UC’s experience

Recognizing that losing immediate access to newly published Elsevier journal content was a realistic possibility, UC began planning for alternative access shortly after negotiations began. Fortunately, there is a growing diversity of sources where readers can find some of this content, including open access search tools and academic social networks that facilitate peer-to-peer scholarly research sharing. This range of resources supported UC’s assessment that a walkaway could be considered; nevertheless, ensuring that members of the UC community will be able to access the articles they need was a top priority for the UC libraries.

The Alternative Access Team’s charge included researching access options, making recommendations, and developing a communications plan for the ten UC campuses. The team’s objectives were to:

  • enable the UC libraries to continue to provide users with timely access to Elsevier articles in lieu of subscription access;
  • ensure library staff were knowledgeable about alternative access solutions and workflows;
  • reassure our communities that the UC libraries were prepared for the consequences of walking away from an Elsevier subscription deal, should that happen; and
  • educate members of the UC community about options to obtain legal copies of articles themselves, such as using open access search tools or requesting a copy from the corresponding author.

The team evaluated free and paid browser extensions, document delivery suppliers, interlibrary loan workflows and sharing networks, open access repositories, and open access content discovery mechanisms, including how to surface open access content in library discovery tools. Ultimately, the team chose to focus on three principal ways by which readers could get alternative access to current Elsevier content no longer available through a subscription:

  1. Find an open access copy
  2. Request a copy from the author
  3. Request a copy from the library

UC’s Office of Scholarly Communication website provided a central location to host this advice about alternative access, including a quick-guide infographic. Each UC campus also created localized versions for their campus library websites, in recognition of the fact that users are more accustomed to going to their campus library site for help accessing materials. The webpage content was adapted for other communication channels as well, such as email and printed materials.

While UC’s Alternative Access Team is not aware of published studies that analyze user behavior and paywalls, there is data on the proportion of projected usage (based on COUNTER reports) that converts to interlibrary loan requests. Post-Big Deal studies looking at interlibrary loan/document delivery impact have shown, in general, that “cancellations have a very small effect upon overall interlibrary loan usage”5 and that a relatively small portion of expected demand based on prior downloads results in interlibrary loan requests6 (in the ballpark of 5-10%, but as little as 0.3% for Elsevier titles in one case7).8

The UC Libraries projected potential direct costs related to supplying alternative access to Elsevier articles with adjusted COUNTER data and UC’s ReprintsDesk costs (10% was modeled, which will be refined with actual data when available); the estimated costs were significantly less than the subscription cost.

Two countervailing influences add to the difficulty of predicting the impact on interlibrary loan of loss of immediate access to Elsevier journal content. Driving interlibrary loan demand up will be that all current journal content from our largest publisher is not accessible through the publisher’s platform, rather than just the long tail as when a library exits a Big Deal and retains subscriptions to the most used titles. Driving interlibrary loan demand down is the constantly increasing rate of green and gold open access, as well as the rapid growth of researchers sharing papers by means of academic social networks. Thus, UC’s assessment during a period of loss of immediate access is critical to learn how to respond to the impact and inform future decision making around subscriptions. Given the unprecedented prospect of losing access to all newly published Elsevier journal content, an Alternative Access Assessment team has been charged to assess the impact on the libraries and researchers, analyze possible next steps absent an offset deal, and continue to improve alternative access options through piloting new services/policies and improving the discovery-to-delivery user experience.

5 Knowlton, S. A., Kristanciuk, I., & Jabaily, M. J. (2015), “Spilling Out of the Funnel: How Reliance Upon Interlibrary Loan Affects Access to Information,” Library Resources & Technical Services, 59(1), 4. Earlier studies are referenced in this article.
6 Scott, M. (2016), Predicting Use: COUNTER Usage Data Found to be Predictive of ILL Use and ILL Use to be Predictive of COUNTER Use, The Serials Librarian, 71(1), 20–24; Jones, M. A., Marshall, D., & Purtee, S. A. (2013), “Big Deal” Deconstruction, The Serials Librarian, 64(1–4), 137–140; Pedersen, W. A., Arcand, J., & Forbis, M. (2014), “The Big Deal, Interlibrary Loan, and Building the User-Centered Journal Collection: A Case Study,” Serials Review, 40(4), 242–250.
7 “For Elsevier, there were 46 requests for the 61 [canceled] titles, compared to 15,017 downloads the prior year. Demand was thus 0.3% of prior use.” Nabe, J., and Fowler, D. C. (2012), Leaving the “Big Deal”: Consequences and Next Steps, The Serials Librarian, 62(1–4), 59–72, p. 6. McCaslin, David, Getting ahead of the curve: how Caltech Library succeeds in resource sharing and fulfillment, October 4-6, 2017
8 COUNTER reports, however, are a very rough gauge of readers’ need for the full article because downloads (views) include an unknown proportion of soft demand that can be met by the abstract, as well as duplicative downloads (pdf and html downloads of the same article by the same person, and downloads by the same person repeatedly), as well as downloads that are artefacts of user interface design. Bergstrom, T. (2018), “Do download reports reliably measure journal usage? Trusting the fox to count your hens?”; Bergstrom, T., Uhrig, R., and Antelman, K. (2018), “Looking under the COUNTER for overcounted downloads.” Davis, P. and Price, J. (2006), “eJournal interface can influence usage statistics: Implications for libraries, publishers, and project counter,” Journal of the American Society for Information Science and Technology, 57(9).