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Librarians speak up about untransparent platform charges

Every year libraries purchase digital archive collections (or DACs), as one-off perpetual purchases. Fees for accessing these collections can vary from one publisher to another making it difficult for librarians to budget for these costs.

“I can’t tell you how angry these hosting fees make me, it just doesn’t make sense,”

says Eleanor Craig, content delivery and access librarian at the University of Sussex Library. For years, Craig has been asking publishers to explain why hosting fees are so high and why one will charge £5,000 and another more than £15,000 per year.

In today’s online world, access to digital library collections is vital and university libraries are spending large amounts of money on materials covering a wide range of topics, from 19th-century architecture to post-war feminism.

Such collections are bought as one-off purchases and are either covered by dedicated library budget or by end of year allocations. The hosting fees are often charged as yearly subscriptions which is a problem, because fluctuating and recurring costs are funded from different budget categories.

Not a cash cow

Craig adds:

“One publisher charges 5% every year on each resource that we've bought from them, which means that over 20 years we've paid for the resource twice! I think it’s unacceptable. We spend vast amounts of money on these collections and have to keep on spending more to access them.”

Mike Ager, content purchasing manager at the University of Kent, is also questioning the fairness of charges:

“Once you’ve bought your online resource, there’s not a lot you can do about the ongoing hosting fee. I have, on occasion, pushed back really hard and questioned what I’m actually paying for. The general retort is that it's for maintaining and allowing development of the website on an ongoing basis. I wonder if we should be looking at a sector approach to see whether we can demand greater transparency about how much things cost and what exactly we’re paying for.”

One way around the problem is for universities to host the collections, but most don’t have the capacity to create their own online platforms especially now, because the impact of the pandemic means budgets are being slashed.

Ager continues:

“Universities will seek greater transparency on the pricing to use servers, infrastructure and website design so that we can benchmark cost across the sector and across various publishers. We recognise there are costs associated with running these platforms but it's about fairness for all rather than the sector being seen as a cash cow. Only when we see the true cost can we establish fairness.” 

“Another irritant is timing”

says Craig.

“Publishers charge hosting fees at the same time as they're charging for the resource so you're essentially paying for the hosting a year ahead of its use. I find it all really grasping, but particularly so now, when our finances are so tight and are only likely to get tighter.”

In response to growing concern from members about the lack of price transparency, Jisc has created a guide with four principles to help libraries negotiate with publishers when making one-off perpetual purchases of static digital archival collections and databases. 

Jisc has also developed a group purchasing scheme for digital archival collections to increase transparency and reduce the scope for arbitrary pricing versus individual negotiations.

As first published by University Business.