Beginning with a disclaimer is probably the best way to start off an article about the rising cost of subscription databases. I realize in writing this article many of my peers have no district budgetary support for subscription databases. I heavily debated sharing my thoughts, yet in the end, I decided this subject was too important. While my school currently can afford a few subscription databases, others cannot. The inability to afford subscription databases also says something in relation to equity in public education. In writing about this topic, my hope is to draw attention to both the rising cost of subscription databases and the annual process I use to determine their value. While school libraries do not have the buying power of large colleges and universities do, perhaps working together towards the same efforts at the restructuring of subscription database pricing may be considered.
In addition, I focus solely on the subscription databases my library purchases. Not included are the Massachusetts Library System (MLS) negotiation of statewide subscription database offerings, nor the Boston Public Library eCard access of electronic resources. Massachusetts school libraries are grateful for both of these offerings because each is available to all Massachusetts citizens. If my school budget supported no subscription databases, my certification as a school librarian and membership in MLS would give the school direct access to at least one company’s subscription database suite.
During budget planning, my school library mentor would ask administrators if they thought a half of a database could be purchased. The idea of half of a database brought to light the real understanding that subscription databases are one cost with little leeway for adjustments. Basically, after reviewing the available funding, the choice comes down to whether or not I can afford the subscription database. Just two options.
Starting in January my district’s administrators begin gathering budgetary consideration for the following school year. Our district uses a budget process method called zero-based budgeting, first developed by Peter Pyhrr. Pyhrr used a zero-based approach while working for Texas Instruments in the ’70s. A zero-based approach builds from what is needed rather than working from a given funded amount. The approach to budgeting involves more people and time because it begins with setting objectives, evaluating programs, and making operational decisions (Pyhrr 1977, p. 2).
When setting objectives using a zero-based approach there are associated cost considerations for the budget to accurately reflect the district’s needs. Objectives will contain a variety of programs, each of which needs to be evaluated to determine its value to the organization. Outcomes that emerge from the evaluation process are fodder for sustaining, improving, or eliminating a program. Most difficult is the need to develop the expected outcomes and potential costs of future programs (p. 2). Finally, the zero-based approach must consider costs associated with simply sustaining day-to-day operations of any organization.
What does a zero-based approach have to do with subscription databases?
Subscription databases are the first “decision unit” considered when planning my school library’s budget. Decision units are determined by grouping what is meaningful (Pyhrr 1977, p. 2). When under review the school librarian has to decide if the decision unit is necessary and if adjustments are needed to ensure being more effective and cost-efficient (p. 2). Decision units for my library are electronic resources, books, materials, memberships, and large projects.
In the greater picture, the school library often becomes a decision unit for an individual school. When combined with other schools in the district all school libraries become one decision unit for the district. The cost of subscription databases often gets woven into one line-item without understanding their pricing structure. Different than an activity with many moving parts and adjustable factors, subscription databases are one price. Similar to my mentor, I remind school administrators that half of a subscription database cannot be purchased.
Ensuring the subscription database decision unit is a value to the school, I evaluate each company. I begin by speaking to educators about the curriculum, assignments, and where information searches will be necessary next year. Next, I consider usage statistics. While there is no magic number of downloads, I look for indications of how each subscription database supported the year’s curriculum. I especially focus on categories of journal titles. Finally, I call each subscription database company to inquire about the anticipated price increase. The increase could be just the tipping point that makes the subscription database unaffordable.
Once all decision unit evaluations are complete, I create a budget justifying the various programs and products for the following year. The anticipated budget gives me a clear indication of expenses, along with objectives and a plan for the new school year. I share the spreadsheet, goals, and anticipated expenses with my principal. My principal then repeats the process with the school’s decision units. The process is again repeated with district decision units, which is presented to the school committee for approval.
When the budgeting process is complete, school and department decision units do not always receive the requested funding. In fact, for the past five years, I have had to adjust funding the library has received to ensure subscription database funding.
Access is the key. Students want more than open Google searches that must be evaluated and a Google Scholar link to pay for access to the full-text article. Because students want and deserve full-text credible and authoritative information, I have adopted a few strategies to ensure the subscription database remain affordable. I have shifted funds from other decision units. I have consolidated many specific subscription databases to one that combines multiple areas of study. I have created entire district purchasing opportunities. And finally, I have asked for school versus academic pricing or a delay in the anticipated price increase.
While these strategies may be specific to certain database companies they are the lengths a school librarian will go to ensure students have access to full-text credible and authoritative information at-the-ready. Students are greedy for information. They become impatient and frustrated when an article is not available. This frustration reverberates back into the classroom, creating a tension that is avoidable. Truthfully, I am running out of ideas.
I realized my school library is not alone in negotiating the increasing costs of subscription databases. Colleges and universities are also challenged with the difficult choice to discontinue subscription databases due to cost increases. Dickinson College (2019) shares the difficulty directly to patrons on its libguides. While the University of California system recently severed a relationship with one subscription database company saving $10 million dollars (MacKenzie 2019). In 2012, Harvard called for its professors to openly publish research allowing free access to all users (Sample 2012). While open source repositories are developing, they are not at the point of intersecting with a high school curriculum. We are still very much tethered to subscription databases.
My goal in writing this is to perhaps bring awareness to the importance of subscription databases at the school library level. It may be time to consider a different pricing structure or school library consortium purchasing. While I do not mind paying my fair share, at some point soon, I simply will not be able to afford subscription databases. Perhaps before this happens a new way for the current guarded behind cost access will be developed in order for all students K-16+ to enjoy the richness that subscription databases offer.
McKenzie, L. 2019. “US Drops Elsevier.” Inside Higher Ed. Retrieved from https://www.insidehighered.com/news/2019/03/01/university-california-cancels-deal-elsevier-after-months-negotiations.
Pyhrr, P.A. 1977. “The Zero-Base Approach to Government Budgeting.” Public Administration Review 37(1): 11-18.
Sample, I. 2012. “Harvard University Says It Can’t Afford Journal Publishers’ Prices.” The Guardian. Retrieved from https://www.theguardian.com/science/2012/apr/24/harvard-university-journal-publishers-prices.
Subscription Cost Considerations. 2019. Waidner-Spahr Library, Dickinson College. Retrieved from https://libguides.dickinson.edu/collections/journalsdatabases.
Author: Georgina Trebbe
Georgina Trebbe, Ed.D. is the school librarian at Minnechaug Regional High School in Massachusetts. She is also an adjunct instructor for Simmons University’s SLT program. Georgina’s interests include information literacy, collaboration, and school librarians as researchers.