As university budgets face considerable strain and new models for providing open access to scholarly communication proliferate, academic libraries are increasingly pursuing alternatives to the “Big Deal” journal subscription model, including cancellation. But how are these strategies affecting researchers and what do they make of them?

Over the past year Ithaka S+R has been studying the impact of Big Deal cancellations on its users in partnership with 11 academic libraries. Previous research has focused primarily on how a Big Deal cancellation might affect one institution or system, and typically this analysis is conducted for the purposes of identifying which journals a library can cut. Our project is unique because we probed researchers about the ongoing effects of cancellation on their work at a variety of institutions concurrently.

We’ve released findings that highlight the key patterns of how library users are experiencing Big Deal cancellations across our cohort. It is also important to recognize how unique institutional and cancellation contexts can affect the experiences of researchers. Today we profile our project partner, the Freie Universität Berlin, to explore how the situation is developing at their institution and what they’ve learned from our project. 

The German University system is organized quite differently to how universities are organized in the US. Can you explain a bit more about what that means for how Big Deal cancellations take place at Freie Universität Berlin?

In Germany, Big Deals had most often been negotiated at a regional, consortial level. The most crucial event concerning Big Deals surely was the start of Projekt DEAL in 2014, which aimed at nationwide Publish-and-Read agreements with Springer Nature, Wiley, and Elsevier. Projekt DEAL was initiated by the Alliance of German Science Organizations and organized through the German Rectors Conference (the association of public and government-recognised universities in Germany) who commissioned a project team with members of the boards of universities and other relevant institutions (more information in English on Projekt DEAL in Germany is available at ). Furthermore, in order to reinforce the objectives of Projekt DEAL, 42 scientists have publicly resigned from their editorial activities for Elsevier journals and are listed on the aforementioned Projekt DEAL website at

Freie Universität has always supported Projekt DEAL, in fact, the current president of Freie Universität Berlin, Prof. Dr. Günter M. Ziegler, is one of the spokespersons of Projekt DEAL’s steering committee. Therefore, like many other schools, Freie Universität Berlin pulled out of its Elsevier deal when negotiations with Elsevier were adjourned by the end of 2017.

As Projekt DEAL concerns virtually every academic or research library in Germany, discussions around unbundling deals or reaching smaller scale transformative agreements seem not to have developed as much as they have in North America.

Which package did you make the focus of study for our project? And how did that inform your decisions around identifying which researchers you selected for interviews?

As a direct consequence of the Projekt DEAL negotiations with Elsevier, patrons at our institutions did not have access to any content on the ScienceDirect platform that appeared after the beginning of 2018. So Elsevier was the obvious pick for us.

To identify which departments would be most affected by the lack of access, we first looked into the usage data for ScienceDirect and mapped the titles with the most denied attempts of access to departments. We correlated those observations with the faculty’s publication output and confirmed our choices with subject librarians. We ended up interviewing researchers from chemistry, neuroscience, and geology.

We’d love to learn more about how your library approached the implementation of Projekt DEAL at your institution. 

  • How was the cancellation communicated to faculty members? How has the cancellation affected library-faculty relations?
  • How has the library used alternative access mechanisms to compensate for loss of access to journal subscriptions? 
  • What is the status of the cancellation at present and how do you continue to manage researchers’ expectations around that?

As negotiations with Elsevier proved to be complicated, more and more institutions canceled their contracts with this vendor. The three big universities in Berlinthat is Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin, Technische Universität Berlin, Freie Universität Berlinand Charité Universitätsmedizin Berlin (a merger of the medical faculty of Humboldt Universität with two university hospitals of Freie Universität Berlin and a newly founded Berlin Institute of Health) joined the boycott and abstained from renewing contracts with Elsevier. This was communicated in press releases by the respective institutions in mid 2017.

Researchers however went unaffected until nearly a year later, when access to new material was effectively cut. The library addressed this in several blog posts and direct mailings to faculty  informing them about the rationale behind the decision and encouraging all patrons to use legal alternatives. We reminded faculty that interlibrary loan would provide them with what they wanted and assured them that the library would take care of any emergency stemming from the lack of access. 

For Projekt DEAL, the first nation-wide Publish and Read agreement was reached with Wiley in January 2019; key elements of the contract were published on the Projekt DEAL website under the following link: An agreement with Springer Nature followed in August 2020; key elements and the contract can be read unter the following link:

Since July 2018 negotiations with Elsevier have been adjourned, and access to journals published after that date have been blocked. The reverberations however remained relatively slim, as can be seen also from the responses in the “Cancelling the Big Deal” survey.

With regard to practical support for researchers and information professionals on how to “take full advantage of the transformative agreements negotiated by Projekt DEAL,” a new website “DEAL operations” managed by the Max Planck Society Digital Library was launched in March 2021 at This operational support website for open access publishing under the Projekt DEAL conditions will certainly also help Freie Universität Berlin university library in further strengthening its endeavours of promoting open scholarship practices in general and open access publishing in particular.

As a university that publishes above average in many disciplines, we are also watching the so-called transformation contracts with concern, as the costs for such strongly publishing institutions can rise enormously compared to the age of subscriptions. At the same time, it must be taken into account to what extent costs can be saved for the funding of individual publications. The output-based transformation contracts are definitely a challenge for strong-publishing institutions. In Germany, therefore, ways of creating financial compensation are being sought, e.g. through research funding from the German Research Foundation (Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft, DFG).

What is the most interesting or surprising thing you learned through the study?

The participation in the study was very valuable for us, for the fact alone that each interview granted a full hour of concentrated library-faculty interaction. One main takeaway is that we want and need more exchange with our patrons of this structured and thoroughly documented kind, i.e. more user experience research in the university library. The interviews also confirmed an assumption that some scholars are willing to overlook possible legal problems if they find a way of obtaining information especially efficiently and conveniently. Given the long-term role of libraries, this is a worrying finding.

All in all it was reassuring that the researchers unanimously supported the library’s course of action, even if it produced inconveniences for them.

How will the information collected in the study help your library going forward? Do you have any plans for follow-up work related to our study?

User experience research is already a prominent part of our library’s strategy. We were thinking about conducting more interviews, thus enlarging the sample of disciplines represented in the study. The interviews help us understand how and why discoveryand in some cases, access  is decoupling from the library. And this helps us to understand the actual practices of the scholarly community we are working for, which is a prerequisite to support them.

Another aspect that will need more attention is that contacting the library in case of hitting a paywall was not considered an option by most of the interviewees. As scientific communicationespecially in STEM subjectssped up during the last decade, time to wait for information is not an option any more. As ILL is often seen as too slow, libraries will also have to consider alternatives of scholarly communication and publishing like preprints and different platforms that were mentioned by researchers during the interviews.

Finally, this is the first-of-its-kind research in the context of Projekt DEAL in Germany. What we found out will be of special interest for other institutions that are in the same situation as we are.

Reflecting on your experiences in the study, including what you’ve observed among your US counterparts, what other kinds of work do you think needs to be done to help universities shape their strategies for supporting access to scholarly content?

We need to keep an eye on the costs of scientific publishing. Right now, the market for Open Access platforms is thriving, and the cost of APCs is growing faster each year than anything we’ve seen in the subscription age. It is urgent and in the long term necessary, that the costs of producing scientific publications are figured out more transparently and be better kept under control. This can be done through “real” competition in the market. Or by having institutions like universities together with scientists themselves take the reins and take more control over the publication process as a whole.

From the perspective of the individual institution there seems to be mainly the problem of balancing financial challenges and researchers’ needswhich is in itself complicated enough as neither remains stable. But there is also a larger problem involved concerning Open Access and the political endeavor of making knowledge freely and broadly available. Obviously the US and Germany have developed distinct approaches here. 

So this is a very intricate constellation that involves not only publishers and their commercial interests as well as fundamental problems of science and education, but also the question of global access to information. With this in mind, an academic library’s strategy may best be informed by getting to know more thoroughly what patrons need, what they are actually doing with the resources at hand, and how to support/ help to build infrastructures needed to facilitate more OA publishing.

However, through the cooperation with you and our colleagues from US university libraries we can also see the value of more international exchange and sharing of “how to” when it comes to bothstrategies for providing access to scholarly content and Big Deals negotiations (including comparing transformative agreement contracts) as well as how to sustainably support a cultural change for Open Access to scholarly information in times of “fake news” and distrust in academic scholarship. It would be great to have more possibilities of coming together internationally to tackle these global academic knowledge infrastructure challenges of the time.

Further Reading

“DEAL-Verhandlungen unterbrochen: Elsevier sperrt Zugang zu aktuellen Artikeln aus ScienceDirect“ (press release website: DEAL negotiations suspended: Elsevier blocks access to newest content on ScienceDirect), July 10, 2018,, (English version: )

Biblioblog Link (identical posting in the library blog): DEAL negotiations suspended: Elsevier blocks access to newest content on ScienceDirect), July 10, 2018

“Informationsveranstaltung: Projekt DEAL und Wiley“ (information event: Projekt DEAL and Wiley), May 29, 2019,

“Memorandum of Understanding von Springer Nature und Projekt DEAL unterzeichnet“ (Memorandum of Understanding signed by Springer Nature and Projekt DEAL), September 10, 2019,