This paper is based on a panel presented at the ABLD 2023 Conference at Northwestern University. Strategies For E-Resource Renewals in a Post-COVID Economy focuses on strategies and best practices for managing e-resources with particular attention to renewals in the economically challenging post-COVID environment where many vendors are imposing double-digit percentage increases in renewal costs for e-resources, particularly for data and databases.
Preparing For Renewal
Know your price history
What are the product’s rates of year-over-year increase? While it’s easy to notice price changes and the percentage increase from one year to the next, it’s also easy to not remember that the acquisitions module of your ILS will have a record of those changes over time. That record should be beside the current renewal order form currently on your desk to establish context.
What is the average rate of year-over-year increase for the product? Use the price data from previous years to calculate this average rate. Not only does this add to your context for the current proposal, but it will also give you a valuable talking point for negotiating on price if the new rate before you exceeds the average for previous years.
What is your average overall database/data rate of increase for all products or similar products? This data point is also important for context and negotiation, especially if the current proposal exceeds the average for all products or for similar products. Many vendors will be encouraged to look for pricing flexibility if you can demonstrate that an increase is outside the norm, especially when compared to competing products’ rates.
Know your dates
Does the product auto-renew? Noting and actively tracking whether a product automatically renews is crucial to avoiding a “forced renewal”. If possible, strike or modify these clauses from order forms and/or master service agreements. Language along the lines of “licensor and licensee agree to work together in good faith to begin consideration of renewal within XX days of the end of the subscription term” will often satisfy many vendors that default to auto-renewal. Introducing language related to budget limitations may also help eliminate or mitigate auto-renewal clauses.
If yes, what is the product’s notification window for non-renewal? If an auto-renewal clause can’t be removed or modified, then carefully note the number of days required to give notice of non-renewal. The ERM (electronic resource management) module of an ILS may have the capability of emailing notices to you at particular intervals before the notice-required date. If it doesn’t, an Excel or Google Drive sheet and calendar reminders (e.g. in Outlook) can be set up to track significant dates. See Table 1 below for examples of significant dates to track.
|Dates To Note
|Action / Question
|Subscription Term Start Date
|Clearly noted in the contract / order form?
|Request Usage Data & Renewal Pricing From Vendor
|At least 30–60 days in advance of non-renewal notification deadline; prepare usage analysis and send renewal proposal
|Stakeholder Polling Date
|Contact stakeholders / librarians for input; renewal decision here, minimum 5–10 business days in advance of non-renewal notification deadline
|Non-renewal Notification Deadline
|Deliver to vendor representative by this date as noted in contract / order form
|Subscription Term End Date
|Clearly noted in the contract / order form?
Who decides on renewal? – i.e. which stakeholders need to be polled or considered? If a resource was initially requested by known users, or if the vendor can provide lists of registered users along with their actual use (more on this below), then you will likely need to contact select high volume or frequent users for their input. This is especially important if non-renewal is likely based on high cost or other factors. See Table 2 below for sample questions that may help assess those users’ current or future needs.
|Directors / Library Administration
|Does the resource support the current and/or future direction of teaching and research at your school / university?
|Research / Reference Librarians
|Is this a frequently recommended resource for user instruction or often used to answer research questions?
|Faculty (if identifiable as a registered user)
|Do you plan on using the resource for research or teaching within the next year?
|Has this resource helped you complete assignments, personal research or job-seeking?
If students are identifiable as an aggregate user group in either vendor-side or client-side usage metrics, especially measures of downloads, it may be reasonable to assume a resource’s value based on the number of downloads.
Have you built in lead time for requesting & analyzing metrics and/or polling stakeholders? Bear in mind that vendors may not always deliver their usage metrics in a timely manner, and that those vendor-side metrics may be subject to a change in type without notice. It’s usually best to request usage data at least 30–60 days in advance of a non-renewal notice deadline. Building in lead time is also critical if you plan to poll faculty or dean-level administrators. Busy faculty and administrators may not prioritize your request for their feedback. Your requests for feedback should provide ample emphasis on their importance and include a “response requested by” date.
Have you built in time to negotiate on price? A vendor’s flexibility on price can depend on your tone during the ask and any goodwill accrued during their relationship, as well as mandates from their own management around company price targets and quotas. It’s a good idea to be sure you’ve built in sufficient time in the event you hear “I’ll have to speak with my manager”.
A final note on dates and deadlines - if you don’t receive the vendor usage data or needed feedback from your representative in time to make an informed renewal decision, don’t hesitate to send a “notice of non-renewal” message to a vendor, even if you intend to renew. This notice will protect your university from being subject to a forced renewal and remove the time leverage that the vendor has when an auto-renewal deadline is in play. If the vendor will not move on price or license terms, you are then free to not renew if you have stakeholder approval or sufficient client-side usage data to justify your decision in the eyes of your administration.
Know your usage metrics
Do you use quantitative or subjective/reputational metrics? Examples of vendor-side quantitative metrics are: the number of registered users (where available), user logins, searches, page views, and content downloads. Client/customer-side metrics depend on your school’s authentication infrastructure and its reporting capabilities; but they can include: site visits by user group, total number of site visits, number of unique users, and total visits by product. A subjective or reputational metric is defined as the level of a product’s perceived importance to your stakeholders. For example, it is hard to imagine a business or university library that would not have access to Harvard Business Review or The Journal of Finance. However, it is this author’s opinion that nothing can deplete an e-resource budget as quickly as renewal decisions driven largely by a subjective or reputational metric. While not quantifiable, another metric worthy of consideration is the instructional value placed on a resource by the reference librarians who may recommend it to patrons even when those recommendations may not always result in measurable increases in use.
If quantitative, what vendor-side metrics do you use – downloads, searches, page views, etc.? Table 3 below provides this author’s ranking of vendor-side metrics according to their value for decision making. While the reader’s own rankings of decision value may vary, it’s important to remember to be sure that the type of metric is pre-defined in writing, preferably in your product order form. A vendor may assure you that they can provide “usage”, but, if possible, explicitly defining those metrics in advance will avoid misunderstandings or worse, the lack of meaningful data. You should also be sure to request vendor-side usage every 6 months at a minimum during the subscription term. It’s not uncommon for a vendor to change their internal reporting systems mid-term which can result in different metrics being delivered and disrupting your ability to determine usage trends.
|Number of downloads of documents or rows of data
|Number of page views
|Number of searches
|Number of logins
|Number of registered users (where available)
If you use quantitative metrics, how does the current term’s usage compare to last year’s or the previous 3–5 years – what is the trend? It can be useful to look at multi-year trends in usage and use a multi-year average in addition to looking at the year-over-year change. Both gradual trends and more dramatic single year variance can signal changes in a product’s value to users.
If subjective/reputational metrics, what are your standards and who sets/determines them? What makes a product a “must have/must renew”? Consider local user groups’ inputs, peer libraries holdings, and the overall product landscape. Some vendors’ products enjoy considerable reputations among our user community and the business world as “must haves”. These vendors often leverage reputation to maintain predatory pricing and poor customer service practices. Since M&A activity among business information providers has reduced competition and choice for MBA education, it behooves business librarians to constantly seek alternatives and demonstrate the value of those alternatives to our users.
When the price comes ….
Where does the increase fall in the product price history and overall? If a renewal price exceeds the average annual increase for that product and your overall average rate of increase, this fact is well worth bringing to the table when you negotiate on price with the vendor. Knowing your average increase rates is a key metric to track.
Will renewing at the new price exceed your budget for e-resources, i.e. break the bank? If a renewal price will result in an overrun in your e-resources budget, this is also a key datum for negotiations. The ability to predict an overrun is dependent on tracking the “normal” increase rates for each subscribed product. Rates of increase for multiple products even a few percentage points beyond the norm can increase the bottom-line impact of an outlier increase.
Can you partner/co-fund with faculty, administration, or other departments & campus libraries for the current or future renewals? The following strategies and conditions can help you unite multiple stakeholders in support of a subscription that would be otherwise unsupportable from the library budget alone. 1) You will need support from faculty chairs and deans who believe that faculty should have “skin in the game”, especially if their requests are for niche data or products that will not serve the research needs of multiple user groups. 2) Creating and maintaining goodwill among faculty and other campus library colleagues is often a precondition to collaboration on funding. 3) You will also need to know how research funds are allotted and managed at your school and other libraries in your university to keep requests timely and appropriate.
Does the vendor even negotiate on price? It’s not always a given that a vendor will negotiate on price. One top-ranked school licenses data, and their increase rates are fixed. Many commercial data vendors will negotiate annual increase rates depending on several factors: length of relationship, price history, downtime credit, or customer retention. There are some approaches to pricing negotiation to beware of, notably contractually fixed rates in an order form (or worse) in a master service agreement; and “market adjustment” increases. A market adjustment increase can happen when your institution has been a long-time subscriber and has had “legacy” pricing and a vendor insists on “bringing you into alignment” with their other customers. Dealing with market adjustment increases may require multi-year deals or the ability to walk away from a renewal entirely.
Can you consider the multi-year renewal for “must renew” products? Multi-year renewals can help defray a large increase associated with a one-year renewal; however, there are several necessary preconditions to safely doing a multi-year deal. 1) Is the vendor a likely acquisition target? Acquisition can result in significant changes to product content and site design, particularly if a smaller vendor is acquired by one of the dominant market vendors. 2) Are site redesigns planned within the subscription term? Significant changes in site design can have negative impacts on usability and access to data. 3) Have you incorporated the ability to break a multi-year deal into an order form if there are significant changes to the site and content as initially subscribed? Adding this type of provision to an order form may be challenging, but it can be a helpful protection against dramatic changes in a product and its content that would otherwise be inescapable and may render the new product unusable for its initially subscribed purpose.
Does the vendor offer tiered levels of content or access (i.e. “seats”) that could be scaled back? Some vendors’ products may offer tiered pricing for a specific number of user seats. If a product is seeing low use or an increase rate that cannot otherwise be reduced, consider reducing the number of available seats. In many cases, users (especially students) will create accounts on platforms “just in case” and the ability to assess active users is key to safely scaling back access. A caveat to licensing by seats: one market dominant vendor recently introduced what appeared to be tiered levels of access, i.e. so many seats for students, faculty, etc. However, when we attempted to reduce renewal costs by scaling back seats based on usage data, we were told that the number of seats could not be reduced to save on price. Lesson: find out if the vendor actually prices by tier and if so, your order form should specify the ability to change tiers at renewal.
Can you walk away, not renew? If you can walk away, what alternative products could substitute? The ability to not renew a resource depends on several factors, but most important among them is preparation. Without a contextualized knowledge of usage and your user community, making a decision based solely on cost could leave you and your users without a crucial resource to continue research in progress or to support classroom instruction. If a product begins to show a trend of increased cost, declining usage, and a vendor who is unwilling to negotiate on price, librarians should begin seeking alternative products or a combination of products that can replace the offending resource.
Do you know your BATNA (Best Alternative to a Negotiated Agreement) or your walk-away point? It’s important to closely track usage, users, and cost trends over time consistently so that you can identify resources that are “on the brink” and prepare strategies for continuing them or for non-renewal well in advance of deadlines for non-renewal. Polling reference librarians and users ahead of time will eliminate time pressure as a factor in your decision-making.
Quick tips to protect against future price and decision shocks
Request license addenda for non-renewal due to budget limits/insufficient funds - these addenda are often a default or required clause for public universities whose budgets are set by elected legislatures; but a private university or college could potentially introduce them into a Master Service Agreement (MSA) or order form.
Request license addenda for limited post-termination continuing use – many products’ MSAs will contain “delete & destroy” clauses that attempt to impose a hard stop on use of any downloaded data when a subscription terminates. Incorporating language that allows post-termination use of derived data from a product is crucial to allowing ongoing projects to be published. It is possible to achieve continued use of derived data from some products for the duration of the publishing lifecycle by limiting that use to the completion (publication) of projects begun during the subscription term. Most vendors will respect an acknowledgement that subscribed data cannot be downloaded once and then used in perpetuity.
Leverage your university policies on data retention - many universities require researchers to retain original and derived research data for a set period of years to verify research methods and conclusions post-publication. Many vendors will be willing to accommodate requirements of this type in an MSA if they are imposed by parties external to a renewal negotiation – especially if a subscriber has no choice but to comply with those policies.
Connect with and advise stakeholders in advance of decisions – Librarians should set expectations for either cost-sharing or non-renewal by keeping known user communities informed of your renewal processes for products they are known to value. The value of outreach before time becomes a factor in a renewal decision will ensure that stakeholder groups are allies in the process instead of angry objectors to a decision made without some form of input from those groups.
A librarian’s best tools for managing e-resource renewals in a high-cost environment are the careful organization of the information discussed above, and the clear planning and execution of the workflows needed to use that information to its best advantage. Although this article places a high value on data-driven renewal decision-making, it’s important to not overlook the human element, particularly in the opinions of professional colleagues, faculty, and students. Listening to anecdotal and subjective decision inputs and considering those in the aggregate can be a valuable deciding factor for a resource that is on the brink of non-renewal. It’s also important to remember that a vendor representative should not be considered an antagonist by default, regardless of their company’s present or past practices. Resource renewals can be achieved in ways that are mutually beneficial to both vendor and subscriber as long as both approach the process seeking a mutual benefit instead of a “win” to one party’s advantage.
This author would like to acknowledge his entire staff at Ford Library and Duke’s Fuqua School of Business for their support, advice and hard work through three very challenging years. Of special note are the contributions of Julianna Harris who organizes and manages many of the data and workflows described in this article. Our library has been able to continue valuable resources and manage budgets effectively to the benefit of the Fuqua and Duke University communities due to her efforts. Jane Day, our Associate Director and Head of Public Services has provided invaluable insights to this author, and unstinting support to the students and faculty at Fuqua and Duke University for over 30 years.