Jisc Collections: inside the sector’s infrastructure

In pursuit of a better understanding of what Jisc is and does, the team at Wonkhe has been lifting the lid on the role the organisation plays in making sure that universities and colleges can work effectively.

First, David Morris and Louisa Darian went inside a super-secure data centre. And last year I visited Harwell in Oxfordshire to learn about the people and systems keeping the Janet network safe from cyber attack. But it’s not just the technology that Jisc works on. I went to an office by the Thames in London to find out about Jisc Collections: what does it do?

Each year, £125m of the HE sector’s library spend – about 48% of the total – is spent via agreements that Jisc Collections negotiates. The team at Jisc doesn’t actually spend anyone’s money: there’s no obligation to adopt the agreement. The point of the service is to offer a better deal to universities and colleges than they would otherwise have been able to get by leveraging the efficiency of a central team and some collective buying power. Simple.

Well, not quite so simple. The process of negotiating contracts worth up to £40m with huge multinationals requires detailed data analysis, a formal and methodical approach, and clear objectives for what’s best for the sector – for institutions and, crucially, service users. Jisc negotiates for advantageous agreements to allow students, teachers and researchers to firstly use the content under more favourable terms and conditions than standard commercial licences and secondly to include service levels and standards. All this means that institutions don’t each have to negotiate separately to get access to the materials they need, and the power of speaking on behalf of such a large purchasing block means that better deals are possible.

When it comes to the deals, the bottom line isn’t always cash. Clearly, though, the money comes into it: Jisc Collections has to save the sector money, and it does at the rate of an estimated £100m each year. But it’s also about access rights, the adoption of common standards, setting service levels, data reporting, who owns user data and the scope of the materials available. More than just an agreement on journals, the deals currently in place include access to textbooks, monographs, reference materials, and research materials.

Hand in hand

To support its small negotiating team – the ones negotiating renewals for 100 subscriptions each year (of a total 300 deals) – and alongside the data analysis you would expect, the team at Jisc Collections also gathers business intelligence on the publishers and the sector. It also researches new models for licensing content that supports institutional drivers such as making sure there are no hidden costs for students. An e-textbook licensing pilot, devised by a sector-led e-textbook strategy group, is doing just that – exploring a new model based on the analysis of reading list data to identify the most popular titles across the sector and negotiate discounted pricing on that basis.

The Content Strategy Group at Jisc Collections (comprising senior library directors, professional association representatives and others from institutions) represent institutions up and down the country, providing feedback to help shape the approach to negotiations and ensure benefits across multiple types of institutions are realised. The Jisc Collections team also has wider contact with all members and works closely with relevant sector agencies like SCONUL (the Society of College, National and University Libraries) and RLUK (Research Libraries UK). Knowing their priorities helps the negotiators to set their red lines. Ultimately, the success of the team’s work can be judged by the extent to which the institutions that could benefit take up the deals offered: they’re only going to do that if the terms meet their needs.

Frustrations

The story of Jisc Collections is also one of trying to shape the work of an industry with set ways of approaching the way they distribute the material. Journal subscription pricing is still based on a print model, something totally inappropriate for the digital age, but a legacy that’s hard to shift. Publishers with a focus on the US textbook market aren’t flexible to the needs of the UK as demonstrated by one recent pilot where only two institutions signed up.

It seems like every few months there’s another opinion piece about the dominance that a small number of publishers has over academic works. We’re starting to see local and national boycotts around the world – as academics and others campaign on the huge amount of free academic labour is expended on editing and reviewing – with the products sold back to their institutions. Prices continue to increase as the idea of publication in a “good” journal becomes embedded in practice. The sheer cost of the research publication system can lead to researchers not having access to the materials that they need, not being able to afford to publish in the journals they want to, and libraries not being able to provide other services.

Open all hours

The move to open access in research publications has also changed the way in which Jisc Collections works. Supporting institutions in meeting funder and REF requirements means ensuring open access components to agreements are negotiated and work to constrain the total costs of publishing. When it comes to fees to publish, there should be clarity about what’s been procured; Jisc Collections’ role is to constrain these costs through offsetting arrangements to ensure institutions do not end up paying for an article twice – once through their subscription, and once through article processing charges. The team at Jisc is also encouraging a more dynamic publishing ecology by supporting institutions that are setting up their own presses through the development of toolkits and guidance.

Looking ahead, Jisc Collections will continue to work with institutions to put them in the best, and most advantageous position with respect to the fast-changing academic publishing market. The team will continue to gather evidence and business intelligence, and when innovations like new presses or open access come along they’ll be looking at where they can bring the most value to their members. All that said, it’s not like the pressure to deliver financial value will go away. Value for money and delivering the best quality resources for students and staff are major pressures likely only to get more important.

 

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