Many universities pay a yearly subscription to journals so that their researchers (usually identified by IP address) can transparently access scientific papers from these journals. However, more and more papers are made available online in open access nowadays, so some universities have been tempted to cancel some of their subscriptions.

While some universities took the plunge, others have been hesitant. I can understand this to some extent: the university doesn't want to cancel, and then discover that their researchers are up in arms because they cannot access some papers, and the university has to come back to the table of negotiations with the publisher and subscribe again while being in a bad bargaining position. (This is important, because the subscription prices are often heavily negotiated and opaque.)

I was thinking that a tempting solution for a university could be to do a kind of experiment: while they are subscribed, temporarily "disable" their subscription for some set duration, and see whether their researchers are having any problems or not. This could be technically achieved, e.g., by routing their Internet traffic via some IP that is not subscribed, or something of the sort. And one could imagine it could give valuable insight to the university, without requiring any renegotiation with the publishers.

Do we know of any universities that made experiments of this kind? and of what the outcome was?

  • I think it unlikely and that there would be an uproar. But it is often librarians who have the subscriptions and if they see that a journal is never requested for a few years, it might be dropped. Especially since they can get a few needed articles from other libraries. But "some" and "any" are slippery terms. – Buffy Jun 9 '20 at 23:01
  • Where I work we went through the process of dropping some subscriptions a decade or more ago. But, if we don’t have subscription access there is a streamlined way to request a given article, and the library pays the cost. That way they get direct feedback on missing journal access. – Jon Custer Jun 9 '20 at 23:24
  • Usually they can get usage data in a less disruptive way. – Nate Eldredge Jun 10 '20 at 1:19
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    The journal publishers do this by mistake from time to time. – Anonymous Physicist Jun 10 '20 at 1:24
  • Note that even after switching to an IP address not covered by the subscription the users may have cookies which grant them access, for instance to Springer. «okay, hypothesis anecdotally reproduced. Steps: 1. delete cookies 2. confirm no access (#paywall) 3. VPN into @MaastrichtU 4. accept cookies 5. stop VPN 6. confirm still access So, all you need is a cookies?? Can I share them? Copyright infringement? DRM violation?» twitter.com/egonwillighagen/status/1253256928354013188 – Nemo Jun 10 '20 at 9:23

This has certainly happened, at large scale to boot. For example in 2014 60+ German institutions all let their contracts with Elsevier expire while they negotiated a new contract. Elsevier went ahead and gave them free access while negotiations were ongoing. In 2018-2019, Norway and Sweden did the same thing at national level, and so did the University of California.

If you want to know more about how this impacted usage, I'm sure you can ask your institution librarian for details. I'm sure they can tell you a lot: how they decide which journals to subscribe to, what would happen (e.g. how many complaints) if they unsubscribed from a popular journal, how they can secure access even if they unsubscribed, and so on.

  • Project DEAL (projekt-deal.de/about-deal) (the negotiation platform for the German institutions) did already have some success recently. – Stephan Z. Jun 10 '20 at 5:48
  • Yes, see also sparcopen.org/our-work/big-deal-cancellation-tracking . Note however that Elsevier actually disabled access only many months after the expiry of the contract, and the permanent access clauses mean that they only lost access to what was published after the expiry of the contract, while OP's idea could test the loss of access on all content at once. – Nemo Jun 10 '20 at 6:47
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    No, the idea is to continue paying for the subscription, but just disable it, say, for 2 weeks, as an experiment, and see if your researchers complain about something. As these subscriptions typically run for multiple years, and cancelling and then renewing would take more time than 2 weeks, I was thinking some universities may want to do an experiment of the kind. – a3nm Jun 10 '20 at 7:36
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    @a3nm I see what you mean. It still seems pretty unnecessary to me though. The librarians inevitably already get complaints from researchers trying to access articles they don't currently have access to (i.e. they don't subscribe to the journal), and librarians certainly track usage statistics so they can extrapolate fairly easily. If you want to know the details I again suggest talking to your institution's librarians. – Allure Jun 10 '20 at 7:54
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    It has just been reported on slashdot that MIT has ended negotiations with Elsevier on a contract when the company failed to come up with acceptable terms. – Buffy Jun 11 '20 at 23:24

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