San Francisco

A top US research university is set to cancel its subscriptions to several hundred scientific journals published by Elsevier in January, in response to spiralling subscription costs.

The decision by Cornell University in Ithaca, New York, released in a statement last week, caught the attention of library officials at other US research universities who say that they may follow suit.

Netherlands-based Elsevier, which owns a quarter of the global market in scientific and technical journals, played down the importance of the move. Eric Merkel-Sobotta, its head of public relations, declined to comment on the company's negotiations with Cornell, but said that the firm is working hard to accommodate all of its customers. He added that Elsevier's subscription rates are rising by less than 7% annually, an increase that is necessary to cover the cost of expanding journal content.

Like other large publishers, Elsevier offers 'bundled' subscriptions to its journals along with electronic access. Many institutions have signed such agreements to gain access to large numbers of journals.

“This started out as a very good deal for universities,” says Ted Bergstrom, an economist at the University of California, Santa Barbara, who studies journal pricing. But the cost of such arrangements has risen faster than the rate of inflation, and economic woes have put library budgets under pressure.

At Cornell, the increases have forced the library to cut back on its non-bundled titles — but bundles cannot be touched without abrogating the original pricing deal.

Cornell's deal with Elsevier, now priced at $1.7 million, consumes a fifth of the university's total periodical budget. When the library tried to cancel individual Elsevier titles, university officials say, the prices of the remaining titles increased significantly, offsetting any savings. “To save a little, you have to cancel a lot,” says Cornell's associate collections librarian, Ross Atkinson. Cornell will now return to a title-by-title plan with a vastly reduced number of journals, he says.

Cancellations by other universities are also likely, says Duane Webster, director of the Association of Research Libraries in Washington DC. “Cornell is just the first,” he says.

Among those still negotiating is Harvard University, which is unlikely to renew its deal with Elsevier, according to library director Sidney Verba. He says that the price rises will probably result in a large reduction in Elsevier subscriptions.

The University of California has been in negotiations with Elsevier since March over the rising price of online access. In a notice to faculty members dated 15 October, the university's academic senate warned that a reduction in journal access would be likely if no agreement could be reached.

Last month, the faculty senate at the University of California, Santa Cruz, said that Elsevier's pricing was unsustainable. It urged faculty to give up editorships at Elsevier journals and to submit papers elsewhere. Such pressure may force Elsevier to give ground, Bergstrom predicts. “We are going to have an interesting show to watch,” he says.