Wednesday, 23 April 2014

Tell us what you want, what you really, really want: a blank page approach to reviewing serial subscriptions

Helen Adey, Nottingham Trent University 
Helen gave us interesting insight on Nottingham Trent University’s different approach to performing their recent serials review.


Typically, libraries perform serial reviews because of money. At Nottingham Trent, they rarely get full inflation allowance each year – e.g. the university might give 2%, but publishers might raise prices by 4% - so they are forced to make cuts.

In the past, they have given subscription lists to their academics to identify titles that are no longer relevant or, if there is a new title they wanted, they had to cancel something else of equivalent cost.  This was not successful as the faculty didn’t engage with this this approach and, additionally, if you have taken this approach for years, it can feel like you have already cut all the optional bits and are already down to the bare bones.

Additionally, the book budget has been used to support serials but this is not sustainable as every year journal prices outstrip the RPI inflation.

Researching methodologies

They launched a survey last May, asking how different libraries reviewed their holdings  and received 97 responses from 12 countries.  Most were in Higher Education, but they also got responses from corporate bodies and specialist libraries.  Responses came in on the following topics:
Frequency of serials review:
  • annually (64%)
  • when required (18%)
  • 2-3 years (17%)
  • 4-5 years (1%)

 What approach do you adopt:
  • in depth on all subjects (47%)
  • selective review by subject (35%)
  • other (17%)

What factors or data sources are used in the review: 
  • change in sub cost
  • usage data
  • qualitative feedback from faculty
  • qualitative feedback from students
  • librarian discretion and expertise
  • changes in research activity

Who gets to vote on serials selection:
  • no voting (65%)
  • academic staff (14%)
  • researchers (8%)
  • students (2%)

Common themes across all respondents included budget driven decision making, with CPU and prices being a main consideration, and usage statistics being the main driver for cancellations.

They also identified various different methodologies for serials review:

  • annual review
  • subscriptions committee
  • discussion amongst library staff
  • discussion with faculties
  • annual review by academics
  • faculty ranking journals, using the 100 points and sorting system

A new methodology

So with this in mind, they decided to try a new methodology: Zero Based Budgeting.  Rather than having what you had last year and try for more, starting completely from scratch and bidding for the money. Forget what you have now and tell us what you really want. 

They performed a pilot across 3 schools, starting with a survey to find out which journals people used daily, weekly and monthly; which 7 journals would they take to a desert island; if a storm washed all the journals away, which one would they save.

The level of engagement varied from school to school.  The School of Science did not choose to engage, and the School of Art and Design having already started thinking about their serials.  This meant they were only able to fully trial the methodology with the School of Social Sciences.

They asked the School what they used for their research and what they recommended their students, and gave them nothing to influence thinking – no statistics, no lists, no prices.


Art and Design had already done some voting, so the library attended their School Day, bringing along sample copies of journals (both existing titles that had not been voted for and new requests that hadn’t been in the library before) and coloured stickers for the School to use for voting.  The data was then collated and the titles were ranked.  They found there were commonalities, and definite correlation between usage statistics and cancelled titles.  In the end they got rid of 6 titles, and got 22 cheaper titles instead.
In the School of Social Sciences there was a massive amount of voting and disparity of voting. The library has identified some possible cancellations based on usage, and some new additions based on priority listings.  They are hoping the new subscriptions are cheaper than the cancellations and at the moment they are confident they can hit the top two priority levels.

The liaison librarians have prioritised subscriptions based on number of votes and occasionally on costs, and are trying to ensure a balance across the different needs of the School.

Evaluation of the approaches 

The pros and cons of the traditional review

Pros included: quick process and can fit with sub year and finding that mythical time when you can get academics’ attention and get their input; can fit this in with renewal timings; much less work that blank page, but voting restricted to current subs.
They felt that the cons outweighed the plus points: methodology feels synonymous with “cuts” in academics’ minds; it requires academic input; it can be challenging for a new researcher, who might have less influence than an established academic, to get their preferences considered.

Traditionally, the library asked academics to see what can be cancelled, rather than the process being driven by usage stats.

The impact on collection was minimal with stable subscription profiles.  Is that good or is it static and moribund?  Seeing as there are new journals and research areas you would expect more fluctuation so perhaps low engagement.

The pros and cons of the blank page approach

Pros: more holistic view of what is required; embedded usage stats as part of process, the stats have added reassurance; a fit for purpose collection that meets needs, rather than historic profile; very positive faculty feedback as they enjoyed being part of the process rather than it being a paper exercise.

Cons: mixed levels of engagement; sometimes low response levels (what level do you need to see before you can respond if only half of school bothered to respond it would be skewed); poor fit with the library subs year (the School responded in June last year but they are waiting for signoff so it will be almost 18months); it is a huge piece of work.

They are not happy with the traditional method, and the jury is still out on the blank page method - isit sustainable or is there a better evidence based way of doing this?

What about other ways of finding out what users want?

The library uses Tallis Aspire to produce report on all journal and articles on Resource Lists, which answers what they are recommending to students. 
ILL data can be catagorised by school
The library can capture requests to digitise content and put on  the VLE
Turnaway data from publisher- should count towards evidence of what users want

What evidence is there for what ppl don’t want?

Low usage stats can be evidence- they have started looking at CPU v ILL
Reports of loss of e access and nobody noticed for months – how would you collate and use that data.
In-house knowledge of subject teams.

Conclusions and learning points

  • Don’t underestimate:
    • how important it is to engage academics to tell them what you are trying to achieve, why they need to engage.  Don’t assume.
    • the workload pre and post review, and all the analysis
    • the unpredictable nature of voting patterns
    • the likelihood of top wish list items being something they already have
  • Don’t make survey too complex and don’t ask too many questions as this can lead to unfinished surveys. 
  • Be aware that the journal they really need might not be in the list that they’ve voted for.
  • Some academics might deliberately or unknowingly misunderstand questions
  • Think about metrics: does frequency of journal use bear relation to importance of journal to the academic?
  • Consider other approached to find out information (slot on courses meetings etc.) 
  • Make sure that, having engaged the academics, you feed back on actions taken and outcomes.
  • Use this approach with caution if you have to cut journals as you need to be confident of a “good news” outcome at the end or some sort of contingency plan so you can follow through and not disappoint people

Future activity

The jury is still out on if this approach is the way to go, so another pilot would be an idea, perhaps involving a combination of both survey and face to face.

As blank page involves a great deal of work, they are considering a rolling cycle of department blank pages reviews on different years, with departments getting equal value in and out reviews in between.

They are also thinking about trying the evidence based metrics approach (ILL, rec lists and usage stats).

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