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Guidelines for Selection of Electronic Publications: Pricing

There is no standard pricing model for electronic publications. Even pricing models for publications from the same vendor or publisher can vary significantly. The following provides information on several evolving price models, while highlighting some key pricing considerations, and serves as a guide for assessing the price of an electronic publication.

Pricing Models

One-time Payments v. Ongoing Obligations

A pricing structure may include a one-time payment, an ongoing obligation (for example, a yearly subscription or access fee), or both. Pricing models with one-time payments tend to require the payment of a substantial sum initially and then smaller payments or no payments on an ongoing basis. The one-time payment usually covers the online access service or the publications or a combination of the two. Selectors should clarify which portion, if any, of a particular payment represents a one-time fee and the amount of any expected future payments.
Separate Content and Access Pricing
Some vendors, aggregators in particular, charge separately for the content of a particular electronic publication or group of publications and for access to the aggregator's on-line service. Selectors should determine whether there are separate charges, whether each charge is an ongoing or one-time payment, and the amount of each charge. Often the content fee will be a one-time charge while the access fees are ongoing. Ongoing access charges are considered a continuing purchase.

Per-Use Pricing

Selectors are urged to avoid publishers who offer pricing structures that include transaction charges, such as document delivery charges. Selectors should instead seek yearly renewable subscriptions including all available years of content. Anticipated low usage of an electronic publication might justify assuming the risk of per-use pricing.

Introductory Pricing

Introductory prices are rarely as attractive as they seem. Sometimes an introductory price is only a pro-rated price; the vendor charges the subscriber for the remaining portion of the standard price after the introductory period ends. Selectors should ascertain what the price of a subscription will be after a special or introductory offer ends and when the offer expires.

Pricing Caps

Pricing caps are usually associated with non-cancellation clauses that require the Libraries to promise to maintain a subscription for a specified period of time. In exchange, the publisher or vendor will promise to cap price increases for the period of non-cancellation. Non-cancellation clauses can potentially create problems because they decrease the Libraries' control over the budget and the collection. For example, the Libraries may need to decrease expenditures on other resources to pay for the resources protected by a non-cancellation clause. To date, the Libraries have not agreed to any non-cancellation clauses.

Bundling of Titles

A journal or book sold individually in print may only be available electronically as part of a package or bundle of publications. Examples of publishers who bundle journals include Elsevier, Academic Press and IEEE. Selectors should always determine whether a journal is available separately or only as part of a package. Where there is a choice between a package or individual purchase, the selector should evaluate the advantages of each and consult with other interested selectors where appropriate.

Purchasing of Electronic Without Print

Some electronic publications, especially journals, cannot be purchased separately from their print counterparts. While many publishers do not impose a surcharge for the addition of the electronic version, a few charge substantial additional fees. Selectors considering the purchase of electronic without print should consult the sections on Duplication and Substitution and Archiving.

Time Limits on Access to Back Issues

A selector should determine how long a publisher will maintain access to subscribed issues. Unlike print subscriptions, a publisher may not always allow an institution to maintain access indefinitely to back issues of an electronic publication. Publishers who put time limits on access usually allow access only to those issues of a subscribed publication released within a moving window of time (one year, for example). If an issue is dated prior to that moving window, it will no longer be available online. For example, if the Libraries in 1995 start an online subscription to a journal with a moving window of one year, in January, 1997, the June, 1995 issue will no longer be available online, but the March, 1996 issue will be available online. Similarly, in June, 1998, the March, 1996 issue will not be online, but the December, 1997 issue will be available

Access to Online Issues Published Prior to Subscription

Many publishers provide all available past years of online content with an online subscription. For example, if the Libraries subscribe to a journal in 1997, the publisher would include in the subscription all online issues published prior to 1997. Selectors should determine whether this will be made available.

Pricing Considerations

Duration of Agreement

Selectors should establish the total duration of a subscription or access agreement (including the dates on which subscription or access starts and finishes). Not all publishers sell subscriptions that start at the time of payment. Instead, many subscriptions begin access at the beginning of the calendar year. A publisher may also refuse to prorate a subscription purchased mid-year and allow the Libraries access from the date of payment to the end of the calendar year although the full price for an annual subscription has been paid.

Institution Type

The type of subscriber (for example, individual or institution) often determines both the price and the availability of a subscription. Selectors should note that some publishers offer only individual access to their e-publications and do not offer institutional access.

Institution Size

Size is usually expressed in terms of the number of full-time equivalent (FTE) students enrolled at a given institution. Other models may count workstations or users in a particular department. Selectors should always verify the current number of FTEs with the Electronic Resources Coordinator.

Simultaneous Users

A subscription may limit the number of simultaneous users for a given publication at a particular price, charging an additional amount for any additional simultaneous users. Selectors should establish how many simultaneous users are allowed at a given price and ensure that that number is adequate. It is usually easier to add simultaneous users, if the usage justifies the increase, than to reduce the number of simultaneous users allowed.

Authorized Sites

A subscription may limit the locations from which users may access the electronic publication. Selectors should ensure that the necessary locations are covered by the price.


Some publishers impose a surcharge for access to backfiles dated prior to the date of purchase. Selectors should also consider that backfiles may be priced on a one-time basis or as continuations.