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The NERL Playbook

A project-based approach to co-creating negotiations with publishers and libraries
Published onMay 11, 2022
The NERL Playbook
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What if we told you that academic resource negotiations didn’t have to feel like the most boring yet high stakes game of Rock Em, Sock Em Robots you ever played? They don’t. The NERL Playbook is intended as a practical approach that reframes negotiations. We seek a way forward that is simple, replicable, yet powerful, and we are confident we’ve succeeded.

In this overview we will share our pragmatic approach to negotiations that saves time and ensures library values are centered. Working at the consortial level, and galvanizing collective talent and expertise, the Playbook is a project-based approach to co-creating a solution with vendors and publishers. The project plan keeps the work on track, and co-creation ensures shared success and accountability. Centering proactive and concise communications, the model doesn’t allow for stalemates. In fact, the Playbook ensures that you will never negotiate a deal without a pre-agreed exit plan that supports your work and keeps you sane.

The NERL Playbook is a proven success — recent deals with Cambridge and Elsevier were each reached in less than a year. That said, we want to emphasize: The Playbook doesn’t mean you’ll get everything you want. We’re in a transitional period of scholarly communication and the marketplace is consolidating in ways that can feel insurmountable. A key element of our approach is accepting incremental progress as a way to speed immediate negotiations without losing sight of long-term goals.

We believe in the model, and it can work for you. Here’s how it works.

Step 1: Begin by identifying your values, and get real about what they are!

What do you value? Transparency? Equity? Reproducibility? Whatever your values are, start here. Collaborate with others on this brainstorming process and dream big, but make it clear.

The act of publicly articulating your values is also a powerful and important step. NERL made its first public statement in 20 years of the organization asking for a Better Deal. We modeled the transparency we expect from vendor partners, and in the process helped communicate a changed identity. We are not a buying club – we are a collaborative. Together, we represent some of the most prestigious research institutions in the country and support the collective success of the world’s leading researchers.

Step 2: Any quality goals are measurable.

Now that you’ve identified your values, how will you measure them? For example, we decided that Transparency was a core value. For this reason, we favor working with vendors and publishers who remove the Non-Disclosure agreement from their license agreements.

After stating our intent, we clarified and made our values measurable. The Preferred Deal Elements document translated our intentions into acceptable outcomes. A NERL deal necessarily includes some of the Preferred Deal Elements (PDEs), which means it necessarily advances our values and agenda. Those advances do not have to be giant to be meaningful and impactful.

Example PDEs:


Preferred Deal Element

NERL Core Value


Discounts to match market standards and real cost



Data Privacy



Open to any NERL Core member


Open Access

Perpetual Access = Open Access Backfile: Flip all backfile content with moving wall to Open Access

Sustainability, Flexibility, Equity

Author Rights

First Public Right rather than all copyright


Eliminate APC charges

Sustainability, Flexibility

Step 3: Now that you’ve identified your values and you’ll measure if you’ve achieved them, assemble your team.

For us, we value teams where there is a diversity of experience and expertise/perspective. We try to form negotiation teams where we have representation from the different institution types in our consortium, as well as making sure our negotiation teams have the key roles filled of: licensing wonk, data wrangler, savvy negotiator, scholarly communications/author rights expert, and dynamic (yet humble!) group leader.

Step 4: Meet with your group and plan!

When using the NERL Playbook for your negotiations, your team becomes the one who does the pitching. By pitching we mean putting forward a compelling and concise case that presents value for both sides. We have found in our experience that putting forward your ideal proposal first helps avoid disappointing initial offers and the time spent to counter them. Take the first meeting to define for your group what the inclusive and exclusive deal attributes and licensing terms are. Make sure that your inclusive and exclusive attributes tie back to your PDEs and your shared values. By inclusive we mean “any better deal would need to include this element.” By exclusive we mean “any better deal would need to exclude this element.” A good example for us would be: “any better deal for NERL would exclude caps on international ILL. Likewise, any better deal for NERL would include first deposit rights for authors into our institutional repositories.” Once you have your list, tied back to your values and measures from steps 2 &3, set your timeline for your co-creative project.

Plan design should be simple and include a timeline with milestones (see below, step 6) that help you track progress, a set number/interval of meetings, and a firm end date that ensures you have adequate control.

Step 5: Reach out!

We all know that we benefit from collaboration and thought partnership. The old adage goes “Good poets borrow, great poets steal.” A guiding principle of our work was to learn from and build from work that others had done– no need to start from scratch in a space where so much innovation is happening at all times. We’re committed to being open about our process because we benefited from the transparency of others. NERL has found it invaluable to reach out to peer and near-peer consortia. If there’s someone whose work you admire, ask them!

For instance, we met with CRKN and found the conversations extremely beneficial. Their experiences managing stakeholders and convening them as allies helped us to galvanize our internal communication strategy. We built our Preferred Deal Elements with inspiration from MIT’s Framework for Publisher Contracts. You cannot know all the work happening all the time, but building on great work and touching base with others doing the work saved us a tremendous amount of effort and time.

Step 5.5 - Agree to a timeline and a mutually agreeable “out.”

That timeline you created doesn’t matter if it isn’t mutually accepted and understood. Ahead of the first meeting, distribute the timeline and ask for questions and feedback. In the first meeting, ask for agreement to the plan terms and timeline. The timeline is the most necessary element for the project model, and without a shared agreement on this crucial element, you should not proceed.

A firm end date with restrictive terms for extension will support your success. In our work with Elsevier, we mutually agreed to a date by which we would have an agreement in hand. If we had not arrived at an agreement, we were guaranteed terms of a one agreement with mutually agreed upon terms. We recommend this as a basic “out” of any agreement project. We advise you to not take subsequent meetings or do additional work until you have an agreement in place.

If you cannot establish a clear time frame, do not proceed with the project model. We recommend you turn your attention to other partners and collaborators who are willing to work together in ways that respect everyone’s time.

Step 6: Pitch your co-creative project!

Prepare and present your proposal for the work ahead to your selected publisher partner. Be sure to include key check-in points and deliverables and a clear timeline for how long the project will take. Identify the milestones so you will know that you CAN complete the project on time. From the start, have your exit route as the only alternative to which both parties have agreed. Also verify how and when each party will communicate on progress and success.

We recommend generative brainstorming as a pitch starting point — that’s the basis of our PDEs. We define a good deal as anyone which advances our values, which makes our introductory pitch:

  1. Easy to deliver (which helps you).

  2. Easy to understand (which helps your vendor/publisher partner).

  3. Easy to address (which helps everybody).

Having our high-level values-based deal pitch in hand has been crucial to our success.

Here’s an example of a shared timeline for a project. It is proposed over 6 months and a maximum of 7 meetings– we started with our deadline and worked backward. Please keep in mind your internal coordination and communication needs, you may need to have a secondary document or plan.

Example Timeline:

Project Milestone

Start Date

End Date

1. Establish Project End Date/Terms (A drop dead date for a new deal or one-year Bridge Deal)

That drop dead date should be the goal you schedule your project back from. In the case of this template we wanted to keep the negotiation to less than 6 months, and we succeeded. Finishing early is great, finishing on-time is assured.

The length of this period (one month) provides an acceptable window to establish a working understanding– not too rushed and not too long. You don’t want to waste your time working with a partner who doesn’t respect your constraints, and by taking this step you can avoid doing so.



2. Initial Brainstorming Meeting—Overview of NERL Preferred Deal Features and Brainstorming

This is your pitch meeting– where you present your high-level proposal and make a compelling case as to why the vendor should buy in too. It helps create a shared sense of responsibility for the process as much as the outcome.


3. Vendor Review and Response Window

Be generous with time if it’s a major deal, but do insist on WHEN you will hear something back.



4. 2nd Meeting – Vendor Presents Proposal/Counterproposal


5. NERL Review and Response Window

Make sure you have the time to review and respond and be clear when the vendor will hear back from you.



6. NERL Email–Response/Share Prepared Public Update (share draft to vendor)

If you are providing updates to stakeholders on the project itself, a great courtesy and trust building opportunity is to share it with the vendor at the same time you share your response. Please note: you will want to follow up with questions in the interim and seek clarification. This is just the formal message and feedback deadline.



7. NERL Post Public Update (OPTIONAL)

We recommend you share when any public communications will go live to avoid surprising your vendor partner and inadvertently undermining your work.


8. 3rd Meeting- NERL Presents Any Counterpoints

This is a nitty gritty figuring it out meeting. We strongly recommend having clarity around points of contention and compromise will make or break its efficacy.


9. Follow-Up Meeting #1 (as needed)

Spoiler: we have always needed this meeting. Clarify and agree on next steps.


10. NERL Concluding email

Feedback/Decisions; Share Prepared Public Update


11. Follow-Up Meeting #2 (as needed)

Finalize any details and agree on next steps.


12. Final Project Meeting

Finalize new deal or commit to one-year cost neutral bridge deal; Share Prepared Public Update


13. Post Public Update

See step 8. :)


Step 7: Iterate, Iterate, Iterate!

Be prepared to imagine infinite possibilities, and to have your paradigms and assumptions busted by your quality team. Arrive at a successful project conclusion on-time and/or early.

Step 8: Crow loudly.

Say as much as you are legally allowed to publicly about your process and the conclusion of your negotiation. Work with your vendor partner to cross promote the deal.

Working with Elsevier, we have released press releases and responded to press coverage. For NERL, previously perceived as a buying club, this has amplified our work and given us greater leverage. Likewise, we have worked to promote and communicate our deal with Cambridge. This commitment to communication is based in our values and also improves our market position, helping us identify the partners we want to work with and to make points to those who are less convinced of the process.

Concluding Thoughts

The advancement of scholarly communication is not a game of hero ball — it’s a collective responsibility and one where libraries can share a leadership role. It’s not about the best or the worst deal, or even a good versus a bad one. It’s about getting a better deal. We hope you’ll take heart that a small team of volunteers can save dozens of institutions hundreds of thousands of dollars and open tens of thousands of articles in mere months. A better way is possible, even likely. Heck, we’d go so far as to say a better way is here.

Acknowledgments: We could not have written this article or done any of this work without our NERL colleagues, past and present, including: Jessica Morales, Ken Peterson, Katie Brady, Michael Fernandez, Terrie Wheeler, Liz Mengel, Sarah Forzetting, Jeff Kosokoff, Brigitte Weinsteiger, Jesse Koennecke, Michael Koehn, Kineret Ben-Knaan, Lisa Fish, Berenika M. Webster, Linette Garza, Greg Eow, Winston Tabb, and Erin Haddad-Null.

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