Walking Away: Courage and Acquisitions
This is a story about courage. And about doing your job exceptionally well. And, I suspect, about ageism, sexism and other isms. And about little-pig serials issues and the continued attempt of some societies to subsidize their operations at the expense of libraries. But that last one won’t get much attention, since that’s not really the primary thrust here.
This is also a story about a colleague who frequently disagrees with me (sometimes vehemently and in language I might not use)—and who I admire and consider a friend. So there’s a personal bias up front. As for other personal connections: My brother was a member of the society in question for many years (he spent his entire working life as a chemist at the Lawrence Radiation Lab in Livermore, CA). As far as I know, I am not related to Brian Crawford, the vehemently anti-OA publishing person at the American Chemical Society (henceforth usually ACS). At least I hope not.
On to the story.
The first public message came on September 12, 2012, in the blog post noted below—although there’s years’ worth of background, including American Chemical Society’s long history of high institutional prices and aggressive price increases. ACS produces some first-rate journals: There’s little or no disagreement about that.
Jenica Rogers posted this on September 12, 2012 at Attempting Elegance. Since it’s the foundation for this whole essay, I’m quoting it in full.
There’s no gentle introduction to this, so I’ll get right to my point:
Librarians, this is a call to action.
tl;dr: SUNY Potsdam will not be subscribing to an American Chemical Society online journal package for 2013. We will instead be using a combination of the Royal Society of Chemistry content, ACS single title subscriptions, the ACS backfile, and ScienceDirect from Elsevier** to meet our chemical information needs. We’re doing this because the ACS pricing model is unsustainable for our institution and we were unable to find common ground with the sales team from the ACS. Instead, we explored other options and exercised them. You could do the same if you find yourself in a position similar to ours as ACS standardizes their pricing, and maybe together we can make enough choices to make our voices heard in meaningful ways.
So here’s how we got here.
In May 2012, after much internal discussion and debate, three SUNY library directors from the comprehensive colleges (myself included) and the university centers, along with two SUNY Office of LIbrary and Information Services staff met with three representatives from the ACS at SUNY Plaza in Albany, NY, and discussed their pricing model. The ACS folks were very clear: they are dedicated to moving all customers to a consistent pricing model, the pricing steps in that model are based on a tiered system, and there is a base price underneath all of that. In principle, I absolutely support this kind of move: too many libraryland vendors obscure their pricing models, negotiate great deals with one institution while charging double to someone else, or “have to ask the manager” to approve any offer. In our discussions, the librarian stakeholders noted our support for this approach, but argued that while their tiers are reasonable and based on arguably sound criteria, the base price underlying those steps is unsustainable and inappropriate. (In the case of SUNY Potsdam, the ACS package would have consumed more than 10% of my total acquisitions budget, just for journals for this one department.) We also learned that their base price and pricing model, when applied to much larger institutions, did not produce the same unsustainable pricing – I cannot provide numbers, as they are marked SUNY Confidential, but I can easily say that what our ARL peers pay for ACS in support of their doctoral programs is, in my estimation, in no way fair or reflective of the usage, FTE, or budgets of those institutions as compared to the pricing offered my institution for my usage, FTE, and budgets. It seems to me that the tiered increases may be fair and be reflective, but the problem lies with the base price underlying their pricing model. That base price is unsustainable for small institutions. And, unfortunately, the ACS sales team is not currently interested in negotiating on that fact. In response to any suggestions of ways that SUNY or campuses might collaborate or negotiate to reach a place where we could sustain our subscriptions – one which might well be applied to other campuses, other consortia by ACS – we were repeatedly told “but that’s not our pricing model.” The ACS is clearly committed to creating consistent pricing across their tiers, which I respect. However, I firmly believe that their approach to the base price for their resources is unacceptable and unsustainable for institutions like mine.
What we did:
Given that there was no apparent ACS-based solution to our budget crunch in the face of what we feel is unsustainable pricing, we went to our Chemistry faculty and discussed all of this with them. This was not our first meeting; we’ve been discussing this since fall 2011 when we clearly understood that ACS pricing would continue to increase, and was pushing at the ceiling of what we could sustain. Along with two librarians – the Collection Development Coordinator, and our subject liaison to Chemistry – I laid all the facts out. We described our subscription history in support of their scholarship, teaching, and learning needs, pulled out the costs for ACS content when we first subscribed in the early 2000s and referred back to the discussions we had then (when I was CD Coordinator, not Director), laid out the current cost of ACS publications and the price increases over the past five years, and estimated what our 3-year prices would be. Based on our discussion, I think that some of our faculty were surprised, some seemed resigned, some were horrified, and they were all frustrated by what seemed to be a plate full of bad options. However, after two meetings and much discussion of how to reconfigure our ACS subscriptions to meet our budgetary constraints, I believe that we all agreed that this goes beyond having a tight campus or library budget: this is simply not appropriate pricing for an institution like ours. The result of our first meeting was that the chemistry faculty agreed to take their concerns to the ACS based on their individual professional involvements with the organization, talking with sales and the Chemical Information Division about their concerns, and we agreed that we’d look into other library solutions to their chemical information needs.
The options we found:
So Marianne Hebert, our Collection Development Coordinator, did some research, and came up with three options for Chemistry content.
A) The ACS Core+ Package at the new standardized price, ACS Legacy Archive, 2-3 selected titles outside the Core+, and ILL fill-in as needed beyond the 250 tokens offered. Based on our use stats, this would maintain a comfortable level of access to ACS content, but was going to save us virtually no money over our ACS full package, as we would have to pay the ACS full list prices for the selected titles, plus the $41 per article copyright clearance fee for ILLs beyond the initial free articles.
B) A Wiley 2012 STM package, which offered many chemistry titles. This was about 40% of what we would have spent on ACS content, based on our Wiley print subscriptions and other existing Wiley contracts.
C) A Royal Society of Chemistry Gold Package, and the RSC archive. This was about 54% of what we were projected to spend on ACS content.
So we gathered up the price quotes, the title lists, and our usage data, and presented the three options to the Chemistry faculty who were available on campus in July. These faculty are strong participants in their professional organization: Many if not all of them are ACS members, doing active research and publication both alone and with undergraduate research partners, some of them heavily involved in ACS committees and conferences. And they agreed on behalf of their department that despite the undisputed excellence of content and relevance to their work found in American Chemical Society content, we cannot afford the ACS content at the current pricing model.
What we chose:
When faculty compared the titles available from Wiley and the RSC, they preferred the RSC for reasons of quality, reputation, and relevance to our curriculum. On the library side, we agreed to subscribe to the RSC Gold Package, and to provide our standard ILL service for any needed additional titles (though we were careful to note the $41 clearance fee for ACS publications, and described how that works, so that everyone was clear on the many ways that the ACS has price-protected access to their content). We also added on the ACS Legacy Archive, as it is reasonably priced for an STM indexing and abstracting product. There was then a discussion of the appropriateness and feasibility of faculty encouraging students doing undergraduate research to purchase ACS student memberships (students’ dues are $25 and include 25 free downloads from any ACS publication), which could be nicely dovetailed with our Legacy Archive access and would be professionally relevant to our students as they graduate and move into jobs as chemists. Our Information Literacy librarians have also begun working with Chemistry faculty to integrate “how to do chemical research without university resources to support you” into some of our information literacy sessions for the department. Teaching this kind of broader information skillset strikes me as just the kind of IL skills we want our students to have as they move into jobs outside of higher education, and I’m grateful this is one side effect of the discussion.
Librarians and faculty raised the valid concern that we might not be able to meet ACS approval of undergraduate programs without our ACS package. The ACS is in the unique position of both approving programs and selling the content necessary for approval, which I will leave to someone else to debate the ethics of. Throughout our discussions we agreed that any library solution we proposed would have the ability to meet the approval requirements in concert with our subscription to ScienceDirect. It can be done.
The dramatic conclusion:
And so that’s where we are. On January 1, 2013 our ACS content will dramatically decline, and our RSC package is already active to pick up the slack. The libraries have agreed to do a robust analysis of how well or poorly this works out in this year, but the chemistry faculty were willing to join the librarians in taking a stand against unsustainable pricing structures. I argued to them that while I will always try to do what’s best for our students and faculty, we also have an ethical responsibility as active members of the scholarly information ecosystem to make smart choices. I asserted that someone has to be first – someone has to stand up and say that this is unacceptable, that we must find or create better options, and that we have the power to make choices based on those options. I know that other libraries — some within SUNY, some outside — have already chosen to unsubscribe from ACS content, all for their own reasons, be they practical, ethical, financial… But no one is talking about it. Or at least, not loudly enough to suit me. So I’ll be the first one to stand up and say it loud.
Librarians are often disinclined to be first to try something – we’d often rather be second, after someone else has found the hidden pitfalls. So here I am, saying that we were willing to be the first to be loud, and to provide you with a public example of what is possible. Our chemistry faculty were willing to follow that lead, and I’m grateful to them for it. I’ll report back on what we learn.
** I am also displeased with Elsevier, as are many others. However, all 64 SUNY campuses buy ScienceDirect as a part of our Core Services through SUNYConnect, and given the broader interests of all of SUNY, I was not allowed to opt out of the Elsevier contract as a part of those Core Services.
That post is 1,800 words that may say more to contemporary academic library acquisitions issues than any 10,000 words I’ve read elsewhere. In some ways it speaks to responsible library leadership more than it does to the ACS issue. Consider:
· The decision came after careful discussion with the vendor and after making an abundantly clear case that the ACS proposal was simply not sustainable.
· Look at the price itself: more than 10% of SUNY Potsdam’s entire acquisitions budget for a package of 41 ejournals that serve one undergrad department. SUNY Potsdam, by my casual reckoning, has 51 undergraduate majors and minors along with 15 graduate programs, and is primarily a liberal arts institution, with a few science departments. (I’m not sure how many actual academic departments there are; it appears to be at least 25.) To devote more than 10% of the total acquisitions budget to one publisher’s materials for one department would be, in my opinion, irresponsible—and would privilege one science department massively over the many humanities and social science departments.
· Rogers makes her case clearly.
· She didn’t just walk away. She worked with the Chemistry faculty—and had been working with them for some time. The library worked up alternatives and went back to the faculty, and I think it’s worth repeating three key sentences here:
These faculty are strong participants in their professional organization: Many if not all of them are ACS members, doing active research and publication both alone and with undergraduate research partners, some of them heavily involved in ACS committees and conferences. And they agreed on behalf of their department that despite the undisputed excellence of content and relevance to their work found in American Chemical Society content, we cannot afford the ACS content at the current pricing model.
· Rogers is speaking up because somebody has to. The situation has in general been untenable for years—but now it’s specifically untenable for at least some institutions.
This is how (I believe) academic librarianship should work—in concert with the faculty, laying out the realities and sometimes making difficult choices because they’re the only choices that will work in the long run. (If I’m reading things right, this doesn’t mean SUNY Potsdam is treating the sciences worse than the humanities: That’s still more than 5% of the total acquisitions budget, not including ScienceDirect, for one department.)
As of this writing, there are 57 comments and linkbacks. It’s an interesting and varied set. “Gretel” notes that her even smaller campus is “also over a barrel with ACS content” and has taken a similar solution. The whole issue of what ACS accreditation for an undergrad program means and whether it’s ethical for the accreditation to come from a body that’s also the key publisher gets some discussion. Some commenters point out that ACS’ aggressive pricing has been a source of contention for years—leading one Nobel laureate to leave the association. Apparently, other libraries have done similar things—but haven’t spoken up about it as publicly and clearly as Rogers has.
There were pushbacks. One from an anonymous librarian ended with this: “Making a decision to cancel all ACS journals and replace them with other journals of unknown value does not seem like a wise collection management decision.” Of course, that’s not what SUNY Potsdam did: The RCS journals are hardly “of unknown value.”
Jenica Rogers explained the situation and actions clearly, articulately, politely. It was a call for action if only because it was one of the few publicized cases in which a library has walked away from content it knew to be good quality, but which was simply not affordable. The rest is all reaction—but in many different ways, including the ways that an ACS spokesperson attempted to derail discussion. Most of this is as chronological as I could make it. I’ve left out a lot, including some of Jenica Rogers’ follow-up posts.
Jacob Berg posted this on September 18, 2012 at BeerBrarian. The opening:
A library director balances the library budget with the needs of the community, and for it is hailed as a hero.
There is something wrong with this picture.
And the closing, after quotations and discussion:
What Jenica did only works if others do it. She can’t be the lone voice in the wilderness. Don’t praise her for doing her job. Look in the mirror and do your job. You’re supposed to be doing that!
Indeed, in 2011 we ended our relationship with the Nature Publishing Group, whose namesake print publication was responsible for more than fifteen percent of our print serials budget. Fifteen percent! I’ll let that sink in, and feel free to do the math if you’d like. Library staff worked with the provost and affected faculty when eliminating Nature. It helps that we’re a small university without graduate programs in the sciences, and with faculty focused more on teaching than research, but SUNY-Potsdam’s experience is proof that larger institutions can and should be investigating and then acting on alternatives. Because, you know, that’s part of our job. That’s what we’re supposed to be doing.
True…but unless walking away is done publicly, it’s not as helpful. (Worth noting: SUNY Potsdam doesn’t have a graduate degree in Chemistry either, and it’s not a large university, although it may be larger than Berg’s institution.)
This post comes from the Lake Land College Learning Resource Center, posted September 26, 2012 at The LLC BibliBlography. After prefatory remarks and citing Rogers’ original post, the writer continues:
So long as groups like ACS, Elsevier, and others who attempt to dictate our purchasing decisions to us through pricing and market manipulation are allowed to do so in relative secrecy, those actions will not be challenged except on an individual basis. I am happy that there are institutions that have the money to afford to be able to not have to think twice about what resources they want to provide. But most of us do not have that luxury. Making difficult decisions about what resources we can and can’t afford, measuring cost versus usage, and trying to get the most appropriate resources to support our institutions IS a part of “doing our job” as librarians and managers of information resources. For the most part, those decisions get made individually or locally and only affect one institution. But every now and again, this struggle goes public. Maybe only a handful of people will ever see it. Every attempt at reform and change has to have a beginning.
And so if “going public” is a way to draw attention to the issue that might actually affect this situation for the rest of us, then more power to Jenica Rogers for what she has done. We have nothing to lose but our complacency.
Maybe there’s a clue there: It’s possible that dozens of academic libraries have walked away from various “good deals” they could no longer afford—but chose not to go public about it. Which is a shame, since going public is most likely to help change the situation.
I think it’s necessary to include this September 26, 2012 article by Jennifer Howard at The Chronicle of Higher Education because it includes (if I remember correctly) the first case of ACS choosing to “respond” by dismissing Rogers’ blogging as unworthy. Unfortunately, that’s as much as I can say: The article’s behind the CHE paywall and I’m not a subscriber. (Howard was good enough to provide temporary access, but that’s gone now.)
I’m guessing many C&I readers have access to CHE and will find the article worth reading. Otherwise, well, you’ll have to deal with indirect references in other articles.
The key paragraph from the CHE article was quoted in a post at chminf-l on September 26, 2012. To wit:
“We find little constructive dialogue can be had on blogs and other listservs where logic, balance and common courtesy are not practiced and observed,” Glenn S. Ruskin, the group’s director of public affairs, said in an e-mail message. “As a matter of practice, ACS finds that direct engagement via telephone or face-to-face with individuals expressing concern over pricing or other related matters is the most productive means to finding common ground and resolution.”
You’ll find that just below Glenn Ruskin’s response posted that same day. He clarifies that he didn’t really intend to denigrate all lists and blogs, and that CHE omitted one sentence from his statement: “Therefore, we will not be offering any response to this blog posting or the conversation that has ensued.” Followed a bit later by this, key to much of what follows:
The individual responsible for the above cited blog certainly has the right to her opinion, but that does not excuse rude behavior or her use of profanity and vulgarity in addressing ACS or its employees. While not evident in the most recent postings, I won’t repeat what she has posted in the past. But I think you would agree that vulgarity and profanity postings do not lend themselves to meaningful, productive and civil discourse, thus our decision not to engage any further with her on this topic.
Paul Bracher posted this on September 26, 2012 at ChemBark—and I’m citing it primarily for one of the comments. (The post itself is mostly about the “we don’t respond to bloggers” stuff above, including Ruskin’s email response narrowing that to one blogger.)
The comment is from Jenica Rogers. I’ve omitted one URL that’s now redundant:
After I posted back to Mr. Ruskin’s attack on CHMINF-L… he replied directly to me with a screenshot of a conversation I had on Friendfeed, a social network where I hang out, after I was thoroughly infuriated by an ACS staffer. My post, to my friends, was “Motherf*cking ACS.” Conversation ensued, as conversations do between friends.
Apparently, Mr. Ruskin cannot distinguish between formal professional writing (on my blog) and informal casual conversation (on Friendfeed). Oh well. People get angry, and use bad words. That doesn’t mean my discussion of their issues as a vendor is less valid or logical, or that I should be dismissed as a stakeholder in this discussion. But I guess, to the ACS, it does mean that, and that it makes personal attacks okay. Full disclosure: I did refer, in that personal, casual context, to a rude ACS staffer as being a “condescending, supercilious bitch.” I did not, however, call her names to her face, attack her in writing, identify her personally, or use my professional voice and persona to do any of the former. (my professional voice account of that incident is here) So I think I’m still up one.
Now we get to an interesting point: It’s not that Jenica Rogers was vulgar or unprofessional in Attempting Elegance or in any direct contacts with ACS. Nope, it’s that she’s plainspoken when she’s among friends—such as on Friendfeed.
I’m sure none of ACS’ 1,900-odd employees has ever used vulgar or profane language anywhere, certainly not among friends. And that gives them the right to suggest that we should dismiss the logical, clear, supported arguments of a library director because she’s human.
You might want to read the rest of the comment stream. The blogger thinks it’s OK for ACS to support its other activities through profitable journals—but not if they’re “charging too much.” You may know where I stand on that issue: It is simply untenable for scholarly societies outside of librarianship to demand that libraries subsidize their activities. His comment goes on to say publications should yield “a little more money than [ACS] needs to survive and keep making a quality product.” And, of course, that name-calling is distracting from the real issue (deliberately distracting, in my opinion). Rogers responded:
Thank you, Paul. That’s precisely my concern: This is being brought down to a level of personal attack in order to silence dissent and discussion. That is NOT acceptable. This issue matters, because access to scholarship is crucial to advancement of all of our fields of study, teaching, and learning. Whether or not I swear on the internet is absolutely irrelevant to that big picture.
They can’t stop me.
Here’s Jenica Rogers again, this time on September 27, 2012, dealing with some of the pushback she’s seen “on Facebook, in comments online, and face-to-face.” Namely this message: “That’s a bad decision. Your users need that content. You need to reconsider.” To which she says: Right on two, but not the third. “It’s a crappy decision. Our users do need that content. But I cannot reconsider.”
Why? Because it’s just too expensive. Rogers notes a comment she’s notorious for: “A good deal that I can’t afford is still a good deal, and I still can’t afford it.” The difference with ACS: She doesn’t even think it’s a good deal.
There’s more here (it’s not a long post) responding to some other pushback. Primarily, she doesn’t and shouldn’t feel guilty; nor should her faculty. It’s an excellent response. (Comments directly on the post generally applaud it.)
Catherine Pellegrino posted this piece on September 27, 2012 at Spurious Tuples. Pellegrino normally writes about library instruction, but felt this was too important not to discuss.
She notes the oddity of ACS’ dual publishing/accreditation role and says, “Possibly as a result of this situation, the (non-profit,tax-exempt, 501.c.3) Society charges subscription rates for its journal packages that, for many libraries, dwarf the cost of any other resource they purchase.” She notes the CHE article and specifically Glenn Ruskin’s decision not to engage in public debate, preferring to confer by telephone or face-to-face with individual librarians. Note that Glenn Ruskin is ACR’s PR director—so we have a situation in which public relations means not relating publicly.
Pellegrino sees in the early discussion more than I’ve mentioned so far:
There are a lot of issues swirling around this particular incident: we’ve got the ACS’s potential conflict of interest in its role as both accreditor and purveyor of resources required for accreditation; we’ve got larger issues of ownership and access in scholarly communication; we’ve got issues of age, gender, and power in librarianship; we’ve got issues of the Serials Crisis and the Big Deal affecting library budgets; we’ve got issues of language and context and code-shifting and public vs. private communication; and we’ve got issues of libraries, and librarians, as stewards of scarce resources.
Given the caveat that Pellegrino’s also a respected colleague, I don’t believe she’s making things up. She chooses to focus on the final issue, referring back to Jenica Rogers’ second post, just discussed, “we are not the ones who failed.” Pellegrino specifically focuses on this pushback: “That’s a bad decision. Your users need that content.”
And that’s the point that I want to work through here: yes, her users need that content. So do mine. So does every chemistry department. But you know what? Her users need a lot of things, and so do mine and so do yours. Libraries have limited resources to distribute, to steward, to meet all of our users’ needs. And stewardship is complicated: sometimes it means making decisions that make people unhappy—even make their work or their lives more difficult—in pursuit of a greater good.
And librarians have a really hard time making people unhappy. We’ve been trying, since the first librarian who saw beyond the Gatekeeper model of librarianship to the Facilitator model of librarianship, to make people happy. To help people. We are, after all, a female-dominated so-called “helping profession.” It is very hard for us to say “no.”
But sometimes we have to, either because there is no other answer, or because we have to keep the larger picture in mind. We’ve been saying “yes,” and bending over backwards to do more with less, and attempting to give everyone everything they need for so long that we have nearly forgotten that there are models of librarianship other than Doormat and Faculty Helpmeet. We have nearly forgotten that we, too, have expertise and experience, and a broad view of the scholarly communication landscape, to bring to bear on these problems. We recognize that something has to give, that library collections in all disciplines other than chemistry suffer because of the untenable situation that the ACS has put libraries in, and because we know this, we must use that knowledge to inform our stewardship. [Emphasis added.]
Which leads to Pellegrino’s primary point: “We cannot let Jenica Rogers and SUNY Potsdam be the sole standard bearers for libraries in this matter.” [Emphasis not added.] More libraries, more chemistry departments, more colleges and universities need to walk away when that’s the most responsible thing to do. (It’s never the easiest thing to do.)
Which is the part of this story that needs to emerge and, so far, hasn’t.
John Dupuis posted this on September 27, 2012 at Confessions of a Science Librarian—and it’s worth noting that blog name. He wonders why people would go into scholarly publishing at a scientific society and says:
I can only hope that for a person to pursue a career in scholarly publishing at a scientific society, their goal in life is to try and make the world a better place, to advance science, to serve society, to help the researchers of today stand on the shoulders of giants.
He quotes the ACS Vision and Mission statements that would appear to be along those lines—and says the theory doesn’t seem to be translating into practice. (Rather than excerpting those statements, I’ll point to the link itself. When you get to ACS, you might note the financial information: the principal sources of funding for ACS are its publications and Chemical Abstracts, even though the society has more than 160,000 members.) Then he recounts the Ruskin statements, specifically the one accusing Rogers of vulgarity.
Fact: The post that started this brouhaha had no profanity, was not vulgar, did not attack ACS employees. Fact: Jenica Rogers’ language—which was entirely professional in this instance—is irrelevant to the issue of ACS pricing. There’s really no need to say any more (but that won’t stop me, nor did it stop others). Ruskin is doing a classic “Don’t look here, look over there” attempt to get people to focus on something that’s entirely irrelevant even if it was true, rather than focusing on ACS.
Rogers didn’t take kindly to Ruskin’s post. She responded with her own chminf-l post (also on September 26, 2012), providing the ACS-related portions of all the Attempting Elegance posts that have involved ACS, prefaced with this:
For all of you who won’t take the time to search (nor do I think you should have to), let me share all of my public posts about the ACS. There are several over several years. I really don’t think that I was guilty of “rude behavior or her use of profanity and vulgarity in addressing ACS or its employees.” I don’t appreciate the accusations, Mr. Ruskin, and none of what you’ve accused me of changes the fact that you DID insult bloggers and listserv participants. Apologizing by insulting me does you no credit.
You can read the excerpts yourself. It’s an interesting set of careful, professional comments. You’ll see in that stream that ACS folks have already been prone to what I’d consider demeaning responses—the kind of thing no publisher representative would dare say to or about, say, Dr. Jerold Rogers, the 54-year-old motorcycle-riding, hard-drinking, foulmouthed (on his own time) university librarian at an ARL library (Dr. Rogers is fictional). I mean, really: Responding to a legitimate question with “Dear Ms. Rogers, I am sorry that you were having such a bad day when you responded to my email”? (Since the ACS employee who sent that absurd response was female, I suppose I can’t call it sexist—or can I?)
What’s clear from reading the fascinating set of excerpts—posts that push the story back several months—is that Jenica Rogers always behaved professionally. And that at least one ACS employee did not.
Here’s Dupuis’ reaction (in addition to providing a detailed list of relevant posts, one that I’ve raided to flesh out this story—but there are even more posts that I chose not to cite):
American Chemical Society, you need to rethink what you’re all about, how you treat your customers and your members and the true constituency of your society—society as a whole.
Given your status as a scholarly society, you should price your products fairly so you need to work with librarians and others to build a sustainable business model that works for a broad range of institutions.
Iris Jastram was amused by Glenn Ruskin’s objections to discourteous writing on blogs and, in this September 26, 2012 post, quoted Ruskin’s remarks and contrasted them with the practice of another publisher representative—this time the email sent by a JoVE salesman to a faculty member (at another institution entirely) who, the faculty member says, pushed him to request a trial of the journal (the library chose not to subscribe):
I am writing not to ask if you ever evaluated JoVE, but to question your integrity. By asking me to set up a trial for what I am assuming you wanted only to use a protocol from JoVE and then be done with JoVE. This is the reason I am questioning your integrity. Before the trial you said,you would be able to evaluate JoVE in the time given and if useful for you and your student you would endorse JoVE highly. This, of course, never happened.
For me this is a completion of the transaction that has been lingering. My conclusion is that you lied to get what you want and you lack integrity.
Whew. Jastram links to a more complete email string on the situation—and to JoVE’s apology. I guess civil discourse only needs to work in certain situations. [Yes, I know I’ve lost the pure chronological thread at this point. That’s because John Dupuis’ post, while coming later than this one and a couple that follow, provides great background and links.]
Full disclosure: Steve Lawson, author of this September 26, 2012 post at See Also…, is another one of those LSW Friendfeeders who I value as colleagues and frequently disagree with—sometimes vehemently, sometimes using strong language. As he notes in this post, he’s not a big fan of the ACS. He notes the SUNY Potsdam action and quotes Ruskin’s response—then gives his translation of Ruskin’s initial response (in CHE):
Let me translate that for you: the ACS thrives in an atmosphere of secrecy and uncertainty. “Divide and conquer” is part of that plan. When librarians share information publicly about how much the ACS charges and suggest that libraries take action, we are not observing common courtesy. We hurt Mr. Ruskin’s feelings, it seems, when we point out that the organization he works for is advancing policies around pricing and access that we feel are bad for libraries, higher education, and scholarship.
Ah, but then there’s the followup—and here, Lawson spells out the bad language. And comments in kind. He closes:
No matter how Mr. Ruskin tries to spin this, the story is that libraries and chemists are fed up with the American Chemical Society, and are pushing back against their outrageous price increases and their retrograde attitude toward Open Access. And all the ACS can say in their own defense is, “that librarian uses bad words.” Where’s the “logic, balance, and common courtesy” there?
Yep. And I think it’s worth quoting the single comment, from Barbara Fister (yet another LSW Friendfeeder and an eloquent writer):
I want to second everything you say here, and to particularly underscore our debt to Jenica for not just taking a necessary stand for her institution, not itself an easy thing, but for making it public. Every academic library that struggles as hers does to support a chemistry program in the face of pricing that makes it incredibly difficult—and we are legion, and we are institutions that educate tomorrow’s chemists—is feeling a huge burden lifted to know they are not alone, that someone had the courage to take it to the streets.
Also jaw-dropping are the gender dynamics of the way the association’s spokespeople are using every trick in the book to punish an uppity woman for speaking up. Now off to read Iris’s post ….
Gender dynamics? Yes, I do believe that’s part of it.
“…attack the messenger, using whatever tactics are necessary.”
So says Walt Crawford posting on September 27, 2012 at Walt at Random. Crawford’s a wordy devil, and this post is no exception. A few excerpts of what he—OK, I—had to say in a briefer-than-this-essay discussion of the situation, beginning with the paragraph after the completion of the post’s title:
That, apparently, is appropriate public relations, at least if you’re the American Chemical Society and the message is that your e-journal bundles are priced out of reach of smaller institutions with library directors who behave responsibly….
[One of two tangents:] I’ve argued for years that it’s wholly unreasonable of professional societies, including ACS, to subsidize their operations at the expense of college and university libraries–and that in the long run it’s unsupportable. As a humanist, I’m acutely aware that science, technology and medicine subscriptions can and will chew up all of a library’s acquisitions budget, leaving no room for the monographs and other resources that humanists and social scientists require. While the OA situation may not be directly relevant to this discussion, the “bleeding libraries dry to support professional society operations” situation is, I think, directly relevant–but it’s still background….
More tangent. It’s not just SUNY Potsdam and it’s not just academic libraries. Steve Kolowich wrote “Paying by the Pound for Journals“ on December 2, 2010 at Inside Higher Ed, noting the ACS situation and its effects on corporate and government libraries as well as smaller academic libraries, including one where a university’s price for digital access to the ACS bundle would go up 1,861 percent in 2011. In that article, Glenn Ruskin said it was “misguided” to suggest that ACS was trying to control price increases for academic institutions by overpricing access for corporate and government subscribers. Maybe he had a point there: ACS was also ready to overprice academic access.
[After going through the exchanges that took place, including Ruskin’s emailing of a screenshot showing Rogers’ Friendfeed posts:]
Here’s the thing. The Library Society of the World on Friendfeed is a few hundred library folks who feel free to let our (yes, “our”) hair down and talk about a variety of things–serious library issues, earworms, whatever. Frequently including frustration over serious library issues.
Rogers is a relatively young and extremely talented university librarian. She’s female. She’s young (under 50, by quite a few years). She’s a librarian. Oh, and she frequently says what she means–always eloquently, always professionally on her blog, but more casually on Friendfeed.
Yes, she used Bad Language on Friendfeed. So have I. So has almost everybody in LSW who actually contributes to discussions. Sometimes you need to let off steam.
I really should call Jenica P. Rogers “Jenica,” since I’ve met her, “chatted” with her and regard her as a valued acquaintance, but I also regard her as a valuable library director and one of many younger librarians who convince me that the future of libraries is in good hands, so I’m giving her last-name respect.
I’ve been privileged to know dozens (maybe hundreds) of library directors in my long non-career, including quite a few of the Biggies, directors of ARL libraries. I’ve been around some of them in informal settings. Guess what? Nearly all of them have been known to let off steam, using some well-chosen words they wouldn’t use in a professional setting.
Doesn’t make them less professional. Does make them more human.
Rogers is an easy target: She’s a she. She’s under 50. She’s a librarian. She says what she thinks.
She’s also a stupid target–because she’s right. She worked with her faculty. She worked with her administration. She raised serious issues.
None of which is vitiated by the fact that Rogers occasionally uses informal language in an informal setting. As most of us who are living, breathing human beings do.
Just at a guess, if Dick Dougherty (oh, sorry, Richard Dougherty) had raised those issues when he was the University Librarian at UC Berkeley–older, male, and at a big campus that has had to cancel large numbers of serials several times because nobody’s budget can handle some price increases–you wouldn’t get a PR person pointing out that Dougherty’s a motorcycle rider who’s been known to use colorful language, and thus should be ignored or treated contemptuously.
But that’s just a guess.
That set of choices comes from the Library Loon, posting on September 28, 2012 at Gavia Libraria—and those are the four persona she sees as choices for academic library directors dealing with serials pricing issues. The Loon is keying off the pushback Rogers received from other librarians (see “we are not the ones who failed” earlier).
To review: Rogers clearly saw well in advance a moment of truth coming for her campus’s chemistry subscriptions, a moment when no further can-kicking would be appropriate or even possible. While the moment of truth held off, therefore, she carefully prepared her environment to accept it, educating local chemistry faculty (and, the Loon suspects, local university administration, though Rogers says nothing openly about this) on the shape of the problem so that the moment of truth wouldn’t come as a complete shock. Then when it arrived, she showed those educated, prepared faculty the situation, and they rallied behind her.
At which point, some librarians said, “how dare you not kick the can further down the street?” To which the Loon’s return question is, “does anyone who has been paying the least attention truly believe any library anywhere can kick that damnable can down the street indefinitely?”
I would suggest that some librarians are doing their damnedest to avoid paying attention to the larger issues, trying to squeeze a few more drops of blood out of their budgets or hoping Someone Else will solve the problem.
The post is well written and deserves reading on its own terms. A few quick notes on the choices:
· Hero: Jenica Rogers and others who speak out and take actions; the Loon mentions a few. She notes: “Library heroes aren’t born; they make themselves.”
· Villain: How faculty treat library directors who haven’t carefully educated and prepared them for the reality. “Angry faculty get librarians fired and libraries closed.”
· Poltroon: Those who dance around the issue rather than involving faculty: “we never thought it would get this bad; we didn’t want to bother you about it.”
· Ignoramus: Those who haven’t been paying attention. “Faculty will route around ignoramuses, or fire them with loathing for their ineffectual inarticulacy.”
· Bumbler: How some faculty will regard librarians who fail to manage the library’s money properly—that is, to do their jobs.
So. Hero, villain, poltroon, ignoramus, or bumbler? Those would seem to be the choices. (Those who think “well-intentioned professional backed into an impossible corner” should be on the list have a great deal more faith in faculty attitudes than the Loon does.) Librarians who wish the dice to come up “hero” had better work on an estimated time of arrival for the moment of truth, and a plan for finishing the necessary faculty education by the time that moment arrives.
There’s a little more. This summary doesn’t do the post justice. The Library Loon may be an avian bird, but loony it isn’t.
Bonnie Swoger posted this on September 28, 2012 at Information Culture. Swoger works at another SUNY campus, SUNY Geneseo. She describes SUNY Potsdam’s actions and adds:
The American Chemical Society is well known in library circles for having aggressive year-to-year price increases. Last year, my library cancelled its subscription to the “all ACS journals” package in favor of a new, smaller, package of 16 ACS journals to avoid an effective 11% price jump on the “all journals” package. The year before our cost for the ACS archive (pre-1995 journals) doubled as the ACS moved to a new pricing model. While prices for the smaller journal package held steady for us this year, I keep a list of things that we might need to cancel when (not if) prices increase faster than the library budget. I’m concerned that we will have to cancel this smaller journal package in favor of just a few ACS subscriptions sometime in the next few years. After several years of declining or steady library budgets, my library has made all of the “easy” cuts we can in order to afford scholarly content from the ACS and other publishers: the book budget has been slashed, we’ve cancelled many magazines and newspapers, the student worker budget has been cut, we aren’t binding print journals anymore, etc. Other libraries are in a similar position where the only thing left to cut are journal subscriptions.
Noting the discussions and those who have bemoaned chemistry students’ lacking access to ACS journals, Swoger makes an excellent point:
Few ask about the non-chemistry students who would lose access to their own discipline’s high quality research in order for Potsdam to afford the ACS subscriptions. Every time journal subscription costs go up faster than library budgets, something has to be cut.
Then we get into the Ruskin nonsense—and Swoger says “I don’t blame Jenica for using blunt language and the occasional curse word when talking about ACS with friends and colleagues.” She’s frustrated that publishers aren’t engaging with librarians in honest open conversations about pricing issues.
Talk to us, ACS. And I don’t mean by calling me privately. Engage with librarians and chemists about this issue on listservs and blogs. Open a dialog on what a reasonable pricing model would include. We know that you have good content, and we’re not expecting to access it for free. But when we can’t afford it anymore we are left with few options, and almost everyone loses. I would love to see a greater variety of journal package options (a package of 8 or 12 journals, for example) at a lower cost. I would like to see some honest figures about why my college’s cost per download is about 10 times the cost per download of our nearby university. I would also love to hear about how the aggressive price increases and higher-than-other-scholarly-societies subscription costs mesh with the mission statement of the ACS “to advance the broader chemistry enterprise and its practitioners for the benefit of Earth and its people.”
In the comments we get a point that hadn’t been made to date: “ACS pays huge and yearly increasing sums and perks to its administrators and top staff. An administrator of ACS makes FAR more than a highly qualified chemist Prof. Dr.. The money’s got to come from somewhere…”
That’s not an entirely arbitrary breakpoint, as another statement from ACS emerged in early October. But first…
Barbara Fister posted this “Library Babel Fish” column on October 4, 2012 at Inside Higher Ed. She begins with a slightly different slant:
When the chemistry faculty of SUNY Potsdam aligned themselves with their library director, Jenica Rogers, to say “no” publicly to the American Chemical Society (ACS) because the price of their journal package was too high for schools like theirs and would have consumed a disproportionate percentage of the library’s total budget, it was newsworthy (subscription required).
I like this—pointing out the agreement of the faculty first. Fister explains why this is newsworthy in an era when “no” is said so often. First, there’s ACS:
The ACS has long had an offer we can’t refuse, or so it has seemed. Not only is the ACS the publisher of journals considered essential in the field and the search tool the chemists use to find out what has been published, they accredit chemistry programs, and one of the criteria for accreditation is access to the chemistry literature, broadly defined as their journals and database. (There are acceptable journals published by others; just not very many.) They know that they can roll out higher prices whenever they want and most libraries will pay it. My library got hit with a 20 percent price hike last year, between an ACS increase and a cut in a state subsidy, but we sucked it up because our department felt the journals were too critical to their program to do otherwise and we’ve canceled nearly everything else. Jenica and the chemists at SUNY Potsdam decided the pricing structure is unfair to smaller schools and enough was enough. Together, they came up with a more affordable collection of resources that would meet their needs and rejected the ACS package.
Fister says that in conversations with many members of ACS, she has yet to find one arguing that ACS’ prices are fair—but they’re not trying to do anything about it. She also notes the sheer size of ACS’ publishing revenue, “something approaching a half billion dollars annually,” and ACS’ record of lobbying against OA. And then:
What struck me most was the interesting gender dynamics of the ACS’s response to just saying no. Jenica Rogers is not easily intimidated. She is a sharp thinker, an outspoken and passionate professional, and an active participant in social media, where she might mince her opponents from time to time, but not her words. She has even been known—gasp!—to use profanity among friends. That brazen hussy! This is unseemly behavior for a woman, and the ACS made it clear they insist on proper behavior, in venues where decorum can be ensured. Which means face to face, or on the telephone, not on those nasty bloggy things.
She explores this slightly, linking to Derailing for Dummies. She doesn’t think it’s working in general. And she relates this to another set of issues where some librarians have had a similar response: “We have no power. There’s nothing we can do.” (To which, for SUNY Potsdam, might be added “…and it’s wrong for you to do anything.”)
I understand the sense of frustration. Our position in the academy is complicated. But I think we’re selling ourselves short. Librarianship is largely a female profession and it is proudly a service profession. Nobody gets into the field to get rich and powerful. We don’t get much practice throwing our weight around because it’s not something we typically like to do. But when we serve the needs of one person at a time in a way that takes away our ability to serve the people as a whole, we are not being service-oriented, we’re being servile.
Fister believes librarians need to do better and can do better. “Just look at Jenica Rogers.”
As always with Barbara Fister, I’m not doing her writing justice; you should go read the original. And the comments—including a discussion of whether gender dynamics were involved. The more I’ve looked at it—from my position as a white middle-aged anglo-germanic male—the more I believe the dynamics do include gender as well as age: I truly don’t believe 55-year-old Dr. Jerry Rogers would have been treated the same way. I’m also a bit astonished by this comment, repeated in its entirety:
I certainly understand that the new ACS pricing model is outrageous, but using profanity is unseemly -- and unacceptable behavior -- for EVERYONE.
Another commenter provides an eloquent reply before Fister chimes in with the telling response:
Would you tell a fire fighter or police officer you would refuse to speak to them or take them seriously because you overheard them use profanity when talking to a fellow first responder?
I believe this is merely a pretext for discrediting and silencing a woman whose personal choice of expression among friends is not the issue.
This breaks pure chronological order, but following as it does the comments on Barbara Fister’s post, I think the Library Loon’s October 8, 2012 post at Gavia Libraria belongs here. The Loon links to earlier posts about silencing and what’s considered professional behavior. And adds:
Anyone who thinks mere swearing outside a professional context makes a professional less of a professional can simply fuck right off. Anyone who thinks “professional” demeanor must be worn twenty-four hours per day, seven days per week, can similarly fuck right off. Anyone who uses behavior occurring outside a professional context in a professional context in order to discredit someone is a shitheel and is invited to fuck off. Anyone who thinks all online contexts, public and gated, are automatically professional can fuck off as well.
I don’t ordinarily use that language here. But the Loon’s making a point; I agree with the point; the language is relevant to the point. There’s a bit more to the post, but I think that’s the key. There are a few comments, but you should be aware that some of them contain…oh, never mind.
This post from Brandin Nordin, ACS Publications’ VP for sales & marketing appeared on chminf-l on October 5, 2012. Since it’s explicitly an open letter, and to avoid accusations of bias (but, of course, I freely admit to being biased in favor of tenable libraries), I’ll quote the whole thing, just cleaning up the odd formatting (which was probably not Nordin’s fault).
At ACS Publications, our goal is to provide the most authoritative and indispensable peer-reviewed research and chemistry related information through our portfolio of 41 journals and other publications. We recognize this is only possible through a committed partnership with you, our library customers, and the research communities you support.
We value this partnership and we apologize for our recent failure to make clear the importance we place on our dialogue with libraries and scholarly communications departments. We aim to do better, and are grateful for the ongoing close consultation and collaboration we have with libraries and consortia worldwide in helping shape our subscription and publishing options as we move from the print past to the digital present.
As a result of this collaboration, more scientists have access to more ACS journals through more libraries than at any time during ACS¹s 136-year history. This year, the ACS Web Editions platform will host more than 1,000,000 original articles and will successfully fulfill over 80 million article requests from the global scientific community. We thank you for working with us to make such broad and immediate information access a reality, particularly in light of the economic stress faced by so many libraries today.
We realize that no pricing model is ever perfect—and that in this difficult economic era, we have heard your concerns about ensuring future access to the essential and highly cited research found in ACS Publications. Publishers and libraries have a shared stake in sustainability: ACS is committed to working with you to refine and improve our approach and welcomes an ongoing dialogue with you about library and research trends, publishing best practices, and shared economic concerns.
Over the next 6 months, we will expand our consultations with the library community to ensure we have the features, access options, and publishing models that meet your expectations and the needs of the communities you serve. In the meantime, please do not hesitate to call your ACS Publications representative with any questions, or contact me directly at firstname.lastname@example.org to share your concerns and suggestions. More information on 2013 renewal options is also available at the Librarian Resource Center at http://pubs.acs.org.
Thank you for your partnership and for your support of ACS Publications and the American Chemical Society.
I don’t know why I have trouble believing the “80 million article requests” from one resource, but maybe it’s true. In any case, it’s irrelevant to the situation—and so, for that matter, is the whole letter. There’s no apology for what happened. There’s no suggestion that ACS’ pricing model is untenable for smaller institutions. As I read it, it’s basically CorpSpeak that doesn’t say much of anything. Which may be why there hasn’t been much reaction.
That’s the title for Meredith Schwartz’ October 10, 2012 piece at Library Journal, recounting the SUNY Potsdam decision, some of the issues, Ruskin’s stuff and more (hmm: I just noticed that my post is referenced). Then, after noting Bonnie Swoger and others calling for opening a dialog:
On October 5, it did so—sort of. The ACS released an open letter to the library community, not from Ruskin but from Brandon A. Nordin, vice president, sales & marketing, in which it apologized “for our recent failure to make clear the importance we place on our dialogue with libraries and scholarly communications departments” and promised to “expand our consultations with the library community” over the next six months, as well as inviting questions or concerns to be sent to Nordin personally. But while far more conciliatory in tone, the letter ultimately reprises Ruskin’s content: ACS is still seeking to engage in conversations about pricing one-on-one, rather than tackling any of the questions raised in a public forum.
Schwartz sees more of an apology for Ruskin than I did—and I see not so much conciliation as blandness. The article ends on an appropriate note, by quoting Jenica Rogers:
While the sentiment is great … I’m concerned that if the ACS simply continues on the path they are on now, but slightly broader, we will not gain much as a stakeholder in these consultations… The transparency of ACS sales positions elaborated in writing and their pricing structures made fully available to the library community online would advance our collaboration leaps and bounds further than individual closed-door discussions and non-disclosure terms ever will.
Hard to add anything useful to that comment.
There continue to be Friendfeed discussions on this set of issues, including the question of whether or when ARL/R1 institutions will come on board. Some folks may have even grumped a little about ARL libraries. In the case of SUNY, at least, the grumping was unwarranted—as the SUNY Council of Library Directors passed a resolution sponsored by the university centers and unanimously endorsed by the whole council:
WHEREAS Jenica Rogers has canceled the SUNY Potsdam contract with ACS and publicized that decision through her blog “Attempting Elegance”
And Whereas this action has drawn much needed attention to the relationship between libraries and publishers; the problems of ongoing inflationary price increases; and the need to justify our budgets and purchases to a host of audiences
And Whereas this action has generated national attention to these issues and opened an opportunity for frank and honest discussion of these and related issues regarding the costs of electronic subscriptions
BE IT RESOLVED That SCLD recognizes, honors, and appreciates Jenica Rogers for her actions in this instance and salutes her for her courage and tenacity in addressing this issue for the benefit of SUNY Potsdam, SCLD libraries, and the academic and scholarly community as a whole.
The Doctoral Sector campuses—the biggies—also passed a resolution voicing support for Potsdam’s decision. As Rogers noted in a Friendfeed discussion (from which I copied the resolution above), the ACS pricing for doctoral institutions is “perfectly fine—reasonable, sustainable, great at a use per article rate”—so they’re paying attention to the larger issues rather than their own immediate needs. Which is as it should be.
I’m not quite sure when this Caralee Adams report was posted to SPARC’s site, but it’s a good overview of the piece—one that adds new insights from some of Potsdam’s chemistry faculty and SUNY Potsdam’s Provost. Excerpts:
Like many other state universities, the SUNY Potsdam budget has faced significant cuts - 25 percent in the past three years – and the latest ACS price hike was the “last straw,” said Provost Margaret Madden. She and Rogers talked about possible responses and made sure the chemistry department was consulted about the final decision to cancel the ACS online package.
“It can’t be top down. These decisions need to be made collaboratively,” said Madden. “It’s not something you can do without a lot of discussion and creating goodwill between the faulty and library staff.”
Madden credits Rogers for involving the faculty and said her willingness to speak out publicly about the situation took a certain amount of courage. “I’m grateful that Jenica and I work at a college where that kind of discussion is valued,” said Madden.
While I could quote the whole article (as you’d expect from SPARC, it has a Creative Commons BY license), it’s done well enough that you should go to the link.It serves as background to this (from which I got the link):
Jenica Rogers posted this on October 18, 2012 at Attempting Elegance—and it’s both elegant and eloquent enough to quote in full:
Truths as I see them:
When pricing is a secret, and leads to institutions bickering over who’s right and who’s wrong because “OUR deal is really reasonable, so what are you complaining about?”, there’s something wrong with the system.
When a small 4 year liberal arts college is being charged just under 50% what an ARL is being charged for the same resources, there’s something wrong with the system.
When I start getting multiple emails, Twitter DMs, and other quiet messages telling me that “it’s really broken, and we’re going to cancel, too”, there’s definitely something wrong with the system.
When no one but me will say “we’re going to cancel because there’s something wrong with the system”, there’s something wrong with our discourse.
When no one but me will say it, because when you say it a major publishing company’s response is to say “she has a pottymouth, so we won’t engage with her in public, but we’ll gladly talk to you behind closed doors”, there’s something wrong with our discourse.
When no one but me will say it because their institution would never support them, particularly if they talked about it in public, there’s something wrong with our discourse.
But my Provost has it right. “I’m grateful that Jenica and I work at a college where that kind of discussion is valued,” said Madden.
Very, very grateful. Because the discussion matters. Because the system and the discourse are broken. Because the status quo is broken. Because nothing gets fixed if no one speaks up.
This should only be part of a much larger story—the points at which the serials crisis becomes truly critical for various campuses and various situations. The points at which libraries and parent institutions can only say “It doesn’t matter how good the content is; the price is simply too high.” Which might also be the points at which effective open access comes into play. But that’s a whole bigger perspective: this story isn’t directly about OA.What appears crucial: That more libraries and institutions speak up.
In the meantime, Brandon Nordin posted a fairly long item on October 24, 2012 to a group of lists including chminf-l but also liblicense-l and others: “ACS, SUNY Potsdam, and Pricing: The Publisher’s Perspective.” Because that post may or may not be part of a continuing discussion, I’m not going to go through it in detail. I do find one paragraph telling, however (emphasis added):
We think it important to offer flexible choices as part of a range of licensing options that we provide to our academic customers. It is why we are open to hearing more from the library community about how to best to ensure sustainable access to the very best research being published in ACS journals by authors drawn from around the world. We are grateful that the majority of SUNY schools have elected to renew with ACS for calendar 2013 by taking advantage of the various options we extended to them.
Should librarians care about the very best research being published in ACS journals? Librarians and scholars should care about good research being available—and if ACS’ version of “sustainable” means it can’t be economically available through ACS journals, well, there are or will be other outlets.
The next to most recent development is Jenica Rogers’ October 26, 2012 response “specious arguments” as posted at Attempting Elegance. Rogers quotes a different portion of Nordin’s item in which he says that while Potsdam (in 2012) is paying twice as much as it did in 2009, it receives roughly four times as many journals. Rogers says Nordin gets his facts right.
However, the argument that SUNY Potsdam is better off now than in 2009, or that the price SUNY Potsdam is charged for ACS content is appropriate is where I call out the definition of specious.
In 2006, we subscribed to 8 online ACS journals. After discussion and collaboration with our Chemistry faculty, in 2006 we swapped subscriptions to a bunch of print titles for that online access to the most important ACS titles for our program, and we were satisfied with what we had done. In 2009, we were offered a lot more content for a small amount more money because of the deal NYSHEI agreed to on our behalf with ACS. We were satisfied then, too, though concerned by the increase in price, given our flat budgets, and wary of more Big Deals for journal access. And in the three budget years since, we’ve been dismayed by the continuing increase in both unsolicited content being sold to us and associated annual increases in pricing.
Because here’s the thing: We don’t need, or want, access to 40 ACS journals. We need and want access to about 14 of those. We subscribed to the most important 8, initially, as that was what worked for our budget—we stopped at 8 because it was what we could afford. We moved to a package of 32 because there was a Big Deal offer on the table that seemed smart at the time, as it gave access to all 14 for a reasonable price increase. That package is now 40 titles and climbing, and markedly more expensive than when we thought it was smart. It’s not smart anymore, and when ACS representatives argue about how much value they’ve added by publishing additional science and more titles, they ignore that we never wanted that additional science, and we don’t need more than 14 of those titles. It’s empty “value” that they’re adding.
Rogers details the options she was left with. ACS deals with “unbundling” as you might expect: If SUNY Potsdam wanted just the 14 titles it really uses, it would take 16% of Potsdam’s total acquisitions budget.
So when ACS reps say “but there’s more content for your money” with the implication that this therefore justifies the price, I reply “specious argument”. True on the surface: there is more content. But the “more content makes it a good value” argument is false: It’s an unacceptable cost for that content, no matter how you approach it or how you slice it.
Read the comments on this post as well. And do expect to see more of this story as time goes by.
The most recent development as of this writing (November 9, 2012): “No Easy Answer for Library Budgets,” an article by Lila Guterman in the November 12, 2012 Chemical & Engineering News—which is published by ACS. After Brian Crawford’s deep assurances that ACS prices are fair and in line with other publishers, there’s an interesting table in big red type, noting that chemistry journals rank “#1 among disciplines” by subscription cost. So, y’know, ACS might not be out of line in the field it specializes in—but that field is notably expensive even by STM standards.
I won’t cherry-pick, but I can’t help but note one more item: “Every library contacted by C&EM has had to pare subscriptions in recent years.” [Emphasis in the original.] Every library. Let’s talk about sustainable, shall we?
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