When you’re wrong on the message…

…attack the messenger, using whatever tactics are necessary.

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.

Background

The American Chemical Society (henceforth ACS) is, no doubt, an important professional society. It publishes 41 journals, including some highly-regarded ones. It also accredits undergrad chemistry departments at universities and colleges (one easy way to support that accreditation is to subscribe to the ACS journals, although it turns out that’s not the only way).

And it charges a lot for institutional access to the journals in electronic form, making substantial profits that support other aspects of ACS.

Tangent: Brian Crawford of ACS was for years, and may still be, a prominent opponent of open access and other attempts to reform scholarly communication, misleadingly suggesting that OA would undermine peer review among other questionable statements. I’ve mentioned him several times, usually quoting others.

Also tangent: 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.

SUNY Potsdam has a relatively small chemistry department. The university librarian, Jenica Rogers, has kept the chemistry faculty informed on the growing cost of the ACS bundle and the difficulties it posed for the library.

ACS has been moving to “value-based pricing,” a process that, for this year, would have SUNY Potsdam spending 10% of its entire acquisitions budget just to provide access to the ACS journals. Jenica Rogers discussed the situation with the faculty and concluded that it just wasn’t workable: That SUNY Potsdam would have to drop the bundle and support its chemistry department through other means. It was a carefully considered move, and one Rogers was reluctant to make. She knows the ACS journals offer quality resources. She also knows that state support for the university libraries has been shrinking and that it’s her professional duty to see that funds are allocated appropriately.

The chemistry department supported Rogers’ decision. So did the university administration. It was, under the circumstances, the only reasonable thing to do.

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.

Foreground

Jenica Rogers explained SUNY Potsdam’s decision clearly and eloquently in “Walking away from the American Chemical Society,” posted September 13, 2012 on her first-rate blog, Attempting Elegance. If you haven’t already done so, you should read the post. Read the comments as well, to get some indication of other institutions dealing with this–and just how long ACS journal pricing policies have been problematic (one Nobel laureate apparently quit the society because of the policies). You’ll also see an anonymous comment attacking the decision and praising ACS. I’ll wait.  (You may also want to read “kittens, glitter, and unicorns,” posted September 17, 2012, about the reactions to the original post.)

Jennifer Howard of the Chronicle of Higher Education interviewed Rogers and wrote “As Chemistry Journals’ Prices Rise, a Librarian Just Says No” (published September 26, 2012: if you’re not a CHE subscriber, you may not be able to read it; Howard was kind enough to send me an accessible version). As you’d expect, Howard asked ACS for comment–and got this back:

“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.”

Say what? That was my reaction, and I suspect it held for quite a few others. Ruskin doesn’t respond to the actual decision and its background; instead, he attacks bloggers and list participants for lacking “logic, balance and common courtesy” and basically says “we’ll talk to you in private and off the record.” It’s probably worth talking about non-disclosure agreements and the damage they do to libraries in general, but that’s another discussion, and not one I’m qualified to make.

Rogers wasn’t thrilled with Ruskin’s response, and said so in “Respecting your customers,” posted September 26, 2012–I know, that’s yesterday, this has turned into a fast-moving story, one I was originally planning to ignore. Go read that one too: It’s short and to the point.

Where it all turns sour…

Ah, but it turns out Ruskin was misinterpreted–or the lack of a comma after “listservs” was vitally important. As he made clear in later email (to the blogger at ChemBark), he wasn’t writing off blogs and lists in general. Nope, he was attacking one particular notably female blogger who he chose not to name. Quoting directly from quoted material in “ACS to Bloggers: Shove It” (posted September 26, 2012 and updated to include this quote):

It was not my intention, nor the intention of ACS, to denigrate blogs or users/contributors of blogs.   My comment was directed toward the blog that was the subject of the CHE story.  Unfortunately, CHE did not use the totality of my comment as I think it would have been clear that I was speaking specifically to the blog that was the point of the story.  Here is the totality of my statement (bolded section was omitted by CHE):

“We find little constructive dialogue can be had on blogs and other listservs where logic, balance and common courtesy are not practiced and observed.  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.  Therefore, we will not be offering any response  to this blog posting or the conversation that has ensued.

I respect and appreciate responsible bloggers, those that thoughtfully engage on those blogs as well as those that utilize listservs.  No insult was intended, and apologies to those that interpreted the comment that way.  These outlets provide important avenues to further dialogue and collaboration and are valuable assets in the ever evolving digital age.

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.

“Vulgarity and profanity postings”? I don’t remember any particular vulgarity or profanity in Rogers’ posts, and certainly not in the CHE article. It is, of course, true that pointing to “vulgarity and profanity postings” is a classic way to derail an actual discussion: “You used bad language so I won’t attempt to deal with your actual message.”

But Rogers didn’t use bad language in her posts.

Ah, but when Rogers-responded to Ruskin’s attack (in a list post at CHMINF-L–responding to his statement on, ahem, that same list–ah, but it’s not a Listserv, since it uses Sympa list software, not Lyris’ trademarked Listserv, so I guess it’s OK), he responded by sending Rogers a screenshot from a Friendfeed conversation.

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. Freque

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 languagein 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.

Reading more…

This has already gone on too long. I’m not even the right person to be saying this. I shock easily (I’m old). I’ve never been shocked by anything Jenica Rogers has said. I was shocked by Gleen Ruskin’s behavior.

For further reading, I’ll suggest (among others):

 

 

7 Responses to “When you’re wrong on the message…”

  1. Michael Golrick Says:

    Thanks Walt. You said much of what I was thinking (and some things like the FriendFeed stuff that I did not know about), in a thoughtful way.

    When I first read the ACS approved quip “that does not excuse rude behavior or her use of profanity and vulgarity in addressing ACS or its employees” I went back and could not find it and was puzzled.

    I’d also note that there is a certain irony that he says “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” not to Jenica Rogers, but to a reporter….

  2. waltcrawford Says:

    You’re welcome. Others are also saying things that need to be said, differently, which is as it should be. We need more academic librarians saying these things (and acting on them) as well.

    Part of me almost had a mock CHE story, basically taking the real one but changing the protagonist to Dr. Jerry P. Rogers, 54-year-old University Librarian at the (R1) Atlantis State University and his Attempting Eloquence blog–but with the same actions, the same statement, and the same willingness by Jerry to speak informally in what he took to be an informal, semi-private setting. Would the ACS PR person be so quick to try to denigrate Dr. Rogers rather than dealing with the real issues? Maybe, but I doubt it.

  3. Jenica Rogers Says:

    Hey, Walt, guess at one of the reasons I want to go get a PhD. GUESS. JUST GUESS.

    Thank you for this. It’s flattering, it’s kind, and I think it’s all true. I appreciate the eloquence.

  4. waltcrawford Says:

    You’re welcome, and I’m certain it’s all true. As for guessing why you might want to get a PhD: Nope, haven’t a clue. (I still don’t use emoticons.) Funny how I didn’t even think of that factor (originally).

    One of these months, I really do need to do the writeup on why I’m not too concerned about the future of libraries & librarianship. It’s people like you, and a fair number of others, and in academic, public and special libraries. (I don’t know enough school librarians.)

  5. Angel Says:

    A very nice summary of the event. Kind of one-stop overview for those of us caught in a few other things. Now all we need is more librarians telling ACS what they can do with their bully tactics. And they can quote me on that because if there is anything I hate it is a bully.

    As always, best and keep on blogging.

  6. Louise Alcorn Says:

    Well said, Walt. Public libraries are watching this situation with cautious and paranoid eye, waiting for our own ACS-type situation with any of our more public library-oriented content providers. Nearly all the posts I’ve seen on this subject – Jenica and others – have been clear, concerned, responsive and truthful. Including that we are, by and large, drowning under some of these price increases. It is our professional mission to expand access to resources, not restrict them. We do not make cancellation decisions lightly. Implying that we do is, as you point out, insulting. Thanks for a nice take on this particular brouhaha.

  7. waltcrawford Says:

    Thanks both (and I do wonder about public library parallels, ignoring cough ebooks from the big publishers cough).

    There’s another aspect to this discussion which I also find distressing, although I mostly hear about it second-hand: Namely, the librarians pushing back at Jenica Rogers for making this decision, basically saying “you need to find some other part of your budget to eviscerate, so that ACS can have whatever they ask, ‘cuz it’s good content.”

    Jenica Rogers’ September 27, 2012 post “we are not the ones who failed” specifically addresses this issue (and others). I note it in the bullets at the end of the post above, but it’s worth pointing out again: essential reading, including the comments.

    We need more librarians saying “too much is too much”–working with faculty to understand and make the hard decisions. We really do not need librarians undercutting other librarians who have the courage to do this.


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