Information Culture

Information Culture

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A small college cancels ACS journal subscriptions, and ACS doesn't want to talk about it


A few weeks ago, Jenica Rogers, the library director at SUNY Potsdam, a small public college in upstate New York, wrote a blog post detailing how her library and chemistry department decided to cancel subscriptions to the journals published by the American Chemical Society due to unsustainable costs. Faculty at SUNY Potsdam agreed that it was worthwhile to forego immediate access to that content, even though it's of high quality. Continued access to ACS journals would have used up 10% of the total library acquisitions budget. To make up for the loss of ACS journals they added subscriptions to journals from the Royal Society of Chemistry and other publishers.

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.

Many folks have responded to Potsdam's move on library and chemistry blogs and other news sites (John Dupuis has a good list of posts and commentary). Some applaud their actions as standing up to the "Goliath" of publishers. Others lament that their students will lose access to high quality research published by ACS. 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.

For many folks, subscriptions to these journals were once considered un-cancelable. Perhaps we've been pushed to the point now where that is no longer the case.

In a recent article in the Chronicle of Higher Education the author talked to Jenica, a chemistry faculty member, and reached out to the ACS about the issue, expanding on some of the issues raised in Jenica's original blog post. The ACS seemed to say that they aren't going to talk to us about this in the places where we talk about this:

"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."

This statement infuriated many mild mannered librarians. Librarians use blogs, listservs, and other new-fangled online communication tools to discuss library issues, to help each other out and to engage with publishers on issues of mutual interest.

After several chemistry librarians politely expressed their outrage and disappointment in the ACS on the chemical information societies listerv, Mr. Ruskin emailed a response, stating that a final sentence had been left off his quote:

"Therefore, we will not be offering any response to this blog posting or the conversation that has ensued."

His explanation suggested that the ACS was not going to respond to Jenica's blog post and this particular issue. I'm not sure that Mr. Ruskin's clarification seems to help the matter. Whatever your feelings about the tone of Jenica's blog post (or her previous posts about the ACS in which she has described herself as "feeling pointy"), Mr. Ruskin is still saying that they aren't going to talk about this issue in the places where librarians talk about issues like this.

Personally, I don't blame Jenica for using blunt language and the occasional curse word when talking about ACS with friends and colleagues. I became a librarian because I love information, and I'm passionate about teaching students to access, understand and use the scientific literature. When publishers make it more difficult for students to access it by charging fees that we can no longer afford, I feel "pointy" too. Just ask the librarians whose cubicles are next to mine.

Those of us struggling to provide our students and faculty with high quality research are frustrated that we don't have partners on the other side of the table willing to engage with us in honest conversation about journal prices. We are left with few options: renew at the prices ACS is charging or cancel something. It isn't a nice position to be in.

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.”

Don't shut down the public conversation.


The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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