Category Archives: The Vendor Files

A small object lesson about the scholarly communication ecosystem

Yesterday I started following links and ended up at the supplementary material for the article “Evaluating Big Deal Journal Bundles“, which reminded me that I want to read it in full. And while PNAS has OA content, the thing I want is not yet available. So I wrestled with our discovery layer for a while, realized it was never going to find an “early access” article indexed there, and submitted an ILL request by filling out the Illiad form manually.

Today, I got one of our standard ILL replies from our Collection Building staff. As I started reading, and saw that they cancelled my request, I thought, “Damn, did they miss the embargo?” but I should have more faith in my staff.

A request you have placed:
Title: Evaluating big deal journal bundles
Author: Theodore C. Bergstrom     Paul N. Courant     R. Preston McAfee, and     Michael A. Williams
Journal: PNAS, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences
TN: 180308
has been cancelled by the SUNY Potsdam Interlibrary Loan staff for the following reason:
Article is available on the web.
It can be found online with a “Google Scholar” search for the article title. Please see the library’s Reference Desk for assistance.
I have included a link to the article.

Because, hey, look at that. Turns out the primary author has it up on his website, and Google Scholar has indexed it.**

The takeaway? My very expensive discovery layer that gives access to our very expensive databases which we purchase in a Big Deal model cannot find this early access article in a reputable journal, but a library employee with access to Google can find the author’s archived copy of this article about the cost of the journal Big Deals, and thereby found the website in which much of Bergstrom’s supplementary material is also housed. And it probably took her less time to find it than it took me to fail.

Nah. Nothing’s broken here.

**I am not including the link, because it appears that while Bergstrom has put the .pdf on his website, he doesn’t appear to have actually linked it openly, so I don’t want to then openly drive traffic to something he may or may not yet have legal rights to post publicly. Google, however, has no such scruples. Do what you will with that knowledge, if you’re looking to read this thing. [Edited to add: I take it back; I didn’t read closely enough. It’s here. Go for it.]

on confidentiality and FOI laws

For the past few weeks now I’ve been emailing back and forth with a vendor, debating terms of a license agreement. I struck several terms, both of my own volition and on recommendation from purchasing officials on my campus, and added additional SUNY-specific terms that need to be included. I’ve done this many times before, and usually, the vendor suggests changes to bring us to agreement, or simply agrees, and we move on. (The notable exception is that Lexis-Nexis will never ever ever ever agree to allowing walk-in users, which is an incredible pain in the ass in re: our public access computers.)

Except this time, I’m getting pushback.

The clause in question requires, in regard to legal requests for disclosure under applicable Freedom of Information requests, that “the party required to make such disclosure promptly provides written notice to the other party of such required disclosure and reasonably cooperates with such other party’s efforts to minimize the extent of such disclosure.”

Italics mine. I say no. I have two strong beliefs that inform that choice.

1. I think it’s deplorable to ask anyone to minimize their compliance with the law. Period. Requiring that I “minimize the extent” of disclosure asks me to look at a FOI request and say “how much can I get away with hiding?” rather than honestly asking “What data will satisfy this request?” As an information professional committed to providing access to as much information as possible to as many as possible, that’s just abhorrent. As a State employee, I’m also subject to additional sunshine clauses contained in State policy, so this not only requires that I twist my legal obligations to best suit a corporation, it requires that I skirt the requirements of my employment as closely as possible — under the direction of an outside party.

2. What is there in this agreement that needs to be held so confidential? NOTHING. In my assessment, having signed many, many license agreements in the last decade, there are no terms here that are unusual, outside of the industry standard, or in any way harmful to the corporation’s interests — other than the pricing offered us. These terms and terms like them in library contracts exist only, as far as I can tell, to prevent libraries from discussing their pricing agreements amongst ourselves. They are designed to protect the vendors from collective awareness and action, and better-informed decision-making by libraries. Again, as an information professional committed to providing access to information, this is counter to my professional philosophies and goals.

And I won’t accept either of those things.

Video from Charleston 2013, with a warning

The video from my Charleston talk is now officially available, from Charleston, on YouTube.  This link will take you there, if the embed below doesn’t work.

Before you go watch, I need to say this:

This talk deserves a trigger warning regarding domestic abuse. I draw a direct comparison between an emotionally abusive set of circumstances in a domestic relationship and the ways that publishers have approached libraries in our commercial relationships. It was not my intent to hurt anyone with this comparison, but it was careless of me not to realize that hurt would be a result. I knew it would startle people, and hoped it would shock some into seeing things differently. I didn’t think about the pain it would cause others, and for that I am sorry.

The section in question starts around 27:00, and goes to 30:00.

Beyond that apology, I believe my words can speak for themselves. I still believe, deeply, in the overall message of this talk. Things have to change, on both sides of the relationship.

Experiencing different realities

I’ve been alerted that the December 2013/January 2014 edition of Against The Grain will include a rebuttal of my keynote address at the November 2013 Charleston Conference, and a kind soul who will remain anonymous provided me with a copy of that rebuttal. When it is published online, if you have ATG access, it will be here. The article also provides a link to a video of the speech I gave, which is here. (Note: These links are not currently working, as of 10:20 on 2/6. They are not the official links, so they were bound to be unreliable. There’s nothing I can do about it. If you want to see the official stuff, petition the conference to launch the proceedings soon.)

Against the Grain is the publication most closely linked to the Charleston Conference, so this is an eminently logical place for the article to appear. And I’m not surprised that there are detractors. I was blunt, I was confrontational, and I was aggressive. I made some people angry, and offended others. That happens when you’re blunt and confrontational. I expected pushback. I’m happy to see the debate expand and continue. So please understand that this post does not come from a place of “how dare you disagree with me.”

It does come from a place of “Really? That’s the line you’re going to take?”

There is a big and important conversation going on right now about the ALA Code of Conduct (you can start here, or here, if you don’t know what I’m talking about), and many of the most heated arguments around it have boiled down to one dichotomous understanding of librarians’ experiences: People who have not experienced or witnessed the reality of harassment think the policy will be problematic to their freedom of expression. People who have experienced or witnessed the reality of harassment think the policy is a necessary step toward making their professional world safer and more welcoming. The first group seems deeply challenged to understand the reality of the second group.

This rebuttal presents the same lack of understanding in no uncertain terms.

The problem starts here: “Though Ms. Rogers claims to speak for the library profession, the experiences she described are unlike anything we have witnessed.”

And continues here: “During her presentation, Ms. Rogers read paraphrased comments made to her or other librarians from different vendors. While some of the comments were shocking, we felt the meaning was lost without the full context; they were soundbites from a longer missing narrative, which could have included the vendor’s perspective.”

And ends here: “Yes, you are wrong. Disagreements with publishers over financial transactions or business models are in no way analogous to physical or mental abuse.”

So. When I read that, I see this: The authors state that they haven’t experienced the kind of harassment and negative interactions I’ve described, and they won’t accept my reporting of that harassment as valid without hearing from the aggressors, and in the end I’m just wrong for calling those experiences abusive.

We’re clearly experiencing different realities, here. Very similar worlds, experienced in very dissimilar ways.

The difference between the aggression and confrontation of my talk, and the aggression and confrontation I see in this article, is that my goal was not ever to tell librarians to sit down and shut up because they’re wrong. I deeply hope that isn’t the message anyone took away from my words. I very much do see that message in this piece; it’s a reprimand against speaking bluntly, against truth-telling, and against identifying abusive behavior. It contains a very clear message: I’m doing this wrong, and I should shut up.

I could refute each point, argument by argument. I have opinions on this stuff. (Clearly.) But I just don’t think it’s worth it. To keep things short, sweet, and on topic,  I’ll say this: I’m not ashamed of what I said. Nothing I said was untrue, or embellished. As a result, I’m not overly concerned by reactions to the content. I will let my words speak for themselves, and encourage you, libraryfolks, to take a look or a listen. I am concerned by reactions about tone, and about speech. So if you disagree with me on content, I hope you will do so publicly, and advance our discourse. I just hope that you’ll do it with a little less victim-blaming than I read here, and a little more awareness that we are all experiencing different realities, side by side, in this profession of ours. I hope you can see that just because you don’t recognize my reality as being parallel to yours doesn’t make me wrong.

And I won’t be shutting up.

Attempting Positivity

As part of our ongoing discussions with SAGE, I closed a recent email with a list of suggestions (rather than simply complaints or concerns) about how publishers might better approach libraries. This list is shaped, clearly, by the kind of institution that we are, and the kind of pressures and needs we juggle, but it’s a starting point for a discussion.

The librarians here at SUNY Potsdam were adamant that while we are deeply troubled by how this vendor-library interaction has proceeded, we’re also committed to trying to be good partners from our end. So, to that end, here are suggestions from our Collection Development team about the kinds of pricing and sales behavior we encourage from our publishing partners:

1. We are becoming increasingly disinterested in online content packages whose pricing is based on the print analog. The print publication model is on life support, if not already dead, for most libraries, and I believe we all know that. A truly useful pricing structure — a sustainable one, that can continue adapting and meeting the challenges of this new information economy — will be based on the value provided by the online content, not by the value perceived in its previous print analog, or libraries’ choices about print holdings in eras long since past and gone. Therefore, we want to see pricing for online content fully divorced from print holdings history.

2. When we can avoid it, we are done signing multi-year agreements. Our resource picture is too unstable (and this is not, as the American Chemical Society tried to paint it, “a Potsdam problem”, it is a higher education problem) to commit for multiple years to any contract or agreement. Yes, this injects more risk into the equation for both publishers and libraries, but it’s crucial that we maintain the flexibility to adjust our holdings, collections, and purchasing to reflect the equally flexible and changeable nature of our programmatic offerings, curricular foci, and users’ needs. Single year contracts will most often best meet our needs.

3. We are also growing more and more discontented with the notion that publishers will add content to the packages that are sold to libraries, and automatically increase the price for that package as a result. This removes all collection development control from the librarians who are charged with building clear, coherent, and useful information access for our libraries and our users, and imposes an unacceptable rate of growth in the costs we must encumber each year for these packages. We would propose that if new content is being developed by a publisher, it be added not automatically, but as an opt-in feature, creating steps or tiers of available content in the publisher’s online package. This gives libraries the opportunity to consider what purchases are reasonable and prudent for their institution without also feeling that the publisher is holding the “good” content hostage in bloated packages that we can no longer afford due to these annual unwanted increases.

4. To build on #3, the “cable TV” model of bundling a hundred channels we don’t want with the ten channels we do is becoming less and less palatable to libraries. (And to tv viewers!) Instead, we would support a “choose fifteen titles for $X” model for publisher packages, in a model that included either a uniform cost for online access to every title or tiered pricing for different categories of titles, allowing for a “choose 3 from Tier 1, 5 from Tier 2, and 7 from Tier 3 for $X” approach.

5. The “used car” model of time-consuming local micro-negotiations is also becoming unsustainable for libraries. I cannot imagine that it’s efficient for publishers, either. Would it not be simpler, more efficient, and build more goodwill to price your product and sell it at that price? Transparently? The hours that I have spent on this, that Marianne has spent on this, and that our team of 8 collections librarians have spent on this are too costly for the product under discussion. Human resources have value as much as our financial resources do, and I encourage you to consider models that require fewer of them.

So, librarians: What do you think? What do you want? What don’t you want?