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feeling pointy

I have had a very bad week regarding vendors — the disheartening, maddening kind — and in the interests of advancing libraries’ understanding of how our vendor community treats us, I’m going to name names. Secrets in the dark just ensure that we all get the same (bad) treatment. We can’t stand for that.

One issue seems to be the complicated bureaucracy required by New York State purchasing combined with a disappointing choice made by our vendor about their billing practices. Since they are trying, and we are trying, and we both seem to be failing: No names. But it adds to my frustration.

Another issue is that it seems EBSCO no longer has a simple or clear price list. They used to. That was one of the things i loved about them — no negotiation about price, no wondering where that number came from… oh well. In many ways, they are still a very good partner to us. One example of that is that a sales rep from EBSCO emailed a faculty member on my campus directly, offering a trial of a new product. I was looped in by the professor, who is savvy enough to know we have limited funds and that the Libraries are the purchasing agent for information products. But I was unhappy; if the sales force offers candy to our users, and we have to say “NO CANDY FOR YOU” because there is no budget for candy, who looks like the black hat Bad Guy? Me. So I sent a message to my contact at EBSCO, and he was not only understanding but called me back immediately and offered to speak to the sales force about that tactic.  Bad action, but great response. Thanks.

Then there’s Proquest. Proquest has still not fixed the issues in their new interface, though they are communicating much more effectively. Unfortunately, the communications aren’t accurate. We were told that RILM and MLA — the databases we did NOT move from Proquest, because they still worked — were available to use on the Proquest interface now, though if we desired to continue using CSA’s interface, we could. Except our CSA interface had expired weeks before, and we’d already been forced over to Proquest. Which flatly doesn’t work. We can’t link to full-text using Serials Solutions. I would note the irony: Serials Solutions is a Proquest company, and while the SerSol linking works with every. single. one. of our other vendor interfaces, it’s utterly borked in PQ. We are in steady, courteous, and professional communication with both tech and training support at Proquest, but the bottom line is that the interface isn’t functional. Which is too bad, because they did put nice features into it. But no number of cup holders will make up for the fact that your car only shifts into neutral and reverse, but not drive.

And then. There’s the American Chemical Society.  A decade and two jobs ago I learned that this society was not only a publisher but also the accrediting body for Chemistry programs, and as such, required accredited programs to subscribe to their publications. Sounded like a racket to me then, still does, and nothing has changed in the intervening decade.  We continue to subscribe to their (very good) content, and they continue to raise prices. This week has been a bad week for my opinion of them — I learned that the statewide package we were sold several years ago by agencies supposed to have our best interests in heart included provisions for nearly 6% annual price increases, mandated annual content additions for which we could then be charged list price, raising the overall package cost (onto which the 6% increases are added). (I can’t decide if I’m angrier with the vendor who asked for those terms, or the supposed allies who agreed to them and called them a good deal.) Another SUNY library director reported that they base their price structure on Carnegie classification, and don’t seem to care that most SUNY Masters I institutions (like mine) don’t have any graduate students in Chemistry, and that they appear to structure pricing based on “Carnegie classification, usage, and moon phase”. Another of my peers reported that they in fact cannot mandate our title holdings, because we have a longstanding misunderstanding about their role in accreditation. I have dedicated hours to figuring out where we stand, communicating with the faculty in our Chemistry department, and researching prices, policies, and needs — as has the Collection Development Coordinator. But it’s worth it, because our ACS expenses are 9.9% of my overall materials budget.

I wish I were kidding.

So we spend a lot of money with them, and when we ask for clear answers as we navigate our budgeting… here is what was suggested to one of our librarians by an American Chemical Society representative this week, when asked what titles meet their accreditation requirements:

There are multiple journals that may be used to meet the breadth requirements for journal subscriptions.  You should check with the chair of the chemistry program to determine which journal titles best fit the needs of the chemistry curriculum and the research activities of the faculty and students.

Please let me know if you have any further questions about the library requirements.

On Monday, I sent this reply after the issue was escalated to me.

You were asked a specific and clear question. Instead of answering it, you chose to tell us how to do our work. This advice was unsought and unhelpful: we have active collaboration with our Chemistry department, we are clear on what the research activities of our students and faculty are, and I do not need a vendor representative instructing me on how to proceed with campus collection and relationship-building.  As I would hope that we are a valued ACS customer, I expect that you will answer our earnest and appropriate questions about how best to meet your accreditation standards.

To repeat, “How do I know which journals fulfill which areas of the content list? e.g. what criteria does Langmuir fulfill?”

Awaiting your helpful reply,

Jenica

I am, professionally and personally, livid; I do not appreciate condescension, eradication of librarians’ professional expertise, or sidestepping of questions that are completely valid in a consumer-seller relationship in which a carefully delineated accreditation relationship is also involved. Our vendors seem to think that going straight to the faculty is going to benefit them, but I don’t understand their logic in sidestepping librarians. We’re the ones with the budgets. We’re the ones they have to work with. Yes, our faculty are influential, key stakeholders and partners, and are the source of our research agenda and teaching and learning needs, but still: How is undermining and alienating the librarian middleman going to help business?

Anger and bewilderment aside, I’m caught between the proverbial rock and hard place — I must support the faculty and students who rely on the research materials published by the ACS. But I must also strive to manage the budgets, resources, and needs of the entire academic community in the most effective, responsible, and clever way possible.

It’s true in all the cases above. I have a big picture to balance, and vendor relationships causing complications to that picture. I have little room to negotiate, few (or no) options to choose from, and no clear path to success. The trend appears to be moving away from treating librarians as partners, and toward treating us as roadblocks to be evaded. It’s hard to see a path to meaningful progress in that environment. Being stuck between the rock of the vendors and the hard place of our community needs, I am beginning to feel a little squished. And it’s making me feel pointy.

Also, no one from ACS has replied to me yet. Proquest and EBSCO have both made sincere efforts to reach out. Who do you want to do business with?

27 Responses to feeling pointy

  1. Thank you for naming names.

    Also, I with you on the whole sidestepping librarians thing. I don’t know why vendors would think that would help. Asking faculty directly isn’t going to make funds appear out of nowhere.

  2. You’re welcome. Librarians are great at being polite, civil, kind, and generous. We’re not so good at sticking up for ourselves. I aim to change that.

  3. You go, girl! Your response to ACS was brilliant. It will be interesting to see how (or if) they reply.

  4. Regarding costs, *I* read the Accreditation standards for Chemistry as “must provide *access* to” ACS (and other Chemistry-related) journal content.

    I take that to mean that, at the minimum, we need to have an index for discovery and inter-library loan for access to the journal contents.

    I’m working on documenting the following:
    * the cost per use of our ACS & other Chemistry resources
    * the projected cost for acquiring the content via inter-library loan

    My rough calculations are:
    * we might save ~70% of our subscription costs using CONTU guidelines
    * we might save ~50% of our subscription costs if we were to use the CCC’s new Get It Now service (which rankles, but that is a separate issue)

    So the question, to me, is:

    “Why should we continue to subscribe to the ACS content at such unreasonable rates and with such unsustainable inflation and lack of control over title additions to the subscription?”

  5. Thank you! I agree wholeheartedly with two particular points, that vendors “going around” librarians is NOT helpful to their case AT ALL. And, in your dealings with the ACS. Does seem like a racket to me. It’s like the proverbial fox guarding the hen house. I (and am sure others) await an update on any response received from ACS to your very valid question.

  6. One of the tactics journal publishers are considering as library dollars dry up is whether they can extract more money out of individual faculty and departments.

    I believe this explains both EBSCO’s behavior and ACS’s.

  7. Dorothea, I suspect it does. But on my campus at least, my dollars are all the dollars there are. Their tactic simply undermines the relationship they have with the dollars. *sigh*

  8. Great post. And I fear vendor issues like this will only get worse as ebooks and “cloud” systems transfer more and more of the library and its budget from direct to vendor control.

    I don’t have much to say about the ACS issue, but on the issue of price lists I have this cautionary tale. LibraryThing has always wanted to be the “un-vendor.” Our main thing isn’t selling to libraries at all–it’s not how we see our work. So we hate being called a vendor. We also hate the usual library-software pricing procedure, which often amounts to just “how much money do you have?”

    So when we released “Library Anywhere” we did something bold, and together with Bowker–who stuck their neck out on this–we published a public, totally transparent price list. No more quotes and counter quotes. Anyone in the library could look up the web page and know what it would cost.

    And what happened? It backfired. Public prices are the rule in most of life. But public prices on a library product just gave people something to complain about. The metric we chose–buildings–was transparent, but of course some people thought it wasn’t the right one. Like a customer at a fruit stand who wants to pay by item, not weight, telling them the metric just gave them something to argue about. Needless to say, people only argued down, not up. Crazy as it may sound, people seemed to want the bullshit.

    So now we have hidden prices again. They’re based on a set of solid rules, with only minimal adjustments up and down. But you don’t know that for sure–you’ll have to trust us.

    So, there’s blame on both sides, I think. Vendors are adapted to the purchasing processes and expectations of libraries. They may be flees, but fleas exist because of their hosts. If you wash your dog, they don’t have fleas.

    My shampoo: establish simple, transparent expectations and follow through on them. Push for public price lists. Buy things, not relationships. Skip the vendor dinners at ALA and ask for that money back. Avoid lengthy contracts, big “bundles” and lock-in. And if stuff doesn’t work, withhold money. You’ll help yourself and, I suspect, other libraries too. Speaking as a reluctant vendor, I think you’ll help us too.

  9. Tim, yes. We are inconsistent as a group, and part of the problem. (I would say that our tendency to fear saying bad-but-true things out loud is part of that problem) And I can see how hard that makes things for people like you who try to do it ‘right’. Because of that, I know there are no black and whites — except for one. I want to be treated with respect. You’ve got that one down pat; others, not so much.

    I did promise to write a post about what delights me about libraryland vendors, and it will be just as easy to write as the complaints are. Some of the people I work with are truly lovely. So I’ll balance the scales with that soon.

  10. Jenica,
    The ACS decribes the approval requirements for programs (they don’t use the word accreditation)and descibes guidelines for access to chemical information – Chemical Abstracts and journals. The access to Chem Abs is required – the journal list has two lists of titles and you need to have so many from each part of the list: http://portal.acs.org/portal/PublicWebSite/about/governance/committees/training/acsapproved/degreeprogram/WPCP_008491.
    You can still have a chemistry program that’s not approved by the ACS, but many departments with the approval (or endorsement, which is what it used to be called) use this to demonstrate higher quality resources and infrastructure.
    I’m not sure why this vendor wasn’t more helpful about this. The committee that decides on these standards comes from the ACS membership as a whole so the goal is to have access to instrumentation, infrastructure and faculty with the appropriate expertise.
    The problem, if course, is that the non-ACS journals on the list are even more expensive, so the ACS journals are actually a pretty good value compared to the commerical publishers.
    Is this fair? Well, others have pointed out the relationship between the ACS and CAS, which produces Scifinder Scholar and Chemical Abstracts. The ACS’s new pricing model is pretty complicated – they use a mixture of usage and carnegie classification to determine the price for journals. Other vendors use these same methods to price content – my issue with the ACS is that their calculation for the price is not transparent. You can’t go to the web site and see how your cost would be different than someone elses.
    The other issue I’ve experienced with the approval process for ACS programs is that the chemical information section is sent to the chemistry department, not the library. I only saw the paperwork because our library rep needed help filling it out and asked me. They could make the process a lot easier by involving librarians more directly, as you point out.
    Beth B.

  11. Good for you! High time to mention names! I’ve always held back, fearing it was a breach of ethics. But it hurts those of us who collect and purchase. We need to know about the tactics in use out there. Here the staff is trained to refer those types of calls back to me, even though my staff isn’t academic, school, or public. But the calling individuals can be done here,too, I’m at a state library.

    I was taught here, early on to stick to my guns, and get the information, bottom line, etc. that I needed from vendors. And to call them back if they left something out, or I thought of something else. With some companies it’s the internal policies, the actual software, or even non-communication between units. The bigger it is, the worse communication can be.

  12. Debate on Friendfeed has crystallized another idea: The ACS treats librarians like they do because they see us as mere purchasing agents, not as skilled professionals who are supporting teaching and learning through thoughtful collection building. We pay the bills; the “real faculty” do all the intellectual work.

    That’s a definition of my role that I do. not. like.

  13. Great reply to ACS. I can’t stand them.

    As for EBSCO or others trying to sell directly to faculty, it’s not my favorite tactic (for the reasons you mention), but I can’t fault them for it. If I were them, I’d do the same thing: “We sell this great product that your institution doesn’t have. If you agree that this could help your teaching or research, go ask the people who control the money.” At some institutions, the faculty departments actually control the money. So while it gives me headaches sometimes, I can’t blame them. It also works–I’m much more likely to look seriously at a database a professor tells me he/she wants than just try something out because it looks interesting to me.

  14. Yeah, Steve, re: EBSCO and that sales tactic. I’m sure it does work. And I absolutely understand why it serves some institutions well.

    I also have no illusions that my call will actually change how the EBSCO sales force approaches their work; they have a profit motive to meet. I get that. I dislike the tactic, but I get it. What I liked was that the guy we’ve worked with for years took me seriously, understood my concerns, and offered to try to communicate through the department about it. That matters, as does the amount of time Proquest’s staff has spent on the phone and webcasting with us today trying to understand our issues.

    So… Where’s ACS, I ask?

  15. I, too, have found EBSCO reps to be very responsive, candid, and collegial, and I agree that it matters. They seem to have a pretty good understanding of their business (again, though we may not always like their tactics).

  16. Great post!

    Ebsco’s marketing directly to faculty has been happening on our campus too, and we’re having to say “no candy for you” because we don’t have the funds. But our library’s Ebsco rep is fantastic, and understands why this type of marketing does not always help. It will be interesting to see if Ebsco ramps up or scales back on this practice. For us, Ebsco has been tops, both in vendor relations with us, and with content and functionality.

    We’re not ACS-accredited, so we do not yet have those woes, although I dread the day that our chemistry department might decide to seek accreditation, because I’m not sure that our campus can afford it. It is a huge conflict of interest that ACS both does the accrediting and sells the goods that are required for accreditation.

    As for ProQuest–we’re still on the old legacy platform, which continues to perform flawlessly. I do not see us moving until we have to, or until I start to hear from other libraries who have made the move that all of their issues have been resolved.

    Thanks for writing this post–it is important.

  17. [...] Elegance throws down with several vendors! The result? Stay tuned… I have had a very bad week regarding vendors — the disheartening, [...]

  18. I’ll name another name: Wiley. It is a nightmare trying to get answers from them regarding content of packages and database information. I will not consider any new purchases from them until I can see a marked improvement in their customer service. I almost feel sorry for their representatives who mumble their way through answers to our questions and complaints. On the other hand, sometimes they don’t respond for weeks.

  19. I agree that the new Proquest is not ready for prime time and is full of bugs and problems. And the Ser Sol knowledge base seems to have gone downhill lately, the records are a mess and they just blame everyone else but themselves. Interestingly though, we are not having any problems with linking to Full Text from the new Proquest to Serials Solutions, that is one of the only things that went right for us lately. Go figure.

  20. [...] consider this your notice, this will not last much longer. librarians are learning. learning that we can do a lot on our own. learning that it’s worth finding partners how really listen to us. learning that it’s okay to name names and call people out for their craptastic behaviour. [...]

  21. ACS is one of the most noxious academic publishers going. Don’t forget (how could we) that ACS was one of the publishers behind the egregiously disingenuous PRISM anti-open access initiative.

    What remains unclear to me is how academic chemists feel about ACS and their dual role. It’s never been my issue to fix, but unless the chemists buck up and chuck ACS, then they are part of the problem and need to participate in its solution.

  22. I loved the CSA interface for PsycInfo as did the Psycology faculty here; I loved teaching it. ProQuest has turned this reliable database into one which has REALLY demanded a large portion of my time in trying to communicate problems to them encountered by faculty, librarians and library staff. We did have a trainer come and address questions in-person. However our library is paying for a database which is not performing as it should. I have contacted APA about this and they have been responsive.

  23. [...] Feeling pointy [...]

  24. [...] radical transparency. Tim Spalding of LibraryThing commented on an earlier post that many (and I insert “traditional”)  librarians sort of suck at being partners in [...]

  25. Hi there, I found your web site by means of Google even as looking for a comparable matter, your site came up, it seems good. I’ve bookmarked it in my google bookmarks.

  26. [...] 4:30: Took a phone call from another SUNY director to discuss a task force we’ve both agreed to be on in re: the American Chemical Society. [...]

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