specious arguments

Merriam-Webster defines “specious” as “having a false look of truth or genuineness : sophistic <specious reasoning>”

The latest communication from the ACS, to many library and chemistry lists, says, in part,

Beginning in 2009, for a small increase to the subscription fees it had
paid for 8 ACS journals, SUNY Potsdam immediately received expanded access
to the entire portfolio of 34 ACS peer-reviewed journals, with all
published content from 1996-present. This access was provided under terms
agreed between ACS Publications and New York State under the New York
State Higher Education Initiative (NYSHEI). As part of a multiyear
commitment by NYSHEI, the ACS agreed to cap base price increases at 5.75%
per annum.

As a consequence of this program, as of 2012, SUNY Potsdam now benefits
from access to all 40 ACS peer reviewed journals online, the ACS Legacy
Archive, and the Journal of Chemical Education, which ACS Publications
publishes on behalf of the Society¹s Division of Chemical Education.
Annual price increases to SUNY Potsdam under this arrangement have
averaged 7%, including the cost of new journals launched after 2008. Thus,
while the price SUNY Potsdam pays in 2012 for this access to nearly 1
million articles is roughly double what the school paid more than a decade
ago, they now receive nearly 4 times the number of journals.

As far as that goes, it’s absolutely correct. I believe that those are true facts.

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.

And here are the options that I have, as a responsible steward of my institution’s funds and my library’s resources:

  1. Subscribe to the 2013 All Pubs package, the aforementioned more than 10% of my acquisitions budget.
  2. Subscribe to the 2013 Academic Core+ package for 75% of the cost of the all-pubs package. This package is 15 pre-selected titles (or 37% of the titles in the All Pubs package), and ACS does not want to negotiate on which 15 titles it is. They are not the 15 ACS titles most important or useful to our scholars. Several of the titles are ones which showed zero or virtually zero (10-20) uses for our campus in 2012, and 5 of our most-used titles (150-500 article downloads annually) are not part of the package. Given that this is 37% of the titles, and not the titles we actually use, for 75% of the cost of the full package, it’s plainly not a smart answer for us.
  3. Subscribe to the titles we want individually. At 2012 list price, the 14 ACS titles that saw the most use at SUNY Potsdam in 2012 would cost us more than $51,000. More than 16% of my acquisitions budget. No.
  4. Stop subscribing to most ACS content. This was the only financially reasonable solution available to us.

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.

4 Responses to specious arguments

  1. I wouldn’t say “specious” — I’d say it’s just not relevant. Here’s what I said to my Elsevier rep several years ago when we made a similar choice (to step away from the Science Direct Big Deal) for similar reasons: “Lynn and I can go to Jim & Nick’s BBQ and have a great meal for $40 and I might think that’s a good value. We could go to Highland’s (one of the best restaurants in the country) and spend $200 on dinner and I might actually consider that an even better value, given what I’m getting for the increase in price. But if I only have $20 to spend on dinner, the discussion is purely theoretical. It doesn’t matter which has more ‘value’, because I can’t afford either of them.” This doesn’t mean the claim that “more content makes it a good value” is false in the abstract. It just means that the argument is irrelevant to the situation.

    I’ve tried to make the point more broadly in some of the presentations I’ve given at publisher meetings over the past year or two. Publishers like to focus on cost-per-use because it’s easy to calculate. But what actually has value in my particular situation is dependent on additional factors having to do with my budgets and the priorities of my institution. I don’t have a problem with a publisher arguing that “more content for your money” justifies the price. But if it’s content that isn’t critical for me, and I don’t have the money, then I’m not going to pay the price. The argument about value needs to be more nuanced and institution specific to be convincing.

  2. Yes, I remember a similar argument at Norwich with regard to Science Direct. We were just getting an engineering-focused package and then that package disappeared and we had to pay a whole lot more for a package that included a whole lot more science areas. Only we were still only subscribing to Science Direct just for the engineers. Sigh…

  3. I dunno’, Scott. It looks like a deliberate attempt at redirecting attention to something ACS knows to be irrelevant. Maybe “soecious” isn’t the right word, but there’s a deliberate attempt here, I believe, to mislead.

    Not unrelated, Ms. Rogers continues to show more elegance, integrity, and restraint that I ever would in her shoes.

  4. Sorry. “soecious” = “specious”

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