The American Chemical Society: Paving paradise to put up a parking lot

Why do people go into science? Why do people go to work at scholarly societies? Why do people choose scholarly publishing as a career? Why do people choose a career at the intersection of those three vocations?

There are cynical answers to those questions, for sure, and even the non-cynical need to put food on the table. But I truly don't believe people start out their path in life based on cynicism. Rather I believe most people start their careers based on hope.

I can only hope that for a person to pursue a career in scholarly publishing at a scientific society, their goal in life is to try and make the world a better place, to advance science, to serve society, to help the researchers of today stand on the shoulders of giants.

And the ACS Vision and Mission statements seem to support this (bolding is mine):

Our Mission and Vision

We are dynamic and visionary, committed to “Improving people’s lives through the transforming power of chemistry.”

This vision ─ developed and adopted by the ACS Board of Directors after broad consultation with the membership ─ fully complements the ACS Mission statement, which is “to advance the broader chemistry enterprise and its practitioners for the benefit of Earth and its people.” Together, these two statements represent our ultimate reason for being and provide a strategic framework for our efforts.

Alas, the theory here doesn't seem to be translating into practice.

Our story of woe begins with Jenica Rogers, Library Director at SUNY Potsdam, declaring that her library will be cancelling their American Chemical Society subscriptions:

tl;dr: SUNY Potsdam will not be subscribing to an American Chemical Society online journal package for 2013. We will instead be using a combination of the Royal Society of Chemistry content, ACS single title subscriptions, the ACS backfile, and ScienceDirect from Elsevier** to meet our chemical information needs. We’re doing this because the ACS pricing model is unsustainable for our institution and we were unable to find common ground with the sales team from the ACS. Instead, we explored other options and exercised them. You could do the same if you find yourself in a position similar to ours as ACS standardizes their pricing, and maybe together we can make enough choices to make our voices heard in meaningful ways.

Not surprisingly, this is big news. And Jennifer Howard's article in The Chronicle has this ACS reaction:

A spokesman for the American Chemical Society said that the group would not offer a response to Ms. Rogers's blog post or the conversation that's sprung up around it. "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."

Which is rude, condescending and dismissive of both librarians and bloggers.

And, of course, no one on the Internet can leave well enough alone. There's more PR disaster on the cheminfo-l mailing list:

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.

Which is even worse, of course. Shutting down, haranguing, insulting and attempting to intimidate critics is a time-worn tactic.

Thankfully, Rogers will have none of that.

For all of you who won't take the time to search (nor do I think you should have to), let me share all of my public posts about the ACS. There are several over several years. I really don't think that I was guilty of "rude behavior or her use of profanity and vulgarity in addressing ACS or its employees." I don't appreciate the accusations, Mr. Ruskin, and none of what you've accused me of changes the fact that you DID insult bloggers and listserv participants. Apologizing by insulting me does you no credit.

And again.

Librarians and faculty did not price the ACS content out of our ability to pay for it.

Librarians and faculty did not insist, repeatedly, for seven hours of face-to-face ‘negotiations’, that any compromise was outside the established pricing model.

Librarians and faculty did not insist that there should be only private discussion of the matter, and no public debate.

And, to take it bigger picture, librarians and faculty did not reduce State funding for New York’s institutions of higher education.

So I repeat: We are not the ones who should feel guilty. We are not the ones failing to prioritize teaching and learning. And speaking out about that conflict, that injustice, and that frustration does not mean we don’t value those things. It means we do.

Which brings us to today.

American Chemical Society, you need to rethink what you're all about, how you treat your customers and your members and the true constituency of your society -- society as a whole.

Given your status as a scholarly society, you should price your products fairly so you need to work with librarians and others to build a sustainable business model that works for a broad range of institutions.


And of course, this issue is spreading like wildfire and the full range of commentary is kind of hard to compress into a reasonably short post.

Here's a list of all the relevant posts I've been able to find up until now. It's heartening to note a nice mix between posts from both the librarian and chemist side. Please feel free to chime in with ones I've missed.

Update 2012.10.01: A more complete and chronologically ordered list of relevant posts is here: Around the Web: SUNY Potsdam vs. American Chemical Society in chronological order – Confessions of a Science Librarian

(If this thing ends up having legs, I'll probably get around to putting the posts in chronological order. See Above.)

More like this

One would have hoped that the ACS, as an academic professional society, would have acted better, than, say commercial publishers.-- The underlying problem though is how to finance the publication of research results I wonder how the ACS journal prices compare to those published by other societies; unfortunately, there is no published ACS price list; that for the APS (Am. Physical Society) is at (academic/institutions; separate, cheaper prices for individual APS members).
Perhaps someone can post how much the ACS asked for its various offerings. In physics we have the advantage of most papers pre-published at which is a great, especially if you are at a smaller institution, or remote location (as long as you have affordable internet).

@ A

The problem is that these publishers - both commercial and society-backed - have been running a racket for years. What is the 'right' price for a journal subscription? Whatever they say it is. Publishers have been acting no different than oligopoly plutocrats of the light-cigars-with-hundred-dollar-bill kind. Eventually, their strangle-hold on scientific publishing will be broken once and for all.

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By micro job (not verified) on 23 May 2013 #permalink