May 22, 2018

Chemical Society Pricing Has Librarians Up In Arms

When a small college has to cut subscriptions because they’re too expensive, it’s not usually news. But when Jenica Rogers, library director at SUNY Potsdam, blogged about cancelling subscriptions to the American Chemical Society (ACS)’s journals because they alone would have used up 10 percent of the library’s acquisitions budget, it struck a chord with many. Besides resonating around the blogosphere, as John Dupuis summarizes in his link roundup, the controversy spawned articles in the Chronicle of Higher Education and even across the pond in the Times Higher Education. Perhaps it’s because objections to ACS pricing models are not new: Inside Higher Ed reported it causing problems for both corporate and academic libraries as early as 2010.

Among the concerns raised in the library community is that ACS approval for undergraduate chemistry programs (not formally called accreditation, but functionally similar to it) requires them to provide access to at least two ACS titles: Chemical Abstracts and Journal of Chemical Education. And according to The Scholarly Kitchen,while it would be theoretically possible to gain ACS approval without subscribing to any other ACS journals, it would require concerted effort,” because the program must provide access to at least 13 more journals chosen from this list, and the majority of the “highly recommended” titles are ACS publications.

This reaction was exacerbated by ACS director of public affairs, Glenn S. Ruskin, refusing to offer “any response to this blog posting or the conversation that has ensued” because he objected to Rogers’ tone and language—not in the post in question, but “in the past,” and not on her blog but on FriendFeed, as Walt Crawford explains. (Barbara Fister analyzed this reaction for its gender implications in Inside Higher Ed, and pointed out that refusing to engage with the substance of a complaint because of its hostile tone is a classic derailing tactic.) Ruskin’s response, which said ACS would only talk one-on-one about pricing concerns, also offended many bloggers and listserv-users.

Regardless of whether the Society engages with Rogers personally, in a blog hosted by Scientific American, fellow SUNY librarian Bonnie Swoger called on the ACS to “open a dialog on what a reasonable pricing model would include,” a call seconded by chemist Paul Bracher.

On October 5, it did so—sort of. The ACS released an open letter to the library community, not from Ruskin but from Brandon A. Nordin, vice president, sales & marketing, in which it apologized “for our recent failure to make clear the importance we place on our dialogue with libraries and scholarly communications departments” and promised to “expand our consultations with the library community” over the next six months, as well as inviting questions or concerns to be sent to Nordin personally. But while far more conciliatory in tone, the letter ultimately reprises Ruskin’s content: ACS is still seeking to engage in conversations about pricing one-on-one, rather than tackling any of the questions raised in a public forum.

With regard to the open letter, Rogers told LJ, “While the sentiment is great … I’m concerned that if the ACS simply continues on the path they are on now, but slightly broader, we will not gain much as a stakeholder in these consultations… The transparency of ACS sales positions elaborated in writing and their pricing structures made fully available to the library community online would advance our collaboration leaps and bounds further than individual closed-door discussions and non-disclosure terms ever will.”

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Meredith Schwartz ( is Executive Editor of Library Journal.

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  1. I concur with user concluding remark. Transparency is what we are looking for.