March 22, 2018

Become More Vocal; Improve the Listening | From the Bell Tower

steven-bell-newswireVendor relations are a mixed bag. They can range from mutual respect and support to contempt and contentiousness. Academic librarians need to exchange experiences and information, but it will really help if someone is listening.

Approximately five years ago, Kimberly-Clark and Greenpeace were engaged in a bitter feud over Kimberly-Clark’s product manufacturing and the damage it was doing to the environment. While the two opponents would occasionally talk, according to Kimberly-Clark CEO Tom Falk, the problem was that there was more talking than listening. Only when Kimberly-Clark started to take Greenpeace’s message more seriously, and began to consider the competitive advantages of becoming a more sustainable, environmentally-friendly company—as well as a partner rather than adversary of Greenpeace—did it resolve the tensions between the two organizations. There’s a clever video from Greenpeace that actually celebrates its relationship with Kimberly-Clark. As a case study, it speaks to the power of good communication over taking immovable positions. A corporation, we discovered, can put the best interests of its customers first and still make profits.

Lesson for Publishers

The reason I’m sharing this story is because I believe it relates to the current difficult state of communication between librarians and journal publishers, both for-profits and scholarly associations. Like Kimberly-Clark, the publishers need to get better at listening to librarians—their customers—because the changes we seek will actually be beneficial to them, much like what Greenpeace asked of Kimberly-Clark was eventually recognized as a beneficial business practice. This is particularly true for publishers of library science journals that need librarians to produce the source material. If the author-publisher relationship they create is based on principles that challenge or defy librarian core values, then like Kimberly-Clark, why do they expect us to seek them out as partners? We want to work with publishers who share our values and support our causes. But if their policies and practices are inconsistent with those values, the trust upon which relationships are built is broken.

 Telling a Vendor the Truth

A few months ago Taylor and Francis, a publisher of library science journals, asked me to speak at an open access program they were sponsoring. This was right after the Editorial Board of The Journal of Library Administration (JLA) resigned over author agreement issues. It’s rare that I speak at any publisher-sponsored event, and I never endorse products. If I have a good personal relationship with the vendor, I make an exception for a presentation. But given T&F’s policies on open access—and the JLA news—I believed it best to decline the offer. I suppose I could have just said I was busy that day, but I decided to write back and explain my decision. I shared that I was uncomfortable aligning myself with a publisher whose policies I questioned. I also stated that T&F’s costly Author Processing Charge was a less than sincere effort at open access. So I said no. In response, one of T&F’s editors reached out to me and asked if we could meet to discuss some of the issues. When an opportunity to do so arose at the Charleston Conference, we set up a time to meet. I wasn’t sure what would come out of it, but thought it might be a good opportunity for two-way listening.

An Inspiring Talk

It’s usually my practice to keep these stories and my professional decisions to myself. So why am I sharing this now? I had the good fortune to be in the audience for Jenica Roger’s excellent plenary talk at the Charleston Conference. Jenica shared her experience with the American Chemical Society, and many of you know the story, Though less vocal than Jenica, I occasionally do what I can to bring attention to questionable publisher policies and practices, and I’ve used this column to encourage librarians to become leaders on their campuses in creating textbook alternatives that will help our students save money. My big takeaway from the talk is that I, and many other librarians too, need to be more vocal and public in ways that create more transparency. My story may have minor consequences, but each time we choose to share our experiences, it may encourage others to do so as well.

When Others Share (or choose not to)

Listening to Jenica share her concerns about the consequences of our failing to be more vocal, it is fair to question to what extent we experience the bad deals, bad terms, and bad treatment from publishers described in the talk. Just a day later I saw this posted to the business librarians discussion list:

I’ve debated for weeks whether or not to ask all of you this, but my frustration has boiled over and I need to know if I’m alone or not. My frustration (and frankly, my anger) with Dow Jones is what I’m talking about.  I’m not asking for details, nor can I share any, but I need to know if others are experiencing the same dismissive, arrogant, blatant disregard from Dow Jones as I am?…However, the way my contract renewal is being handled leaves me feeling dismissed, unimportant, and not wanted.  I don’t know why, but I am shocked at such poor treatment.  Am I alone???

Two things are notable. First, the writer indicates that no details can be shared. In her talk, Jenica spoke of the importance of librarians being more open about negative experiences. Second, in the days following this post, no one responded—at least not publicly. I suspect the writer is not alone, and that many of us are feeling frustrated and disrespected in our relationship with some of the vendors with whom we do business. On a more encouraging note, according to an article in the Chronicle of Higher Education, business librarians are speaking out as a united force to protest policies changes made by Harvard Business Publishing that unfairly limit access to previously available content. Even if Harvard Business Publishing refuses to change the policy, just being vocal enables our profession to create greater faculty and administrator awareness about the problem, perhaps adding more power to our position.

Encourage Listening

As Jenica’s story demonstrated, when librarians are vocal about their dissatisfaction with a vendor—especially when it’s associated with an institutional decision to support a significant change—it’s a big story. She asked, why it should be? Good question. Perhaps the discussion list message provides a clue. When it comes to speaking out, there is fear. There could be risks. The consequences could be dire. What will our faculty and administrators think if we create a controversial situation? What if the vendor refuses to deal with us or chooses to take an even more draconian position? All legitimate concerns. But if we make it more of a regular practice, if more of us participate in the conversation—and if vendors know we are all committed to creating change—I think it will encourage more listening when we need to speak our minds about terms we believe are not in the best interest of our community members.

Broken System

As I listened to Jenica’s presentation and the challenges of which she spoke, I could not help but think that much of the weakness we bring to negotiations with publishers of all types ultimately harkens back to the systemic failures of the scholarly communications enterprise. Once we collectively and institutionally surrender our content to the publishers, we are at their mercy. They have what we need, and they can dictate the terms upon which access is based. It’s all part of a broken system in need of repair. Perhaps being more vocal, transparent, and assertive, and sharing our circumstances, will all help to improve librarian-vendor relationships, but until there are significant gains in transitioning to a reformed, more open scholarly communications system, these problems are likely to persist.

Be Like Kimberly-Clark

My own small role in this story is that conversing with T&F’s Stacy Sieck, Associate Editor, Library & Information Sciences Journals, led to some good mutual listening. She assured me that T&F, based on the communication breakdown with the JLA editors, is working to improve its author rights policies. I told Staci the Kimberly-Clark story, and I think she got it. Establishing more library-friendly policies and being a better partner will only be beneficial for our vendor partners—and, just as Jenica did in her talk, when she gave a shout out to her great EBSCO rep—librarians will share with each other those vendors with whom they have good partnerships and those with whom they do not. When publishers and vendors listen and work to build authentic relationships with their librarian partners, that sounds like establishing a competitive advantage to me.

Steven Bell About Steven Bell

Steven Bell, Associate University Librarian, Temple University, Philadelphia, PA, is the current vice president/president-elect of ACRL. For more from Steven visit his blogs, Kept-Up Academic Librarian, ACRLog and Designing Better Libraries or visit his website.

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