If you work in an academic library and you haven’t been following the Jenica Rogers/American Chemical Society (ACS) story, you really need to clear some time to sit down and work your way through the whole thing. Hell, if you are the person who works with your library’s vendors, you will want to pay attention. There’s a couple of lessons to be learned here, especially in the public relations department. For an overall summary, it went down like this:
On September 12th, Jenica posted an entry in her blog, “Walking Away from the American Chemical Society”. The post details the circumstances and events that surrounded the decision to drop their ACS journal package for 2013. This is a big deal since the ACS provides accreditations to higher education chemistry programs and some of those accreditation requirements include subscribing to journals published by the ACS. (Just let that conflict of interest thought go for the moment, you can always come back to it.)
The short version is that it would have eaten too much of her acquisitions budget (10%) to cover one department at her university, an unacceptable expense. Jenica made the case to the chemistry faculty and worked with them to find a solution that could accommodate their research and classwork. While not a perfect solution, it was an acceptable one that sustains the academic pursuits of the university. Not all ACS publications were eliminated, but it was cut down to the essential ones along with resources coming from other chemistry publishers and providers.
This, of course, elicits a good amount of discussion since no one has done this before or at least written about it in such an open manner.
Skip ahead two weeks to September 26th to an article in the Chronicle of Higher Education, “As Chemistry Journals’ Prices Rise, a Librarian Just Says No”. The writer reaches out to the ACS for a comment and receives this statement from Glenn Ruskin, Director of Public Affairs.
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." [Emphasis mine.]
And so the descent begins. I’m not wholly familiar with the “We have no comment but here is a comment about why we have no comment” strategy, but it doesn’t seem to really play out very well. It does set the stage for future dismissal of grievances posted online as they can be called illogical, unbalanced, and/or discourteous. But it certainly begs the question as to how Jenica’s blog post (or her overall blog): at which part or parts was her post illogical? How was what she wrote unbalanced? Where was common courtesy not observed?
On the Chemical Information Sources Discussion List (a listserv), Glenn provided a clarification of his statement:
Many thanks for sharing this with me. Let me assure you that it was not my intention, nor the intention of ACS, to denigrate blogs or users/contributors of blogs or listservs.
My comment was directed toward the blog that was the subject of the Chronicle of Higher Education (CHE) story. Unfortunately, CHE did not use the totality of my comment as I think it would have been clear that I was speaking specifically to the blog that was the point of the story. Here is the totality of my statement (bolded section was omitted by CHE):
“We find little constructive dialogue can be had on blogs and other listservs where logic, balance and common courtesy are not practiced and observed. 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. Therefore, we will not be offering any response to this blog posting or the conversation that has ensued.
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. [Emphasis his]
And thus the character assassination begins. Jenica is portrayed as someone who is rude, profane, and vulgar(1); but, oddly enough, not wrong. Instead, the blog post is presented as “her opinion” which, given the content, seems a bit silly. Pricing tiers could be argued as being fair or not till the end of time, but having something cost 10% of your budget is a fact. Unless the budget numbers go up or the price goes down, it will remain at that fixed point.
Jenica posted a very long response to this email which I’ll just link to; it really is too much to grab for a quote and it is quite comprehensive in rebutting Glenn’s clarification. It details the frustrations she has experienced with the ACS and its staff members that preceded this blowup.
John Dupuis has a great “here be all the links to everything” post up right now if you want to delve into the nitty-gritty. I’d recommend reading posts on the subject by Walt Crawford, Iris Jastram, Jacob Berg, and Chembark as well as Jenica’s followup post.
Ultimately, I see this as a “how not to handle public relations” moment. If you’re not going to comment, then don’t. Providing an explanation as to why you are not commenting that takes a shot at someone is, well, commenting. It’s not letting the story burn out on its own so much as it is now putting gasoline on the fire. Even if I wasn’t Jenica’s friend, this story may make her look bad, but it certainly makes the ACS seem worse. It would seem that there cannot be a public dialogue, even without the bad feelings exhibited.
It is yet another cautionary tale for librarians and library vendors and the relationships they seek to build… or break. I admire Jenica standing tall and (to use her phrase) own her words and back them up. As she states in the post that started this, no one generally wants to be the first out of the gate. But, quite frankly, I can’t think of a better person to lead on this topic. Whether ACS likes it or not, the discussion will continue. It’s simply a matter of time to see what results.
(1) Full disclosure: By Jenica’s own admission she has used profanity to describe how she felt after different encounters with ACS staffers on her personal Friendfeed account, but not found in her blog about the dropping the ACS journal package or other blogs posts. The first two accusations of her posts being illogical or unbalanced still remain unanswered or unexplained.