Behind the Wood Shed with the ACS

You’ve been very bad boys. Credit: Stephen Horncastle/Wikimedia Commons

Forgive me for sporting my crankypants today but I had originally intended to be in Islamorada right now, snorkeling and kayaking. Between the PharmKid hurting her wrist in nature camp (4 weeks in a cast) and my 4 weeks in an ankle brace, the PharmFamily took advantage of the wise purchase of trip insurance and stayed home to nurse our wounds.

So, I’m not in much of a happy mood with two of this week’s developments with the American Chemical Society, one of which revisits a longstanding argument over the organization’s pricing of its scholarly journals.

If you haven’t heard, yesterday’s clusterfluster was with regard to the library of the State University of New York at Potsdam (SUNY Potsdam) choosing to forego the purchase of ACS journals this year.

Here’s the post from the Attempting Elegance blog of SUNY Potsdam Director of Libraries, Jenica P. Rogers, MLIS, and an accompanying article by Jennifer Howard at The Chronicle of Higher Education.

From Jenica’s self-described tl;dr summary:

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.

The news is not so much that journal pricing by ACS tends to favor the deeper pockets of institutions larger than SUNY Potsdam. It’s a volume of use issue in a package pricing model. Instead, the response of Glenn Ruskin of the ACS Office of Public Affairs is what made news.

A round-up:

“This statement will be retracted, right?” and, “Glenn Ruskin clarifies his statement,” from the pulse of the chemistry employment market, Chemjobber;

“ACS to Bloggers: Shove It,” by C&EN advisory board member, Chembark;

“Are blogs journalism? Um, no. But they are a journalism medium,” from one of my general faves, Emily Willingham

“The American Chemical Society: Paving paradise to put up a parking lot,” from the confessing science librarian, John Dupuis

(others: please drop me a note in the comments if I missed yours)

 

In the Chronicle article, Mr. Ruskin is quoted as choosing not to engage with Ms. Rogers on her blog because,

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.

In Ruskin’s response to Chemjobber, he noted that the following final sentence did not make it into the Chronicle article:

Therefore, we will not be offering any response to this blog posting or the conversation that has ensued.

[Addendum: But do note the comment below from Chronicle author Jennifer Howard that this part of Ruskin's response was paraphrased in her original article.]

So, yeah. That’s not cool. And I apologize to Mr. Ruskin in advance for not requesting further clarification from him directly – my message is a slightly different one than is currently being made by others and I’m sure he has better things to be doing right now (really, no snark intended).

Yes, yes, I’m offended by this characterization of blogs as a valuable venue for discourse. I do give him points, however, for noting that Rogers has been less-than-professional in some of her communications with ACS. [Addendum: I've stricken this comment because of input and clarification directly from Jenica Rogers below]. But, yes, I’m particularly offended because Mr. Ruskin is the press officer for one of my scholarly organizations and could be understood as not valuing the discourse that occurs below here and on the blogs of my colleagues: I also write here for the blog network of Chemical & Engineering News, the official organ of the American Chemical Society. But enough folks have taken him behind the wood shed for the dismissive blog comments.

Before I leave this point, though, I want to raise this ACS-specific issue from the Chronicle article that does make me critical of ACS Publications:

Observers, including some commenters on Ms. Rogers’s call-to-action blog post, have noted a potential conflict of interest for the chemical society, which serves as an accreditor of chemistry programs as well as a publisher of chemistry journals. A certain number of high-quality journals is required for accreditation. They don’t necessarily have to be ACS journals, though, and losing accreditation as a result of canceling ACS subscriptions does not appear to be a worry for SUNY-Potsdam’s chemistry program.

Administrators passing the buck

But more broadly, I want to speak more to this constant battle between the philosophies of big scientific publishing organizations and the open-access movement. The larger problem to which this librarian takes issue is not specific to ACS: the exploding costs of institutional journal subscriptions at a time when universities, state and private, are contracting their budgets. Many of the misled bean-counters think, “hell, those are available online,” or, “well, the profs can get copies from their friends across town at X university,” without realizing that XU down the road is also suffering budget cuts for the very same reason. We’re not talking Pudville U but rather places like I have accessible here: Duke, UNC-Chapel Hill, NC State.

At every institution I’ve been in the last 12 years, my complaints about institutional journal access has been met by administrator rebuttals that I just try to get journal access through “my friends.” It costs nothing for the bean-counters to dismissively deny their productive faculty access to journals since the loss does not affect them directly. Interlibrary loan doesn’t fully address the problem (particularly in timeliness and that the $5-7 costs start getting close to Nature’s $32/article) and the grad student/yeoman’s approach of #icanhazpdf unfortunately undermines the copyright process. I don’t like it either, but this is how the US copyright system works currently.

Here’s the problem concisely stated in the Chronicle comment thread by someone with whom I’ve had previous differences:

Here’s the problem; you can’t eliminate the costs of publication, you can just transfer them. Open access takes the burden off libraries, but puts it on grants; the poor schmuck who’s trying to keep a scholarly career going without much funding is SOL.

I’m totally down with the “information must be free” concept and “the taxpayers have already paid for the research” argument. It’s just that someone must curate the peer-review and publication process (and I’ll hammer on journals here because we, the scientific community, provide peer review as a free professional service.)

We’re also at a critical juncture in publishing history where a shift in journal reputation is occurring. Did you know that [the Journal of] Experimental Medicine was once one of the most prestigious medical journals, on par with Science and Nature? I’m really proud of my two papers in the Journal of Biological Chemistry but some folks in my field look down on that journal because of the sheer volume of papers they publish. We’re still waiting for a shift in attitude toward open-access journals gaining high institutional reputation when it comes to faculty promotion and tenure decisions. I’m not talking impact factors here as much as the amorphous mumbling that takes place while evaluating dossiers around the P&T committee tables each year.

I don’t yet have the answers but I do think that ACS, other societies, and big publishing houses such as Elsevier should be more explicit and transparent with their finances. I’m really surprised that, at least in the US, research funding agencies have not taken a more active role in taking these folks behind the wood shed.

The truth is that publishing costs some amount of money and that even agreed-upon reasonable costs have to be paid by someone. Open-access is all well and good until people have to put food on their tables. I tend to use former PLOS community manager Bora Zivkovic as an example (he’s a friend and I’m not telling tales out of school here). Bora’s job at PLOS began to pay less and less while he had two kids approaching college age and a wife whose back injury as a nursing professional compromised their income. So, Bora — the High Reverend of Open Access — went to work for Scientific American, about as old and musty as any US scientific publication (and built an amazingly successful blog network from scratch!). That’s what puts food on his table these days (and cigarettes in his pocket, a dastardly habit that I must tackle at some point).

And Rudy — dude — really?

I also can’t leave this post without calling out the retired Editor-in-Chief of C&EN, Rudy Baum for this, nicely discussed (as always) by Ash Jogalekar at The Curious Wavefunction. I love Rudy as a person. He strongly supported Rachel Pepling’s decision to bring me on board here as one of the few non-staff bloggers. He’s been generous with advice as I’ve sought to become more professional in my science writing. And he’s a grad of my current hometown university, Duke.

But, my brother. Your parting editorial. What the hell?:

Blogs are all well and good, they add richness to the exchange of information, but they are not journalism, and they never will be.

I know what you mean because we’ve spoken about this point in person. Paid journalism that digs, investigates, fact-checks — the stuff like we see from my C&EN mentor, Carmen Drahl — that’s what you’re talking about. That stuff costs money. And it’s hard for blogs to produce this level of professional content. Some do. But it’s not a sustainable model. I get it.

But speaking of Carmen, she also writes a blog here! And it’s just as outstanding as her writing for the magazine. But then again, she’s not a typical blogger. She’s required to blog as part of her regular C&EN salary.

I have no idea what “journalism” is anymore in this landscape. Ed Yong, Jay Rosen, and Bora are most weary of this tiresome diatribe. [Emily Willingham went so far as to characterize this as, "again with this shit?" eyerolling.] And correct me if I’m wrong – you didn’t go to J-school, right? You graduated from Duke (in some sort of pre-med major) and went right to work for C&EN on the West Coast.

But I will give you this since the sentences preceding your untoward blog remarks address exactly what I was trying to say earlier in this post:

Technology has profoundly changed journalism during my tenure with C&EN. Much of the change has been positive—who can imagine doing research on a topic without access to the Internet?—but the business model for journalism remains very much in a state of flux. The silly mantra, “Information wants to be free,” overlooks the fact that quality information requires effort, and effort costs money.

The reading public has to value good writing, not just scientific writing. When done well, an active, engaged media is an invaluable public service. A healthy press keeps the feet of our politicians to the fire. It keeps hog farm waste from damaging poor community. It raises questions about our water quality. And it challenges our justice system and threats to wholesale rape of our public lands.

Many of my friends who do this work — the stuff that really makes a difference in my life and that of my family — are having trouble making ends meet. They still have high standards and put blood, sweat, and tears into their work. Those of us with means to do so must financially support our news organizations. And they need to get with the program and collectively start charging for the value their work provides. Folks, I live in the Research Triangle with tow major medical universities and a technology land-grant university and we have no dedicated science or health reporters in our papers, radio, or television. I blame the media for letting it get this way, by making their work free when the World Wide Web became a commonplace household appliance.

And for this reason, I partly applaud ACS for valuing what their writers and professionals bring to the scientific discourse. Their work is valuable – some of the best coverage of US government science policy out there. Yes, I wish that articles were more accessible. But Rudy and Rachel have made a point that if I blog about a paywalled article here, they’ll give my readers a free-access link. They try. No, ACS is not perfect. But the people I work with here do indeed listen.

But Rudy. With the blog attitude. Simmer down. Take some deep breaths and go enjoy a well-earned margarita by the pool.

Oh, and thanks for reading.

 

Disclosure: I do receive compensation for my writing here at CENtral Science that adds between 1.28% and 2.56% to my monthly income from the State of North Carolina.

 

Author: David Kroll

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13 Comments

  1. You are too kind to refer to ME as a mentor to YOU, David. Reading your work makes me think it’s the other way ’round. Listening is one of the most important things I do as a reporter and a blogger. I can’t keep up with everything, but I do my best and hope it serves.

  2. Interesting post on the situation. I feel compelled to point out that in my CHE story I paraphrased that last sentence from Mr. Ruskin’s statement and put it right before the quote that’s been so much talked about. So the context was there for readers from the beginning. Here’s the full paragraph from my story:

    “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.’”

    • Jennifer – thanks so much for coming by to clarify. I now see exactly the difference between the paraphrase relative to Ruskin’s verbatim comment. I really appreciate the input. You wrote a superb article on an issue that really needs to be discussed seriously and substantively, and not just with ACS. (btw, I absolutely love the design and content of your professional website!).

  3. With respect, this really isn’t the way it went down: “Rogers has been less-than-professional in some of her communications with ACS”
    In fact, she has been very professional in her communications WITH ACS. After they treated her poorly she joined her colleagues on a social network (FriendFeed) and blew off steam. In any case, that is completely irrelevant.

    • I disagree with Christina ONLY in that I think it is very relevant, because the concern-trolling about “tone” is a common tactic among bullies (particularly when the target is female). That the ACS went directly there, even though the reality is as Christina describes it, speaks volumes.

    • Gotcha, Christina – thanks so much for the clarification. I figured that you had been following this issue closely. I believe that we’ve discussed before the issues that you face professionally with ACS pricing.

      Bill makes a very astute analysis on how this representation is relevant. Mr. Ruskin is losing even more points.

  4. Well said, David. Many sides to this. Many of us take for granted the “free” posts that we read from you and Carmen and Jyllian and Lisa and Sarah and others here at CENtral. Also, as to the issue of journal access … It is frustrating to me (as a scientist and an ACS member) that my institution has to pay BIG money for both SciFinder and journal access. I’ll make the following analogy: I’d be really upset if I went for a drive and both the road and the gasoline were owned by the same corporation. In many instances, I’m paying double for doing my searches. As for the unsustainable model of research publication, let me state what I think is fair. ACS should be able to charge for journal subscriptions to the past five years (completely arbitrary number) of a journal content. But, if I’m paying a lot of money for sci-finder, I should get free access to ACS journal articles that are older … that their search software tells me I need to look at. I really think that more open access to older articles is a very reasonable step to take. We’ll see what happens …

  5. With thanks to Christina for saying it on my behalf, I’ll say it myself. I have never been less than professional in my dealings with the ACS or their staff, or in my professional communications about and with the ACS. I have been less than professional in non-professional spaces, by my own admission. But the fact that they choose to conflate those two communication spaces is both disgustingly disingenuous and completely irrelevant to the discussion.

    It’s a classic move by a powerful organization in derailing the conversation away from the issues at hand (pricing models) to the thing they’d rather you all focus on (how I’m not professional enough in non professional spaces). Which discussion is worth everyone’s time and attention?

    • Jenica – thank you so much for coming by to comment. I’m glad to see you taking such a strong stand and following up around the blogosphere to correct the record and refocus the discussion where it needs to be. (For the record, I’ve stricken my comment in the body of the post).

      Now that we’re here and so much more attention is being placed on the pricing models, what sort of outcomes would you hope to achieve?

      • David, I would hope for two things:

        1. That the ACS begins to build a new pricing model, one which doesn’t privilege the large institutions over the small ones, one which does not begin with an unsustainable base price, and which does not price small institutions (and thus our researchers) out of the market entirely. Put more simply, I hope that they begin to prioritize access over profit, and to do so with some fairness.

        2. That librarians, chemistry faculty, and researchers wake up to what’s happening here, and begin having local discussions about what’s sustainable in the local fiscal climate, what’s appropriate given the local mission and needs, and building a local strategy for how to respond to this kind of challenge.

        And then I wish on both fronts that people would talk, openly and transparently, about their choices. Public accountable comment from the ACS, and from libraries.

        I can dream, right?

  6. Excellent post, David.

    I hope that all of the stakeholders here–ACS Publications, C&EN, bloggers, librarians, and students—will eventually be able to get past the sniping (in which we’ve all engaged) and have a good, deep, thoughtful discussion of the issues associated with the ACS’s pricing models. Matt provided an analogy regarding driving, and I was thinking about a different analogy with respect to the old philosophical question: “If a tree falls in the forest and no one is around, did it make a sound?”

    If I publish a paper in an ACS journal, but a student ten years down the road who needs access to it can’t get access, why did I even bother doing the work and publishing it in the first place? The perverse idea that libraries and departments are encouraging their students to NOT read the literature is upsetting, as it starts rendering research worthless. I might as well just post results on my blog.

    • “I might as well just post results on my blog.”

      That would be the best way to change the attitude of both people like Ruskin and the anonymous professors in the Promotion and Tenure committees that you mention above.

      Sometimes I wish that we’d stop complaining about the conditions to our jailers and just open the gate. We designed our own prison, we can let ourselves out. At the very least, we should stop entrapping the younger generation in the same situation.

      Also, David, does it not seem a little funny that the grand-central roundup link which mentioned #ACSHatesBlogs and your post couldn’t even get the link right?

      • Sorry I missed this last part of your comment, William. I believe that the Grand CENtral link is correct.

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