When the chemistry faculty of SUNY Potsdam aligned themselves with their library director, Jenica Rogers, to say “no” publicly  to the American Chemical Society (ACS) because the price of their journal package was too high for schools like theirs and would have consumed a disproportionate percentage of the library’s total budget, it was newsworthy  (subscription required).
Why in an era when “no” is being said so often is this news?
The ACS has long had an offer we can’t refuse, or so it has seemed. Not only is the ACS the publisher of journals considered essential in the field and the search tool the chemists use to find out what has been published, they accredit chemistry programs, and one of the criteria for accreditation is access to the chemistry literature, broadly defined as their journals and database. (There are acceptable journals published by others; just not very many.) They know that they can roll out higher prices whenever they want and most libraries will pay it. My library got hit with a 20 percent price hike last year, between an ACS increase and a cut in a state subsidy, but we sucked it up because our department felt the journals were too critical to their program to do otherwise and we’ve canceled nearly everything else. Jenica and the chemists at SUNY Potsdam decided the pricing structure is unfair to smaller schools and enough was enough. Together, they came up with a more affordable collection of resources that would meet their needs and rejected the ACS package.
This is not entirely surprising. I have had conversations with many members of the ACS; I have yet to find one who argues the ACS’s prices are fair. They shrug and tell me they have no control over those prices; academics are only part of the membership, and it appears that wanting more equitable access to the primary literature of the field is a minority position. The ACS (a tax-exempt organization with non-profit status) makes something approaching a half billion dollars annually on their publications and has spent enormous amounts of money lobbying against access to federally funded research. Why wouldn’t they want to keep prices high? To advance knowledge? Oh, pshaw.
What struck me most was the interesting gender dynamics of the ACS’s response to just saying no. Jenica Rogers is not easily intimidated. She is a sharp thinker, an outspoken and passionate professional, and an active participant in social media, where she might mince her opponents from time to time, but not her words. She has even been known – gasp! - to use profanity among friends. That brazen hussy! This is unseemly behavior for a woman, and the ACS made it clear they insist on proper behavior, in venues where decorum can be ensured. Which means face to face, or on the telephone, not on those nasty bloggy things.
As Steve Larson has pointed out , this is pure FUD. Of course they prefer to conduct negotiations in secret and preferably without ever being outnumbered. Saying they insist on “civil discourse” is a classic derailing strategy. Specifically, the “you’re being hostile” move (according to the invaluable Derailing for Dummies ) is a great way to enliven anxiety of marginalized people, attempt to make them feel guilty, and hand all responsibility for the conflict to them. Also, “you’ve lost your temper, so I don’t have to listen to you anymore” and “you are damaging your cause by being angry” are slick moves designed to avoid the actual issue, making the less powerful person’s behavior into the problem.
In this case, it seems not to have worked . Though a few librarians have suggested Jenica is failing as a professional to provide information, whatever the cost (a weird combination of Stockholm Syndrome and erasure of the chemistry departments’ active role in this decision), the ACS has mostly made itself look backward, petty, and defensive.
I’m thinking about this particularly because this week I gave a talk about how we need, as a profession, to promote the common good rather than doing everything we can to make individuals successful. These goals are not inevitably in conflict, but they are when we frame inquiry as a mechanical process of producing things for a grade or for tenure, or when we enable the selfish consumption of information at the expense of broader access. When we pay $35 from the common fund for an article that only one person is allowed to read, we are not serving our community’s common good.
A lot of librarians after my talk told me “I like what you said, but what are we supposed to do? We have no power. There’s nothing we can do!”
I understand the sense of frustration. Our position in the academy is complicated. But I think we’re selling ourselves short. Librarianship is largely a female profession and it is proudly a service profession. Nobody gets into the field to get rich and powerful. We don’t get much practice throwing our weight around because it’s not something we typically like to do. But when we serve the needs of one person at a time in a way that takes away our ability to serve the people as a whole, we are not being service-oriented, we’re being servile.
True service is different. It requires is a passionate dedication to defending the rights of the powerless and insisting on fairness. It means caring about everyone, not just those who demand service loudly. We need to do better, and I believe we can.
Just look at Jenica Rogers.