In response to my post a few days ago about EBSCO, Sarah Houghton-Jan just wrote an impassioned post about unethical vendor practices, suggesting that we let our vendors know when we are not happy with what they’re doing. While I do agree that libraries should make their dissatisfaction with specific vendors or vendor practices known to the vendor (and to the public for others to learn from), I don’t know how much of a difference this will make on an individual level. If my Director contacted our EBSCO rep and said “we’re really unhappy with the fact that you’re making the Journal of Military History available only through an expensive database package” would it really matter? Would they change? We’re a small private university, one of many, many small private universities that do business with EBSCO. If we decided to drop all of our EBSCO subscriptions (which is impossible — some of them are things we must provide access to and there’s no other option) would they care that much? I’m sure they will make degrees of magnitude more from locking up the Journal of Military History content in those databases than they will from us.
One of the commenters on my post wrote “where is a David to take down this Goliath?” In my mind, what we really need to take down this Goliath is another Goliath; specifically, a Goliath made up of a lot of Davids. Pretty much all libraries are members of consortia of some sort; local, regional and national groups dedicated to advocating for and supporting their member libraries. If these aren’t the groups that should be fighting unfair or unethical practices of vendors, I don’t know who should! It’s only in large numbers that we can actually make a difference in scholarly publishing.
We’ve certainly seen major Universities doing it, since it seriously impacts their bottom line. Back when I was in library school, I remember when a whole bunch of big schools like Cornell, Harvard, etc. boycotted Elsevier journals in response to bundling of journals, exorbitant pricing, and an unwillingness to negotiate fair deals. In addition, their faculty Senates made statements suggesting that faculty not support journals with exorbitant pricing by not publishing in them or serving on their boards. When we’re being faced with unfair deals or unethical behavior from publishers, we should get our faculty members involved too. We have three members of the Society for Military History on the Norwich faculty. I contacted them last week, as I thought they might be able to exert pressure on the Society. If faculty drop their memberships and stop publishing and serving on the boards of journals like this, the journals will have little choice but to change their practices (not that I think that will all happen, especially with historians rather than scientists, but one can dream, right?).
I’m not an expert on what consortia do by any stretch of the imagination, so maybe those of you with more experience can answer this. Are our consortia exerting pressure on vendors when they do things like this? I know the consortia we belong to get us discounts with vendors (and mainly seem focused on group discounts and training), but do they fight vendors when those vendors do things that are harmful or exploitative to their member libraries? I see that an International Coalition of Library Consortia exists and that they’ve made some statements about issues in scholarly publishing, but they’ve made so few over the years in light of the huge number of issues libraries have grappled with. Looking at the mission statements of a few consortia, they talk about group purchasing and a single point of contact for dealing with vendors, but I see nothing about actively advocating for member libraries.
So, if the consortia don’t fight for us, who should? ALA? ACRL? I always hear about how ALA has such a strong advocacy arm, but it seems to be all about advocating for libraries in the national and state governments, not with scholarly publishers and content providers. It certainly makes no sense for us to form separate organizations to advocate for libraries in this realm when we have these consortia that have relationships with publishers and are supposed to be negotiating with them on our behalf.
More important than making our dissatisfaction known to our vendors is to make our dissatisfaction known to the organizations that are supposed to represent and advocate for us. We are much more powerful in large numbers than we are alone, and we joined consortia in the first place to band together for our common good. It’s not just about getting deals and taking classes on cataloging and Web 2.0 technologies — it should be about collective advocacy. And if the organizations we give money to are not providing that for us, then we should pressure them to do so. Because we will not be able to create real change in the scholarly publishing and library technology landscape unless we act as a group.
I still think that contacting EBSCO is likely to have less of an effect than contacting the Society of Military History. EBSCO knows exactly what they’re doing, maybe it will work maybe it won’t, but they have pegged their business on it, and they already know full well that many libraries aren’t going to like it — they’re thinking that many libraries will end up having to do it anyway because of exclusive deals, and the customers they lose are going to be offset by the money they make.
That’s my guess.
But the Society of Military History (and other publishers, non-profit and for-profit), probably _don’t_ entirely realize what they’ve gotten themselves into. No doubt EBSCO gave them a hefty check for exclusive online distribution rights, but they may not realize the negative impact that this has on libraries (for a non-profit society, that is on the home institutions of their own members and authors), or that they may be limiting the public’s access to their publication by doing so. And if fewer people can read it, fewer people will cite it, it will hurt their citation counts. Maybe. These sorts of arguments may or may not work on them, but it’s got a lot better chance of working on a publisher (especially an academic publisher, and especially especially a Society publisher) than on EBSCO.
I am not a lawyer, and I freely admit that antitrust law baffles me even more than most types of law. However, I seem to recall having been told once that antitrust laws might make it illegal for a group of libraries to carry out an organized group boycott of a publisher. (The FTC’s page on group boycott laws.) I’d be interested in hearing from people who understand this law better what exactly library organizations can and cannot do to pressure publishers without falling afoul of these laws.
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This post was mentioned on Twitter by librarianmer: @TheLiB I responded to your last post on my blog about libraries & unethical vendors http://bit.ly/cAwkF3…
I’ve been working on starting a project that has potential to impact this issue and have just started to speak about it a *little bit* in public. (this post mentions it, right after the first picture: http://www.libraryman.com/blog/2010/03/30/watch-todays-images-and-library-marketing-presentation-its-free-pla-update/ ) I know you have tons going on, but we should talk about it. I’d love for you to know about it and to get your input.
I wouldn’t expect ALA or ACRL to get involved. They depend heavily on vendors such as EBSCO, ProQuest and others to sponsor their conferences with big exhibits and support for big name speakers, etc. They see these firms as friends, not foes. And all of the vendors already have user groups made up of librarians from different sectors of the profession. Some have multiple user groups for different products. Why not find out who are the librarians on these groups – the vendors will tell you – and encourage them to lobby the vendors they work with to create change. But don’t get your hopes up. And when all else fails, talk to the vendors and tell them what your concerns are. They might actually listen (and yes, I have met with ebsco folks like Sam Brooks in the past to discuss concerns, issues, etc – it can be helpful to engage in a dialog),
Also, it should be pointed out that EBSCO is being invited to the annual ICOLC meeting in Chicago for one of their infamous “vendor grills.” That meeting is less than three weeks away. I expect EBSCO to get hammered.
My reading of that page also suggests it could be problematic, though there are so few database providers of breadth and depth it seems almost necessary for libraries to band together to negotiate for prices. Boycotting to affect prices seems a problem, but what about boycotting to try to get specific database inclusions? That seems to step a little outside of the antitrust problem.
>>However, I seem to recall having been told once
>>that antitrust laws might make it illegal for a
>>group of libraries to carry out an organized
>>group boycott of a publisher.
[…] post has been in draft since April, when Meredith Farkas first posted about the Davids and Goliaths in the eContent world. A post today from the Librarian in Black prompted me to dig this out and publish […]
[…] I’ve been saying for a while that libraries need to come together around some organization that will exert pressure on vendors and promote the needs of libraries and their patrons. Without an organization like that, I can’t imagine a future where libraries are dealt with fairly by publishers. We’ll always be the little guy. It’s like unions. An individual complains to a company about being mistreated, they may or may not be heard. A union, made up of lots of individuals, has a lot more clout. Toby Greenwalt suggests that we negotiate, but what do we have to negotiate with as individual libraries? How do we negotiate when there is no we? […]