SUNY Potsdam Takes Tough Stand Against American Chemical Society Prices

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Caralee Adams

The price was just too high.

Jenica Rogers knew that chemists on the Potsdam campus of the State University of New York relied on information from the American Chemical Society journals, and, as the Director of Libraries, she felt compelled to provide what they needed to be effective scholars.

But after five years of prices rising 48 percent, the cost of this year’s ACS online package would have consumed more than 10 percent of her total acquisitions budget. (The exact cost of the 2013 proposal is confidential.)

In May, she and others from the SUNY system met for seven hours with representatives from the ACS to negotiate a better deal. But they failed to reach an agreement. Rogers then had to go to the chemistry faculty personally to explain the situation.

“For me, professionally, it was hard. I know what a good department they are,” said Rogers. She laid out the proposed price – another 8 percent increase – and said they were “horrified.” Rogers finally said: “It’s going to keep going. I can’t do this.”

The faculty agreed. There was consensus that this year the ACS had gone too far. The price was just too high. SUNY Potsdam did not subscribe to the ACS online journal package for 2013.

To meet the chemical information needs, the campus will instead use a combination of the Royal Society of Chemistry content, ACS single title subscriptions, the ACS back file, and ScienceDirect from Elsevier.

“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,” Rogers wrote in her blog, where she has openly chronicled her experience. “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.”

Over the course of the negotiations, Roger’s realized that her concerns were bigger than simply determining what her campus can afford to pay for a single publisher’s chemistry journals.

“I don’t just want a good deal for Potsdam. I want them to fix the problem…It’s an ACS problem,” said Rogers. “They are limiting access to scientific information and damaging science. They are pricing entire groups of people out of information. It’s wrong.”

Further, Rogers said she will not agree to anymore non-disclosure forms with publishers going forward. “I want to talk about it publicly,” she said.

While ACS has maintained it needs to charge higher fees to cover costs, Rogers says she has found that even some members of the society are skeptical.

“It strikes people as a huge nonprofit that’s making giant profits,” said Rogers.

Martin Walker, associate professor of chemistry at SUNY Potsdam, has been an active member of the ACS for years, and has watched this battle over pricing brewing.

“We thought that switching from paper, where you buy to own, to electronic, where you are leasing, would have brought prices down,” said Walker. Instead, the cost is rising faster than inflation and he says the chemistry department has understood for a few years that it might eventually have to cancel the ACS package.

Walker met with ACS representatives himself in April, with high hopes to try to resolve the contract amicably. Chemists rely on ACS journals, with more than half of the top titles published by the society, he said. “It’s assumed it’s a ‘must have’ and there is a ‘too big to fail’ mentality…. buy at all cost,” he said. “I feel we’ve reached a point where it’s really unsustainable. We really have to find another way.”

To get access to the research, ACS members, like Walker, will use the free 25 yearly article downloads that the society provides as a member benefit. “If it means not having easy access to ACS journals, then so be it,” said Walker.

Cliff Rossister, assistant professor of chemistry on campus, said he reads ACS journal content online daily and will rely more on inter-library loans to get materials no longer available with the cancelled ACS package.

“When you write a review article, you have to list references and you cannot say, ‘I’m sorry I’m not able to get this article because I didn’t have access.’ That’s not an acceptable reason,” he said.

Still, Rossiter supports the university’s decision to cancel. “It seems exorbitant,” he said of the proposed price tag this year.

The business model relies on the membership playing along – with academics doing the research and reviews for free, said Rossiter. “It would be nice if [publishers] could work with us more and we could have access to our own articles,” he said. Eventually, Rossiter hopes chemistry will follow the lead of other fields, such as medicine and biology, that have been evolving to a model of developing prestigious open-access journals.

But in the meantime, Rossiter said he’s pleased with the university’s stance. “I’m impressed that they didn’t just lie down, but decided to step up and go to bat for this,” he said. Rossiter predicts that other SUNY schools will look at Potsdam as an experiment and perhaps in about two years consider doing something similar.

Like many other state universities, the SUNY Potsdam budget has faced significant cuts - 25 percent in the past three years – and the latest ACS price hike was the “last straw,” said Provost Margaret Madden. She and Rogers talked about possible responses and made sure the chemistry department was consulted about the final decision to cancel the ACS online package.

“It can’t be top down. These decisions need to be made collaboratively,” said Madden. “It’s not something you can do without a lot of discussion and creating goodwill between the faulty and library staff.”

Madden credits Rogers for involving the faculty and said her willingness to speak out publicly about the situation took a certain amount of courage. “I’m grateful that Jenica and I work at a college where that kind of discussion is valued,” said Madden.

Will SUNY Potsdam’s stance cause of ripple effect through the library community to boycott costly journals?

Rogers said she has tried to be detailed enough in her blog about the event so that others in library leadership can realize it’s possible to follow suit. But she says, at heart, librarians are service professionals who want to support the work of others, and the reality is that saying no is hard.

“Librarians are really bad at drawing lines in the sand,” she said. “We are good at providing for our users. When there aren’t good replacement options, we are terrible about taking away something you need for a moral stand. I wish we were better.”

Rogers said she is pleased the SUNY Potsdam decision has been noticed. “I hope it does more than make people say ‘Huh.’ I hope it provides the groundwork to demand better. Unfortunately, I think we are going to move slowly,” she said. “My being willing to do it and talk about it might give more people the confidence to do the same.”

Rogers said she has tried to find ways to bring attention to the challenge of open access of a long time. But working at a small institution focused on teaching, rather than a large research university where she could champion a digital depository, it’s been difficult. She does discuss open access in her speeches to new faculty every year and says more are paying attention to their contracts and considering open access.

SUNY Potsdam can’t be alone in struggling to pay for costly subscriptions and navigate the new publishing landscape, notes Walker. “There must be hundreds - or even thousands - of state institutions in the same boat,” he said. “Private institutions may have more money and not have reached the breaking point yet – but they will get there.”

It’s easier to keep doing thing the same way, but it hurts science. Add Walker: “Science flourishes best when information is freely exchanged.”