Walking away from the American Chemical Society

There’s no gentle introduction to this, so I’ll get right to my point:

Librarians, this is a call to action.

tl;dr: 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.

So here’s how we got here.

The problem:
In May 2012, after much internal discussion and debate, three SUNY library directors from the comprehensive colleges (myself included) and the university centers, along with two SUNY Office of LIbrary and Information Services staff met with three representatives from the ACS at SUNY Plaza in Albany, NY, and discussed their pricing model. The ACS folks were very clear: they are dedicated to moving all customers to a consistent pricing model, the pricing steps in that model are based on a tiered system, and there is a base price underneath all of that. In principle, I absolutely support this kind of move: too many libraryland vendors obscure their pricing models, negotiate great deals with one institution while charging double to someone else, or “have to ask the manager” to approve any offer. In our discussions, the librarian stakeholders noted our support for this approach, but argued that while their tiers are reasonable and based on arguably sound criteria, the base price underlying those steps is unsustainable and inappropriate. (In the case of SUNY Potsdam, the ACS package would have consumed more than 10% of my total acquisitions budget, just for journals for this one department.) We also learned that their base price and pricing model, when applied to much larger institutions, did not produce the same unsustainable pricing – I cannot provide numbers, as they are marked SUNY Confidential, but I can easily say that what our ARL peers pay for ACS in support of their doctoral programs is, in my estimation, in no way fair or reflective of the usage, FTE, or budgets of those institutions as compared to the pricing offered my institution for my usage, FTE, and budgets. It seems to me that the tiered increases may be fair and be reflective, but the problem lies with the base price underlying their pricing model. That base price is unsustainable for small institutions. And, unfortunately, the ACS sales team is not currently interested in negotiating on that fact. In response to any suggestions of ways that SUNY or campuses might collaborate or negotiate to reach a place where we could sustain our subscriptions – one which might well be applied to other campuses, other consortia by ACS – we were repeatedly told “but that’s not our pricing model.” The ACS is clearly committed to creating consistent pricing across their tiers, which I respect. However, I firmly believe that their approach to the base price for their resources is unacceptable and unsustainable for institutions like mine.

What we did:
Given that there was no apparent ACS-based solution to our budget crunch in the face of what we feel is unsustainable pricing, we went to our Chemistry faculty and discussed all of this with them. This was not our first meeting; we’ve been discussing this since fall 2011 when we clearly understood that ACS pricing would continue to increase, and was pushing at the ceiling of what we could sustain.  Along with two librarians – the Collection Development Coordinator, and our subject liaison to Chemistry – I laid all the facts out. We described our subscription history in support of their scholarship, teaching, and learning needs, pulled out the costs for ACS content when we first subscribed in the early 2000s and referred back to the discussions we had then (when I was CD Coordinator, not Director), laid out the current cost of ACS publications and the price increases over the past five years, and estimated what our 3-year prices would be. Based on our discussion, I think that some of our faculty were surprised, some seemed resigned, some were horrified, and they were all frustrated by what seemed to be a plate full of bad options. However, after two meetings and much discussion of how to reconfigure our ACS subscriptions to meet our budgetary constraints, I believe that we all agreed that this goes beyond having a tight campus or library budget: this is simply not appropriate pricing for an institution like ours. The result of our first meeting was that the chemistry faculty agreed to take their concerns to the ACS based on their individual professional involvements with the organization, talking with sales and the Chemical Information Division about their concerns, and we agreed that we’d look into other library solutions to their chemical information needs.

The options we found:
So Marianne Hebert, our Collection Development Coordinator, did some research, and came up with three options for Chemistry content.
A) The ACS Core+ Package at the new standardized price, ACS Legacy Archive, 2-3 selected titles outside the Core+, and ILL fill-in as needed beyond the 250 tokens offered. Based on our use stats, this would maintain a comfortable level of access to ACS content, but was going to save us virtually no money over our ACS full package, as we would have to pay the ACS full list prices for the selected titles, plus the $41 per article copyright clearance fee for ILLs beyond the initial free articles.
B) A Wiley 2012 STM package, which offered many chemistry titles. This was about 40% of what we would have spent on ACS content, based on our Wiley print subscriptions and other existing Wiley contracts.
C) A Royal Society of Chemistry Gold Package, and the RSC archive. This was about 54% of what we were projected to spend on ACS content.

So we gathered up the price quotes, the title lists, and our usage data, and presented the three options to the Chemistry faculty who were available on campus in July. These faculty are strong participants in their professional organization: Many if not all of them are ACS members, doing active research and publication both alone and with undergraduate research partners, some of them heavily involved in ACS committees and conferences. And they agreed on behalf of their department that despite the undisputed excellence of content and relevance to their work found in American Chemical Society content, we cannot afford the ACS content at the current pricing model.

What we chose:
When faculty compared the titles available from Wiley and the RSC, they preferred the RSC for reasons of quality, reputation, and relevance to our curriculum. On the library side, we agreed to subscribe to the RSC Gold Package, and to provide our standard ILL service for any needed additional titles (though we were careful to note the $41 clearance fee for ACS publications, and described how that works, so that everyone was clear on the many ways that the ACS has price-protected access to their content). We also added on the ACS Legacy Archive, as it is reasonably priced for an STM indexing and abstracting product. There was then a discussion of the appropriateness and feasibility of faculty encouraging students doing undergraduate research to purchase ACS student memberships (students’ dues are $25 and include 25 free downloads from any ACS publication), which could be nicely dovetailed with our Legacy Archive access and would be professionally relevant to our students as they graduate and move into jobs as chemists. Our Information Literacy librarians have also begun working with Chemistry faculty to integrate “how to do chemical research without university resources to support you” into some of our information literacy sessions for the department.  Teaching this kind of broader information skillset strikes me as just the kind of IL skills we want our students to have as they move into jobs outside of higher education, and I’m grateful this is one side effect of the discussion.

Librarians and faculty raised the valid concern that we might not be able to meet ACS approval of undergraduate programs without our ACS package. The ACS is in the unique position of both approving programs and selling the content necessary for approval, which I will leave to someone else to debate the ethics of. Throughout our discussions we agreed that any library solution we proposed would have the ability to meet the approval requirements in concert with our subscription to ScienceDirect. It can be done.

The dramatic conclusion:
And so that’s where we are. On January 1, 2013 our ACS content will dramatically decline, and our RSC package is already active to pick up the slack. The libraries have agreed to do a robust analysis of how well or poorly this works out in this year, but the chemistry faculty were willing to join the librarians in taking a stand against unsustainable pricing structures. I argued to them that while I will always try to do what’s best for our students and faculty, we also have an ethical responsibility as active members of the scholarly information ecosystem to make smart choices. I asserted that someone has to be first – someone has to stand up and say that this is unacceptable, that we must find or create better options, and that we have the power to make choices based on those options. I know that other libraries — some within SUNY, some outside — have already chosen to unsubscribe from ACS content, all for their own reasons, be they practical, ethical, financial… But no one is talking about it. Or at least, not loudly enough to suit me. So I’ll be the first one to stand up and say it loud.

Librarians are often disinclined to be first to try something – we’d often rather be second, after someone else has found the hidden pitfalls. So here I am, saying that we were willing to be the first to be loud, and to provide you with a public example of what is possible. Our chemistry faculty were willing to follow that lead, and I’m grateful to them for it. I’ll report back on what we learn.


** I am also displeased with Elsevier, as are many others. However, all 64 SUNY campuses buy ScienceDirect as a part of our Core Services through SUNYConnect, and given the broader interests of all of SUNY, I was not allowed to opt out of the Elsevier contract as a part of those Core Services.


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  2. SUNY Potsdam’s decision to walk away from the high-priced ACS all-pubs ejournal package inspired us to take action after years of complaining about the high prices. While we didn’t walk away completely from ACS, we did switch to the much smaller (and newer) Education Core Plus package for 2013. Our chemistry faculty weren’t happy, but they understood that the high ACS prices are not sustainable in a flat budgetary environment. I encourage ACS to continue developing more affordable and flexible ejournal options for campuses like ours that have a small, undergraduate chemistry program.


  3. […] a teaching opportunity with our faculty and students. In recent months we have seen SUNY Potsdam cancel its subscriptions with the American Chemical Society and the University of Montreal cancel a “Big Deal” with Wiley. In both cases, the message that […]


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