Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Why Vendor Relations are a Sore Topic with Librarians!

Well, tip of the OOTJ hat to CRIV Chair Rob Myers at Case Western Reserve School of Law (CRIV, for those who might not know, stands for the American Association of Law Libraries'(AALL's) Committee on Relation with Information Vendors). He sent this following note, with more details, to a number of librarian listservs:

A fellow law librarian just reported that West is sending our sets of the the state court rules to subscribers of state statutes (and charging for them), regardless of whether they already subscribe to the set as a separate subscription. This appears to be a violation of the AALL Guide to Fair Business Practices for Legal Publishers section 3.1(a) which states:

Where the content of a new product or supplement that is published as part of an existing subscription or standing order bears no direct relationship to the content of the standing order or represents a substantial expansion of the topic or purpose of the original subscription or product, the publisher should seek customer consent prior to shipment.

3.1(a) PRACTICE TO AVOID: Without prior customer consent, the publisher of a subscription service ships to subscribers of the service a pamphlet that includes content that has not previously been supplied as part of the subscription, where that content is not specific or closely related to the topic of the service, and charges customers for the pamphlet.

My library cancelled most of the state court rules that were standalone subscriptions years ago. We certainly do not want to receive them (and have to pay for them) as part of our state statute subscriptions now.

The law librarian that reported this told me that her West rep encouraged her to write an angry letter which she gladly did.

I will contact West on behalf of the membership but I recommend that if you do not want the state rules of court billed as part of your state statute subscription, you contact your local West representative or West Customer Service. If enough calls come in, West will hopefully discontinue this practice.
With this as a backdrop, consider a number of recent developments:

1. AALL announced that it would host a Vendor Relations Colloquium from February 28 to March 1, 2011. There will be a limited number of invited participants. There has been a firestorm of controversy after the colloquium was announced. AALL members wondered why the meeting would not be held at a regular AALL meeting, why the limited number of participants. And why the meeting seemed to be held in such a way that appeared to reduce the transparency. There is a huge amount of distrust right now between many of the members of AALL and their Executive Board, which is a very sad state of affairs, but which is illustrated by the reaction to the announcement of this colloquium.

Finally, the uproar is dying down a bit after Kris Niedringhaus and Rich Leiter, two widely respected member who are among the small number of members selected to participate responded to the questions and complaints. They explained as clearly as they could how selection of participants took place. Some months ago, there was a widely place call for those interested in vendor relations to enter a statement of interest. They had to send an e-mail that not only stated their interest but included the answer to 2 questions:
a) What would you like to tell legal publishers about your institutions?
b) What would you like to ask legal publishers about their institutions?
*you can see these 2 questions on the Agenda for the Colloquium at

The answer to why the colloquium was not held during a regular AALL meeting seemed to be that vendors and regular members alike had so much else on their minds at the annual meeting, that they would not be able to focus on a vendor relations event during the annual meeting period or shortly after/before it.

In response to complaints about lack of transparency, Kris Niedringhaus will ask, but encourages all who are interested to also petition for a webcast of the proceedings. But even if there is no live webcast, there is hope for a good amount of transparency. There are several bloggers who are attending who can be expected to blog and Twitter a good bit during the event: Mark Estes, Greg Lambert, John Mayer and Rich Leiter all blog and Twitter, and we can hope will be actively reporting live during the Colloquium.

2. AALL Spectrum just published a Point CounterPoint in the February issue:

Ending our Conflicts of Interest to Protect Consumers of Legal Publication[s], by Michael Ginsborg, raises the problem of whether AALL has compromised its ability to stand up for consumer interests by becoming too dependent upon publisher/vendor donations. In a powerful conclusion, Ginsborg states:
To become stronger consumer advocates, we must restore consumer advocacy to our ethics, end our conflicts of interest, invite attorneys to join us as associate members, and, if necessary, amend AALL and chapter bylaws. We must be prepared to forgo all donations from specific
publishers as we remake national and local organizations worthy of alternative donations from attorneys. Otherwise, we will continue to compromise ourselves, our constituents, our employers, and an important public interest.
Ginsborg supports his contentions with data. There are actually TWO counterpoints, provided by two former presidents of AALL:

AALL Works to Support Law Librarians' Interests, by Judith Meadows and Kay Moller Todd.
Mr. Ginsborg’s primary assertion is that the level of donations made to AALL from information vendors rises to a level sufficient to compromise individual members’ impartiality on the issues. We counter with a discussion of the Association’s mission, policies, and history of lobbying, all of which suggest strongly to the contrary.

AALL engages in a wide range of activities, including the development of educational programming; publishing; supporting the exchange of information among members and those interested in law librarianship; and awarding scholarships, awards, and grants. Our program is based on the priorities articulated by the membership prior to the development of each Strategic Plan. Support for these activities comes from diverse revenue sources: dues; investment income; revenue from conferences, including exhibitor fees; advertising; and donations. Donations may be monetary or in-kind. Monetary donations support awards, scholarships, grants, research, and social activities at live events. In-kind donations include the AALL Directory and tote bags for Annual Meeting attendees. Donations thus may benefit an individual grant recipient, members who attend a conference, or all members who receive the directory. In 2009, the most recent year that data are available, donations amounted to 11 percent of all revenue—the total from publishers is lower, as member donations are grouped in the total. (snip)

We strongly assert that our individual members, when making purchasing decisions, are unaffected by donations provided to the national Association for events and services. The reality is that like any entity in the world marketplace, legal publishers risk the loss of sales if products are overpriced for the consumer or do not provide critical information. It is law librarians’ professional responsibility to decide if the institutions they work for will pay or not pay for the value of a title or product. AALL is firmly committed to promoting the free access to primary law. Pricing policies and purchasing decisions should not be confused with ethics.

We recognize that we have a fundamental difference of opinion from Mr. Ginsborg. We relate to legal publishers as business partners with whom we work to have the best
products available for our customers. Mr. Ginsborg sees publishers as the opposition with whom AALL members have nothing in common. We believe that is fallacious but recognize that this is a critical issue for AALL members and endorse a continuing dialogue. We hope that our comments will inform the discussion.
Sadly for Todd and Meadows, Ginsborg's article follows close on the heels of Brian Carson's powerful blog post, Time to Reinstate FTC Guidelines for the Legal Publishing Industry, which was inspired by another recent case of West Publishing overreaching: Rudovsky v. West Publishing Corp.

In addition, there is a remarkable bit of research which shows that recipients of even trivial gifts and services are, indeed, affected by them, feeling themselves indebted to the donors. In fact, the value of the gift has no effect on the strength of the feeling it engenders: Consumer Responses to Gift Receipt on Business to Consumer Contexts, H. Onur Bodur and Bianca Grohmann, Psychology and Marketing vol. 22(5) 441-456, (May, 2005).


Sarah said...

Where did Rich and Kris' explanation appear? I seem to have missed that. Thanks.

Betsy McKenzie said...

I'm afraid that whole conversation appeared on the closed SALLD listserve (Society of Academic Law Library Directors). I may even be wrong to bring it out here, but I thought it was an important topic that bears on the entire profession.