February 8, 2010
Are Law Librarians Who Accept Vendor Swag Committing Ethically Questionable Acts?
When Sarah Glassmeyer announced she was going to auction the proceeds of her unsolicited WestlawNext iPod Nano, I thought and wrote "good for Sarah." At the same time, I thought it was fine by me if anyone accepted similar vendor swag, noting with tongue firmly planted in cheek, that I was holding out for a WestlawNext iPad.
Sarah's announcement has created a bit of a kerfuffle in the law librarian blogosphere. Just check out the comments to her Vendor Swag post for starters and move over to her Blog Commenting Policy, Free to Good Home: iPod Nano and The Ethical Librarian posts. In the latter post, Sarah calls attention to AALL's Ethical Standard. In making the case that the acceptance of vendor swag may be a professional ethics matter worth considering, Sarah quotes the Standard in what she characterizes as "I guess the most applicable" part, "We have a duty to avoid situations in which personal interests might be served or significant benefits gained at the expense of library users, colleagues, or our employing institutions.”
What Public Interest Is Served in Criticizing Legal Vendors? Tom Boone follows up on the matter in On professional communication and vendor relations. In it, he writes "What law librarian interest is served in publicly shaming a vendor over a disagreement?" Actually there is an important one. Vendors are not the enemy but when they commit what some may consider bonehead moves, provide very expensive and antiquated services and products, and control the market to the extent they do without being countered by our all too compliant professional association, the law librarian blogosphere kicks into gear and forces vendors to give pause. Case in point; who was invited to Eagan for a sneak preview of WestlawNext? Bloggers. And by my headcount they were not card carrying members of the "Friends of West" circle. About this Sarah wrote "I have to admit to being a little weirded out by the trip to Minnesota some of my colleagues were offered." I am not. It means blogging legal information professionals cannot be ignored by legal publishers. Nor can or have they been co-opted by the swag some received, kept or gave away.
Questioning Vendor Swag. Sarah publicized an issue she believe requires some attention in her series of blog posts. She recognizes, in her words, her "standards are higher than others when it comes to accepting swag from vendors." When I read that statement, I took it to be a personal moral position. Sarah has re-framed the vendor swag matter in the context of professional ethics. Certainly this is a topic worth discussing and her opinion is well worth reading at The Ethical Librarian. I, for one, doubt the unsolicited receipt and acceptance of vendor swag, even an iPod Nano (or hopefully a WestlawNext iPad), is a "significant benefit" under the AALL Standard. But if vendor swag is ethically questionable under AALL's Ethical Standard, one better not walk away from the registration table in Denver carrying a vendor-branded bag full of vendor stuff inside.
I consider swag to be a personal decision, one that can to be elevated to the level of professional ethics but will go nowhere as a practical matter. Perhaps, the AALL Ethical Statement should place a dollar limit of what is acceptable without becoming a "significant benefit." But even if such an amendment were made, there will never be an enforcement mechanism for so-called ethical violations. Without one, what's the point; I doubt anyone really has the will to go there. (But if some do, please wait until I get my iPad from TR Legal).
Bottom Line. At the level of the profession, the thing that matters to me is that vendors do recoup some of the cost of their "freebies" in the invoices we pay. There's also a "goodwill" factor as in accounting standards, not vendor-library relationships. [JH]
Tom, I know where the reference to "public shaming" was coming from and chose not to go into it, Distinguishing between that and "criticism" is a tad too subjective. Your post on professional communication and vendor relations has much merit but if it takes what some may call public shaming to make vendors and other to take notice to avoid bad publicity, then so be it. As I said in an earlier post, "It is a shame that one has to slap a vendor around a bit in a blog post..." but sometimes that's what it takes. See http://lawprofessors.typepad.com/law_librarian_blog/2010/01/llb-turns-five-years-old.html
As long as folks distinguish between objectionable vendor policies and practices and their reps (who may also find them objectionable but have little alternative but to follow the corporate script or find employment elsewhere) whatever works is appropriate in my opinion. Vendors may not have to answer to the law library community but they do have to answer to investment house analysts and institutional shareholders who based on my experience are interested in the opinions of institutional buyers like us -- interested as in taking action that impacts shareholder value.
Posted by: Joe Hodnicki | Feb 8, 2010 2:16:54 PM
There's a difference between "criticizing" and "public shaming," and my post concerns the latter. Your statement of our interest is an excellent defense of vendor criticism (public and private), but does that automatically include vendor shaming? There's a wide gulf between the two, yet we often think humiliating someone is the best way to criticize them.
Posted by: Tom Boone | Feb 8, 2010 10:34:01 AM
I still consider SWAG acceptance to be a personal issue. I never meant to imply that I wanted an enforceable standard by AALL, SLA, etc. I was just curious if they had something to say on the matter as a way of providing guidance to me for what I should do. I also hope that librarians take time to think about this issue.
I also thought I made clear, but will once again reiterate, I do not think the bloggers that went on the trip were compromised. Yes, when I initially heard about about the trip it gave me pause since details were not clear about exactly what occurred. The comments in Jason Eiseman's post http://www.jasoneiseman.com/blog/?p=397 about the trip provide some illumination. Like you, I think LibraryLand bloggers serve a useful purpose in drawing attention to issues that professional organizations let fall through the cracks.
So, to sum up: I don't care what anyone else chooses to do. As a matter of fact, I'm still working the lines out for myself. (Those BNA bags are really nice for carrying groceries...and the Bender Baby dinner is a delightful event.) I also don't think there should be an enforceable standard, but it would be nice if the professional organizations had some specific statement on the matter - even if it's "SWAG is okay". And, finally, the bloggers who went to Eagan are not West lackeys.
*fingers crossed you get your iPad, Joe*
Posted by: Sarah Glassmeyer | Feb 8, 2010 6:57:34 AM