Um … about that American Libraries article we wrote

As a professional rule, I try to keep things positive. I like to be a cheerleader for all the great people out there and avoid boosting the signal on a bunch of negativity.

However, situations compel me to devote this one post to something totally crappy.

TL;DR: Patricia Hswe and I wrote an article for American Libraries and the editors added some quotes from a vendor talking about their products without telling us. We asked them to fix it and they said no.

Because American Libraries refused to clarify what happened, we decided to clarify it ourselves. What follows is our second (and hopefully happier) attempt at collaborative writing. This little blog does not have quite the reach of that big glossy magazine so please feel free to share as widely as you want. As always, let me know if you have any questions!  ||  @stewartvarner


If you are a member of ALA and receive American Libraries, you may have seen an article we wrote in the most recent issue (Jan/Feb 2016) titled “Special Report: Digital Humanities in Libraries.” Unfortunately, because the article was edited after we thought we had turned in the final version, we aren’t nearly as happy to share it with you as we had hoped to be.

The edits in question were not harmless. They were quotes added to the body of the article from a representative from Gale/Cengage about steps they are taking to develop commercial products which they believe will be useful for digital humanists.

We probably do not need to spell out why we are disappointed by this but, just for the record, we have two major problems:

  1. These were not superficial changes and the editors at American Libraries should have spoken to us before publishing them.
  2. More substantially, we feel it is grossly inappropriate for a magazine that is supposed to represent libraries and librarians to insinuate a vendor’s perspective directly into an article without the authors’ knowledge or permission. This is especially true when the vendor has a very obvious financial motive for being part of the conversation.

Let us state for the record that we did not speak to anyone at Gale/Cengage about this article, we had no role in developing or carrying out the survey, we did not see those quotes prior to publication and would not have included them in our article if we had.

Importantly, our problem is not with Gale/Cengage but with the way American Libraries is handling their relationship with them in the context of the article we wrote.

When American Libraries approached us about the article, they said “We are also conducting a survey with Gale/Cengage, so that data would be incorporated” in our article. This was reiterated in the official scope document for the article which stated, “[w]riters should also include the results of the Gale and American Libraries survey of faculty and librarians.” The editor at American Libraries gave us access to data from that survey and we did, in fact, cite some of that data in our article.

There is something else that happened that is relevant here. Throughout the writing process, the editor at American Libraries kept mentioning that they were going to give us a contact at Gale/Cengage in case we had questions. On October 27th (nearly a month after we accepted the assignment), the editor gave us contact information for a “Senior Manager of Public and Media Relations” at Gale. We didn’t really see how someone in that role would have much to add to our story and, because we were almost finished anyway, we decided not to bother contacting them. We turned in the first draft on November 9 (only three days late!). For the next week, went back and forth with some minor edits and signed off on what we thought was the final version on November 16.

We became aware of the troublesome edits when we received our hard copies in mail shortly before New Years. Hoping that it was a harmless misunderstanding or oversight, we contacted American Libraries and asked that they take the following steps:

  1. Edit the online version of the article to remove the quotes from Gale Cengage.
  2. Run a correction/retraction in the March/April issue.
  3. Waive their 90 day exclusive licence so that we could place our version of the article in an Open Access repository and make it available immediately.

We also mentioned that we would be writing an account of what happened for Stewart’s blog to try to clear up any confusion. We said that we would really like to end that post with a note stating that American Libraries apologizes for the misunderstanding and is working to make things right.

Unfortunately, that’s not how this post will end. This is, in part, what we received from American Libraries in response to our concerns:

“Gale is our partner in this digital humanities project.* They conducted the surveys and provided the data you wrote about in the article. Having a response from them in the article was a requirement of the assignment.** I included them in the sources in the original scope document***, and I did ask you at least twice in follow-up emails (10/27 and 11/4) to call their marketing contact [name withheld] for information. You did not express any opposition to doing this, and she said she had not heard from you. Because we were on such a tight deadline with this issue, and you had not reached out to Gale, I called them and added the quotes.”

* This is the first time we had seen our article characterized as a part of a “digital humanities project” in partnership with Gale/Cengage.

** We cannot find where “a response” from Gale is a requirement. They did want us to cite the survey (which we did) but there is nothing in the scope document (link above) about getting a response.

*** There was a list of suggested sources in the scope document. We did not cite any of them though we did speak to Sarah Potvin, one of the editors at dh+lib.

American Libraries totally ignored our request for a correction in the next issue. They offered to take the quotes out of the online version and add them as “pull quotes” in the sidebar but noted that “this treatment will make them more prominent on the page, even if they are no longer part of the article.” Finally, they offered to reduce their exclusive licence from 90 days to 30 days.

We find every part of this story upsetting. If the editors did not think we had done what they asked for, they should have sent it back for revisions or simply not published it. As librarians, we need a publication like American Libraries to help us organize our concerns and share our experiences. This whole experience has made us question who they are really looking out for.

We feel used; like our article was turned into a vehicle for a commercial message and that we were deceived into signing off on it. We are also personally and professionally embarrassed that thousands of readers will see the article but never find this blog post. What will they think of our ethics? Whose side will they think we are on?

We are also upset because we actually did like the original article. We thought we did a pretty good job of covering a complicated topic and we were happy to have pulled together some solid advice from some great librarians. We were looking forward to sharing it with folks but now we’ll just wait another 30 days and then start circulating the link to our original version which will be placed in the Carolina Digital repository at UNC. We hope you’ll read and share that one. But do us all a favor and just ignore the one in American Libraries.


Stewart Varner // Digital Scholarship Librarian // UNC, Chapel Hill

Patricia Hswe // Co-Department head of Publishing and Curation Services // Penn State

48 thoughts on “Um … about that American Libraries article we wrote”

  1. Reblogged this on biblioth|ê|thique and commented:
    Un article soumis à “American Libraries” qui a fait l’objet d’une adaptation de contenu (ajout d’une citation d’un responsable de Gale/Cengage) avant publication, sans que les auteurs n’en aient été avertis… Pas très correct, tout cela… :-/

  2. This kind of journalistic practice is frustrating to say the least. In a former life, I was a PR coordinator. (Because of this, I understand why they gave you a Public Relations contact at Gale — they act as gatekeepers to whoever you want to talk to, and probably would have connected you with the actual experts once they knew the questions you had. That’s what I used to do in my old job. Still no excuse for AL’s actions.) In my former job, I learned that much of what we think of as “news” is actual paid advertising. Segments on local TV, articles in newspapers and magazines, and even national news has paid portions that are not always called out as such. I’ve stopped trusting a lot of reporting because of knowing how much money is probably changing hands to make those segments come to life. Part of my job was scripting and writing articles that would then be presented in “editorial” fashion — that is, without any acknowledgement of our paid placement there. Good for you for fighting for your article’s integrity. I wish we had more people working this hard to make sure people know exactly what they’re reading.

    1. Thanks so much Jennifer. My radar is usually up for this kind of thing but I was surprised to see it in my professional associations magazine. Frustrating indeed.

  3. Did you assign copyright to the journal? If you did, you cannot complain on copyright grounds if they amend your text to your dis-satisfaction, as they are the owners of the copyright in the text. You might still have grounds for complaint for defamation if you feel the published article damages your reputation. But if you retained copyright, then you have clear valid grounds for legal complaint for unauthorised adaptation of your text. Please tell me you did NOT assign copyright……

  4. In that same issue there is an article “by” me that came as a complete surprise. The article is an excerpt from my book, recently published by ALA Editions. I haven’t looked at my contract, but it’s quite possible that the conditions of the contract allow them to make such extractions. They did add a first paragraph that wasn’t mine but that I don’t object to. However, I nearly threw away the copy without looking at it, and might not have even known that I’d been “published.” I would have expected a courtesy email from my editors (or the PR person) that the article was being prepared.

    In my experience, the entire publishing arm of ALA is rather haphazard. I’ve had things go to print with serious errors, and I assume much of this is about being hurried and not having sufficient staff. I haven’t had an experience of this nature, which would greatly anger me. I do think that this is an issue for the organization, the profession, and all of those who write for ALA. I don’t, however, know how we give voice to this.

    I want to add that all of my human-to-human dealings with ALA publishing have been positive. I like the people there and would like to see these problems fixed for their sakes as well as ours.

  5. A message has gone out on the ALA-SRRT listserv about this. The audience should be quite sympathetic.

    I can’t imagine how lousy it must feel to have something you worked hard on and thought would be impartial turned into an advertisement. Even though you turned it in late, someone at American Libraries should have at least picked up the phone to tell you what was happening and work out some kind of alternate arrangement. (Why couldn’t the quotations have been an editor-attributed sidebar in the first place?) This just seems petty on their part.

    Yet another thing I’m going to have in mind when my dues are up. The list is getting frustratingly long.

  6. Reblogged this on The Infornado and commented:
    Its a bummer to see this happening, but I am so pleased that Stewart and Patricia decided to share openly about it. I dont think I’ve ever reblogged someone elses work on my own blog, but this is important.

  7. I’d like to hear ALA’s response. But if this IS their response, then that is a big deal. Not that long ago a columnist for AL lost his gig because of failure to disclose a vendor connection (and that was the right call). If this is AL turning articles into vendor-driven infomercials, then that is a major issue. — Writing as a former columnist (Internet Librarian, Tech Source).

  8. It will be interesting to learn how this develops. Editors have responsibilities to their journals as well as to their authors. Juggling those responsibilities is difficult so I sympathize with the editor(s)’ plight but nevertheless, it is ultimately their job to ensure that if they publish something under a person’s name, that person must agree with it. Of course, changes happen. But, if editors end up publishing articles under people’s names that those people do not agree with, then the results are catastrophic.

  9. We understand the concerns of the authors and appreciate their feedback. We will review our editorial guidelines to ensure that they are clear. We value our contributors and always want them to have a good experience when they submit articles for publication in American Libraries.

    1. Ignoring for a moment the question of whether the article AL wanted was justifiable (or just disguised advertising) . . .

      If the authors turn in an article that doesn’t meet the requirements, you don’t publish it. Silently making a substantive change to a piece of writing attributed to someone else is blatantly unethical, especially in journalism. The authors are entirely within their rights to demand that any damage to their reputations be mended as best AL can. AL’s initial reaction when called on this is the worst kind of chutzpah.

  10. Hi Stewart,

    I have posted a response on behalf of Gale to our blog as well as copied it below. You may also receive contact directly from one of my colleagues in Publishing. We do sincerely appreciate your contribution to American Libraries magazine and look forward to learning how we can support your work and the work of your colleagues in digital humanities.

    Harmony Faust
    Sr. Director of Marketing

    Gale recently partnered with American Libraries magazine to co-produce a survey of librarians and faculty about digital humanities, which was covered in Jan/Feb issue of American Libraries.

    As part of our contract with American Libraries, Gale had no editorial control of the resulting coverage, including any communication between the magazine and writers at any point. We provided comment to the magazine editors about why we initiated the study and what we hoped to learn. The magazine was not required to use this information as part of this sponsorship.

    We were saddened to hear of the frustration felt by the authors and certainly want to learn how we can work together to support them and other leaders in the digital humanities field. In the end, our shared goal is to support librarians and faculty with their digital humanities work and further raise the profile of academic libraries.

    Our hope is that the survey results will spark discussion and help fuel positive change within our industry.

  11. You’re terribly naive. Did you think you were writing some thought-piece for a news magazine/paper, or some sort of scholarly journal? Come on. You’re footstomping and pouting are childish. Consider yourself the recipient of an education in the world of industry trade publications.

    1. I ran across this post online and was interested as a Teacher-Librarian. To be blunt, I found your response extreme and inappropriate. I do not know these authors but found this post to simply be reflective of their experience and neither ‘childish’ nor involving ‘pouting’. Unless you have sort of bias, I am unsure what about this post actually gave you that extreme of a response to it? I, for one, appreciate them speaking out about their experience as it provides another layer to this article that allows me to examine it critically.

    2. Having worked for many years in trade publications I can confirm that Bret Bingen’s post is incorrect and insulting

    3. “You’re [ sic ] footstomping and pouting are childish.”

      While their professionally worded concerns don’t qualify for this description, your reply certainly does.

  12. I never considered American Libraries a scholarly source, although it has improved over the past decade. I now consider it a trade magazine, with all the negative aspects of corporate influence on content.
    You don’t require product placement in an article…let the editorial staff be responsible for product placement.

  13. Does ALA have any effective control over AL? The practice of hijacking contributor content for commercial purposes is not only a transgression against the authors, it violates basic principles of academic trust that scholarly communication depends upon. This is something clearly the profession shouldn’t condone, let alone be an agent of. Someone should be fired over this. It should also be brought up with ALA’s (and ACRLs) governing board. It is indefensible. Why should we pay dues to a professional organization that prostitutes for parasites on the profession, and the academy, like Gale/Cenage?

  14. Does ALA have any effective control over AL? The practice of hijacking contributor content for commercial purposes is not only a transgression against the authors’ integrity, it violates basic principles of academic trust that scholarly communication depends upon. This is something clearly the profession shouldn’t condone, let alone be an agent of. Someone should be fired over this. It should also be brought up with ALA’s (and ACRL’s) governing board. It is indefensible. Why should we pay dues to a professional organization that prostitutes for parasites on the profession and the academy, like Gale/Cenage?

  15. Reblogged this on Observations and commented:
    Librarians are about the fair and unimpeded sharing of information. The publisher of American Libraries apparently thinks that the promotion of business relationships with commercial vendors trumps that.

  16. The publisher of American Libraries has been using articles as vehicles for commercial messages for a long time. I wrote my first letter to them complaining about this practice over 10 years ago.

  17. I don’t think most professionals object to sponsored content as it is (usually) a necessity for a publication to remain afloat, but that it remains clearly identifiable as sponsored content is very, VERY important to everyone’s integrity. If AmLibMag thinks that embedding sponsored content inside of scholarly and professional articles without the author’s consent is an appropriate placement strategy, then they have completely lost touch with their moral compass, and are acting no better than Google and other major social media sites, who quietly mix ads and other paid content into seemingly legitimate search results.

    If a national publication for libraries and the national association representing libraries do the same, then truly we must ask ourselves, what purpose are they serving?

  18. I had an issue with Special Libraries Association’s magazine some years ago. Not exactly like this, but still sad too. I had written an article for Information Outlook. The editor never asked me about using a full article, or an edit, but it turned up as a long “letter to the editor” and was, after publication, appropriated for profit by Hi-Beam aggregator, “It’s not about Us.” After many months I was able to get them to take it down on Hi-Beam who was selling it, with no remuneration to me. My invoice to both publishers was ignored. To my knowledge Info. Outlook has made no changes in practice. I quit as an SLA member, although spoke to the Solo group at the 2008 convention in Seattle. Not used for IO, the talk is found here with my blessing:

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