Olympic sponsorships & Vancouver Public Library: Conflict of Interest?

Vancouver Public Library (VPL) in British Columbia, where the 2010 Winter Olympic Games are about to begin in a matter of weeks, has been in the news this past week. At issue are the instructions given to staff on how to handle branding, logos and sponsorship for events related to the Olympics.

In the biblioblogosphere, Jessamyn noted it “without comment”,  Rory thinks it’s “just too much,” noting that VPL was the site of history’s largest librarian’s strike in 2007, and LIS news quotes the union president speaking against the memo on the grounds of intellectual freedom. Tara, over at We Read banned Books, posts the memo in question, and highlights the irony of the instructions to put “a little piece of tape” over non-sponsor logos on electronic equipment.

A lot of people seem uncomfortable with this memo, but few seem willing or able to name exactly what the problem is, what rules or principles have been violated. What is it about this memo that strikes so many of us as “just too much?”

I’ve been talking with folks and thinking about it and I think it feels to many like a potential conflict of interest with our “basic responsibility for the development and maintenance of intellectual freedom.”

Conflict of Interest

In medical publishing, Conflict of Interest (COI) is a Big Thing, but I don’t think it’s as much discussed in the lower-financial-stakes world of public libraries. Bear with me for a moment while I call up some references from health information sources, and then discuss application to this public library/Olympic sponsor situation.

The World Association of Medical Editors’ (WAME) recently updated (July 2009) policy on “Conflict of Interest in Peer-Reviewed Medical Journals” states in part that:

Everyone has COIs of some sort.  Having a competing interest does not, in itself, imply wrongdoing.  However, it constitutes a problem when competing interests could unduly influence (or be reasonably seen to do so) one’s responsibilities

Okay, so if everyone has one or more COI, and they’re not necessarily a problem, what’s the big deal? Well, the devil is in the “unduly influence” part here, right? Having a COI can make it more difficult to prioritize your primary mission.

Notably, even if there is no actual COI, the mere appearance of COI can undermine credibility of an institution. On this point, WAME states:

In addition, the appearance of COI, even where none actually exists, can also erode trust in a journal by damaging its reputation and credibility.

The International Committee of Medical Journal Editors (ICMJE) – the people who created the “Uniform requirements” and related “Vancouver” referencing style – also have considerations regarding COI. This document leads off with what I think is a very helpful description/definition of COI:

Public trust in the peer-review process and the credibility of published articles depend in part on how well conflict of interest is handled during writing, peer review, and editorial decision making. Conflict of interest exists when an author (or the author’s institution), reviewer, or editor has financial or personal relationships that inappropriately influence (bias) his or her actions (such relationships are also known as dual commitments, competing interests, or competing loyalties). These relationships vary from negligible to great potential for influencing judgment. Not all relationships represent true conflict of interest. On the other hand, the potential for conflict of interest can exist regardless of whether an individual believes that the relationship affects his or her scientific judgment. (emphasis mine)

As a third and final example, the Institute of Medicine has a consensus report on COI, the abstract of which begins:

Financial conflicts of interest pose many challenges to health care professionals. They raise concerns about the objectivity and trustworthiness of research conduct and publications, the prudent management of scientific investigations and other activities in the public interest, and the commitment of health care professionals to the best interests of patients. In recent years the media has highlighted failures of individuals and institutions to disclose and appropriately manage financial ties with industry (including pharmaceutical, medical device, medical supply, and insurance companies). These failures contribute to questions about whether industry has undue influence in research and other activities. (emphasis mine)

Just to flog a dead horse here, COI raises concerns about objectivity, good management practices, and whether the user group is the true priority. Additionally, past COI management failures cause the public to be more suspicious about current COIs.

COI and the Public Library

I thing all the quotes excerpted above could be applied to a library setting with little modification.

For example:

Financial conflicts of interest pose many challenges to library managers. They raise concerns about the objectivity and trustworthiness of library programs and collections, the prudent management of information services and other activities in the public interest, and the commitment of librarians to the best interests of patrons.

I don’t think that’s a stretch at all, do you?

Speaking specifically about the VPL/Olympics situation, I think it’s been difficult for external library-world folk to comment upon because we don’t really know whether there is an actual COI at play here.

I’m willing to give Jean Kavanaugh, VPL’s marketing & communications manager (n.b. a PR manager, NOT a librarian, as some commenters have alleged) the benefit of the doubt and assume that she issued memo(s) about Olympic sponsorships and branding in an effort to keep VPL employees from accidentally acting in a way that would raise the ire of VANOC (the Vancouver Olympic organizing committee, which has shown itself to be quite vicious when defending branding or sponsor affiliations). I’m willing to assume that Kavanaugh just got overzealous with the instructions in (ironically) an attempt to keep VPL out of the media and out of the courtroom. Kavanaugh herself  “said neither the city nor VANOC asked her to send the memo,” and both the city of Vancouver and VANOC appear baffled at her apparent need to send such a memo at all. I could be wrong here, but I’m willing to assume this was just a well-intentioned but botched communication on the part of Kavanaugh. Admit it here: we’ve all made messaging errors; we just don’t all have the pleasure of the Olympic spotlight on them!

That said, even if the intentions behind the memo(s) to VPL staff were perfect in integrity; even if no actual financial COI exists between VPL and VANOC/Olympic sponsors, there remains the problem of the appearance of COI that these rules have created – both within library staff and now with the public at large.

VPL could be completely conflict-free here, but in absence of an official statement from the library, the following remains the case:

  1. It’s unclear what the relationship (financial or otherwise) is between VPL and VANOC
  2. The leaked memo information instructing library staff on appropriate sponsorship behaviour creates the appearance of COI
  3. The potential COI in question is the hypothetical conflict between the interests of Olympic corporate sponsors and the intellectual freedom of the population.

What a Public Library can learn from Medical Publishing

If VPL were run like a reputable medical journal, we would see a disclosure statement as to the funding of the library, and whether the library or any of the trustees or top library management had in the past or will in the future stand to benefit financially from the success of VANOC and/or the Olympic sponsor companies. We would also have information as to which decisions were more and less likely to be influenced by such relationships. The analogue to the way medical journals send research articles out for blinded peer review in order to attempt at objective review of the paper’s merits might be a description of what does the library do to ensure balanced collection management and reference service.

VPL already has the building blocks from which it could create a cohesive response that would go a long way toward restoring the public’s faith in the library’s role as a protector and promoter or intellectual freedom (rather than a promoter of selective corporate interests). To begin with, there is the Collection Development Policy.

Additionally, as Tara points out, VPL has a sponsorship policy, which clearly states that “Sponsorships must not undermine the integrity of the non-commercial public space that the Library provides.” (Of course the same policy also does “not allow direct marketing of products to children”…which is interesting given the leaked memo’s instructions as to which fast food outlets to approach for sponsorship of kids’ activities.) Clearly, a memo about sponsorship and Olympic programs should have referenced the existing organizational sponsorship policy!

All to say that while it appears that VPL is hunkering down, not “dignifying” the media hubbub with a response, and hoping all of this brouhaha dies down under the desperate situation in Haiti and the frenzy over the actual Olympics, I wish the library would stand up and make an official public statement clarifying what, if any, COI exits here, and how it will be managed.

To paraphrase the ICMJE, Public trust in the library and the credibility of librarians depend in part on how well conflict of interest is handled. Ignoring allegations of COI are not, in my opinion, handling them especially well.



Filed under censorship, ethics, funding, labour issues, public libraries

8 responses to “Olympic sponsorships & Vancouver Public Library: Conflict of Interest?

  1. Reece

    Hey Devon, I’ve been following this on the IPC list. I agree that the main issue is that there is the *appearance* of a conflict of interest here. The memo makes it seem as though programs regularly attract and advertise for corporate sponsors for story times or something. It’s a little unfortunate that media has chosen to focus on this Olympics-related element since there are so many others which (I think) are more directly negatively impacting people.

  2. I think you did a great job at drawing the corollaries here. I also agree that this was likely a messaging error, handled poorly.

    I think when you tell people to buy one sort of soda and not another for no other reason than you think VANOC might care [without checking with them] you’re basically pre-censoring what people might do without coming out and saying “using Brand X is against the rules, anyone using Brand X this month will be fired.” Instead, they rely on people trying to do the right thing without knowing what the actual rules are regarding the situation.

    The whole thing bugged me specifically because these were suggestions, not rules and they seemed to be based on one person’s interpretations of how not to annoy other known-to-be-easily annoyed folks. This sort of thing hurts everyone. We deserve full information, and professionals deserve to be able to use AV equipment and buy snacks without feeling that random faceless people might get the library or the city in trouble.

  3. spartikus

    This is the strongest and best-supported argument I’ve seen about this matter, and I second your call for VPL management to issue a clarifying public statement. It’s festering negatively at a time Libraries struggle to maintain visibility in the public eye, staff morale is chronically low, etc.

    That said, I don’t think that even an appearance of undue conflict of interest holds up to scrutiny, for the following reasons:

    1. Event programming is decentralized at VPL*. Groups either approach the Library or individual departments and branches hold events on their own initiative. In either case, individual librarians serves as coordinators b/w the outside group and VPL. This memo was addressed to them. Almost every bullet-point in the memo (posted on tara’s blog) begins with the word “if’. “If you are planning a kids’ event and approaching sponsors…”; “If you are approaching businesses in your area for support…”

    It’s entirely up to the discretion of the coordinating librarian to act. You don’t have to serve fast food at your event (hey, how about apples?). You don’t have to rent sound equipment. You are not being instructed to seek a sponsor’s support at all, only what to do if you choose to. This discretionary and decentralized nature of event programming negates conflict of interest on an organizational level (though I suppose individuals could place themselves in that position). There is no quid pro quo.

    2. The memo states any non-Olympic sponsor is allowed to participate as long as their name does not appear. You are not restricting participation.

    3. If the obscuring of a non-Olympic sponsor logo gives the perception of a conflict of interest, then surely it follows the mere presence of a logo gives an equal perception? If that’s you belief, then you are against sponsorships in general and should make your argument on those grounds.

    4. The comparison with medical publishing is not, in my opinion, analogous. Without the guidelines of medical journals, there would be no easy way for their readers to detect COI. But the very nature of event sponsorship is to be, on some level, visible. I think there is also a substantial difference b/w information published in a peer-reviewed journal intended for an audience of medical professionals…and a community event.

    5. The memo addresses events only – not collection development nor any other part of library operation. There is no instruction or restriction as to what kind of information can be presented, etc.

    6. I don’t believe the mere act of serving a particular brand of food, for example, qualifies as “direct-marketing” (although I would personally die than serve McDonald’s or any other fast food).

    Then there are practical matters: the only Olympic-related events VPL has participated in are 2 free family skates, and there are no plans to participate in more (indeed, there won’t be any events during the Olympics, which is more upsetting to me than this issue). A conflict of interest means there is an interest to advance – and if that’s the case these guidelines allow for so many variables as to be completely ineffective from a tactical viewpoint.

    If, at the end of the day, if you still believe it to be too onerous then, as mentioned, you are really in principle against sponsorship at libraries at all. The only difference b/w this and other events is the degree of enforcement.

    *There are exceptions of events being initiated from management, of course. But as noted, this memo does not address those sorts of events.

  4. spartikus

    I would just like to expand on #4 of my points.

    The pharmaceutical companies that conduct or sponsor the research published in medical journals stand to earn hundreds of millions of dollars if their product is widely adopted by the medical community. There is clear incentive to present their research in the best light, up to and including fudging the data on occasion if the stakes are high enough.

    What motive do Olympic sponsors have for influencing Library policy? What’s Rona’s interest in collection development? Coke’s? Do they want their products sold to the Library? Wouldn’t they be better off attempting to influence the purchasing agent?

    This is one of the critical components when determining if conflict of interest exists.

  5. greyson

    Thanks for the dialogue!

    @ Jessamyn – You make a good point about “fuzzy policy,” which is also a bit of a pet peeve of mine. Not only do staff (and in this case the public) deserve fuller information, but when policy is “fuzzy” – i.e., issued in suggestion form rather than clear guideline – the potential for biased application of said policy is always much greater.

    @ spartikus – I see your points as arguing that there is no *actual* COI, but I don’t think they override the perception that there might be COI. And the reason I used medical journals as an example is that they have been around the block with COI on a way bigger scale than any public library I know, and realized in the end that mere *appearance* of COI – even in the absence of actual entanglements – is damaging to an institution’s credibility.

    Individuals and groups unaffiliated with VPL do not know the details of how programming is managed at the library. I doubt the public at large even thinks about collections and programming as separate parts of a library – and indeed they are not in many smaller institutions. While your points on this tack may vindicate the motives of Kavanaugh in issuing the sponsorship guidelines, I don’t think they speak to the issue of the less explicit message said guidelines sent.

    I would join you in being mightily surprised if Rona cared about collection development — but the lack of concrete benefit to the sponsor doesn’t negate the *appearance* of COI. Further, this isn’t about the individual sponsors as much as VANOC. VANOC definitely has an interest in doing the most it can to keep Olympic sponsors and no one else visible during the Olympics, in order to entice businesses to pay big bucks to sponsor the Olympics. VPL may have an interest in doing whatever it can to make the city of Vancouver, host city to the Olympics, happy, by playing by VANOC’s rules even if they don’t really have to.

    Finally, yes, it could certainly be argued that any sponsorship of the library holds the potential for COI (and in my ideal world libraries would be fully publicly funded so as to avoid this). But Olympic sponsorship is so big and VANOC has been so repressive of certain kinds of speech that this memo has caused a ripple beyond what donated cookies at storytime might carry.

    While the analogy to medical publishing is far from perfect (the critique of this post I expected to hear was about the low standard of COI disclosure/management I set by using medical journals as a comparator!), I do stand by my statement that the memo in question creates the appearance of potential COI, which is problematic for VPL in particular and libraries in general. After the Tyee article leaking portions of the memo came out, there was a resounding “Huh?” from both within and outside of libraryland. I think this confusion had a lot to do with our notion of libraries as protectors of free expression, and this memo casting doubt on VPL’s commitment to that role.

  6. Vancouver Public Library & 2010 Winter Games Sponsorship Guidelines

    Vancouver Public Library, while a separate legal entity under the Library Act, operates in City of Vancouver-owned buildings, and for the purposes of the City’s contractual obligations as the Host City of the 2010 Olympic & Paralympic Winter Games and to the Vancouver Organizing Committee (VANOC), is considered part of the City of Vancouver. This is equally true of the Vancouver Police Department which also has a governance board mandated by the Province.

    The City and its Boards are bound by the Host City Agreement and partnership with VANOC to acknowledge and respect the commercial rights of Games’ sponsors, uphold sponsor recognition guidelines and to avoid inappropriate use of VANOC logos, the official Host City Olympic/Paralympic marks and other Games symbols. Sponsor recognition guidelines apply only to events with a direct link to the Games. As part of its One Book, One Vancouver: The Host City Reads program, VPL organized two such events in 2009 and no further events are planned.

    In summer 2009, a memo was issued to VPL managers and branch heads to address staff questions about proper expression of Games’ titles and about what was permissible under the sponsorship guidelines for Library events with a direct link to the Games or for similar community events at which the Library might participate.

    The City’s contractual obligations as Host City and with VANOC in no way influence or impede normal Library operations, collection development or programming beyond personnel reassignments required to accommodate staff secondments for Games-related duties and restrictions on space rentals involving public promotion by competitors of official Games’ sponsors.

  7. greyson

    Hi Jean,
    Thanks for posting & widely circulating this official VPL statement. It clarifies many important points.

  8. Pingback: Ethics & LIS Vendor promotional goodies « Social Justice Librarian

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