Ethics & LIS Vendor promotional goodies

Last month, law librarian Sarah Glassmeyer wrote some blog posts about exorbitant LIS vendor giveaways that ignited no small controversy and conversation in the legal biblioblogosphere. The conversations raised several interesting questions about LIS vendor gifts and librarian professional ethics, including:

  • How big of a gift is enough to sway someone’s opinion toward or away from a product like a database or publisher?
  • Are most librarians even aware of whether any gift acceptance guidelines apply to them (e.g., academic librarians in a state university whose state has gift acceptance guidelines for public employees)?
  • Should our professional associations offer some guidance on accepting gifts from vendors? If they had such guidelines, would they be enforceable in any way?

I’ve wondered about some of this, myself. It probably would never have crossed my mind that lunch, or a pen, or even winning an iPod in a draw, from a database vendor, would be inappropriate, had I not become a health librarian.

Health professionals, No Free Lunch & Information professionals

As a health librarian, I am acutely aware of issues of conflict of interest in medicine. I’ve written about this before in regard to open access and also medical publishing ethics.

Having worked with medical students and HTA researchers alike, I’m familiar with groups such as No Free Lunch – an organization of “health care providers who believe that pharmaceutical  promotion should not guide clinical practice” who “discourage the acceptance of all gifts from industry by health care providers, trainees, and students”

No Free Lunch’s statement of belief says:

“We believe that there is ample evidence in the literature–contrary to the beliefs of most heath care providers– that drug companies, by means of samples, gifts, and food, exert significant influence on provider behavior.  There is also ample evidence in the literature that promotional materials and presentations are often biased and non-informative. We believe that health care professionals, precisely because they are professionals, should not allow themselves to be bought by the pharmaceutical industry: It is time to Just say no to drug reps and their pens, pads, calendars, coffee mugs, and of course, lunch.”

My guess is that few of us prefer that our health care professionals be accepting goodies from vendors such as pharmaceutical companies.

However, when it’s time to apply the same standard to ourselves, providers of helath information rather than direct health care, are we making flimsy excuses? Are we – just like many doctors – saying that while other people may be influenced by promotional goodies, we are intellectually above that?  Are we – just like some health professionals – of the belief that there is an acceptable small amount of value under which promotional giveaways have no influence?  I have seen studies that quite convincingly assert that even drug samples – which may seem like a boon when you get “free” medication at the doctor’s office – actually raise costs and influence hospital formularies in non-evidence-based ways. When is opening a free trial of a database to the public a useful evaluation tool and when is it a way to get someone “hooked” on an expensive toy?

Do we condone our own free lunches with the belief that databases and other information sources are that much less important then medication and diagnostic tests?

I don’t have much of a vendor swag collection, myself. Maybe a few reusable grocery bags from conferences, imprinted with vendor names, and a couple of writing utensils. I admit that I haven’t been above taking particularly fun-seeming pens off display tables to bring home to my kid. Even though I’m sure that, were I a medical student, I’d join No Free Lunch, I still have that Ovid pen rattling around in my desk somewhere. When I acquired that pen (in a database training session) I was a brand new librarian and liked the insider status I felt, whipping out my database vendor pen. Maybe it’s time to get rid of it now.

Despite the fact that I don’t make a lot of collection development decisions in my current job, I’ve resolved that I won’t be collecting pens, bags, t-shirts, etc. from vendors at this year’s conference season.

The bigger issue: CE sponsorship

However, pens are the tip of the iceberg when it comes to vendor goodies, as much of our CE is underwritten by vendor sponsorships. I am less sure of what to do with this piece. I can’t think of any major library association conference, in health or general librarianship, which does not rely on vendor financial support. I am not currently willing to boycott library association conferences, and I’m not sure what sources are available to replace vendor support in the role of underwriting librarian CE.

With our little local chapter health library CE, we can follow the No Free Lunch model, and poll our membership about whether they’d prefer to pay out of pocket or have vendors supply lunch after CE. However, for large-scale national or international conferences, the costs are so much greater that it’s daunting to take on replacement of the income – particularly right now with so many professional development funds slashed or frozen due to generalized budget woes.

Of course, it’s our employing institutions who are indirectly underwriting these conferences, by paying these vendors enough that the vendors have the advertising budget to promote themselves by supporting our CE. However, reversing this trend – making sure that if we stop asking vendors to sponsor and advertise at our conferences, they pass along the savings to our employers, and that our employers likewise return that amount of money into our professional development coffers, is a challenging proposition! (One that might, perhaps, be likened to documenting that hybrid OA journal publishers actually reduce subscription rates relative to their pay-for-OA income…)

Any thoughts? Is there a rational reason information professionals (in general, or in health in specific) should be held to a different ethical standard from health care professionals? Are we librarians thinking/talking about this, blissfully oblivious, or wilfully ignoring an ethical elephant in the CE classroom? Is there a way to reverse the trend of LIS CE being vendor-underwritten?

-Greyson

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2 Comments

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2 responses to “Ethics & LIS Vendor promotional goodies

  1. In reality, any significant gift a vendor gives you ought to belong to the organization you work for. In the iPod case, a reasonable response might be to give it to the organization itself for whatever purposes.

    Individual gifts to public servants should be valued as such. I think a maximum of $20 for a gift is reasonable limit. So, if a group gives you a mug for doing a presentation or joining in on a particular session that’s fine. $200 iPods is way too much imho.

    Private sector offers will be somewhat different. The problem is that there are no teeth in our professional associations to reprimand someone for unethical behavior, leaving individual librarians stuck with their own conscience in these cases (for private-sector behavior).

  2. greyson

    I thought about this post at the recent CHLA/ABSC conference, which has huge vendor underwriting. Someone won an iPad. I wonder what they did with it?

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