The Culture of Swag

Aug 12 2010 Published by under How Libraries Work

I am in the midst of obtaining more information from Nature regarding questions raised by my recent post and from commenters, which I hope to share soon.

While the economics of publishing are hard to ignore, the economics of marketing play just as large a role in scholarly communications. Where and to whom are publishers directing their marketing efforts? Are they marketing to me (the librarian), the scientist/researcher who submits articles, or their readers (who may be neither)?

One message is the marketing tone and expectations set at conferences and in professional practice. Publishers at library conferences gave (or used to give away, before the economy tanked)  a LOT of swag, gifts, parties, and the like. I can go into more detail but trust me - its like a Mardi Gras parade with the office supplies and tchotckes. This "culture of swag" is a pervasive and omnipresent part of the conference experience. It's almost impossible to attend a conference and not receive any swag. Is this a good thing?

In the past swag was a way to entice and retain customers for loyalty to a product or vendor. Most of the library content we buy today, after many rounds of budget cuts, fits into several categories. The first category are new products that we'd like to buy but can't afford. Swag can't change my mind in this scenario. The second category contains products which are only available from one source or required for a program accreditation, like Scifinder Scholar, so swag is wasted effort there as well. The last major category, vendors who provide similar services or products who might need swag to show their competitive advantage, is getting smaller all the time. The last two years have experienced many mergers by a select number of vendors (Proquest, OCLC, and EBSCO in most cases). In some casess swag might be effective, but these major players have all created fiefdoms of overpriced content and have bought out many competitors which might innovate within the market. Some of my peers have written in great detail about these three vendors and some of their business practices in their blogs, so I'll skip the details.  

Scientists and researchers buy a lot of content and equipment too, at least in the field of chemistry. What's interesting is that the marketing effort, or culture of swag, takes on a different tone. Prestige, visibility, and influence is the swag of choice. Publishing/refereering/editorial services will make you more influential among your peers, provide greater visibility for your work, and make sure your articles get published in the best journals. This kind of swag is less visible but no less tangible than a mousepad or T-shirt. And deep down I think many scientists know they are being given the swag to provide free refereeing, editing, or journal content if they get an article accepted.  Just like in libraryland its hard to attend a professional science conference meeting and not see this swag too. Scientific professional societies practice this form of swag as well, although the message is more easily disguised as service to the profession and enhancing the prestige of the profession rather than the individual. And in my opinion its as pervasive and omnipresent there as in library culture.

The problem is that this newer culture of sharing, disseminating, and distributing information (open access, open data, open source, open notebook science) doesn't rely on the culture of swag, at least as a traditional purchasing or behavorial tool. How can a publisher persuade me with swag if there's no subscription costs or the journal costs are underwritten from other sources than the library? How can this same publisher use the prestige/visibility/influence argument on a researcher when you can write a blog post that more peers can read than a peer-reviewed journal article? What if I can see how many people have read my article or blog post, accessed the data I've collected for a series of experiments, shared their data with mine, and I can then collaborate with them pre and post publication to correct mistakes, share additional insights, and improve upon the original concept or methodology? What if I can have my work openly reviewed by my peers, eliminating the fear of being scooped on an idea or denied credit for a major breakthrough or discovery, and have this approach considered valid for promotion and tenure in the academy? This environment strips away the artifice and destroys the culture of swag.

So keep the swag in mind when you make decisions on supporting a product or publishing and sharing your research results with peers. You might not be able to say no every time, or influence the giver that it's a waste of time. But its a start.

7 responses so far

  • John Hawks says:

    I think the most effective use of swag is to reward people for volunteer effort. Your colleagues may not otherwise find out how much time you've spent reviewing papers, etc. But this fails if a lot of people have swag from the same organizations/companies for promotion.

    • Dorothea Salo says:

      To me that's not quite swag; it's an acknowledgement or a gift. Others' mileage may vary, of course!

      Also, hello!

      • Beth Brown says:

        I agree swag can exist in gray areas. For me the item is less of an issue if I'd need it to represent an organization or carry out a service responsibility. One example is an ACS shirt I got for free at a leadership conference for serving as President of our local section. I had to show up for a local TV segment as part of one of the section's community activities and I wore the shirt as a rep of the society.
        Thanks - Beth B.

  • Barbara Fister says:

    "Prestige, visibility, and influence is the swag of choice." Hmm... this is a very interesting point, and I'm not sure I'm getting it. If my paper is accepted in a prestigious journal, that's worth a lot, and that worth is leveraged in multiple ways. Being a reviewer for the same journal - that may stroke my ego, but nobody knows I contributed that service, do they? Where's the swag? (What have I been missing?)

    But the power of prestige is HUGE and an enormous stumbling block when that prestige is used to justify high costs/artificial scarcity. I find it nearly impossible for scholars to set aside their sense of "this is the place to be published" when doing ... anything: deciding where to submit, evaluating colleagues up for tenure, reading grant proposals. Anything. Which makes it very hard for them to wrap their heads around alternatives. They have no value precisely because they have no perceived prestige, so at best are an add-on, not an alternative.

    And graduate school is dedicated to cultivating the art of collecting swag.

    • Beth Brown says:

      Barbara,
      I agree it may not seem like a reviewer can have much influence or visibility. I have found from talking with scientists that its not uncommon for them to figure out the identity of referees during the review process, especially in a specialized area. In fact one faculty member mentioned in passing to me that he had to add some references to his paper because one of the reviewers was annoyed his work wasn't included and "suggested" they be added. So a reviewer can have more influence that might appear on the surface. The other position which can have a lot of influence is a major editor position - the blog post Dorothea referred to last week included information on how editors can manipulate the review process to delay reviewing work which might be critical of the editor's.
      I agree too that the power of prestige casts a long shadow. Part of my strategy is to find faculty who are looking past prestige at alternatives. In some areas they are hard to find, but they are out there. In some areas, like Neuroscience, the publication costs are so high (all of the major journals are owned by Elsevier) that more changes are happening with publication options.
      I don't remember collecting a lot of swag in graduate school, but as soon as I attended a library conference I saw the swag machine in full force. Too bad we can't expend this much energy on other things.

  • zuska says:

    A different form of conference swag is sponsored swag. One conference I was involved in one time, for example, had tshirts with the conference logo and a sponsoring org logo on the same shirt. The sponsoring org paid for the shirts, and was buying real estate with the conference organization as a way of saying "look at us! we are good guys! we are sponsoring this honorable and worthy conference!" Conference bags, same thing.

    Swag is marketing, and companies would not be spending money on it if it did not work. This is why physicians have been doing a lot of soul searching about all that swag they get dumped on them - the clocks, and the sticky pads, and the pens, and the whateverthehells. Some studies have shown that it does actually have an effect on prescribing practices, no matter what the docs say or think they actually do. Swag works to sway minds, whether in purchasing, or in affecting public opinion of the swag producing company. When I sip out of my Corporate Insulated Cold Drink Big Mug, I often think fondly about the company I used to work for that provided it, while gazing at their logo, until I remember how they screwed me over.

    • Beth Brown says:

      Zuska,
      Thanks for your observations and comments. I agree swag is a form of advertising, and it's effective. After I wrote my post and starting thinking about the amount of swag I get and how it influences me, I feel the same way. I have both good and not so good memories from my swag. It's part of my professional identity and a guidepost to what I was doing and thinking at times.