Gauntlet volleying

This morning, when Nature Publishing Group responded to the University of California library's broadside, I contemplated taking the response apart piece by piece in a bit of "... translated into English" satire.

I'm glad I didn't have the chance. I'm much, much happier for people to read the University of California library's response. (By the way, I am using "library" here as shorthand for the entire set of UCal libraries. E pluribus, unum.) I haven't words for the tart, uncompromising brilliance that is this volley in the gauntlet-throwing contest. Go, California!

Instead, I'll link to some other worthwhile reactions and offer a bit of color commentary, if I may.

Fellow SciBling Janet Stemwedel has a measured response that is, somewhat to my surprise and entirely to my delight, typical of what I've been seeing from researchers in my web peregrinations today. If NPG has faculty allies, they're not showing up on the web that I can see.

Bethany Nowviskie takes on the question from the point of view of humanities scholars, illustrating her opening metaphor with the best image hack I have ever seen. (Seriously, click over; it's so great I refuse to spoil it by borrowing the metaphor.) Now, I too have heard "But our journals aren't expensive! Why should we worry about the serials crisis, or adopt open-access practices?" from humanities scholars. Many times have I heard this. It makes me crazy.

Why do you think monograph sales are down? Why do you think subscriptions to humanities journals are down? Why do you think university presses are dropping like flies? I assure you, we librarians have not been embezzling money. Wake up, humanities scholars! The serials crisis cut off the air supply to your publications, books and journals alike! If it's not fixed, you will continue to suffer. You have entirely selfish reasons for wanting NPG and its ilk to be brought to heel.

Now that that mini-rant has been ranted… a couple of things about the NPG line of talk.

Several of my Twitter contacts noted what they thought to be a slap at librarian research and assessment skills toward the end of NPG's statement. I can believe that reading, but I incline toward a far more cynical subtext that is actually an insult to faculty, something like "We have to get those librarians out of the way; they know too much. Let's try getting faculty to evaluate these deals—after all, we've been hoodwinking them for thirty years!" Pick your poison; there's no way to tell who's got the right reading. Or perhaps they're both right.

Now then, this business of "discounts." It's—how to put this politely—hooey, and so is NPG's apparent opinion of the competitiveness of academic librarians over who's paying what to whom.

Ignore list prices for journal packages. Nobody pays list. Seriously, nobody, at least nobody in UCal's league. Your library pays the best price it can manage to negotiate. Those prices vary wildly from institution to institution and vendor to vendor, "discounts" or no "discounts." We librarians know this; it's an inevitable concomitant of the secrecy we are forced to by these very same vendors. You saw NPG whinging about that, didn't you? You surely did. This is why. It's hard for us to negotiate a decent deal when black clouds of near-total secrecy keep us from knowing what a decent deal even is. NPG knows that. Of course they do.

So if NPG expected librarians to get all angry at California for negotiating a good deal last time around—sorry, no, that's not how we think. We think "Nice going, California! I'll try to do better next time renewal negotiations begin; otherwise, NPG will stretch me on the rack just as they're trying to do to California now." California didn't get a "discount" in the last cycle out of the goodness of NPG's heart—they drove a hard bargain. Good on ’em for doing their job well, responsibly managing taxpayer funds. Moreover, that NPG doesn't like that last deal is hardly sufficient reason for California to knuckle meekly under and accept whatever NPG is asking for this time.

One more observation: what I'm seeing right now is that NPG has no friends standing beside it. That may change; the AAP and ALPSP and the other usual suspects haven't weighed in yet. I expect they're wondering what to do. If the California labor-boycott threat is serious, and California's current pugnacious stance suggests that it is, the last thing other publishers want to do is land in the doghouse alongside NPG. Libraries discontinuing subscriptions is serious, but a large faculty labor boycott is crippling.

Is this reticence, perhaps, an example of journal publishing becoming a zero-sum game? Are other publishers salivating at the potential downfall of a tremendous competitor? Or, less dramatically, are they annoyed that NPG is trying for exorbitant price increases when many other publishers, aware of libraries' desperate straits, are holding the line on prices? I don't know, but I wouldn't be surprised. It's Just Bidness, after all.

(Why, I wonder, does "it's Just Bidness" defend NPG's actions but not UCal's? Business takes place on both sides of the negotiating table.)

That's what I've got at the moment. I'm going to go make some more popcorn. This game looks likely to go to extra innings.

More like this

Besides watching this like the finals of Olympic hockey, I've been seriously impressed with the thoughtful and insightful commentary from a huge bunch of my libr* online contacts. Interesting stuff, too, from scientists and other folks interested in scholarly communication. About the…
So I'm turning over the California/NPG situation in my head, because I—okay, because I'm obsessive, are you happy now? (Just don't ask how late I was sending email last night.) The very cynical portion of my brain notes that it's almost certainly easier to persuade faculty to inaction than action.…
Economic recovery has not yet made its presence felt at public universities in California. (Indeed, at least in the California State University system, all things budgetary are going to be significantly worse in the next academic year, not better.) This means it's not a great time for purveyors of…
And that's Nature as in Nature Publishing Group rather than the narrative strategy. I missed the story when it broke earlier this week in The Chronicle -- I was attending the absolutely fantastic Canadian Engineering Education Association conference in Kingston from Monday to Wednesday. And when I…

Wow, that UC response to NPG's response is truly awe inspiring. I am impressed and overjoyed that there is someone at UC Libraries who is willing and able to speak intelligently, boldy, and _publically_, standing up for library strategic interests. Sometimes I think that academic libraries have some intrinsic incapability to do this, but the second UC letter is inspiring.

Thank you for your writing on this episode. I am so pleased with what the people in the California system are doing on behalf of all of us. NPG's sense of entitlement is breathtaking even if predictable.

"Why do you think university presses are dropping like flies?"

Because once production and manuscript editing are squeezed hard enough they turn into a fruitless fixed cost? If the University of California were serious, they could, you know, employ their own press. If one can make Gastronomica, one can make pretty much anything given a year or so. They could even start out with a Jahrbuch.

Here's the part I really enjoyed ... in the paragraph in NPG's response that you/your colleagues noted as "a slap at librarian research and assessment skills," after extolling the virtues of Keith Yamamoto (who I'll note, obiter dictum, was also one of the faculty leaders in UC's prior uprising against Elsevier, which you noted in your first posting), NPG goes on to say "We specifically recognise the value faculty add to the publishing process...." So here we have it: in NPG's view, the faculty are handmaidens to the publishing process, rather than publishers being supporting actors in the scholarly communication process. Is it any wonder we have to continue to push the rock uphill?

By Gary Lawrence (not verified) on 10 Jun 2010 #permalink

Otto, California does run its own press, in point of fact. How does that imply that they need to knuckle under to NPG?

Jonathan, Jason, Gary, I have nothing to add. :)

Gary nails it, 100%:

So here we have it: in NPG's view, the faculty are handmaidens to the publishing process, rather than publishers being supporting actors in the scholarly communication process.

Who is serving whom, again?

"Otto, California does run its own press, in point of fact. How does that imply that they need to knuckle under to NPG?"

I know they run their own press. I hear it puts out Gastronomica.

I suppose I was more wondering what the received wisdom was about university presses dropping like flies.

Thanks, I hadn't seen that before--although, if anything, I'm now even more pessimistic about the odds of the priority of "mission" winning out over a tricked-out version of the good old days of camera-ready typewritten copy.

I tend to take a long view, myself. In the short run, we will lose a lot, text artisanry not least (and as a former typesetter, I understand and value text artisanry higher than most).

But these losses tend not to endure -- incunabula were wretched derivatives of manuscripts, but printing as a craft grew in skill and subtlety. This time, too, other skills, conventions, and production workflows will arise.

I actually feel privileged to watch the process. How often in history does something like this happen?