Librarians vs. Nature

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 got back, Thursday and Friday weren't the types of days that were conducive to blogging. I'm still feeling a bit behind on the whole issue so doing this post is helping to feel a bit more up-to-speed.

The story, from the Chronicle article that more-or-less started it all, U. of California Tries Just Saying No to Rising Journal Costs.

The University of California system has said "enough" to the Nature Publishing Group, one of the leading commercial scientific publishers, over a big proposed jump in the cost of the group's journals.

On Tuesday, a letter went out to all of the university's faculty members from the California Digital Library, which negotiates the system's deals with publishers, and the University Committee on Library and Scholarly Communication. The letter said that Nature proposed to raise the cost of California's license for its journals by 400 percent next year. If the publisher won't negotiate, the letter said, the system may have to take "more drastic actions" with the help of the faculty. Those actions could include suspending subscriptions to all of the Nature Group journals the California system buys access to--67 in all, including Nature.

With the money quote at the end, indicating that perhaps Nature doesn't quite get what's really going on in the academy:

"There's a strong feeling that this is an irresponsible action on the part of NPG," he told The Chronicle. That feeling is fueled by what he called "a broad awareness in the scientific community that the world is changing rather rapidly with respect to scholarly publication."

Although researchers still have "a very strong tie to traditional journals" like Nature, he said, scientific publishing has evolved in the seven years since the Elsevier boycott. "In many ways it doesn't matter where the work's published, because scientists will be able to find it," Mr. Yamamoto said.

In the wake of that, Nature responded and the University of California responded back.

For some of the best commentary, check out Scibling Dorothea Salo's following posts: California throws the gauntlet in NPG's face, Musings on worms turning and Gauntlet volleying.

Yet another Scibling, Christina Pikas, has a good summary and context post here, picking up some more recent posts.

Some of the more recent posts (and one editorial cartoon) that I've found interesting are:

And finally, my take.

First of all, it's worth noting that Ontario universities negotiate most of our subscription deals with big publishers on a province-wide basis. Typically, a deal is made and then individual institutions can opt in as desired. The negotiations are obviously high-stakes, locking in a huge amount of money.

So, this kind of thing really resonates with me. I do hope that the UofC system sticks to their guns and negotiates a deal with Nature that is very similar to the one that's expiring. To me that seems only fair. NPG is really reaching on this one -- a clear ploy to pad their bottom line and maintain previous profitability levels in tough times. Guess what? The pain that's going around these days needs to be shared.

The reason that I'm rooting for California is that it will make it much less likely that NPG will try the same trick on the rest of us. And that's a good thing.

What are the long-term implications of this dust-up? Hard to say, but one thing's for sure is that it has once again made it very clear that the commercial publishers really aren't on the side of libraries, researchers, scholarship, science, curing the common cold, putting another person on the moon, apple pie, motherhood or any other of those wonderful things. As is appropriate for their status as for-profit organizations, they're on their own side.

Their primary focus is making money for their owners. This is completely fair and completely justified. And should come as no big surprise. As far as I can tell, they're pretty honest about it for the most part if you look at their actions and financial statements rather than their PR. Speaking for myself, I generally have good working relationships with colleagues in commercial publishers and other for-profit vendors; I really don't have much of a choice. I just try and be realistic with my expectations.

The core question for those of us who do support all those wonderful things I mention above is how we should move forward from this. And I think the answer is clear: we should work towards weaning ourselves, our institutions, our students and our scholars away from a dependence on for-profit publishing and towards a scholarly landscape based on openness.

Easier said than done, of course. But every once in a while it's useful to be reminded why it's so important to work towards that goal. For that timely reminder, we can thank the Nature Publishing Group.

More like this

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…
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…
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.…
Do you remember that letter in which the editors of The Journal of Cell Biology criticized Howard Hughes Medical Institute for capitulating to Elsevier? Just to remind you, HHMI had been pressuring Elsevier, publisher of Cell and other scientific journals, to allow the free distribution of…

"one thing's for sure is that it has once again made it very clear that the commercial publishers really aren't on the side of libraries, researchers, scholarship, science, curing the common cold, putting another person on the moon, apple pie, motherhood or any other of those wonderful things. As is appropriate for their status as for-profit organizations, they're on their own side."
Was this a mystery until now?
As an outsider looking in, I am stunned that any company could dream of publicly smearing a huge customer and basically revealing how they are suckering others in an unbelievably arrogant public statement. Maybe I don't quite get the complexities involved in the wacky universe of doing business with universities. If I get this straight, the university faculties produce all the content free of charge for the "privilege" of being published, then donate man hours reviewing for quality, perform the editorial duties on a volunteer basis, just for NPG to put it all up in a nice package, turn around, and sell it back for obscene prices?
Apparently, they have failed to notice how the huge advances in technology has put so many newspapers out of business. From the tone of their snarky response, they managed to alienate both their volunteer staff and the rest of their clients. It couldn't happen to a nicer group of people.

Yes, that's basically right.

The thing that Nature really charges for is quality control and reputation enhancement. It's hard to know what those things are really worth and NPG is certainly pushing the envelope in an uncertain media universe.

Couple of points.

Nature Publishing Group has rapidly expanded it's academic journal to include more than a dozen (I think it's up to 14) specialty topic spins offs.

To add to the comment #2, above, not only does the university produce all of the content as public and private funding grantee, but they also pony up the electronic page print charges and they may also pay for print copies of the published article.

The newest catch is Open Access Charge. This is an additional fee, paid by the author's grant through the institution, to defray lost revenues if the author opts to make the article available free to the public.

I presume that NPG is using some of the APC money to finance production of two completely open access journals (Cell Death and Disease and Molecular Systems Biology) that Nature launched in January 2010.

Even if journals go to a completely open access route, it's doubtful that libraries and article authors will see much of a break in fees charges. Why? Because the actual cost of making articles available to the public on their websites is very low. Their profits are made by squeezing per copy costs to a minimum and charging fees that maximize profit over production costs. Paper submissions often carry a handling and processing charge. Authors receive zero guarantee of paper acceptance for publication (with a rejection rate well in excess of 50% for the more prestigious journals), even after a lengthy review and rewrite process that may span a year or more. Assistant and associate editors for many journals are also voluntary (unpaid positions) that may carry a certain amount of professional prestige in the appointment -at least as far as academic review of faculty annual teaching, research and professional activities goes.

So the journal has a virtual guarantee of profit for putting minimal effort in the article processing stages leading up to the generation of a letter of acceptance for publication.

One thing not mentioned: nearly all of the top-ranked science and engineering journals have substantially increased their advertising content in the past 5 years - several fold.

These same top-notch publications have also increased the 'soft content' meant as light-reading fodder, the nonessential bits like book reviews, science 'news', essays and opinion sections and 'fluff' (fiction, futurology, historical, and job/career advice, etc). This content may comprise as much as 1/3 of issue content!

Thus, the journal layout editors have managed to hold steady or decrease the number of science article pages published per year while increasing the volume content.

There is an interesting angle, a potential to squeeze the profits of these publishers: put a limit on the amount of grant money that can be spent on publication page charges.

Maybe we could jump to the logical conclusion - that the publishers and the Federal grant funding agencies need to sit down and talk cost containment for the future health of all. Academe would certainly be a party in these discussions. However, they too may be pressed to reduce costs by adjusting their institutional overhead charges to afford the best bang-for-buck returns out of a dwindling tax base, from which public monies are doled in support of an ever-growing science and engineering R&D effort in a university setting.

There are some interesting rabbits that can be pulled from sleeves, to subsidize U-library subscription budgets.

Maybe that would be best saved for later.

Thanks, Pb, for the detailed content.

Yes, the scholarly publishing business model is broken. Unfortunately, it's not as broken (yet!) for the big commercial publishers as it is for libraries and the scholars we support.

What's the next step for Nature? I look forward to finding out.