The UC library system vs. Nature Publishing Group

NPG tries to jack up subscription rates by 400%; UC Library threatens to organize a boycott under which UC faculty would stop submitting papers, refereeing papers, and serving on editorial boards.

The publishers of academic journals run a very nice racket. They take the work that academics provide for free – writing articles, serving as peer reviewers, and editing journals – and sell it back at exorbitant rates. Some journals actually billl authors for “page charges.” Since journal publication is the currency for academic hiring, tenure, and promotion, not contributing to the journals is not a realistic option. And libraries have to maintain their subscriptions to journals or the faculties can’t do their work.

Mostly we all just suck it up. But sometimes a publisher gets too greedy, and there’s a backlash. The Nature Publishing Group has decided to jack up what it charges the University of California library system by 400%. The library proposes to fight back, calling for a boycott of NPG journals by UC faculty – no papers submitted, no refereeing, no editorial board service – unless the publisher agrees to put a limit on its rapacity. I hope it works.

The longer-term solution is to have the research funders – especially NIH and NSF – start paying for journals directly; they already pay indirectly via page charges. But in the meantime, it’s guerrilla warfare, and I know which side I’m on.

Author: Mark Kleiman

Professor of Public Policy at the NYU Marron Institute for Urban Management and editor of the Journal of Drug Policy Analysis. Teaches about the methods of policy analysis about drug abuse control and crime control policy, working out the implications of two principles: that swift and certain sanctions don't have to be severe to be effective, and that well-designed threats usually don't have to be carried out. Books: Drugs and Drug Policy: What Everyone Needs to Know (with Jonathan Caulkins and Angela Hawken) When Brute Force Fails: How to Have Less Crime and Less Punishment (Princeton, 2009; named one of the "books of the year" by The Economist Against Excess: Drug Policy for Results (Basic, 1993) Marijuana: Costs of Abuse, Costs of Control (Greenwood, 1989) UCLA Homepage Curriculum Vitae Contact:

17 thoughts on “The UC library system vs. Nature Publishing Group”

  1. 400% is truly incredible, and I hope people will do what they can – and not just in the UC system. That said, I find it hard to imagine that someone who thinks they've got a paper with a decent shot at getting published in Nature would pass up the opportunity to make a political/economic point, even an important one; the prestige of Nature, and its potential impact on the ability of the paper's first author to get a job in a lousy, lousy market, is just too high for that.

  2. By the way, your link isn't working, at least for me and right now. This news page at the University of California Digital Library seems to tell at least part of the tale.

    The publishers claim they're gouging the U of CA system because it's big and a heavy user – but you'll pardon me if I suspect they aren't they decreasing the prices they charge to small schools that are light users.

  3. It's remarkable how casually you suggest handing over the means of publishing an entire realm of discourse to the government, however well we might regard NIH and NSF. I'm open to alternative ways to fund journals of course, but really!

  4. The concept of "page charges" is already a ridiculous one. Math journals don't charge these, and they are still hugely profitable.

  5. You'd be correct, Warren. Although more and more libraries are dropping their subscriptions to lightly-used journals in favor of inter-library loan. Another thing that is happening is that libraries are reducing duplication in their subscriptions to electronic access accumulators. We had to look carefully at our subscriptions this year (our library has to make a 28% cut). We discovered that by eliminating a couple of very high cost journals that no one appeared to be using and by rearranging our accumulator subscriptions we could cut our department's costs by nearly 40%. That was sufficient to save one of the little-used-but-expensive journals.

    I have been saying for years that the academic journal racket would be labeled theft in almost any other endeavor. It was one thing when our professional societies owned the journals, but most of them have sold out to predatory publishers like Pergamon, Elsevier and Blackwell. Hard disk storage is cheap, folks — we can seize control of journals back and even improve them by eliminating page constraints. The Social Science Research Network is one possible example of how it can work. We still need editors, we still need referees to conduct peer-review. But once it's been peer-reviewed and accepted as correct, put it up on the web. Send out abstracts and let those who are interested download it.

  6. There is a real question of whether we still need journals as we've had them. I'm not well acquainted with the details of the Arxiv, but the theory seems to permit peer review as good as journals do.

  7. I read somewhere that the first all-online journal was the Journal of Buddhist Ethics. At the other end of the science/humanities continuum, you have the physicists' flourishing arXiv.

    We may be seeing a death spiral here: as the sphere of for-profit science publishing contracts, prices rise in an atempt to maintain oligopoly profits, accelerating the flight to online. A comedy of the commons.

    There's a strong case for saying that if the public pays for research, the results should be freely available; wich means online, in a peer-reviewed journal or on a personal web page. (Low-quality results should also be available for analysis; there's a bias in pharmacology publishing for instance towards positive results.) For-profit science publishing gateways are therefore against the public interest, and their extinction should cause no tears.

    Incidentally, A Little Knackered, this is not a socialist takeover by government, but an anarcho-communist one by gift-exchange cooperation (advt.). The infrastucture of the Internet that makes the communist information sector possible is run stably by capitalists (Verizon, Google, etc.), applying anarcho-communist protocols (HTML, TCP-IP.)

  8. For what it's worth, in biology the funding agencies now require that the manuscript (not the version the journal formatted to look nice) be publicly available (within 1 year of publication, iirc).

  9. Back when Eli was a little bunny he had a professor who was active in national science policy at the end of WWII. According to him, the government saw that it had two choices, first, subsidize journals of learned societies directly or second provide funding through the page charge/offprint mechanism which would allow commercial publishers to garner a share of the loot. Guess which door we walked through.

    Today, NIH is leading the way to making scientific publications available to all, and arXiv is making a significant difference in some fields.

  10. Why don't the universities just start their own journals? Easy moneymaker, if it's that lucrative. Or, they can take the not-for-profit approach, if that suits the medium best, and save money as subscription fees fall in the profit journals due to competition pressure.

    This one seems like a no-brainer; am I missing something?

  11. Why don’t the universities just start their own journals?

    Exactly. Online, professor-operated journals with open content.

    I cannot begin to grasp how NEWSPAPERS can be obsolescent and generally agreed to be doomed, but academic journals aren't.

  12. James,

    The bias towards positive results is present in many fields towards positive results. Even well-designed studies intended to investigate 'negative' results (meaning that the study was designed to detect a meaningful effect if it existed) are difficult to publish in many fields (pharmacology, physiology, ecology, criminology, and the list goes on). Editors often use the limited amount of page space as their excuse for declining those papers: "No one is interested in negative results."

    And would it be possible to call it anarcho-syndicalist rather than anarcho-communist? I think the Pythoners deserve the nod.


    It's really not that lucrative, unless you pillage academic library budgets, and the publishers are learning that there are limits to the level of pillage we'll accept. I suspect that we will be moving to something other than private publishers before I retire. Of course, the question will then be, "What will we do in a country where a fair amount of important stuff is under copyright to private entities, and Congress keeps messing with the copyright laws to keep Mickey Mouse the sole-and-exclusive property of Disney?" Actually, at this point, I'd be in favor of a private bill to give the Mouse special copyright status that makes it Disney's in perpetuity, provided that Congress repeals their insane copyright extensions on all our other cultural commons.

  13. It's worse than you can imagine. One reason I had trouble with a P&T committee (I'm now in a different job in a better place, thanks be to my guardian angel) was that we published our work (biochemistry and cell biology) primarily in journals still affiliated with professional societies (e.g., The American Chemical Society) or non-profit organizations (Company of Biologists): No page charges, no extra charges for color when color was warranted, and an editorial system whose first inclination is to publish solid, interesting work without trying too hard to determine whether the work was "sexy" enough. The so-called impact factors of our journals was not too different from the one biochemistry journal held in such faux esteem by my betters. It can cost $2000 in submission fee, page charges (which mean that your paper is marked as an "advertisement") and surcharges for color illustrations to publish there. No thanks! $2000 pays a graduate student for a month or buys a lot of supplies. But here is the thing! At one time these journals had to actually work at publishing their content. Manuscripts had to be typeset and illustrations had to be reproduced at high resolution prior to sending them to the printer. Now these journals require their contributors to submit electronic versions of text, figures, tables, and illustrations that are simply dropped into the process with very little effort on the part of the publisher. But they are still getting larger and larger fees from us. All I can say is, "Give 'em hell, UC!" But WT is right. Anyone at Berkeley/UCSF/UCLA/UCSD et al. with a reasonable shot at a Nature journal is going to take it.

  14. here's a working link to the library's letter.

    i think it's worth remembering that while academics write, peer review, and edit for free (or rather for indirect compensation), there's also a lot of paid labor that quite appropriately goes into journals even though it's entirely plausible that publishers charge well in excess of these expenses because they are grossly profitable, grossly inefficient, and/or grossly subject to rent exhaustion by the professional societies who license to them. in the post-publisher NIH/NSF-direct-subsidy utopia we might eliminate the profits and cut costs on the typesetters, copy editors, and databases (which would be a lot simpler, along the lines of NBER or arxiv), but some of the costs would have to remain. for instance, in any plausible scenario the managing editors are here to stay because you need them for peer review.

    finally, as a UCLA faculty member I will be proudly participating in the NPG boycott. of course for north campus types like Mark and I that's cheap grace because NPG only publishes hard science. you'll have to check back to see how principled and hardcore we are if and when the UC boycotts a social-science publisher like Sage, Blackwell, or Elsevier.

  15. It is worth noting that journals used to be handled, literally, as gift exchanges: Society X would print its proceedings for its members, and mail additional copies, free, to other scientific societies in return for getting their publications for its library.

    I believe that only journals run by nonprofits have page charges, since NSF will not cover page charges for commercial journsls–these latter get their money, not from the authors, but from the libraries. If you really

    want the system to change, just have the university charge a library tax on all grants (unfortunately, this probably can't be done under the current overhead rules).

    And, it was news to me, Nature Publishing Group is not just the flagship journal, but also its spinoffs, and a bunch of other journals: most of these are in biomedicine (eg, "Evidence-Based Dentistry").

  16. Dennis: "And would it be possible to call it anarcho-syndicalist rather than anarcho-communist?" Well, technically I suppose you can make a strong case. But the emerging sphere of non-traded production – and we can watch it expanding to include scientific jounals – is very different from anything Kropotkin or Marx imagined, an we have a lot of wiggle room in describing it. Plainly it's not at all an outgrowth of their ideology. The W3 consortium say owes far more to mediaeval back-scratching corporatism via the modern research university. I chose communism partly for the annoyance factor. The old post I linked to gives my best shot at a justification.

    Personally I give more weight to my hypothesis that the three modes of production – capitalist, socialist, and "communist", are fundamentally interdependent, and only exclusive at the margin. For instance, communist science publishing depends on socialist universities as well as capitalist ISPs.

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