Sunday, June 13, 2010

Isn't it strange how some people don't understand the concept of "tough economic times"?

Apparently the folks at Nature Publishing Group were not aware that we are having a global recession.

They decided that now would be a good time to raise the prices for the University of California's subscriptions to their journals by 400%. Yes, that means the new prices are five times what the UC system is used to paying. This amounts to an extra $1 million that the UC library system does not have to spend. The library budget was cut this year and will probably be cut a further 20% over the next two years.  In fact, the library system has spent the last year shaving $1 million off of their journal budget. They negotiated with other publishers, who were understanding and worked with their budget constraints. But not the Nature Publishing Group.

What is this stuff that Nature is charging so much for? It must be a great product if they think they can charge that much for it, right? Yes, it is a great product. It's the results of the most impressive scientific research being conducted in the US and around the world. And NPG owns the copyright to this research, so they can charge however much they want for it. Here's the kicker: NPG did not do the research, they did not write the articles, and they did not review them for scientific accuracy. No, NPG got all of that work done for free. Taxpayers fund the vast majority of the research published in NPG's journals. The scientists write papers about the results and give the copyright to NPG for free. Then, other scientists review the papers to decide if they are scientifically sound and to suggest further experiments where needed. Again, the scientists do this work for free. Scientists also serve on editorial and advisory boards for the journals, again, for no compensation. All of this intellectual property is produced by taxpayer-funded scientists, and then handed over to NPG, who can charge whatever they want to anyone who wants to know the results of the research.

NPG argues that they "add value." Really? Let's see what work the publisher actually does. They mail manuscripts (that they got for free) to reviewers (who review for free) and consult with their editorial boards (who work for free) to decide which articles to publish. They proofread the articles and post them on a web site. That's it. Wow. Does that really cost hundreds of millions of dollars? No. How do I know? Because lots of non-profit scientific societies publish journals (even really prestigious ones like NPG) and they do it for a tiny fraction of the price of for-profit publishers like NPG. To be fair, most for-profit scientific publishers charge a lot more for the same services that non-profit publishers are able to do on the cheap. Nature Publishing Group is not the only one. But Nature Publishing Group is the one raising their prices 400% for the University of California, so that's the one we're focusing on today.

So, what's UC to do? They announced that if NPG would not come down on their price, the UC system would boycott NPG's journals. That means that not only would UC not subscribe to the journals, but would also encourage it's faculty to stop providing all that free labor: stop writing articles for NPG journals, stop reviewing articles, and resign from editorial and advisory boards.

What impact will that have on Nature? Well, articles from UC scientists provide a significant amount of content for NPG's journals, especially their flagship title, Nature. UC estimates that their scientists' articles in this one journal provide NPG with over $3 million per year in revenue. And that's not counting all of the other journals that UC scientists contribute to (NPG has dozens of journals). Oh, and that's also not counting all that free reveiwing, editing and advising.

So, who will win this standoff? We shall see. Here's a play-by-play:

1 comment:

  1. Shame on Nature Publishing Group! I mean what part of "recession" don't they understand? Maybe they should emerge from their silo and see what is happening in the real world.

    The UC system should vote with their wallet and end their subscription.