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.

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