U. of California Tries Just Saying No to Rising Journal Costs

The Nature Publishing Group produces "Nature" and dozens of other scientific publications.
June 08, 2010

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.

The pressure does not stop there. The letter said that faculty would also organize "a systemwide boycott" of Nature's journals if the publisher does not relent. The voluntary boycott would "strongly encourage" researchers not to contribute papers to those journals or review manuscripts for them. It would urge them to resign from Nature's editorial boards and to encourage similar "sympathy actions" among colleagues outside the University of California system.

Along with its letter, the California Digital Library included a fact sheet with systemwide statistics for 2010 about the university's online journal subscriptions. The system subscribes to almost 8,000 journals online, at an average cost of between $3,000 and $7,000 per journal, depending on the publication and the field. The current average cost for the Nature group's journals is $4,465; under the 2011 pricing scheme, that would rise to more than $17,000 per journal, according to the California Digital Library.

The letter described how much University of California faculty members collectively have contributed to Nature's journals over the past six years: approximately 5,300 articles, 638 of those to Nature. "UC faculty and researchers author a significant percentage of all articles published in NPG journals and are a major force in shaping the prestige of its publications," the letter said.

The system hopes to use that research clout to get Nature to reconsider a price increase of "unprecedented magnitude"—more than the California system can take, given its dismal budget situation, the letter said. "NPG has made their ultimatum with full knowledge that our libraries are under economic distress," it stated. Nature's proposed price jump would "wipe out all of the recent cost-saving measures" the system has taken to reduce its online journal expenditures, according to the letter.

There has been no word yet from Nature on how or whether it will respond to the possibility of subscription cancellations and a boycott. Representatives for the publisher did not respond to The Chronicle's requests for comment on Tuesday.

The letter was signed by Laine Farley, executive director of the California Digital Library; Richard A. Schneider, an associate professor of orthopedic surgery at the University of California at San Francisco and chairman of the systemwide University Committee on Library and Scholarly Communication; and Brian E.C. Schottlaender, the university librarian at the University of California at San Diego.

'Nowhere Left to Go'

In an interview, Ms. Farley said it had been especially hard to meet budget targets this year but that the California Digital Library had been able to negotiate mutually agreeable pricing arrangements with many publishers. "In this case, we just found ourselves with nowhere left to go," she said. "We weren't making any progress. As the letter states, the price increase was just something we couldn't agree to."

The faculty library committees on individual campuses have been keener to hear about negotiations with publishers lately because they have begun to realize what's at stake, according to Ms. Farley. That growing interest helped guide the decision to send out the letter, she said.

"I hope it will accomplish restarting a productive dialogue about how to find a solution," Ms. Farley said. "Again, we've been able to do that with most publishers."

Asked if sending out the letter was a risk, Ms. Farley said it would be riskier not to do anything. "We have this fiduciary responsibility to make the best choices we can," she said. "We can't just say, 'Oh, OK, we'll pay that.'"

Mr. Schneider, at UC-San Francisco, called the standoff and the letter a chance to educate faculty members about the real costs of access to scholarship. "Most people are pretty amazed at how much we spend on online subscriptions," he said.

The members of his committee have been talking about the situation with faculty members on their home campuses, according to Mr. Schneider. "We really got a good sense that the faculty will be behind this," he said, even if it comes to a boycott.

"I think people are starting to recognize that the system, the model that we have, is fundamentally flawed and has to be re-evaluated," Mr. Schneider said. "We're really trying to balance the system so UC authors have greater control over and greater access to the materials. We also want these materials to have as wide a dissemination as possible."

He acknowledged that publishers like the Nature Group contribute some valuable services. "They provide a brand, they provide distribution, they provide a high profile for the work," he said. "But the fact that the faculty who create that work have to pay so much for access to that work doesn't make any sense to us."

Support for a Boycott

Keith Yamamoto is a professor of molecular biology and executive vice dean of the School of Medicine at UC-San Francisco. He stands ready to help organize a boycott, if necessary, a tactic he and other researchers used successfully in 2003 when another big commercial publisher, Elsevier, bought Cell Press and tried to raise its journal prices.

After the letter went out on Tuesday, Mr. Yamamoto received an "overwhelmingly positive" response from other university researchers. He said he's confident that there will be broad support for a boycott among the faculty if the Nature Group doesn't negotiate, even if it means some hardships for individual researchers.

"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.