That's the University of California system versus Nature Publishing Group, in case you were wondering. As the Chronicle of Higher Education reports, there's a mighty dispute brewing about the cost of electronic access:
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.
NPG's testy response is here, and this is the reply from California. The current points of dispute are how much the publishers are actually raising the prices (site license fees versus the base rate) and how much of a discount the UC system is getting already.
Could there really be a UC boycott? They're large enough (and productive enough) to make that a reasonably credible threat. The Nature journals will certainly survive without submissions from the UC system, although over the last six years they've contributed over five thousand papers to them. But the real danger, I think, is the damage that this could do to Nature's position, and to the whole idea of the high-prestige journals. The scientific publishing world has been feeling the earthquake tremors for some time now. The traditional model (1. Start an academic journal. 2. Charge whopping subscription fees. 3. Profit) seems to be breaking down, in the same way that many other traditional content-distribution pricing models have been.
Nature and its related journals, along with the other top-tier publications, have managed to stay on top (and to charge accordingly). But journal prestige is an artificial construct, a fiction by common consent. A journal has a good reputation because it's hard to publish in and can afford to reject all but the most high-impact papers that it's offered. If people stop offering such papers to it, its prestige will decline. The big-splash papers will go somewhere else, and will perhaps manage to signal their importance in some other way than by the name of the journal they appear in.
This dispute will be worth watching closely. Which side will give in? Will a UC boycott be effective, and could it spread? Remember, from one perspective, other journals have an interest in seeing this happen, since they'll now see the papers that NPG won't. But they might also fear the same thing happening to them if this succeeds. . .