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Derek Lowe The 2002 Model

Dbl%20new%20portrait%20B%26W.png After 10 years of blogging. . .

Derek Lowe, an Arkansan by birth, got his BA from Hendrix College and his PhD in organic chemistry from Duke before spending time in Germany on a Humboldt Fellowship on his post-doc. He's worked for several major pharmaceutical companies since 1989 on drug discovery projects against schizophrenia, Alzheimer's, diabetes, osteoporosis and other diseases. To contact Derek email him directly: Twitter: Dereklowe

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June 15, 2010

California vs. Nature

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Posted by Derek

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. . .

Comments (42) + TrackBacks (0) | Category: The Scientific Literature


1. Tok on June 15, 2010 8:15 AM writes...

I can understand that the UC system was getting a huge discount and NPG wanted to boost them back to be in line with their other subscribers. But with UC slashing professors' salaries and taking other drastic measures because of massive budget shortfalls, the timing couldn't be worse.
Maybe the UC system should go ahead and take the price increase, but start charging NPG consulting fees for peer review; entry level consulting averages ~$200/hr according to Forbes. Maybe even give them a generous 50% discount on their peer review fees with a 7% cap on increases.

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2. Paul on June 15, 2010 8:16 AM writes...

All scientific articles should be published in open access journals. Everything else is against the spirit of science. For profit publishers not only block science access they also suck huge amount of money which could have funded scientific progress.

Fuck nature and nature publishing group. I hope the boycott goes through and the PLOS is a winner.

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3. Hap on June 15, 2010 9:03 AM writes...

1) Somebody has to pay the piper, whether it's the subscribers or the authors - even PLOS hasn't managed to make publishing a cost-free proposition (their publishing costs are substantial, outside of nonauthor funding). If readers don't pay, then someone else does. I also don't feel much sympathy for CA just as I don't for Greece (at least their respective governments) - the fact that they spent far beyond their means (and, in the case of the UC, expanded their administrations beyond the dreams of avarice) shouldn't oblige others to subsidize their stupidity. (In the case of CA, it should have had the money to support what it needed, with its tax base, tax levels, and property values.)

2) There doesn't seem to be much of a model to denote papers as important outside the journals in which they appear, just as (yet) there doesn't seem to be a useful alternative to peer review. Some authors produce better papers than others, but the quality and importance of papers varies within a single author. Since there's too many articles, reading them all is not a legitimate solution. I don't know if a reader comment system would help - for some it might, but anything sufficiently controversial would probably evolve into a flame fest. Blogs such as this one and others help, but their writers have finite time. Given that, I don't know how to achieve journal-independent quality assignment. and I assume that the status of papers will instead be determined by what economic model makes publishing sustainable, and thus what publishing organs work most effectively.

3) The analogy between publishing involving subsidized review organs and universities hoping to make lots of money from sports programs (at least football and basketball) might be relevant.

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4. Petros on June 15, 2010 9:38 AM writes...

If U Cal has had one license for all its sites surely it must have the largest no of potential users on any single license?

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5. Bobblehead on June 15, 2010 9:43 AM writes...

UC's spending problems are irrelevant to the question of Nature and other journal's absurd costs.

The fact is that they provide very little value add and exist I'm their niche due to historic reasons. Other than inertia, there is no good reason that a strong peer review model and citation web can't be created online without the for-profit gatekeepers. They currently get "content" and peer review for free, and provide only administration, brand name and journal production. The last one is now unneeded, thanks to the web. The brand is unneeded, once an open acces model takes off- there will just be "the literature", and citation count and other reputational measures take off. And given groupware project managment systems, schools themselves could relatively easily eat the administration costs for far less than the subscription costs.

The best complaint againstthis model I've heard us about gaming the reputaional systems. That requires some thought, but don't tell me tere isn't gamesmanship in the current publishing model.

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6. Hap on June 15, 2010 10:16 AM writes...

Their lack of money is partly their fault - they've been short of money for some time (re. Dr. Free-Ride), and it sure as heck hasn't been going to the students or faculty. (Some of their monetary problem, probably a lot, is CA's fault, but administration has been been feathering its own beds for quite some time as well.) On the other hand, I don't see anybody wanting to pay a whole lot more for subscriptions, since in most cases, the schools don't have it. You can try to get blood from a stone, but you're probably wasting your time.

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7. Ken on June 15, 2010 10:26 AM writes...

I completely agree with Bobblehead's comments.

For-profit journals add zero value to science. I actually met the head of Elsevier a while back and he was arguing that charging for access to their journals was legitimate because of the innovative search features they provide. Personally I use Pubmed for all my searching needs, as do most of my friends and colleagues.

Overall, it seems to me they have a pretty sweet business model in that they:

1) charge scientists to submit results of their work for publication, which they copyright
2) charge institutions for print copies or electronic subscriptions to those publications
3) do not pay their reviewers
4) collect additional revenue from advertising

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8. JasonP on June 15, 2010 10:26 AM writes...

What ever happened to the day when schools get things for free to promote education? I doubt Nature needs the money. Probably just bank rolling a big bonus for the head editor or something.

Rotten timing on fee increases too when the UC school system is under financial stress and all America.

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9. Steve on June 15, 2010 11:06 AM writes...

I'm sure journal publishers would pay reviewers... if authors were willing to pay to have their papers peer reviewed - it works both ways.

Publishers can add a lot of value (not all of them do) - one of the reasons that the Nature journals are so highly cited is that the work is made accessible to a lot a people not just the specialists. The editors have a big role in this.

Remember that open access is not free, all you do is change who pays and the costs - so far at least are higher.

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10. wcw on June 15, 2010 11:16 AM writes...

On-topic, I hope this is the beginning of the end of for-profit academic journals. UC should just set up its own journals, monopolize its faculty's publishing and generously allow non-UC journals to bid on the best articles. For cash.

Off-topic, anyone who equates California with Greece is innumerate. Greece's deficit is 10% of GDP. California's is 1%. Full disclosure: I live in California. Also, I can count from one to ten.

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11. processchemist on June 15, 2010 11:17 AM writes...

Elsevier bought the beilstein/crossifire system and now is "remodulating" the fees: an university close to me was asked for a 300% raise in subscription fees. It seems that the UC thing it's not a single case, but an episode of a new trend...

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12. DavidQ on June 15, 2010 11:22 AM writes...

Ken: I'm no fan of for-profit science publishing. However, two statements need to be corrected: Nature does not charge authors to submit or publish (although they do charge for color illustrations) and they do not retain the copyright to original research; they license it.

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13. John Harrold on June 15, 2010 11:58 AM writes...

If there was a boycott.

The person I feel bad for is the 6th year grad student or 5th year post doc in molecular biology who just got that last set of experiments to work right before boycott went into effect. Sure they can publish in a lower tier journal, but the dynamics of this situation will probably leave them feeling pretty empty.

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14. pete on June 15, 2010 11:59 AM writes...

I have to sympathize with the UC system on this one. The entire Cal public education system is under relentless financial pressure, not just UC & its purported mismanagement, blah-blah. This move by NPG is just one more insult during hard times.

Compared to what it was 30 years ago, NPG is now a large corporate animal that demands a bigger feeding bowl. This threatened boycott is a calculated move by UC to provide the push-back-in-numbers that might be harder to muster from other segments of NPG readership.

NPG meet weight watchers.

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15. MHP on June 15, 2010 12:37 PM writes...

Under the threat of a boycott, I think Nature clearly has the upper hand. Nature's journals are currently exclusive enough that it can do without UC submission for quite awhile. There will be plenty of high-caliber research from other eager sources to fill the relatively small void. The UC system's researchers, on the other hand, will suffer from a lack of access to premier journals.

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16. Tok on June 15, 2010 12:48 PM writes...

MHP - Do you really think the grad students and post-docs at UC will really have a lack of access?

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17. anon the II on June 15, 2010 12:50 PM writes...

I don't know how related this might be, but publication charges can be very flexible.

A number of years ago, a small company where I worked had a subscription to a number of different versions of the Derwent patent books. The annual cost was around $30,000.00/yr. Nobody paid it much attention till we started running out of money. So I called the Derwent sales guy and asked if we could get a break on the price. He wouldn't budge.

So we had a meeting to see how valuable they were to us. Turns out, nobody read the things. I called up Derwent and told them we didn't want any of their stinkin' books anymore.

About a week later, the Derwent guy calls back and offers us everything we originally subscribed to for $800.00/yr. I said "No thanks". Nobody ever complained.

I think Nature needs UC more than UC needs Nature. There are plenty of rags to pick up the slack and with it, a bit more prestige.

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18. dearieme on June 15, 2010 12:53 PM writes...

Perhaps the issue should be settled by the academics asking themselves "Who do I loathe most, our university administrators or Nature?" My money's on the first.

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19. J-bone on June 15, 2010 1:52 PM writes...

Well, the UC's could always follow Andrew Scull's suggestion and close the bottom tier UC's to preserve the excellence of the top tier ones.

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20. MHP on June 15, 2010 1:58 PM writes...

No, it would not be a complete lack of access. But it would cause more than enough trouble to put pressure on UC administrators to negotiate a quick end to the boycott.

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21. gyges on June 15, 2010 2:11 PM writes...

I don't regard any publisher as the beneficial owner of the copyright to a paper that has been funded by either the tax payer or a charity.

Any charging for access is a breach of trust and hence is not equitable.

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22. Chrispy on June 15, 2010 2:36 PM writes...

Science journals need to be open access or close to it. How often do you find yourself following up an idea at home only to dead-end on a $30 article charge? One of the things keeping me from moving to or starting a small biotech is the lack of journal access. Perhaps if they just charged $0.25 an article they could make their money and everyone would have access.

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23. gyges on June 15, 2010 3:17 PM writes...

I don't regard any publisher as the beneficial owner of the copyright to a paper that has been funded by either the tax payer or a charity.

Any charging for access is a breach of trust and hence is not equitable.

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24. Jumbo on June 15, 2010 5:53 PM writes...

Face it. Nature Publishing is just a huge ponzi scheme. First Nature, then Nature Biotech, on and on and on. I used to be a subscriber. Some of their new titles also seemed interesting to me (especially the reviews which, as I have gotten grayer, attract so I don't have to read hundreds of journals). I always thought if you subscribe to one Nature journal, they should offer a second at a discount and a third at more. When I've gone by the Nature booth at conferences they have literally laughed at that suggestion. Same stupidity as the record companies, and the same thing will happen to them. Classic economic mistake - keep charging more on diminishing volume rather than reducing price and greatly increasing volume.

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25. SRC on June 15, 2010 7:03 PM writes...

Off-topic, anyone who equates California with Greece is innumerate. Greece's deficit is 10% of GDP. California's is 1%. Full disclosure: I live in California. Also, I can count from one to ten.

A couple points. First, you're confusing debt with deficit. Greece's problem is debt. California's is deficit. You are correct: California's issued debt is in fact a small fraction of its GDP. Its budgetary deficit, however, is huge (estimated to grow from $11 to $40 BN next year, compared to a current budget of $90 BN). We are currently cash flow negative, and becoming more so. Long-term deficits turn into debts, fast. In fact, that's how Greece got there themselves. They didn't start out with massive debt; they started out with persistent deficits.

Second, a considerable fraction of California's GDP is taxed away by the Feds, so using raw CA GDP figures is incorrect. It's like comparing your credit card bill to your gross salary; a lot of the latter is already encumbered.

Third, California has massive unfunded pension liabilities (estimates vary wildly, but are all in the hundreds of billions of dollars) . They may not be counted as debt (i.e., money we've borrowed) in your calculation, but we owe it just the same – unless we burn the public sector unions.

Full disclosure: I also live in California, and am a UC alumnus to boot. I too can count from one to ten. More topically, I can also count from one to minus ten. And minus 100. The present situation is unsustainable.

Sorry, back on topic.

I support open source journals. I used to review roughly a paper a day for ACS and/or RSC, and never got a dime for it. With printing going the way of hoop skirts, there's no excuse for massive journal subscription rates. Publishing journals has been a lucrative racket.

Having said that, I don't know who to root for. Journal publishers can be notoriously greedy. Having said that, UC recently saw fit to establish a Deputy Assistant Vice-Chancellor Commissar for Diversity, with an annual budget of ...$4 MM. So UC is not that broke. Yet.

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26. Anonymous BMS Researcher on June 15, 2010 8:46 PM writes...

Chrispy wrote:

>...How often do you find yourself following up
> an idea at home only to dead-end on a $30
> article charge...

Actually I was doing some work-related searching just now. I found maybe 16 hits that looked of likely interest, of which about half I could read free (either on the journal web site or PMC) so I read those first. Then I looked at the abstracts of the others. Tomorrow in my office I'll read the full text of one, and probably not bother with the others.

I *could* fire up my Company-issued laptop, login to the VPN, and access our subscriptions that way, but I'm not gonna do that just to read a few articles.

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27. Interesting... on June 15, 2010 8:56 PM writes...

All scientific articles should be published in open access journals. Everything else is against the spirit of science. For profit publishers not only block science access they also suck huge amount of money which could have funded scientific progress.

It looks like someone at Nature Publishing Group will actually put your manuscript in PubMed Central for you. So you should be able to access all of those papers (six months after they are published) for free, no?

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28. hibob on June 15, 2010 8:57 PM writes...

Perhaps the UC system could calculate the amount of time its faculty and grad students spend on peer review of articles in Nature publications, multiply by appropriate hourly rates for their services, and then deduct the total from their subscription?

For those not sympathetic to UC, as pointed out above, this really isn't about UC's discount in particular: none of the big institutions are paying list price, they all get big discounts that are hidden by confidentiality agreements: UC hasn't disclosed what the actual numbers were. My prediction: a rate not much higher than what UC agreed to last time, but we won't hear about it unless it leaks. Maybe even less than what they paid last time, if UC holds out for a few months and uses the time to talk very loudly with PLOS and with politicians pushing for free access to articles based on government funded research.

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29. cliffintokyo on June 15, 2010 10:02 PM writes...

We are already a decade or so on from the days when I could afford a personal subscription to a big-name journal like 'Nature'.
These phenomenal price increases will only make such journals more of a rich institutions-only club, to be read by members and cognoscenti, and will further alienate the scientific community from *the public*, who are already suspicious of science/scientists (who are *merely* human...) and asking, "so what?" about some research.
UC to be applauded for resisting yet another pressure on academics to retreat into their 'ivory towers', and possible oblivion.
PS: I didn't have time to read the comments; apologies if I have rehashed someone else's post/ viewpoint.

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30. frequent visitor on June 15, 2010 10:20 PM writes...

Stopped reading after I saw 400%...that is insane. Does London really think that the California schools are that rich?...why? London is just trying to get cash back for BP on this one.

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31. Scott on June 15, 2010 10:23 PM writes...

In Computer Science, the standard publishing agreements now require transfer of copyright. Of course, if one's institution is large enough, then they can negotiate to retain the copyright. That seems to create an unfair playing field.

Going a step further, in CS in the 90s, anything one published, one also put onto one's website. One then joined the associations (which publish the journals) both as a professional credential and to be more deeply involved in the special interest groups in one's area. It seemed like the web was opening up scientific discussion as well as making it easier to find the relevant papers (with the advent of decent search). Now, with strict transfer of copyright and copyright enforcement, we're moving back to a model where researchers are only aware of the work of their friends. Even if all the journals were to collapse, and all publishing occurred via arXiv, I think we would have a better scientific discourse.

I worry that what governments have failed to do in quashing scientific freedom (when they attempted to nationalize science), the publishers will finally do (in commercializing its publications).

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32. anon on June 15, 2010 10:30 PM writes...

@13, Not as empty as the feeling they will get when they start looking for a job.

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33. wcw on June 16, 2010 1:43 AM writes...

With apologies for the hijack (please scroll on, non-SRC/non-macrodata geeks):

>> Greece's deficit is 10% of GDP. California's is 1%.
> confusing debt with deficit

Sadly, no. This was my bending over backwards to be fair in rounding Greece down and California up. Comparing a midsized economy with a huge %GDP budget deficit to a huge economy with a tiny %GSP budget deficit is innumerate. Case closed.

Instead of wasting my time with the rest, may I gently suggest you take Pope's advice, and either get out more or learn to read BEA tables? Drink deep, or taste not.

On-topic: what does the micro literature suggest about the journal publishing industry? It still seems to me that there's a simple collective action problem between parties in academia that allows it to exist at all.

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34. fungus on June 16, 2010 2:14 AM writes...

As far as open-access is concerned, don't forget that there is a significant cost to have an electronic journal online. I heard Peter Stang say that the ACS has something like 50 IT professionals behind the scenes that keep the online journal architecture up and running.

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35. petros on June 16, 2010 2:22 AM writes...

The ACS provides no open access to any of its journals that I am aware of.

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36. KHL on June 16, 2010 2:49 AM writes...

Though it seems at first glance that Nature and other academic publishers charge exorbitant fees, we should also reflect on the importance of the service they provide. They (1)find peer-reviewers for us; (2)edit out glaring errors; (3)put the papers into nice, accessible formats; (4)allow online access, complete with citation information and search function; and (5)put important works in context with their summary articles etc. And this is only for the handful of papers that are deemed worthy of being published, after weeding out thousands others. Whether these services merit such high fees is certainly debatable, but publishing high quality science really is an expensive enterprise. The goal is to allow as many scientists as possible to access the literature, while keeping the cost down as low as possible. But free scientific publishing is wishful thinking. There are definitely costs and someone (either the author or the reader) has to pay for them.

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37. Anonymous on June 16, 2010 3:47 AM writes...

Well at my pharma company we've cancelled loads of subscriptions from the library and while Nature is still hanging in there with Nature Reviews Drug Discovery, pretty much all the other titles are gone. It seems to me that the publishers are launching more and more titles in a vain attempt to milk the cow some more, when the milk (and the money) has already run out, whether you are at an industrial or an academic institution.

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38. Steve on June 16, 2010 1:38 PM writes...

Publishing costs money - Fact. So how about changing the model? It worked for music.

Lets have an iTunes like system where you pay a small (for the sake of argument lets say ($0.30-$0.50) per article. You can store it in a personal library of articles so you only ever download (and pay) once.

You could set up a pre-pay system (think netflix) and have where academic/industrial institutions pay an fee on an annual basis (unlimited access for the following year based on downloads this year). You could provide a sliding scale of cost per article based on total downloads. And the publishers could even provide an incentive for authors/reviewers in the form of (download equivalents for articles accepted/reviewed).

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39. Matt on June 16, 2010 2:53 PM writes...

The publishers already sell single articles on demand, but they want tens of dollars instead of tens of cents per article. As a consequence there is massive systematic piracy of academic journal articles in countries where internet connections are reasonably cheap/common but incomes are a fraction of those in highly developed nations.

If people in the UC system can no longer get Nature articles from the library, will they A) forgo reading Nature publications B) pay $34 out of pocket for each article or C) get a friend at a subscribing institution to email the article?

Academic publishers do not have unlimited pricing power in practice despite the letter of the law. You might think they would imitate the iTunes model *before* they're fighting a desperate rearguard action against an established culture of piracy, but it seems every kind of publishing is fated to learn the same lessons from bitter experience alone.

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40. Hap on June 16, 2010 3:23 PM writes...

The problem with the analogy to an iTunes model is that music isn't being sold for a much different price than it was before - it's being sold in different forms and in different pieces, but for pretty similar prices (probably an overall reduction in price - $1/song versus $10-18/album, with about 10 songs). Whereas, to make that model work for journal articles (in the way suggested), the price per article would have to come down by a factor of 100. I also don't think that that pricing model is consistent with what other (mainstream) publishers charge for archival material (though articles for newspapers are probably a factor of ten lower in price, the price is consistent with, if not higher than, the prices for their current articles.)

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41. DevicesRUs on June 16, 2010 4:22 PM writes...

My most recent Nature had 17 articles (not counting the reviews and such). Over a year there are then approximately 850 articles published. I pay about $200 a year or $165 per year for 2 years for a subscription which means that the Itunes model works quite well. I am currently paying $0.20 per article more or less. Since I can only understand a few per week, paying $0.50 per article should benefit both Nature and me. Of course you lose the joy of finding something you weren't looking for and the feel of the paper but I think the model would work well.

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42. bobblehead on June 16, 2010 11:28 PM writes...

(Apologies for how screwed up my post was - not like this is an excuse, but I was posting from a new phone, and was a bit confused as to what was going on.)

On-topic: what does the micro literature suggest about the journal publishing industry? It still seems to me that there's a simple collective action problem between parties in academia that allows it to exist at all.

I think this is the best observation of the thread. There is obviously a collective action problem - the status quo is, well, here, and everyone can see something better, but, well, brand name matters and I have to take my pet to the vet.

I would love it is the UC pipeline were diverted into an open access model, even if it were flawed. ArchivX isn't a bad starting place, but it is incomplete.

I don't know what the answer is, but if I someone wanted my opinion, I think three things need to come together.

- Microformats would be a great way to inch up on the answer - publish on your home page, with a machine readable citation including refs.

- Schools manage all sorts of twiddly things. They can handle peer review management in a sensible fashion - they already do similar things with students, faculty and funds. If grumpy tweeds bitch too much, some sort of advisory committee can be paid to stop annoying grad students and make recommendations instead, and it will still be cheaper to pay their bourbon diet than the journals.

- I suspect this is a problem for many academics, but self-market. But face it - you already do, but in a twisted environment. And that marketplace isn't going away even if my idea is wholesale adopted - the B-school grads that run Elsevier & pals might have to think of a model that doesn't involve a slightly weird scheme for leeching off public money. Code monkeys still dealing with the dot.bomb crash and waiting for the next one can market themselves. I suspect academics can, too.

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