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Derek Lowe The 2002 Model

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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