University of California vs. Nature

June 11, 2010

By now you’ve probably heard that the entire UC system is threatening to boycott the Nature Publishing Group over unsustainable business practices.*

First, a few links to get you up to speed.

  • The original letter, which was an in-house UC document that leaked (possibly deliberately, certainly understandably) and then propagated through academia like the proverbial brushfire.
  • Nature Publishing Group’s initial response, which accused the UC of distorting several issues.
  • The UC’s rebuttal, which showed that, in fact, they had not, and that NPG was guilty of far worse distortions.
  • A Chronicle of Higher Education piece that has some very interesting quotes on the UC side.
  • Of all the blogging that has been done on this, the now-infamous Fight Club post seems to be getting the most link-love and discussion, and deservedly so.
  • This post and those that follow at The Book of Trogool have some good analysis and more scrumptious links. Also at ScienceBlogs, Janet Stemwedel considers this from the standpoint of junior researchers who need high-profile pubs to survive, and with her usual thoughtfulness and humanity.

* It doesn’t matter whose side you’re on, it’s pretty clear that a 7% markup every year is not sustainable for academic libraries whose budgets are flat, if they’re lucky, or more likely declining. If it really costs NPG 7% more each year to maintain their web access, then they’re doing something wrong. So who does this serve, other than NPG shareholders?

Some of the more interesting points that have come up in the ensuing discussions:

As noted by Janet Stemwedel, it would be very nice if the UC would issue a statement that good scholarship on the part of faculty will be recognized and rewarded no matter where it’s published. I am wholeheartedly in agreement with that, and am only sad that it took something like this to force the issue out into the open. Good work is good work, and the people who need it will generally find it. A lot of the battle over OA is getting hidebound administrators to stop thinking with their pseudoheads and find non-retarded ways to assess the output of their faculty. It shouldn’t be part of the battle over OA, because impact factors are orthogonal to publication model (and to the quality and lasting value of the work). But we all know that publications in Cell, Nature, and Science are the ticket to grants, promotions, and tenure. PLoS is successfully driving a wedge into this, but the battle is far from over.

More than one commenter has noted that there is probably some schadenfreude going on here, as faculty who feel like they are under the gun to publish in high-rejection-rate journals get to fight back a little, and as faculty who are being forced to take pay cuts, furloughs, etc., get to shift their anger from university-internal targets to a visible and little-loved external enemy. I think both hypotheses are accurate, and I suppose that it is not 100% fair for NPG to get pasted with more hate than they have coming, but I don’t really care, because the level of hate they have legitimately earned is already extremely high. In some of the online discussions about the future of newspapers–or rather, the lack of a future for newspapers–someone, somewhere, made the point that when you gouge people for decades, you shouldn’t be surprised when they stand aside and refuse to rescue you as you crash and burn. To my massive irritation, I can’t find that quote right now, but it’s exactly appropriate here. A lot of faculty wouldn’t pee in Nature‘s mouth if its teeth were on fire–and now they may get the chance to withhold that pee.

I’ve seen a few comments to the effect that the proposed boycott would never come to pass because the UC could not get junior faculty, who need those CNS pubs, to play ball. I wouldn’t bet that way. In my experience, junior faculty are far more likely to be attuned to the injustices of the high-stakes, for-profit journal world, and thus the ones most likely to understand what is actually at stake, and to have little sympathy for an outfit that they see as an unsympathetic career gatekeeper. If there is faculty resistance, I expect it to come from tenured folks who’ve benefited from having an inside track at Nature. (I know, I know, everyone from Nature on down claims that the “inside track” is a myth, but does anyone actually believe that?)

Many have noted Keith Yamamoto’s SDFy comments at the end of the Chronicle article: “In many ways it doesn’t matter where the work’s published, because scientists will be able to find it”. All I have to add here is “Hell yeah!” and “Bang on!”

Second sacral vertebra (FMNH PR 2209) of Rapetosaurus krausei. A, articulated centrum, neural arch, and left sacral rib in anterior view; B, articulated centrum, neural arch, and left sacral rib in posterior view; C, articulated vertebra in right lateral view; D, centrum in dorsal view, anterior towards top; E, centrum in ventral view, anterior towards top. Abbreviations: naf, neural arch facet; pfo, pneumatic foramen; posl, postspinal lamina; pozg, postzygapophysis; prsl, prespinal lamina; przg, prezygapophysis; srf, sacral rib facet. Scale bar equals 3 cm. (Curry Rogers 2009:fig. 23)

For my part, I’d like to point out something that I have not seen widely discussed, but which seems like it ought to be. A not-for-profit organization–like, say, PLoS–has to maintain its infrastructure, pay its employees, and deliver a service. A corporation has all of those demands, plus the mandate to make a profit. So people can whine all they want that open access publishers still have to charge to do the same work as commercial publishers and that the work will cost about the same, but at the end of the day the commercial publisher is in business to make a profit, and PLoS is in business to make science. Absolutely, we should stop letting commercial publishers sell our own fat asses back to us. We should definitely stop paying any for-profit publisher to line its shareholders’ pockets at our expense. Screw them and the horse they rode in on; that is our freakin’ horse.

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11 Responses to “University of California vs. Nature

  1. Lp Says:

    Can you please check your links and ensure they go where you expect them too?
    The “initial responce” and UC “rebuttal” point to the same doc on NPG’s website!!

  2. Mike Taylor Says:

    Thanks for spotting that, Lp. Now fixed.

  3. Brian Romans Says:

    thanks for this review — perfect for those not following every twist and turn


  4. [...] am astounded at the lack of response to University of California vs. Nature, which seems to me just about the most significant thing that’s happened in the world [...]

  5. Heinrich Mallison Says:

    Why are you surprised by the few replies? It takes too much time and effort to log in just to say:

    Fuck Nature, go UC!


  6. [...] guidelines don’t allow that — they wouldn’t be alone — and in any case we’ve hardly been a friend to the Nature Publishing Group, so maybe we’d have even less reason to expect any love from them :-) Possibly related posts: [...]


  7. [...] readers: we’ve talked more than once about the scandalous prices of academic publications and what can be done about it (and many relevant articles are linked from the Shiny Digital Future page).  What’s new is [...]


  8. [...] unlike what the Nature Publishing Group is doing with Scientific Reports. (Curious, NPG wants your kidneys in exchange for actual science, but they’ll let you read about the evils of PLoS for free.) [...]


  9. [...] of California successfully boycotted NPG over a 400% price hike and other financial skulduggery (15). The international megapublisher Elsevier in particular is accused of price gouging and [...]


  10. [...] barrier-based academic publishing. It doesn’t serve authors, it doesn’t serve readers, it doesn’t serve academic libraries, but doggone it, at least it costs vastly more than it [...]


  11. [...] this is not a huge problem – their institutional library simply pays on their behalf (though these arrangements are not always without tension). Those without such links, however, are faced with the prospect of paying a fee just to see a [...]


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