What Goes Around Comes Around: University of California Threatens System-Wide Boycott of Nature Publishing Group

June 09, 2010

In what's unlikely be the last incident of its kind, the University of California is preparing its faculty and students for what could be a system-wide boycott of Nature Publishing Group. In a letter addressed to UC Divisional Chairs and UC Faculty, Laine Farley, Executive Director of the California Digital Library and others have taken a strong stand against a proposed 400% increase in the cost of subscriptions from NPG:

UC Libraries are confronting an impending crisis in providing access to journals from the Nature Publishing Group (NPG). NPG has insisted on increasing the price of our license for Nature and its affiliated journals by 400 percent beginning in 2011, which would raise our cost for their 67 journals by well over $1 million dollars per year.

While Nature and other NPG publications are among the most prestigious of academic journals, such a price increase is of unprecedented magnitude. NPG has made their ultimatum with full knowledge that our libraries are under economic distress—a fact widely publicized in an Open Letter to Licensed Content Providers and distributed by the California Digital Library (CDL) in May 2009. In fact, CDL has worked successfully with many other publishers and content providers over the past year to address the University’s current economic challenges in a spirit of mutual problem solving, with positive results including lowering our overall costs for electronic journals by $1 million dollars per year.

NPG by contrast has been singularly unresponsive to the plight of libraries and has employed a ‘divide and conquer’ strategy that directs major price increases to various institutions in different years. Their proposed new license fee is especially difficult to accept in a time of shrinking UC library budgets and with the many sacrifices we all continue to make Systemwide. Capitulating to NPG now would wipe out all of the recent cost-saving measures taken by CDL and our campus libraries to reduce expenditures for electronic journals. More information about the UC Libraries’ concerns, including a history of previous unsustainable price increases from this publisher and others, is available on the CDL’s Challenges to Licensing page at http://www.cdlib.org/services/collections/current/challenges.html

UC Libraries have already taken a stand against NPG. After recently acquiring Scientific American, NPG doubled the institutional site license fee and raised the price of an institutional print subscription seven-fold. In response, UC Libraries, along with numerous other institutions throughout the country, discontinued their license to the online version and reduced the number of print subscriptions. As a first response to the current NPG proposal, UC Libraries plan to forgo all online subscriptions to any new NPG journals. But more drastic actions may be necessary.

What can UC Faculty do to help?

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. In the past six years, UC authors have contributed approximately 5300 articles to these journals, 638 of them in the flagship journal Nature. Using NPG’s own figures, an analysis by CDL suggests that UC articles published in Nature alone have contributed at least $19 million dollars in revenue to NPG over the past 6 years—or more than $3 million dollars per year for just that one journal. Moreover, UC Faculty supply countless hours serving as reviewers, editors, and advisory board members.

Many UC Faculty now believe that a larger and more concerted response is necessary to counter the monopolistic tactics of NPG. Keith Yamamoto, a Professor and Executive Vice Dean at UCSF (yamamoto@cmp.ucsf.edu) who helped lead a successful boycott against Elsevier and Cell Press in 2003 (http://www.libraryjournal.com/article/CA379265.html), has begun to assemble a group of Faculty that will help lead a UC Systemwide boycott of NPG. This means that unless NPG is willing to maintain our current licensing agreement, UC Faculty would ask the UC Libraries to suspend their online subscriptions entirely, and all UC Faculty would be strongly encouraged to:

  • Decline to peer review manuscripts for journals from the Nature Publishing Group.
  • Resign from Nature Publishing Group editorial and advisory boards.
  • Cease to submit papers to the Nature Publishing Group.
  • Refrain from advertising any open or new UC positions in Nature Publishing Group journals.
  • Talk widely about Nature Publishing Group pricing tactics and business strategies with colleagues outside UC, and encourage sympathy actions such as those listed above.

We clearly recognize that the consequences of such a boycott would be complex and present hardships for individual UC researchers. But we believe that in the end, we will all benefit if UC can achieve a sustainable and mutually rewarding relationship with NPG. In the meantime, UC scholars can help break the monopoly that commercial and for- profit entities like NPG hold over the work that we create through positive actions such as:

  • Complying with open access policies from Federal funding agencies such as the NIH (http://publicaccess.nih.gov).
  • Utilizing eScholarship, an open access repository service from CDL (http://www.escholarship.org/publish_postprints.html).
  • Considering other high-quality research publishing outlets, including open access journals such as those published by PLoS and others.
  • Insisting on language in publication agreements that allows UC authors to retain their copyright (http://osc.universityofcalifornia.edu/manage/retain_copyrights.html).

A full list of journals currently licensed from NPG by UC Libraries is attached. We will keep you informed as this situation progresses, including the possibility of canceling all NPG titles. Please feel free to contact the University Librarian on your campus with questions or concerns, or any of us. You can also communicate your concern to key contacts at NPG. The managing director of NPG, Steven Inchcoombe, and other members of the executive committee can be reached at exec@nature.com.

See also the story about the potential boycott in The Chronicle of Higher Education.

No doubt both sides see their positions as justified given the current economic climate. Publishers are suffering from declining subscriptions and increased costs while libraries are suffering from unprecedented budget shortfalls. In plain English, this means that the business model supporting a big chunk of the modern system of scientific publication is showing distinct signs of strain.

What will happen between UC and NPG is anybody's guess. One thing is clear: the day may soon arrive when many of your colleagues can no longer access your best research papers.

Credit: Thanks to the FriendFeed gang for material for this post and Christina K. Pikas.