Ov up, UC librarians. This boycott threat stuff is pathetic.

Jun 10 2010 Published by under Science Publication

By now most of you are aware that the librarians of the University of California system are unhappy with negotiations with Nature Publishing Group over access to NPG's titles. The letter, found here, details the complaint. More importantly, the letter requests that the UC faculty get ready to boycott NPG with the following specifics.

  • 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.

NPG is unamused.

This has been a shock to us at NPG, in terms of the sensationalist use of data out of context, misrepresentation of NPG pricing policies, and the fact that we were under the impression we were in an ongoing confidential discussion. It is with great regret we therefore have to publicly address, in detail, all the allegations contained in the letter.

Oh brother. The old "incivil" and "not quite cricket old chap" gambit. Please, spare us the martyrdom, NPG. It gets old really, really fast.

The implication that NPG is increasing its list prices by massive amounts is entirely untrue. We have been publishing our academic site licence pricing for several years on our librarian gateway. Dollar list price increases have been reasonable (averaging roughly 7 % over 4 years), and publicly available throughout. A 7% cap on annual list price increases is currently in place.
The complication with CDL is that they have been on a very large, unsustainable discount for many years, to the point where other subscribers, both in the US and around the world, are subsidising them.

Okay, so I'm understanding the basic ploy here. Not buying it.
Look, NPG and other academic publishers produce a product with a large fraction of fixed production costs per issue. This is media, not manufacturing. The only thing that scales with the user base is the number of print subscriptions and maybe to some extent bandwidth. Pulling this completely out of my behind, I'm going to speculate those scalable costs are a relatively small part of the picture.
Which means that what we are really talking about is who is paying what fraction of the fixed cost to generate the actual content. Well that, and the profit. Let us not forget the profit.
In short, crying over what is a "fair" share is nonsense. Which we know because clearly NPG found it in their interest to negotiate the "unsustainable discount for many years" in the past. Obviously they thought they were getting some sort of value out of having the premier research University system in the world have ready access to their titles. Their choice. That they are now trying to alter their prior decision makes no nevermind when it comes to what is "fair" or not.
Getting back to the UC librarians, it is equally clear that they were able to negotiate NPG into this discount (if it really is) by providing some sort of value, one would assume the citations, submissions and service work of the UC faculty, trainees and other staff. They balanced the benefit to their faculty, students and staff against the costs being negotiated and found an acceptable balance. Now, they claim, the new NPG offer puts that balance over to the unacceptable side. Big deal.
A simple solution arises. This was recently proposed to me by a close colleague with whom I collaborate on my most important low-N developmental biology project.
Don't pay the new rate, UC! Stop with this boycott charade. Just don't renew the contract at this time. Don't have print copies in the libraries, don't have electronic journal access and, importantly, don't foot the bill for one-off ILL type requests. Let the market do its work, so to speak.
If the UC faculty find that they simply cannot get along without access to NPG titles, they can buy their own access for now and lobby the hell out of the UC system to come up with the increased subscription fees at some time in the future.
If the UC faculty find that they can get along quite fine without NPG access, then NPG can decide at some point in the future to offer the UC libraries a fee structure more amenable to their budgets.
Win-win!
So ov the hell up, UC librarians. Stop trying to threaten NPG with some nebulous boycott you don't even know if you can sustain. Just pull the plug and see what happens.
__
Updated: I forgot to mention that Janet Stemwedel put up a point that is critical to this situation:

hiring, retention, tenure, and promotion decisions within the UC system should not unfairly penalize those who have opted to publish their scholarly work elsewhere, including in peer-reviewed journals that may not currently have the impact factor (or whatever other metric that evaluators lean on so as not to have to evaluate the quality of scholarly output themselves) that the NPG journals do. Otherwise, there's a serious career incentive for faculty to knuckle under to NPG rather than honoring the boycott.

Update 2: The UC Librarians respond to the NPG response.

32 responses so far

  • Chuckist says:

    Bravo DrugMonkey, perfectly reasonable solution.

  • Don't pay the new rate, UC! Stop with this boycott charade. Just don't renew the contract at this time. Don't have print copies in the libraries, don't have electronic journal access and, importantly, don't foot the bill for one-off ILL type requests. Let the market do its work, so to speak.

    I take it that this is a significant part of the boycott that is planned.
    What the planned boycott adds is a recognition of the free (at least to NPG) labor of researchers on which NPG journals depend to produce the product they're charging for -- manuscript submissions and peer reviewing especially. No reason for UC researchers to be providing these freebies any more to a journal they won't have an easy time using because their library system can't afford it anymore.

  • Amy says:

    Good entry overall, but I think you're being a little harsh to the UC librarians (full disclosure; I'm a medical librarian, but a recent grad with no UC connections). The boycott, as stated in the letter, is actually being headed by UC faculty; it appears to me the library is just supporting it and further publicizing it:
    "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 you say it's a win-win situation...I'm not asking this facetiously in any way (I hate that tone is so often misconstrued in comments), but really want to know: why isn't the boycott a win-win situation as well? The way I interpret it, outcomes could be the same, either eventually NPG gives, or UC decides it does need to come up with the money and does, but now more people know about the issue, including faculty at UC and other places (thanks to things like your post!), and maybe NPG knows it can't get away with these price hikes at other institutions.

  • DrugMonkey says:

    No reason for UC researchers to be providing these freebies any more to a journal they won't have an easy time using because their library system can't afford it anymore.
    Sure, but again, let the market dictate. If individual UC researchers think it is no longer worth their while, they will stop with the service work on their own hook.
    My greater point is that the threats and calls for boycotts are an a priori admission on the part of the UC librarians that they do not really have dropping the NPG titles in mind. They want to continue with access at the rate they want to pay. The public threat is just that, intimidation.
    I would prefer to see the UC put their money where their mouth is and simply walk away. A more upstanding approach than using a PR game to try an intimidate the NPG.

  • DrugMonkey says:

    why isn't the boycott a win-win situation as well?
    I see it as an inelegant solution. And one that distorts the value of NPG scientific titles. My solution throws it back from presumed/asserted value (on the part of the UC and NPG negotiators) onto what would be a market-determined value. Individual scientists would tell both sides, so to speak, whether they are willing to pay more than the alleged prior "unsustainable discount". Or whether the "real price" asserted by NPG is simply too expensive and they are willing to find other options.

  • arvind says:

    Ov up? Lacks bite! How about Vag up? Makes sense too. When was the last time an ovary pushed an 8 lbs object through for 20 hours? Also, quit being so ballsy should mean stop acting like a tender crybaby who can't even take a little whack.
    How would an outright refusal to renew the contract by UC affect the students in grad school? Wouldn't they need access to NPG as part of literature review? What's to stop a miserly faculty member with tenure and no publishing pressure from asking his grad students to buy their own access to NPG?

  • DrugMonkey says:

    Wouldn't they need access to NPG as part of literature review?
    "need"? C'mon. You telling me that citation practices are not at present greatly affected by access? Of course they are. Just like the market determines if you can get away with not citing something that was published in nonWestern journal of -ology or something that was published in 1936, the market going forward will determine if anyone gives a crap if a student lit review fails to include one possibly relevant Nature citation.

  • Eric Lund says:

    I'm with Janet and Amy on this one. What you seem to be overlooking is that NPG is not the only audience the UC librarians are playing to. Certain faculty are pushing for this boycott, and the librarians need to put any fence-sitting faculty, as well as research staff and grad students, on notice that their access to NPG's journals (including but not limited to NPG's flagship GlamourMag) is threatened by this price increase. Suppose the librarians simply dropped the subscription, as you advocate. They are likely to get an earful from a grad student who says he absolutely needs access to the Hotschott et al. paper that just came out in the aforementioned GlamourMag. The librarians need to be able to say, "Don't say we didn't warn you."

  • DrugMonkey says:

    I'm not seeing where you differ from me Eric Lund. So they drop the contract (which doesn't end until end of year) now and make a big announcement that they have done so and why.

  • Alex says:

    A grad student who needs access to a Nature paper by Hotschott et. al. will do the following:
    1) Look at the Google Scholar link under "See all 5 versions" to see if somebody posted a .pdf in a publicly available site.
    2) Maybe ask a friend at a different school to email a .pdf.
    3) Possibly email Hotschott et. al. and ask for a copy.
    4) If they absolutely need it tomorrow, see if any nearby libraries have print subscriptions so they can photocopy. (Note that sometimes a department or institute within the university will have a reading room with recent print editions of various journals, and that subscription might not be managed via the central library system, and hence may or may not be participating in the boycott.)
    5) If absolutely necessary, make a request via Interlibrary Loan.
    Step 4 will be an interesting test of how committed the UC librarians are to this boycott.
    As to the ethical and legal status of steps 1, 2, and 3, well, consult with the appropriate faculty in the Philosophy Department or Law School.

  • Alex says:

    EDIT: I meant to type that step 5 will be an interesting test of how committed the UC librarians are.

  • Amy says:

    Thanks for the response; I'm still not sure it'd be an elegant path to a final price tag simply because there would be a lot of different departments/colleges involved (what the school of medicine faculty would be willing to pay is probably different from what the chemists would want to, and neither would want to pay the costs of covering both...then the school could end up paying double, or you're back with the library trying to negotiate for everyone without unified support), and it could take longer for a resolution. But I see better what you're saying about the inelegance of a boycott.
    And I'm also still going to call you out on making the librarians seem like whiners when really faculty/researchers are initiating the boycott. It's a team effort, and there's very definitely both men and women involved.

  • qaz says:

    DM - This is about collective bargaining. The UC librarians are trying to use their collective strength of the UC faculty and students to put pressure on NPG. I say more power to them!
    Just as big corporations have power that individuals don't, and need collective strikes and bargaining to match that power, big GlamourMags - yeah NPG, I'm talkin' to you - have power that individual faculty don't. You might as well say that an individual worker should just stay home if they don't like the pay being offered by the corporation. A strike is as much a part of the market as a corporation is. (It's a legal fiction to create a conglomerative power larger than an individual.) As Doc Free-Ride points out, individual faculty are going to have to knuckle under unless a true boycott/strike system with support is in place. The only way strikes ever work in the labor market is if there is a support system to help individuals survive while the corporations wait them out.
    This is really a fight between the collective power of two large groups (NPG & the UC system) to see who can manipulate the cost best. I say let them duke it out and let the best conglomerative entity win!

  • neurolover says:

    I don't know why a voluntary boycott is an inelegant solution. It's a perfectly reasonable part of the multipincer pinch in negotiations. It allows people to take ownership for their personal choices (rather than just be prey to the decisions made by the librarians about subscriptions). And, it got you to talk about it, and thus me to read it about it, a good thing as far as the librarians are concerned.
    An enforced boycott (i.e. actually preventing faculty from doing the things on the list, through some form of enforcement) would be a different thing.
    And, "messaging" about publications would have exactly zero effect on promotion decisions. This concept that stern warnings to disregard information would actually change behavior has always deeply perplexed me, when used in "messaging" or in court.
    I like NPG; I think their editors do decent work and that they produce decent articles. But, I think they have too much power in the economic negotiation and hope that continued pressure will change the practices (and decrease their profits).

  • DrugMonkey says:

    I'm also still going to call you out on making the librarians seem like whiners when really faculty/researchers are initiating the boycott.
    All things I've seen point to the letter I link as the original source of the blowout. It is from the librarians, signed by the librarians and has no indication of faculty sourcing. The only involvement of faculty indicates a vice dean has "begun to assemble". I'm not trying to assert this is only sourced from the library side but I have no evidence on faculty being the prime drivers here.
    It's a team effort, and there's very definitely both men and women involved.
    did I say otherwise? ahhh.. now I am grasping your Twitt comment. Are you suggesting that my use of "Ov up" in replacement for the colloquialism "Sack up" was motivated by a stereotype of librarians as being women? It was not.

  • Amy says:

    Actually, the letter was signed by a faculty member, although I'll concede the person sits on a library-related committee.
    But there's now further evidence that this is a joint faculty/library response - see the counter-response to NPG's statement here:
    http://osc.universityofcalifornia.edu/news/UC_Response_to_Nature_Publishing_Group.pdf
    Thanks for the clarifying the post's title; I'm guessing you see why I took issue.

  • DrugMonkey says:

    I'm guessing you see why I took issue.
    Yes, I get that association and offer my apologies. This was a very unfortunate case for me to decide to use the gender-reference mixing that I do inconsistently but for good general reasons. I should have made that connection and avoided it...

  • I for one welcome our new Elsevier overlords.

  • neurolover says:

    I find amusing NPG's request to hear what the subscription costs for other journals are. Just as reasonable (and I think they asked) is for NPG to release the prices to all the other institutions.
    Too bad I don't think that this gives me a good excuse to flake out on a review. It would have been nice to have the excuse.

  • becca says:

    The unstoppable force meets the immovable object.
    I for one welcome our new librarian overlords.

  • Mr. Gunn says:

    By handling the issue this way, it puts the librarians and the faculty on the same side, with the administration standing behind the libraries. Were they to just yank everything now without trying to negotiate a sustainable but minimally disruptive solution, the faculty and students that aren't aware of the issue will think it's the library's fault. Considering how very focused many faculty are on their research, it's going to take quite a bit of publicity before they become aware of what's really going on.
    If you didn't mean to suggest that negotiation shouldn't happen, then we agree, it just sounded kinda like you were proposing the pain should be dropped on the faculty immediately.

  • Eric Lund says:

    By handling the issue this way, it puts the librarians and the faculty on the same side, with the administration standing behind the libraries. Were they to just yank everything now without trying to negotiate a sustainable but minimally disruptive solution, the faculty and students that aren't aware of the issue will think it's the library's fault.
    This is the point I was trying to make above. The "you'll get nothing, and you'll like it" negotiating stance you seem to be advocating, and that could work for a corporation or a gangster, is not practical here. The librarians can't simply cancel/not renew the contract unilaterally if they want to come out of this not looking like the villains. (I'd be surprised if they could do this unilaterally even if it were in their best interests, but I've never been affiliated with any UC campus.) They need the faculty and administration to back them up, and this is a sensible way of working toward that outcome.

  • whimple says:

    Agree that the boycott is silly. NPG is selling a product. Don't think it's worth it? Don't buy it. UC is miffed because they KNOW it IS worth it and they're all bitchy because they're broke and want something they can't afford. They can easily raise the money to cover the journal costs if they would trim some of the incredibly bloated salaries bogging the UC system down ( http://ucpay.globl.org/index.php?&s=year ) and if the citizens of California actually cared about what happened with the UC system enough to open their wallets to support it. I guess you can put me in the "totally unsympathetic" column. 🙂

  • Eli Rabett says:

    About seven years ago, the universities in Nordrheinwestfalen dropped all the Elsevier titles in a similar set to. Don't know how that one came out.

  • Anonymous says:

    "UC is miffed because they KNOW it IS worth it and they're all bitchy because they're broke and want something they can't afford."
    No, they think it's worth it, but they also think they contribute mightily to the production of NPG's private enterprise, and should be justly offered discounted rates (even substantially discounted rates). NPG suggests that their rates are "reasonable" because they provide high value/download, and suggest that this rate be compared to other journals, with, presumably, lower download rates and similar fixed costs. Those journals would presumably offer less "value."
    But, UC is saying the same thing in reverse, that its operations offer significant value to NPG, in the form of reviewing, editorial work, and content. They could argue that other universities with much less "value" should be paying more for their subscriptions. NPG doesn't want that solution, because the lower "value" institutions can't afford as much, and because part of the value of their product is the readership and availability of the product. I'm guessing that UC doesn't really want that solution either.
    This is really a battle about who subsidizes whom.

  • Tony says:

    Am I the only one in the world who's pro-boycott? Boy am I sick of fighting with the brand-name journals. In physics at least there are slightly lower tier journals where Nobel prize winning papers have been published for 100 years. A paper published in Nature Physics reaches no wider audience than these, and a paper published in Nature is never satisfactorily robust.
    The Female Science Prof. raised the question of whether it was worth submitting to single word journals recently. The comments were pretty unanimously "no"... but we all still will!
    Alex's point is an interesting one. With preprint archives and universities posting their papers online for free, one can get by without access to a less-useful (because I think in general more robust and field specific journals would be more useful to one on a daily basis) but more highly cited journal like Nature.
    In fact, where I did my PhD we didn't have access to NPG publications that were less than a year old. I can't think of a time when I needed a paper I couldn't get my hands on almost immediately.
    Thanks for the blog btw. This is my first comment, but I really love it.
    Cheers

  • bob says:

    Before assuming "the market will take care of it" is a good approach for scientists, you might want to consider the nature of the publishing market more carefully. Carl Bergstrom's site should be mandatory reading for anyone who cares about publishing or accessing literature:
    http://octavia.zoology.washington.edu/publishing/
    You might also appreciate the Bergstroms' contribution to the open access debate at Nature:
    http://www.nature.com/nature/focus/accessdebate/22.html

  • eejit says:

    Paper --> Internet
    Peer Review --> Million Eyeballs
    Proprietary Data --> Open Data
    Costly Publishers Tax --> Open Debate and Access
    Nature is dead. Long Live PLOS !!!!

  • DSKS says:

    @ #27
    Yes, Bergstrom's discussion of the subject makes interesting reading. There is an additional flaw in the idea of relying on "market forces" to control pricing, which relates to the high capacity for inflation of author fees without causing a backlash; the fees are nearly always paid with grant funds (requested in advance based on current publication fees), which seriously attenuates consumer incentive in terms of looking for value for money.
    The scientific journal section of the publishing industry is certainly a very strange beast. Part of me agrees with #28 that it's become inflated and inefficient and no longer provides value (beyond the arguably diminishing illusion of prestige for some rags based on their historical reputation), and fast becoming plain redundant.

  • red pepper says:

    I'm guessing that UC doesn't really want that solution either.

  • And the UC librarians don't think that a young PI with a hot story is not going to submit to Nature when they have T&P looming over their head. Either quit being pussies and tell NPG to kick rocks or knock this public posturing stuff off and pay the loot.

  • anon says:

    Commenter 25 said:
    "UC is saying the same thing in reverse, that its operations offer significant value to NPG, in the form of reviewing, editorial work, and content."
    The only one of those three that can be truly said to offer value is the peer-reviewing (and even that isn't altogether altruistic). Let's face it, authors don't provide the content to 'help out' NPG, or any publisher. They do it for they own careers and, one would hope, to add to the knowledge base. NPG does commission review articles, but authors are free to say no, and they often do. As for editorial work, it is laughable to say that UC faculty contribute to this. NPG has in-house editorial teams for all its Nature-branded journals. Many manuscripts are worked on for weeks by the editors to bring them to the standard you see in the finished articles. Some UC employees may be on editorial boards or advisory boards for particular journals, but the amount of actual editorial work done by these people is minimal, and in most cases, none.
    Even though I sound pro-NPG here, I actually think that both sides are probably to blame for this situation. UC for running to the press (they claim they didn't, but please) in the middle of negotiations and for expecting to pay 3-4 less than all other institutions indefinitely, and NPG for deciding to hike the price at about the worst possible time they could have done so (a more gradual rise would have been more appropriate).
    "They could argue that other universities with much less "value" should be paying more for their subscriptions."
    They already are paying more. That's the problem. NPG are trying to bring the price UC are paying closer to what other institutions pay (roughly a 50% discount instead of the 88% discount UC enjoy).

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