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The Nature kerfuffle: Boycott the business model, not the price

Michael Eisen, Professor of molecular and cell biology | June 10, 2010

Last week a letter was sent to UC faculty by librarians from the 10 UC campuses describing a 400% increase in the cost of access to the 67 journals published by Nature Publishing Group (including the prestigious research  journal Nature). The letter also described plans being set in motion by some prominent faculty to organize a boycott of NPG journals, in which faculty would no longer publish in or volunteer their time for any NPG journals until they backed off of their exorbitant demands.

As a long-term critic of the scientific publishing industry, I am all for anything that would strike back at publishers for their unconscionable business practices — of which this is only the latest example. But if the goal is simply to reduce the size of the check UC cuts to NPG, the boycott will have missed an opportunity, and the point.

People unfamiliar with the world of scholarly publishing will ask an obvious question: why does a proposed 400% price demand a boycott and not simply dismissive laughter? And in a rational universe, any company that showed up on the door of a university in the midst of a massive budget crisis demanding four times more money than they got last year would be quickly shown the door, and the university would take its business somewhere else.

Only one thing — short of outright insanity — can lead a company to think they can get away with this kind of behavior: a monopoly. And it is the monopolistic, and grossly unfair and irrational, business model that NPG and most other scientific publishers employ that should be the real target of any organized action from UC faculty.

Since it may not be obvious to many readers how the publisher of only a few dozen of the thousands of scientific journals out there could have a monopoly, let me explain.

When scientists have a result they are ready to share with their colleagues, they prepare a manuscript for publication in a scientific journal. In general they choose the most prestigious journal in their field that they think is likely to accept their work. The article is reviewed by editors (who are paid staff at a handful of journals, but volunteer scientists at most) and goes through a process of peer-review (by colleagues expert in the field who provide their services to the journal free of charge). If the authors are lucky, the reviews are positive and the paper is accepted for publication (if it is not, the authors begin the process anew at another journal).

At this point, for most journals, including those published by NPG a crucial thing happens — the authors sign over their copyright in their work to the journal. The journals then use this exclusive right to distribute the work by selling subscriptions to scientists and, more frequently, to the universities and other institutions where they work. The system may have had a certain logic in the bygone days when journals were distributed in print. But it also creates a monopoly — as individual papers can only be obtained from the publisher who holds the copyright. Unlike most commodities, scientific knowledge is not fungible. If a publisher is demanding an unreasonable price for a journal, I can’t just go and get the same information from another source willing to offer me a better deal. If I want to read a paper published in Nature, I have no choice but to pay whatever NPG wants.

And this is precisely the situation UC finds itself in again and again. This time it’s NPG, last time it was Elsevier, who knows who it wil be next time. UC will always pay more than we should for access to these journals, because they have a monopoly on information that scientists at UC need and demand. And, even if UC were somehow to drive a magic bargain and get every journal for free, there would still be myriad other institutions paying exorbitant prices, and countless interested scientists, teachers, students and members of the public denied access to the latest scientific and medical discoveries (most of which were generated with their tax dollars) because they can not afford to buy access.

What is so infuriating about this system, is that this is all completely unnecessary. A far better alternative exists. Under a model known as “open access publishing”, the expenses a journal incurs in overseeing editorial and peer review and in production of the final paper are recovered upfront in the form of a publication fee, with the article freely available to anyone from the moment it goes online (since they are not charging for access, there is no need to restrict it). Although still only publishing around 10% of all articles, open access publishing is doing well. The Public Library of Science (PLoS) — a non-profit open access publisher I helped to found almost a decade ago – is thriving, and a host of commercial and non-profit publishers have launched open access titles in recent years. And Congress recently passed a law requiring that most taxpayer funded biomedical research be made freely available to the public (albeit after a delay).

It’s time for UC to follow suit. Rather than haggling over prices, the faculty, students, staff and administration of all ten UC campuses should unite to end the business practices that empower NPG and other publishes to regularly attempt to extort money from our chronically cash-strapped library system. It may appear that NPG is in a strong position — but they are, in fact, incredibly weak. After all, their success is completely dependent on the goodwill of the scientists who send them papers (for free) and who carry out the inglorious grunt work of peer review (again, for free). As the boycott organizers correctly point out — it would be striking NPG where it counts if UC faculty were to cease making these voluntary contributions. But the boycott shouldn’t stop when (or if) NPG backs off their pricing demands. It should be expanded to include every publisher who restricts access to the articles they publish, and should continue until NPG and each and every one of them abandons a monopolistic business model that fails to serve the best interests of scientists, the scientific community and the public.