Boycotting Nature?

Wow. The University of California system is facing a 400% increase in the subscription cost to Nature Publishing Group’s journals. Libraries have been struggling with this problem for years, with journal costs spiraling ever upwards (usually it’s Elsevier that is leading the way), and it’s a tremendous chunk of university library budgets. UC libraries are currently spending $300 thousand on just the various Nature journals — increasing that expense for a university system that is already straining to keep up sounds like a nightmare. Of course, not getting Nature is also a nightmare to researchers…so now it’s nightmare vs. nightmare. Who will win?

UC faculty are planning a boycott. It may not be difficult to organize since the libraries simply cannot afford the journals, no matter how much UC opponents may want to keep them.

It’s a very weird situation because those UC researchers that Nature wants to bill more are also among the people who are providing the content for the journals, and also provides some of the reviewers who work for free to maintain the high quality of the publications. This is not to deny that the professionals who publish and edit at Nature Publishing Group aren’t an essential part of the institution of publishing, but honestly, science journal publishing has the most incomprehensible screwed up model for making money that you can find just about anywhere. It’s not just Nature, either — earlier today I was looking into an obscure subject in developmental biology, and found that none of the core papers are available under my university’s subscription plan. This system should be about making the scientific information that scientists generate freely available, and it rarely is.

Nature has made a rather unconvincing reply to the UC’s dilemma. I don’t know what’s going to happen yet, but science publishing is one domain where their producers are their consumers and their consumers are their producers, and it’s trivial to piss off your suppliers and your market in one easy step…and it looks like California could be the place to force a crisis.