Thursday, June 10th, 2010

Long Overdue, Librarians Rise Up In (Polite) Rage

LibraryIn yet another horrible illustration of what happens when the slavering corpocrats get behind the wheel of anything whatsoever, Gary E. Strong, the UCLA University Librarian, passed around a letter yesterday outlining the need for a possible UC-wide boycott of Nature Publishing Group. The letter, signed by Laine Farley, Richard A. Schneider and Brian E.C. Schottlaender, three of the top UC library honchos, is harsh.

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.


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.

Since California in general and the UC system in particular have been going through a, erm, rough patch lately, the academics are extremely, albeit decorously, pissed off. But these LOLLibrarians have got an ace up their sleeve, it turns out, because NPG is highly dependent on the efforts of their own colleagues:

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.

Which is Academese for SUCK ON THAT.

The boycott would ask UC faculty and researchers to refuse to peer review any manuscripts for NPG journals, to resign from NPG editorial and advisory boards, and, most interestingly, to go elsewhere in order to publish their own work. The exciting thing about that is that there really is an "elsewhere" in the world of academic publishing: open access journals and repositories for scholarly work, such as the Public Library of Science (PloS), "a nonprofit organization of scientists and physicians committed to making the world's scientific and medical literature a public resource."

PLoS journals require the researcher to foot some of the cost of publication (usually covered by the institutions by which they're employed,) but copyright rests with the author. PloS journals are published entirely under a creative commons license, so that anyone can read, reprint and distribute their content for free. This means real access to leading-edge scholarship for everybody with an Internet connection, which, Yay!

The letter also encourages recipients to "[t]alk widely about Nature Publishing Group pricing tactics and business strategies with colleagues outside UC," which I AM. Even though I don't work for UC, I think everybody should know about the chilling effect of vampirically profit-driven academic publishing practices on scholarship and the free flow of information.

Maria Bustillos is the author of Dorkismo: The Macho of the Dork and Act Like a Gentleman, Think Like a Woman.

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48 Comments / Post A Comment

Mar (#2,357)

I don't know if the choice between getting paid for your work and having to "foot" some of the cost of publication sounds like much of a choice. Throw in the Creative Commons licensing and it sounds like you're advocating for the death of the academic publishing industry in favor of "research" blogging. This seems like a crap idea for roughly 5 million reasons.

dham (#4,652)

In the case of academic journals, most authors are being paid by their respective universities already to write the articles they'd be providing "for free" on a Creative Commons license. And in the sciences, the research itself is often sponsored by taxpayer funded grants. I don't think it's that unreasonable an idea that the results of both methods of funding be accessible to a larger community.

Regardless, such publishing wouldn't be necessary long term if the boycott resulted in a price change.

I could also be wrong here, but I'm not under the impression that Nature and other journals pay academic contributors. At least in the Psychology department I work in, I've processed payments to similar publications who charge a printing fee to each author.

garge (#736)

I work in this particular area of library scut, and LET ME TELL YOU, we bitch about our subjugation to these publishers at least once a month. Our fiscal year is ending soon, and one of the most insane things is that we don't even find out how much our subscriptions actually cost UNTIL WE DO. As in, we agree to receive the journals we have been receiving for XX amount of years because we HAVE TO, and then wait prettily (or make harassing phone calls) until they decide to tell us how much we are paying.

Which translates, among other ways, to being told we have no book budget. No wait, we have 20K. Or is it 40K? It's 40K, but you have to place the order by tomorrow from this list of titles I have written on 500 tiny slips of scrap paper. (That last part is a separate issue).

garge (#736)

This was not supposed to go here. I was going to mention how most academic publishing is funded through grants, etc., as described above, but one interesting (and radical) reform talked about is charging people (institutions, really) to publish but not charging people for access.

Art Yucko (#1,321)

The independent research Library I used to work for charges individuals (in fees designated by academic/non-academic status) for reproduced access to content. I don't know how things are over there now, but at one time they did brisk business with this model. I was told this offset the cost of publications somewhat, but the bulk of the collection is paid for by private endowments.

garge (#736)

The commoditization aspect is interesting. If you are thinking in 'pure' (idealized concept) research and academic access purposes (meaning for a fantastical betterment of humanity), then one leans to open access for all. Your independent research library reminded me of how, for example, law firms and for-profit companies will sometimes keep libraries with big collections on retainer for inter-library loan purposes. That can be a brisk business for some libraries and offset collection costs.

@Art I've been waiting to get an internship there for some time now. Heh. Small world.

Art Yucko (#1,321)

@garge: It does officially lean to open access- anyone can go there at anytime and have limited access to the stacks free of charge. Many books can be checked out. It's when you want to take the information from periodicals, etc. then of course they'll want to charge a small (or large) fee, somehow- be it through copy machines, scanning, or whatever. Honestly, I don't know how they do it at this point in time, since I haven't been there in years.

There was definitely an interesting mix of players info-shopping there! Law firms and Corporations like you said, Information Brokers, couriers…

@CHL: an internship? I didn't realize there were any, there! Rare Books or something?
Heh. This town is simultaneously like the most alienated place in the world ("I don't know anybody!") and the smallest place in the world ("Ugh, I know EVERYBODY!") isn't it. If we knew 0 people or 20 people in common, I wouldn't be surprised, either way.

Annie K. (#3,563)

Both Maria and Mar are right: it's a rock and a hard place. University library are broke, academic publishing is as broke as the rest of publishing, and wouldn't the PLoS model kill off academic publishing? "Research blogging," meaning the death of peer review, would also mean the death of any kind of science you want to believe.

I don't know if PLoS would kill academic publishing as much as give it some (long-needed) competition. Copyright is a huge issue for everybody involved, and when work falls out of print, isn't read (due to cost), or can't be republished it essentially dissolves. The benefit of PLoS is access.

Steven Shaviro's got an interesting essay about this over at his blog:

propertius (#361)

@CHL Just a search in Google books shows how many out-of-print books are hanging around, many have been out of print for decades. In the sciences, this isn't that big a deal, but in humanities many fundamental, still useful books are old. But you still can't see the full view on Google. I know there a legalities to work out, but surely there is a way to bring these works back into circulation via the www. If a modest yearly subscription gave you access to all that stuff, it seems it would be well worth it.

barnhouse (#1,326)

@CHL I think the big benefit is the first one you mention: competition. These for-profit publishers have a de facto monopoly, which is one thing when you are talking about iPhones or Tickle Me Elmos, and quite another when you're talking about global access to academic research.

Multiphasic (#411)

Well, certain government grants actually demand that the paper be disseminated for free on PubMed, and most journals have mechanisms for that as it is–in fact, they're the same as PLoS's, i.e. you pay the journal and the damn thing becomes free on the web forever. These costs are supposed to be written into your grant, and DHHS is supposed to enforce these open-sourcing rules (but like all federal public-benefit regulations, enforcement is pretty lax).

What's more, every scientist I ever worked for would provide copies of their out-of-print papers gratis to anyone who asked. And I don't think you'd be able to get any of them to stop, which sort of raises some questions over how important restricted access actually is.

It's more the importance of academic publishing in the research structure. Passing peer review is how an academic proves they lived up to their grant money. But even without PLoS, there's tons of competition out there, including Reed Elsevier and AAAS who both have journals as prestigious as Nature. So either NPG is grossly mismanaged (the expansion in the '90s did seem to needlessly dilute the brand) or else MacMillan/Holtzbrinck is leaning on them to make up losses elsewhere in that unholy mess, because NPG hasn't that much leverage over the UCs, and, as Maria points out, kind of desperately needs them.

And, note to Mar, PLoS isn't "research blogging" at all; it's got an extensive and rigorous peer review process in place, and the only difference between publication there and anywhere else is where the funding comes from. PLoS puts the funding costs on the grant, not on a sort of collectivization of universities (which is essentially what the institutional library subscriptions are). That doesn't mean you can buy access into the journal; the organization's entire existence depends on the legitimacy of its review process. They do, however, occasionally "scholarship" a paper into print if it seems important enough and the authors can demonstrate financial need. The only substantive difference in process is that all research is published on the web only.

@propertius and @barnhouse
Until like last week there was a website called called (or something like that) that archived scanned academic texts. Totally illegal, but great, in its way. Since been shut down.

dham (#4,652) Taken down by efforts of Macmillian.

Hopefully another incarnation will show up somewhere soon!

theGoldenAss (#4,853)

PLoS will not kill off believable science. If anything, its proliferation will result in scientists actually thinking critically about what they read, instead of merely relying on a name. Think about it this way: It's peer review by other means. Futhermore, the medium is relatively young, so that means that the reviewing mechanism has yet to fully develop, even though they've already made some very great strides. It's good, but it can only get better.

@propertius: I love Google Books and Internet Archive. This is a godsend for scholarship. I've been doing some work with frontispieces in books published during the Renaissance. There's a language to them all its own, but it's hard to tell whether a frontispiece was designed for the specific book in question or whether it was just a standard frontispiece with another title inside. There's a dearth of scholarship on the subject, so it's necessary to look at several works published by the same printer.

I wouldn't have even thought to have done this a few years ago because of the logistical nightmare that it would entail. On the internet, though, it's a simple matter of a Google query or a quick search in Gallica.

Mar (#2,357)

@Multiphasic–I didn't intend any insult to PLoS; I just associate unpaid Internet writing with blogging. Thank you for clarifying that PLoS is peer-reviewed.

propertius (#361)

@theGoldenAss Absolutely – I've found some 19th century classical texts and commentaries on Google books. Still, there are other books for which complete view is not available, and these books are no less "dead" than the others. Don't understand the niceties of it, but there must be some.

One of the fun things about it is when the checkout slip was photocopied and you see that the book hasn't been checked out for like 30 years.

DoctorDisaster (#1,970)

The academic journal I lay out (yes I am a graphic designer and yes they still make me drop text into boxes for a week straight four times a year) is becoming an open journal; PLoS sounds a lot like the system they're switching to. Everyone involved is really happy with this. (Well, I'm not happy because I still have to do print-style PDF layouts even though we're online exclusive, which, dfgadfhajo;ALSIGJOIAHzbH, but whatever.)

This may come as a surprise, but the new system is actually going to make their review process a lot more organized and stringent. Every step in the process is documented automatically and in detail, which makes it tough to fast-track material by certain authors, which used to happen more than you want to know.

And this isn't going to harm academics' bottom lines. Publishing is way more about prestige than the piddly cash involved – a CV with respected journals and a high volume of output can net you a high-paying faculty position. If you do get paid for your article (which you often don't), that won't even cover beer money.

Better yet, online journal articles are easier to find, and consequently MUCH more likely to be cited – a huge measure of influence in academics.

barnhouse (#1,326)

SO interesting, Dr. D. Looking ahead, I'm starting to think that the wider dissemination of academic works might give rise to new, kind of ancillary models for paying scholars. There are all these little pockets of interest in arcane subjects online, and if there were different methods of repackaging some of the information in a journal article for public consumption, and that could provide an extra revenue stream for academics, many of whom really are just absurdly underpaid?? Wouldn't that be amazing? I don't know, I just find myself consulting JSTOR type of stuff more and more all the time.

theGoldenAss (#4,853)

I don't fully understand how and why Google classifies the copyright status of books, but I've noticed some general patterns. Sometimes reprints of books are scanned, and of course they are counted as being under copyright. Also, Google usually gives a generous grace period of twenty or so years of extra copyright to most works. On the continent, where I live and work, the situation is even worse than it is in the States in this regard. Google seems to air on the side of caution more often than they do in the States due to European courts being more sympathetic to authors. Sometimes, I've even seen this grace period get bumped up to a century. That's more of an annoyance than a problem because I can access the books through a proxy server.

Sometimes, however, Google merely makes mistakes. The books are clearly labeled with dates, but Google still won't allow access to them. The vast majority of the books that I know are out of copyright are classified as being in in copyright by Google Books. It's not an exaggeration to say that two-thirds of the books that are out of copyright that Google has digitized are locked down, either because of a misclassification or an intentional copyright grace period that Google imposed.

It's infuriating, partly because there's nothing that you can do about it, partly because Google isn't fulfilling their duty to the libraries who've offered up their collections in exchange for Google making them publically available and partly because Google's holding up scholarship. I've tried writing and calling Google to no avail to implore them to share rare books that are only available at Harvard or Oxford, but they just ignore the e-mails or say that they can't help.

To give you some idea of the scope and stupidity of their system is a book that I tried to find a just a minute ago.

barnhouse (#1,326)

Holy mackerel, I am so looking into this.

untitled HD (#4,555)


I suspect you are under-employed. In a parallel world, you would be running this entire publication, no?

DoctorDisaster (#1,970)

@untitled: It's not so much my role that's wrong as the nature of the publication. There's not much design needed when your visual elements are limited to text, graphs, and pull quotes. Fortunately it's only a small part of my job.

barnhouse (#1,326)

Academic research and publishing are not generally undertaken (or paid for) with a profit motive foremost, is the thing, though one may emerge later.

The question of who should pay for academic work is a thorny one, but all my favorite pointy-heads are strongly in favor of open access. It's important to note that since the open access model leaves copyright in the hands of the author, he or she remains free to pursue any available commercial possibilities.

There is such a ton of exciting stuff going on in this field, Kathleen Fitzpatrick's Planned Obsolescence being a good place to start, if you're interested.

Mar (#2,357)

I don't know. I read both Fitzpatrick's essay and Shaviro's, and they seem to advocate the same argument that all anti-copyright activists advance–that somehow, allowing people access to quality academic research (or music, or applications) will result in a Renaissance where regular people will become avid consumers of intellectual and artistic works, thus enabling musicians, artists and academics to get more recognition, resulting in their getting (eventually) paid more by commercial companies for their work.

Without being nearly as knowledgeable of this issue as the other commenters on this article seem to be, I still think the anti-copyright argument is illogical. People won't pay for what they're used to getting for free. And there's a difference between acknowledging that the academic publishing industry is corrupt and deciding to do away with commercial publishing altogether. Why not try to reform the academic publishing industry first? This seems like a lot less work than replicating its complex structures and peer review systems without any actual money to fund the endeavor.

And, I always have to laugh at the idea that libraries are not sufficiently "open access." Many university libraries offer non-students the option to buy library memberships, thus allowing non-students access the any databases that said libraries have subscriptions to. While such memberships can be expensive, they're less so than most people's yearly Internet expenditure. And some academic publishing companies allow anybody to buy articles directly from their websites for not too much money. The bars to scholarship are lower than they've ever been before.

dham (#4,652)

But this an attempt to reform the academic publishing industry! The UC system is responding to unfair pricing by encouraging contributors to protest those responsible. This isn't an attempt to end commercial publishing, but to keep a certain set of journals affordable.

When you have a market that expects automatic renewal regardless of price, you need someone to actively intervene to keep prices down.

barnhouse (#1,326)

Well, hmm … there is just a huge difference between ordinary commercial publishing, and publishing the results of academic research that is paid for with public money (as in the case of UC, for example.) It's not a question of "regular people" becoming consumers of specialized academic works so much as a question of "people who need and want access to these materials for their own work" getting a chance to access them. It's not like anybody is going to get rich, you know, publishing the results of academic research in ordinary journals. These aren't pop songs getting stolen off of LimeWire, or anything.

Mar (#2,357)

The efforts of the UC librarians in this specific instance are an attempt to reform the publishing industry, but the general Open Access movement isn't. But NPG certainly sounds horrible. Are there any anti-trust laws that apply here?

I'm not trying to be insensitive to academics; I'm just somewhat opposed to Open Access because I think academics and creatives should get paid more and I worry about Open Access destroying that possibility.

Multiphasic (#411)

@Mar, I'm not really sure what payment most scientists expect for their publications, nor what the value of most of this research is outside of other research. Generally speaking, the "popularity" of your research does pay off, in better jobs and easier grants and consultancy offers and tenure reviews. Most of it outside the tech leg of STM has no commercial value at all–and the tech stuff pays for itself out of patents, not info access. I suspect most scientists would prefer their research to be publicly disseminated, and a lot of government grants actually mandate that it be.

Honestly, I'm more worried about the goofy shit the press will do with open access, but maybe that's just because SCIENCE SHOWS the internet is making me stupider.

kfitz (#5,436)

Hey, thanks for the shoutout! Could I redirect that link, though, from PO the blog to PO the book? There's obviously a much longer argument there about the state of academic publishing today, of which the question of open access forms one key part.

Soooo glad to see these issues getting play here!

kfitz (#5,436)

Ooh, a quick response here, both to Mar and to Multiphasic: scientists and other scholars get paid NOTHING for their publications, except in the indirect ways that Multiphasic indicates (better jobs, raises, speaking gigs, etc). In fact, many journals — even the ones that aren't open access — charge author fees in order to run an article. Such publication costs are usually written into grants. So the research is being funded by the scholars' institutions and by the public and private foundations that provide grant support; when it's published in for-profit venues, those same institutions and the public that funds them are then charged again to access the work they've already paid for. That's the financial crux here; there's nothing financial in it for the scholars either way.

Incidentally, it's worth checking out Bethany Nowviskie's post from yesterday about the resemblance between conventional journal publishing and "Fight Club soap"…

barnhouse (#1,326)

Fight Club Soap: HIGHLY recommended.

Mar (#2,357)

Thank you for explaining more about how the payment systems for scholars work. This begs another dumb question on my part–where's all that money from exorbitant subscription fees going then? What with peer review, which I assume scholars are also doing for free, are the production costs really that high? I realize that's probably an unanswerable question, since situations vary, and it's probably some sort of public/private/non-profit/governmental clusterfuck, but one wonders.

kfitz (#5,436)

One wonders, indeed. But if you look at the financial reports of the major commercial scholarly publishers — well, even during 2009, when the entire publishing industry was laying off employees and otherwise crying poor, they nonetheless reported record profits. It's the kind of thing that could easily turn one into a vulgar Marxist.

DoctorDisaster (#1,970)

Production & distribution costs are very very high. I don't have hard numbers to refer to, but at our journal, it's probably 90 percent or more of the total budget. The very high fees are mainly a consequence of very low subscriber numbers; there just aren't that many university libraries.

MollyculeTheory (#4,519)

My favorite racket is the pay-per-color-figure scheme, in which the author has to pony up for color (which in the case of, like, fluorescent microscopy with multiple fluorophores is kind of important?) but secretly it only means the printed journal (which no one reads anyway), not the online version.

badthings (#1,903)

One should take NPG's response with several grains of salt, but they claim that CDL's current prices are so low that the rest of the world is subsidizing them. Which is plausible. Why it costs so much is a question for the accountants, but I suspect the short answer is jobs. For the "creatives."

A lot of "social science" research is published freely on the internet without editorial intervention, and it is brutal. If nothing else, Nature is a joy to behold.

barnhouse (#1,326)

Freaking riveting.

Multiphasic (#411)

I'm curious as to when this legacy contract with UC dates. Whether, perhaps, they signed it before the massive profligation of NPG titles.

barnhouse (#1,326)

And it's a scorcher. "Plainly put, UC Faculty do not think that their libraries should have to pay exorbitant and unreasonable fees to get access to their own work."

Joe Gallagher (#4,773)

Temple University Libraries ditched NPG awhile ago… NPG is delusional.

dphenige (#5,451)

While I defer to no one in my disgust for predatory publishers who treat libraries as milch cows, I must point out that the proposed *increase* is but 400% but 281%. No doubt this also qualifies as outrageous, but UC does our collective cause no good by careless errors of this kind, which might be construed as intentional hyperbolic propaganda. Libraries risk undermining some of the high ground we presently occupy by bandying numbers that are demonstrably incorrect.

David Henige

barnhouse (#1,326)

Well, yeah. But I can't do math when I'm furious, either.

Rachel Scheer (#5,463)

On behalf of Nature Publishing Group:
We understand that the letter from University of California and California Digital Library has raised concerns. However, we believe that the situation was not described fairly by CDL.
We have now issued a public statement on this matter, where we have fully described our understanding and position. You can find our statement here:
Nature Publishing Group will be doing all we can to bring this to a successful conclusion as soon as possible.
Grace Baynes
Nature Publishing Group

nevilo (#5,475)

Copyright is the set of exclusive rights granted to the author or creator of an original work, including the right to copy, distribute and adapt the work.

Publishers are using original work creators rights against them.

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