Of course you realize this means war!
June 10, 2010 11:23 AM   Subscribe

Libraries and commercial publishers have struggled with each other over the skyrocketing costs of academic journals for years. As costs have increased more rapidly than library budgets, the libraries have had to cut journal subscriptions and other acquisitions. The recent recession has necessitated further cuts. Against this backdrop, Nature Publishing Group told the University of California that next year subscription prices would increase 400 percent, with the average annual cost of a journal increasing to $17,479. UC Libraries fought back with a combative letter to UC faculty suggesting that faculty should consider boycotting the journals, and cease submitting or reviewing articles for these journals. NPG responds, saying that UC currently pays unfairly low rates, and that "individual scientists, both within and outside of California are already suffering as a result of [UC]'s unwarranted actions."
posted by grouse (62 comments total) 45 users marked this as a favorite
Note how the NPG press release talks about discount % rather than the actual price. I'm guessing they don't want to admit how expensive their journals are outright.
posted by mandymanwasregistered at 11:32 AM on June 10, 2010 [6 favorites]

Sounds like a win for the Public Library of Science.
posted by echo target at 11:33 AM on June 10, 2010 [1 favorite]

Why are these journals so expensive?
posted by rtha at 11:35 AM on June 10, 2010

I worked for a small academic library maintaining records of their serials, and remember looking back through our databases to see what the journals used to cost. The inflation was astounding.
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 11:35 AM on June 10, 2010

I'd be really interested to know the details of the costs involved in publishing Nature.
posted by demiurge at 11:36 AM on June 10, 2010

I'd be really interested to know the details of the costs involved in publishing Nature.

It costs a lot of money to count all the money you're raking in.
posted by kmz at 11:37 AM on June 10, 2010 [3 favorites]

I would guess that the obscure journals like Annals of Giraffe Flotation Dynamics are far more expensive, in terms of cost per reader.
posted by lukemeister at 11:41 AM on June 10, 2010 [11 favorites]

I work at a public library, and our local state library recently gave us a lecture about answering every-day law questions. I was stupefied at how much money they charge for stuff like building codes, annotated codes, and other dead-tree law resources.
posted by codacorolla at 11:41 AM on June 10, 2010

I'd be really interested to know the details of the costs involved in publishing Nature.

Rejection stamps and ink: $800 thousand
Beard dye and styling for ancient wise sages: $450 thousand
Pointy star-studded caps: $220 thousand
Replacement ivory bricks for tower: $11.3 million
Peer review cost: $0 (suckers!)
posted by Behemoth at 11:44 AM on June 10, 2010 [20 favorites]

Not knowing all the details of NPG's business, I have always had a bit of a bad feeling about for-profit scholarly publishers. They get their content for free (and in fact, authors will often pay per-page and other extra costs for certain kinds of figures, etc.); the major part of the labour is free (peer-review) and distribution costs can't be getting anything but cheaper as we move away from paper to all-electronic distribution. On top of this, NPG also runs ads, which I suspect are quite pricey. So its hard not to say "screw Nature, I'll submit to Science instead" -- but that might be me just feeling bitter 'coz I never got published in Nature...
posted by bumpkin at 11:45 AM on June 10, 2010

I often ask myself why I work for free reviewing papers for Elsevier journals when they're making annual profits of more than a billion Euros.
posted by lukemeister at 11:54 AM on June 10, 2010 [5 favorites]

One of the difficulties in convincing faculty to submit to open access journals instead is that they might have lower impact which will hurt their chances for promotion and tenure. If the institution is really behind a boycott like this, they might announce that publications in Nature Publishing Group journals from now on are to be disregarded in promotion and tenure decisions. A less pugnacious (but more difficult) way of accomplishing a similar thing would be to give some sort of bonus for publishing in open access journals.

NPG's statement that UC is being unfair to all other institutions and scientists by insisting on not paying such steep costs to read articles written and reviewed in so many cases by UC faculty without pay from the publisher, strikes me as more than a little disingenuous. They present a false dichotomy: either UC pays more, or everyone else does. A more appealing option is that Macmillan, the owner of NPG, takes a little bit less in the way of profits. More appealing for taxpayers, scientists, the public, and basically everyone—except Macmillan shareholders. Other than funding agencies such as the federal government (which is so far too easily swayed by lobbyists to make this kind of difference yet), no one else has the kind of leverage to try this sort of thing that UC does. I believe that most well-informed librarians and scientists would be cheering on UC rather than falling to NPG's divide-and-conquer attempt. The consequences of UC succeeding in these negotiations is that weaker players will be able to try this too, not that they will have to pick up the hole left in Macmillan's profits.

Why are these journals so expensive?

There are a lot of costs that go into producing an academic journal. Despite the fondness of many for the cheap, non-reviewed method for dissemination of results in physics, I think the peer-reviewed biomedical journal is a good and useful thing, and it's worth paying for editing, selection, design, and peer review (the administrative effort still costs money even if you get your experts to do the work for free). Since the circulation is so much smaller, you can't pay for the editorial overhead on as inexpensive a per-reader basis as you can for a mainstream periodical.

All that said, I think there is only one possible explanation for the incredible increase in costs over the rate of inflation that commercial publishers have started charging: economic rent-seeking by for-profit businesses with a quasi-monopoly. "How will an academic scientist be effective without access to the latest issue of Nature?" the publishers must think. You can't get that research (which will include the most important new results in your field) anywhere else. They think they have the universities over a barrel. They forget, of course, that they only have this status because the universities are providing them with the articles for free (or even with payment of page charges). And if enough universities and faculty members followed suit, Nature would go from a must-have to a who-cares overnight.
posted by grouse at 11:56 AM on June 10, 2010 [8 favorites]

I used to ask myself exactly the same question, lukemeister. Eventually, I realized the answer was "No."
posted by erniepan at 11:57 AM on June 10, 2010 [3 favorites]

I currently have academic associations with four Universities in London; three that I teach or do primary research at, and one where I just finished an advanced degree. Even so there are still finance journals I can't access.

It wasn't always like this - before the advent of electronic gateways such as Athens I used to go to NYU in New York or LSE in London and read any finance or economics journal I wanted. Seems like the gateways are being used not only to provide access (the stated purpose) but also to further segregate the markets, allowing publishers to extract additional revenue (the unstated purpose).

A seriously a sad state of affairs in academic publishing, we now see money creating a class structure in academia, those who can access certain journals and those who can't.

The trend is not positive.
posted by Mutant at 12:02 PM on June 10, 2010 [19 favorites]

You can't get that research (which will include the most important new results in your field) anywhere else.

...except from the authors of that research, who (generally) are more than happy to email reprints on request.
posted by erniepan at 12:02 PM on June 10, 2010 [3 favorites]

Random weird thing I noticed a while ago: Reed Exhibitions, a division of Reed Elsevier, runs stuff like the new C2E2, New York Comic Con, and PAX East in between what I assume are much drier industry shindigs like the Aluminum World Fair. That whole conglomerate is just scary crazy big.
posted by kmz at 12:02 PM on June 10, 2010 [2 favorites]

Does one subscription cover the entire UC system digitally? Meaning, they pay 17K for that journal and ALL of the UC students then have unfettered online access to it, forever?

I'm trying to figure out how this isn't outrageous.
posted by fyrebelley at 12:06 PM on June 10, 2010

posted by infinite intimation at 12:06 PM on June 10, 2010 [1 favorite]

Why aren't academic journals non-profit?
posted by blue_beetle at 12:09 PM on June 10, 2010 [5 favorites]

Also, I would love it if the Governor, in his official capacity as an ex-officio member of the Board of Regents, made this statement, "If Nature Publishing Group does not cease their aggression on the citizens of California, we will direct our librarians that the subscriptions in question... should be terminated."
posted by grouse at 12:13 PM on June 10, 2010 [4 favorites]

Yeah, it looks to me like the entire UC system has been sharing a single digital subscription at the rate a single university might normally be charged.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 12:16 PM on June 10, 2010

Maybe I'm remembering this incorrectly, but I recall not being able to electronically access journals that other UCs subscribed to, but this perhaps varied by journal/publisher. You could request specific articles be emailed via some ILL sorta thing, though.
posted by mandymanwasregistered at 12:29 PM on June 10, 2010

UC has responded [pdf]
posted by unknowncommand at 12:30 PM on June 10, 2010 [3 favorites]

One of the difficulties in convincing faculty to submit to open access journals instead is that they might have lower impact which will hurt their chances for promotion and tenure.

The really sad thing about this is that publishing in open-access journals can only help your work get read and cited. I saw a presentation a few years ago by an open-access publishing advocate; he had taken the citation rates for one author's top-tier, closed-access journal article and compared that to the rates for an article by the same author that was published in an open-access journal. The open-access article had something like 300 times the number of downloads and significantly more citations (can't remember the exact number, sorry) than the closed-access article. So although he couldn't track how many people had read the closed-access article, it is a pretty good bet that a lot more people read the open-access version, because it was accessible to everyone.

I think it's pretty obvious that if you want more people to read your work, you put it in open-access sources. Why else are we doing all this research if not to contribute the knowledge to society?

Unfortunately, if T&P committees don't start encouraging junior faculty to publish primarily or entirely in open-access journals, even if that means avoiding the top-tier journals in a field, there's really no way the stranglehold the publishers have will do anything except get worse.

Only senior faculty and administrators can effect real change here. Why aren't they in this conversation?
posted by DiscourseMarker at 12:34 PM on June 10, 2010 [6 favorites]

The UC is not a for-profit university, so why are they trying to gouge us out of more money? With the recent budget cuts, it should be even more obvious that the UC is suffering financially. Greed has no place in academia.
posted by spiderskull at 12:35 PM on June 10, 2010

From the UC rebuttal:

The notion that other institutions are subsidizing “our discount” is nonsensical. If anything, other institutions are simply paying too much.

posted by abc123xyzinfinity at 12:47 PM on June 10, 2010 [4 favorites]

I work at a public library, and our local state library recently gave us a lecture about answering every-day law questions. I was stupefied at how much money they charge for stuff like building codes, annotated codes, and other dead-tree law resources.

My question here goes to the topic of how much journal publishers charge, so while it is a slight derail (imo), I think it may be germane.

Codacorolla, who is the "they" you are referring to in the "they charge for...dead tree law resources." Is it your state library or your dead-tree publisher? I worked for a while for one of the big two law/tax/GAAP publishers. We offered both pulp and electron-based law, tax & accounting/finance libraries. I know that we weren't cheap--and neither was the other big player (rhymes with "belsevier")--but online access for an entire system-wide library of everything we published was in the long run (in the relatively short run, too) less expensive than the dead-tree versions, definitely took up less space, and required no involvement from site librarians to update, unlike the pulp version.

I'm not pitching the product, by any stretch, but I am curious to know what part stupefied you.

BTW, I haven't read NPG's response to U-C, but I do find the jump in price unconscionable. I know that in my current field, we have been impressed by efforts like the Public Library of Science to perform what amounts to "real time" discipline-wide peer review while some of our journals rapidly price themselves out of affordability.
posted by beelzbubba at 12:55 PM on June 10, 2010

Carl Bergstrom (mathematical modelling/ecology) and Theodore Bergstrom (economics) combine the tools of their respective disciplines to explore the economics of scholarly publishing.
posted by palmcorder_yajna at 1:13 PM on June 10, 2010 [4 favorites]

It isn't just dead tree law resources that cost all out doors. Most law resources are electronic these days. Both dead tree and online stuff has gone up by large multiples of the inflation rate the past decade or two.

If tenure boards were so damned lazy, and would give tenure for, say, being a great teacher, it would help. But it wouldn't help those of us in law libraries.
posted by QIbHom at 1:20 PM on June 10, 2010

I often ask myself why I work for free reviewing papers for Elsevier journals when they're making annual profits of more than a billion Euros.

well, we can't have any suggestion of impropriety due to us paying you to review this article, so we'll just keep all the money for ourselves.
posted by ArgentCorvid at 1:32 PM on June 10, 2010 [1 favorite]

Why haven't academic journals been replaced with a giant web based registry of PDFs with asignature/date stamp and a system that makes peer review something other than send a copy to a bunch of overworked professors and hope no one catches that you're just making shit up?

I mean, sure, someone could publish "Australasian Journal of Bone and Joint Medicine" caliber crap, but the current system hasn't stopped this (if by "hasn't stopped" you mean actually printed it for them).
posted by Kid Charlemagne at 1:43 PM on June 10, 2010 [2 favorites]

beelzbubba: mostly the yearly-released building code journals
posted by codacorolla at 1:58 PM on June 10, 2010

Why aren't academic journals non-profit?

A lot of them are. Generally the non-profit journals are published by scientific societies and associations. For instance, Science is published by the American Association for the Advancement of Science, and the American Chemical Society is one of the biggest journal publishers.
posted by mr_roboto at 2:31 PM on June 10, 2010

I've never understood why it's so hard for universities to break out of this terrible business model. The current situation is:

Step 1.) Universities train, prepare, hire, and manage people to become professors.

Step 2.) University professors produce the content of academic journals -- for no pay.

Step 3.) Universities then buy back this content from academic journal publishers -- for ridiculous sums of money.

This makes no sense. Publishers will argue that they add tremendous value to these journals with their.....indexing and what-not. But I don't buy it, and universities also happen to have on hand the best information professionals on Earth with their staffs of academic librarians.

The talent is there for universities to take back control of academic publishing, and it's hard to see what's stopping them.
posted by Philemon at 2:34 PM on June 10, 2010 [8 favorites]

Oh, man. Speaking as someone exactly in the sour spot (serious interest in several scholarly fields, but no academic affiliation and, as far as I can tell, no way to join a library giving private access to JSTOR etc), this is one of my biggest first-world-whining issues. What really burns me is that I can't even pay for access to this stuff. The message, essentially, is "If you're not in academia, fuck you." It seems all but designed to alienate the few people like me outside the ivory towers who care about and will even defend the study — even the publicly-funded study! — of art and language as well as medicine and physics.

I'm not asking for free access to everything ever. Books that actually earn royalties for their authors, for example, are a whole different matter. I just want these organizations to live up to the implicit contract they make with academics: "You give us work for free, we will see that your work is disseminated to those who want/need it."

Think about it: at exactly the historical moment when we have the communications and storage technology to create the universal library, available to anyone interested in educating themselves (insert hand-waving about internet access, clean water, etc. here) — it is being actively blocked (not just neglected and unavailable! actively blocked!) by enemies of progress, hateful misers who expect me to pay them (not the author, never the author) twenty-five fucking dollars to read a fifty-year-old ten-page paper on medieval verb endings. What, they only use Monster Cable in their server rooms? What could possibly justify such extortionate pricing for information they got for free and pay approximately one gajillionth of a penny per year to store? These people are to modern civilization as lead plumbing was to the Roman empire*, making everything dumber than it should be and hastening the rise of barbarism.

* Actually I guess this has probably been debunked, but I wouldn't know anything about that BECAUSE I CAN'T READ THE PAPERS DISCUSSING IT AARRGHGH
posted by No-sword at 2:55 PM on June 10, 2010 [32 favorites]

Whoops, I conflated the "You can't access this information ever unless you are a member of an institution that subscribes to us" model and the "You can access this information if you purchase it in a hugely inconvenient format for the price of six new hardcover scholarly works" model. Sorry about that.

And yeah, as Philemon says, it's time for the universities to step up and do something about this. The Ivy League alone must have enough money to set up a non-profit Independent Academic Publishing, Inc. I and I think most people would be prepared to accept the low risks of Ivy League work being favored given that the goal here would be to eliminate the artificial scarcity (always keeping the real scarcity imposed by proper peer review etc., of course.) But noooo...
posted by No-sword at 3:00 PM on June 10, 2010

No-sword, research libraries have been making a big effort to foster open access for years. In the biomedical world, there are many open access journals now, or open access options for closed journals. The academic research world has a ton of inertia, but when the publishers try to extort more money out of an institution that is already hurting to the point where it has forced its staff to take weeks of unpaid furlough, I believe it will accelerate the move.
posted by grouse at 3:15 PM on June 10, 2010

Good for UC. Big academic publishers bleeding university libraries dry for all they can take has been a problem at least since I started working in libraries twenty years ago, if not before then.
posted by Halloween Jack at 3:17 PM on June 10, 2010 [1 favorite]

Since all NIH funded research goes into pubmed for indexing and pubmedCentral for free full-text access, really all the journal is still doing is being a market maker.
posted by a robot made out of meat at 3:17 PM on June 10, 2010

Greed has no place in academia.

I guess you haven't been in a university bookstore lately.

Years ago when I worked at a certain college in Miami I was in a presentation where it was stated with pride exactly how much in tuition scholarships we'd given out from bookstore revenue (which theoretically spent every $1 in profit on said scholarships). I asked "aren't all the profits from the bookstore the result of money we take from our students?"

This did not go over well.

If only I'd known how good we had it then. This was before all college bookstores were farmed out to booksellers to manage. I can only imagine that they're still crowing about that number back at my old job... it's just now a low lower.
posted by phearlez at 3:18 PM on June 10, 2010

as far as I can tell, no way to join a library giving private access to JSTOR etc

I can't speak for other indexes, but you can get JSTOR access by becoming a member of the American Political Science Association and then paying $25 more. APSA memberships are like $150; other associations may also have JSTOR buy-ins and be cheaper than APSA.

I assure you that APSA does not care in the slightest how much you care about political science or where you work, so long as your check clears.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 3:25 PM on June 10, 2010 [9 favorites]

grouse, it's true, a lot of academics and libraries are doing their best, with limited funds at that. I am grateful for this. I hope that when the histories are written the work of these institutions and individuals is given the respect and appreciation it deserves. But I hope I can still be forgiven for continuing to agitate until the wall is finally torn down, and generic VPs who don't know a thing about academia or publishing are no longer paid bonuses for impairing scholarship and retarding progress.
posted by No-sword at 3:31 PM on June 10, 2010 [1 favorite]

Why aren't academic journals non-profit?

Non-profit doesn't necessarily help, though. The American Chemical Society has been widely criticized for the conflict of interests accompanying its dual role as a scholarly society and large publishing house (especially regarding its executive compensation and "anti-competitive" stance).
posted by unknowncommand at 5:21 PM on June 10, 2010 [2 favorites]

UC has a wealth of researchEr and a recognized international brand. They should have their profs publish in their own journal and cut npg out leveraging their existing brand and intellectual prowess.
posted by humanfont at 5:25 PM on June 10, 2010

I do love UC's response letter, particularly the paragraph on "determining value", which I read as saying "you really want to explore how much it actually costs you to put out Nature, who's providing the labor, and whether you need a 400% price increase? Bring it."

Thank you, UC! For fighting the good fight, for those of us without that kind of negotiating power.
posted by lillygog at 5:35 PM on June 10, 2010

How come no one has put these things on bittorent yet?

Oh wait, turns out someone has. But you have to get PDFs month by month, and certainly not the entire back catalog.
posted by delmoi at 7:03 PM on June 10, 2010

> Does one subscription cover the entire UC system digitally? Meaning, they pay 17K for that journal and ALL of the UC students then have unfettered online access to it, forever?

Only 17k for perpetual access? Not on your life. That's the annual fee, apparently up from ~$4,500/journal. That's just for one journal out of 67. Here, from the "combatitive letter" link:
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.
That's a great document. They're coy (contractually required) about exactly how much NPG costs, but if their cost are jumping by well over $1,000,000 due to the increase, you could mathematically peg the old rate at at least $350-400k for 67 journals.

Here's the money money [sic] quote for 2010:
Amount spent for online journal licenses for UC Systemwide: $24.3 million
Welcome to your local academic library.
posted by Decimask at 8:23 PM on June 10, 2010

posted by yoyo_nyc at 8:59 PM on June 10, 2010

This is exactly the shit that caused me to leave academia.
posted by proof_nc at 9:07 PM on June 10, 2010

Yeah, it looks to me like the entire UC system has been sharing a single digital subscription at the rate a single university might normally be charged.

That's an oversimplification of how the UC libraries work. As a former UC library employee, let me comment based on what I know.

UC libraries negotiate as a consortium, which is a concept that has been gaining in popularity in the library world (both public and academic) for several years now as a one method to combat the huge annual increases in database costs. You think annual tuition increases are bad, you should see what Elsevier considers a 'reasonable increase in recessionary times.' So, the UC libraries often but not always negotiate together with database vendors and publishers. It does make a tremendous price difference and it's made a huge difference in the number of subscriptions that are maintained.

With the recent massive budget cuts, the UC libraries can no longer subscribe to as many journals as they once did, and so things are being re-evaluated. There's a system called COUNTER in place with most vendors to track usage statistics, and it's used to calculate a ratio (cost of journal/number of users)--and the really weird outliers (very expensive journals with very few page counts) are considered for elimination. Obviously, Nature itself isn't going to be one of these outliers, though one of its other journals might be.

The UC libraries' subscriptions operate on a tiered basis. Tier One subscriptions are UC wide, negotiated by the UCs and CDL and yes, this is where the UCs as a product of their economic clout get discounts not available to individual universities.

Before you get huffy, you should realize that no individual university should be negotiating for database subscriptions on their own in the current climate--they'd get creamed. They need to belong to a consortium. USC, UCLA's cross-town rival, belongs to SCELC (one of, if not the biggest, non-UC consortia in California) and uses SCELC's negotiating power to bring down the cost of subscriptions for its libraries.

So, every savvy academic library now negotiates with vendors from the strength of a consortium. UC libraries have, however, gotten that negotiation down to an art. I went to a presentation last year where the Cal States were trying to decide how closely they should emulate the UCs in this (their consensus, more or less, was that they didn't want to go to the UCs level, which involves operating basically as one unit). CDL, which has been called the 'tenth UC' (somewhat inaccurately, as there's now more than nine UC campuses), is a huge force in that negotiation (see the UC rebuttal link? it specifically mentions CDL and UC libraries together). CDL is basically the negotiation arm of the UC libraries (though that's also a bit of a simplification).

Now, where it gets interesting with the UCs are Tier Two and Three subscriptions. Tier One, you'll remember, are subscriptions every UC library is part of (some less happily than others). Tier Two subscriptions are a certain number of libraries going into negotiation together (I think it's a minimum of three, but I don't remember off the top of my head) to negotiate a discounted rate that does not apply to all campuses. That's why you have certain UCs with different subscriptions than others--UCLA, UCSD, and UCSF might all negotiate for med-school specific journals that the non-med school UCs don't care about. Then there's Tier Three subscriptions--negotiated on the basis of the UCs might, but at the individual campus level. This is not very common, but for an individual campus with a unique major like under-water basket weaving it can be very useful.

The UCs have figured out a way to get the best bang for their buck from publishers and vendors. They dare to push back against Elsevier and in this case, Nature.

One of the most frequent ways big publishers justify increases is to say 'yes, we publish Nature [or whatever] but we also publish [random fringe journal in obscure area of science] and the high overall cost of our bundled packages [mandatory journal packages, which stick a library with Nature as well as 6 other fringe journals then jack the price up for the privilege of having 7 of their journals] is still cheaper than purchasing [random fringe journal] on its own and that's what keeps us publishing [random fringe journal]." This is not an awesome tactic for anyone on the receiving end of it.

So, protest bundling, protest cost increases that defy rational justification (why? because they can), and protest vendors and publishers who set up contracts where in order to receive past issues of a journal electronically (that is, paid for in previous years) you have to pay for continuing issues of a journal (thus paying sharp increases this year). If you think the UCs are the villain in this picture, you really aren't paying attention.

Brought to you by Your Local Academic Librarian, who would like you to have your favorite economics journal just as much as you want to have access to it.
posted by librarylis at 11:52 PM on June 10, 2010 [87 favorites]

beelzbubba: I know that we weren't cheap--and neither was the other big player (rhymes with "belsevier")--but online access for an entire system-wide library of everything we published was in the long run (in the relatively short run, too) less expensive than the dead-tree versions

I'm sure this is true. The thing is, though, that your clients don't want "everything [you] published" in electronic firm, because we don't need it all. This applies both in academic and in corporate libraries.

But publishers like to bundle journal subscriptions up together, giving clients a large package of journals that may or may not all be relevant. They don't let us pick and choose. They implement huge and unrealistic subscription increases (our database/journal vendors are typically quoting 10% increases this year, in an environment where our revenues are down massively, and we are cutting fees to our clients). Some of them, in return, offer new, additional products - but usually things that we don't want or need.
posted by Infinite Jest at 12:11 AM on June 11, 2010

Prof. Michael Eisen: the boycott doesn't go far enough.
posted by grouse at 6:18 AM on June 11, 2010 [1 favorite]

Eric Hellman explains How electronic resources really get priced.
posted by Horace Rumpole at 7:15 AM on June 11, 2010 [1 favorite]

Oh, I remember sitting through my class on academic librarianship, late 1999. The prof dropped a list of the current prices of journals, crossreferenced with just how many professors at the university actually requested it.

I still remember the one for brain disorders that cost about 20k. And that was in early 2000. Made me glad that I'd picked public librarianship - but even there the prices for reference material were insane. :)
posted by palabradot at 4:28 PM on June 11, 2010

So, let me see if I get this right. In most of the economy if I want to eliminate my competition I just undercut their pricing and, if I can sustain the loss, they will eventually go out of business. But, if I'm a big academic journal like Nature, if I want to eliminate the competition all I have to do is keep RAISING my price and profits until my competition goes out of business due to libraries cutting subscriptions. Somebody please tell me how I can get in on this line of business because it sounds like a freaking awesome arrangement for the publisher.

In all seriousness, I struggle to believe that this is sustainable in the long run. The research community needs more than a handful of budget-busting journals and, eventually, people will stop wanting to publish in super-expensive journals if nobody can afford to access and cite their work.
posted by LastOfHisKind at 4:04 AM on June 12, 2010 [1 favorite]

But publishers like to bundle journal subscriptions up together, giving clients a large package of journals that may or may not all be relevant. They don't let us pick and choose.

Sounds like cable TV.
posted by Stewriffic at 8:47 AM on June 12, 2010 [2 favorites]

Just published this on my blog and emailed it to Professor Yamamoto (and my state legislators):

Dear Professor Yamamoto,

I am not a scientist; I am not in any way affiliated with any association of higher learning. I am, however, a California taxpayer who values research and learning.

I learned about NPG's recent proposal to drastically increase UC's subscription prices through Metafilter.com ( http://www.metafilter.com/92705/Of-course-you-realize-this-means-war ).

I am appalled at NPG's exorbitant pricing and lack of transparency. At the same time, it strikes me as simply an extreme example of an inappropriate publishing model that does more to prevent access than to broaden it.

The whole point of publishing research is to share ideas and knowledge as widely as possible. Funnelling research through publishers such as NPG and Elvesier limits access.

Widespread access - even outside the university - is a wonderful thing. I am delighted that I can read your articles through the Public Library of Science:


(I'm having trouble finding your work at escholarship.org, but I'm glad to know it exists.)

Some small portion of my taxes helped to pay for your authorship of those articles. Some small portion of my taxes helps pay for federal funding of scientific studies. Some small portion of my taxes goes to the UC faculty who provide the peer review and advising that provides NPG with their vaunted prestige. When that research is freely available - to other researchers who can make good use of it, and to me as an interested citizen - I feel that my tax money is well spent. When access to that research is dramatically restricted by for-profit publishers, I feel cheated.

As someone who loves the scientific process and the wide sharing of knowledge it requires, I am dismayed to think of researchers being denied easy access to scientific research because their institution can't afford a subscription. As someone who loves knowledge for its own sake and who has enjoyed visiting local library archives to do completely profit-free research of my own, I am dismayed whenever I can't access published research because it's needlessly expensive, or is simply unavailable to me at all as a private citizen with no university affiliation.

I greatly appreciate your response to NPG, and I would like to add my own voice of support. I encourage UC to move toward publishing all research through open access channels that let everyone benefit from your fine work.

Thank you.


Kristi Wachter
San Francisco, CA

P.S. I am forwarding this letter to my state legislators.
posted by kristi at 1:13 PM on June 12, 2010 [14 favorites]

librarylis wrote: "One of the most frequent ways big publishers justify increases is to say 'yes, we publish Nature [or whatever] but we also publish [random fringe journal in obscure area of science] and the high overall cost of our bundled packages [mandatory journal packages, which stick a library with Nature as well as 6 other fringe journals then jack the price up for the privilege of having 7 of their journals] is still cheaper than purchasing [random fringe journal] on its own and that's what keeps us publishing [random fringe journal].""

So these publishers, they fancy themselves cable companies? Or, what stewriffic said.
posted by wierdo at 6:18 PM on June 12, 2010

The thing is, though, that your clients don't want "everything [you] published" in electronic firm, because we don't need it all. This applies both in academic and in corporate libraries.

But publishers like to bundle journal subscriptions up together, giving clients a large package of journals that may or may not all be relevant. They don't let us pick and choose.

Oh, hey, I agree with you, Infinite Jest. My point, though inelegantly phrased, was that individual publications, as well as the the mega-bundles, were more cost effective in the long run. The electronic version was priced slightly above the comparable print version, but included electronic notification of updates. The print version included weekly mailed updates, and as any librarian will tell you, the tax library updates are printed on paper thinner than damselfly wings. If a phrase on one page required a repagination of a section, the librarian would have to take apart a volume, replace these gossamer pages without tearing anything. Electronic required none of that. No stacks of updates waiting around for someone to budget the time, meanwhile the whole volume slides out of date.

The publisher that I worked for was still transitioning to electronic publishing in 2001 (the last date that I worked for them), and there were wild pricing injustices in the electronic catalog, and I don't assume that they're better now. Much of our publishing was aimed at the US tax code and other public domain information that attorneys and CPAs (and libraries) relied on. I had several libraries as accounts and I always tried to spend as much time with the librarians as I could researching what they needed and what the best way to meet that need would be--that's probably why I couldn't last there any longer. I didn't push prepackaged solutions that were a win for my company and a maybe-win-but-probably-lose for the library.

But the company that it is now is much better integrated as far as I've heard, and that isn't better for the client, necessarily.
posted by beelzbubba at 3:57 PM on June 14, 2010

Saw this yesterday on liblicense but it didn't hit the archive until now.


Subject: Re: UC v. NPG
From: Bernd-Christoph Kaemper
Date: Mon, 14 Jun 2010 10:00:17 EDT

NPG touts they were 'shocked' that their indecent 300% increase proposal for the University of California's upcoming 2011 renewal did make it to the press. They bemoan "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." [1]

So lets give this a bit more context.

Libraries and consortia worldwide dealing with NPG have been exposed to many such "shocks" during the last decade.

It came as a shock when NPG ended the trial period for their journals in 2000 and tried to enforce site licenses for their journals that not only excluded any perpetual access rights but asked libraries to pay up to USD 10000 just for having online access to the peer-reviewed original research published in Nature and be content with getting access to the widely read front-matter (all the week's hot news and commentary, perspectives, features and reviews, together 30% of the content) only after 3 months?

It needed concerted action by librarians and faculty worldwide (including open letters and prominent coverage in the Times Higher Education Supplement and LJ Academic Newswire) to convince NPG to change its license terms, finally offering immediate access to every item upon publication, as expected from an online journal. [2]

It came as a shock, when NPG changed its pricing policy in 2001 and de-bundled print and online, accompanied by large price increases (50%) on both print and online which forced especially small libraries to cancel either their online or print subscriptions, in the latter case with no backup in case of a future cancellation, or to accept a tripling in price. [3]

It came as a shock, when in 2003/04 one of the top society published molecular biology journals, The EMBO journal, was transferred from Oxford University Press to NPG, got bundled with its sister publication EMBO reports and libraries suffered a price hike by a factor of 3 or more. An open letter from SPARC Europe noted an out-of-balance shift to profit maximization at the expense of access and called upon EMBO and NPG to reconsider their excessive and damaging price increase. At the same time, NPG saw no problems with the fact that their change in backfile policies meant "un-freeing" 9 months of content already released to the public for open access. [4]

It came as a shock when in parallel NPG made its own "adjustment" of global site license pricing across its rapidly expanding portfolio of Nature branded journals, with price increases of 45% on average and two years later again by about 60% (actual figures for individual libraries could be smaller or much larger, as the pricing model had changed, too). Libraries could consider themselves lucky when they were part of a consortium and had enough negotiating power to at least distribute the price hike over several years, with "generous" price caps of 20% per year.

It came both as a relief and a shock, when in 2005(06) NPG finally acknowledged the need to offer licenses with perpetual access rights for licensed content, but combined this with the introduction of one of the most scientist-unfriendly backfile policies on the whole STM market. Effective from 2007, new subscribers would no longer have access to the complete available backfile since inception of the online journal (we are not talking about retro-digitised archives here), but only to the last 4 years before entering the contract. And, to add insult to the injury, libraries do not keep access to these 4 years while their contract is running, but loose one year after another of these 4 years, as NPG insists on establishing access on a rolling-window basis.

It came as a shock, when libraries learned that in order to keep access to such backfile years or to fill in further backfile years, NPG would ask them to pay as much as 60% of the current year subscription price per year of back volumes added. For comparison, even for a commercial publisher like Elsevier, libraries with a current subscription are asked to pay only about 2.5% of the current year subscription price in order to fill in missing back volumes.

It came as a shock, when libraries learned that the retro-digitised backfiles of NPG's flagship journal Nature would cost an average library of a research university about 100.000 EUR, one order of magnitude more than AAAS was asking for the comparable archive of Science (Science Classic), or what other publishers ask for their journal archives when normalized for size and site license price of current years.

It came as a shock, when in 2008, NPG took over site license marketing for the Palgrave Macmillan Journals, decoupled print from online in one go (leaving libraries with the "freedom" to decide what to continue) and started capitalizing on the backfiles, access to which was previously marketed as an integral part and benefit of any subscription. Even libraries that converted their print + online subscriptions to e-only, had to discover that access to the backfile had been removed leaving them only with access to the last 4 years. (Again, only consortia had the negotiating power to avoid that outcome for their members.)

A nasty extra surprise was encountered by libraries in Europe, when it turned out that the publisher would use the opportunity to set online pricing in EUR instead of GBP at a fixed company rate of 1.55 to the British pound, at a time when the real exchange rate was already much lower and falling. Thus, although Palgrave had announced that the base price of the online edition would be set equal to the print price, librarians were suddenly confronted with a 30% price increase (the real increase would be even higher, due to the higher VAT rate on e-only in Europe). It took repeated requests for a change in pricing policy and a threat to involve the European Commission, Directorate General for Competition, to get the publisher to acknowledge (first time for our 2010 deal) that a European customer could also ask for an offer and pay in British pounds.

It came as a bad surprise for those libraries obligated to collect and preserve the literature as state or central subject libraries that still have to collect print, when it turned out that NPG apparently hedges against possible future losses in revenue through the hybrid model (subscription plus an option to pay for open access on an article basis) by starting with a generous 20% price extra increase for print in 2010 for 8 out of 12 journals new for the hybrid program, although they had previously announced that "Print subscription prices for these Journals will not be affected" [4].

The cynics among us were no longer surprised when it turned out that NPG would not stick to its announced hybrid journal pricing policy (i.e. reduce prices in line with the amount of material still published under a subscription model, as the revenue from Open Access charges and the proportion of articles paid through this route increases) but changed the rules to avoid price decreases as much as possible (including setting an arbitrary 10% OA uptake threshold and conveniently ignoring any decreases in published output, as in the case of EMBO). No wonder that major funding organizations do not trust hybrid publishers anymore and restrict major new OA funding programs to articles from non-hybrid journals. [4]

More recently (2009), it came as a shock when NPG acquired Scientific American, increased its (US) print subscription price seven-fold, introduced tiered pricing and increased its site license price by some 150% (a factor of 2.5). The backfiles are sold at about USD 5000 each for both the archive segment 1948-1992 and 1993-2005. Apparently, NPG now tries to carry over the pricing strategies so successfully tested in the STM market of scholarly journals to the popular scientific magazine sector as well, assuming that when it comes from Mother Nature, everyone will pay. The success seems to have been limited, even many American libraries just said no.

This much for context on the UC case, and the pricing history of NPG which only in 2008, after two price hikes in a short time ("Business models continue to evolve, and most publishers continue to experiment,: Steven Inchcoombe 2008 [6]), started to realize that (lo and surprise!) "a key priority for our customers is the ability to forecast costs and budget accurately," therefore "committing NPG to price increases capped at 7% in all four major currencies (GBpounds, USdollars, Euro, Yen) for three years" (starting from 2009, [5]). How this can be seen as compatible with a proposed increase of 300% in site license fees for UC for 2011 (for the same portfolio of titles), remains NPG's secret.

I cannot imagine that any consortium when confronted with a threat to increase site license fees by a factor of 4 from next year, take it or leave it, would have stayed calm and say, that's still a good deal for us - amidst a global financial crisis that hit not only California, but many American libraries and libraries worldwide. And what about NPG's claims that the UC deal has been "unfair" for many years and simply was not sustainable? I don't buy the argument: NPG let UC add journal for journal under their present agreement (19 or 20 journals after 2005, in for 2007 and 2008 alone 14 journals, according to title lists archived on cdlib.org), and happily took the extra revenue it brought to them year on year (it's not the case that UC's spend stayed flat, witness the 137% increase from 2005-2009). To me this conveys a different impression: first getting you hooked on, then asking for big cash, assuming that an institution like UC could not afford to roll back access to "must have content" of their fast growing NPG portfolio, once they have licensed it.

So it is timely, that we see the "ICOLC Statement on the Global Economic Crisis and its Impact on Consortial Licenses" reissued and reinforced today [6].

With about 10-12% of the papers published in Nature involving an author from UC, they are in a pretty strong position. UC has as much to win as to loose in this battle. I wish them good luck and hope they consider also the wider implications for scholarly publishing and the road to open access.

Bernd-Christoph Kaemper, Stuttgart University Library and GASCO Nature and Palgrave Consortium

Disclaimer: this is my personal opinion and not a statement endorsed or influenced by either the German, Austrian and Swiss Consortia Organisation (GASCO) nor people from the UC or the California Digital Library.

[1] Informational Update on a possible UC systemwide boycott of the Nature Publishing Group; letter of the University of California, Office of the President, California Digital Library,
June 4 2010

U. of California Tries Just Saying No to Rising Journal Costs / by Jennifer Howard, Chronicle of Higher Education, June 8, 2010

UC threatens "systemwide boycott" of Nature Publishing Group / The Great Beyond (Nature blog), June 09, 2010

Inflation, in: Reciprocal Space: a nature network blog / by Stephen Curry, June 9, 2010

Public statement from Nature Publishing Group regarding subscription renewals at California Digital Library (CDL); Nature, June 9, 2010

Response from the University of California to the Public statement of Nature Publishing Group regarding subscription renewals at the California Digital Library; June 10, 2010

[2] Nature - what other libraries say. [Last updated July 23,

[3] ibid, Insert: The Case of Small Libraries and Institutions.

[4] Hybrid Journal pricing (II): when and by how much will we see EMBO prices decrease / Bernd-Christoph Kaemper, posted on liblicense-l, Tue, 20 Oct 2009 19:30:06 EDT, and references cited

[5] NPG's annual letter to customers (2008) / Steve Inchcoombe, NPG Managing Director, 17 Sept 2008.

[6] International Coalition of Library Consortia (ICOLC) Statement on the Global Economic Crisis and Its Impact on Consortial Licenses, reissued June 14, 2010. Originally Issued January 19, 2009.
posted by Toekneesan at 3:55 PM on June 15, 2010 [10 favorites]

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