Richard Smith: University of California takes on Nature Publishing Group

Richard SmithThe University of California has told the Nature Publishing Group that it will suspend its subscriptions to the group’s 67 journals if it does not relent over its decision to raise its charges to the university by 300%.  The university will also urge its staff not to submit to and review for the journals and to resign from editorial boards. This is war.

The university, one of the most powerful in the US with 10 campuses, subscribes to some 8000 journals at an average cost of between $3000 and $7000. The average cost of a Nature journal is $4465, but the publisher wants to increase it to more than $17 000. Researchers at the university have published some 5300 articles in Nature journals in the past six years, 538 of them in Nature itself. So who needs whom more?

Another way to look at this to consider who adds the value to studies published in Nature. It’s obvious to me that if you open Nature and read about a discovery in molecular biology or a large randomised trial of a new intervention that well over 99% of the value is in the research itself. Doing high quality research depends on the scarce skills of brilliant researchers. It’s hard, hard stuff. The research may also have been expensive to do, and it’s most likely that the funding comes from American taxpayers.

In contrast, any idiot could post the research on the web and get it printed. So where’s the value added by Nature to justify it charging $17 000 for access to a journal? Nature might first mention peer review, but, firstly, it’s a highly flawed process that I believe subtracts rather than adds value, and, secondly, it’s done by unpaid academics.

What Nature has to sell is prestige. It’s a big deal for scientists to be published in Nature. Fame, the love of beautiful men and women, felicitations from your vice-chancellor, more funding, and the sniff of a Nobel prize can come to those who publish in Nature. But where does the brand value of Nature come from? Not from the workaday journalism or the slightly off beam editorials but rather from the high quality research published there in the past. And that of course came from researchers, at least some of them from the University of California.

Nature is gambling on its prestige by putting its prices up so dramatically. The University of California, it thinks, will have to buckle down because its researchers will have to access to the research it publishes and will lose out badly if they stop publishing in Nature journals. But eventually Nature will fail at this dangerous game—because it’s the researchers not the publishing group or journals who add the value.

The University of California is also trying to persuade “sympathy actions” among colleagues from other universities. The university seems to be hoping simply that Nature will reduce its price increase, but why don’t they sign up colleagues, face down Nature, and bring the whole bogus empire—not only of Nature but also of other prestigious journals—crashing down? It has to happen eventually, and maybe we will be surprised by the rapidity with which it happens—as we were by falling of the Berlin Wall.

Competing interest: RS is on the board of the Public Library of Science, and the board includes a scientist and a senior librarian from the University of California. And PLoS is dedicated to making all research open access—and Nature stands in the way.

Richard Smith was editor of the BMJ until 2004.