Nature’s Bubble Business Model

By now, you might have heard about the kerfuffle between Nature publishing and the University of California (also here, here, here, and here). Basically, the University of California has accused Nature of raising its prices for institutional journal subscriptions by 400%; the university system, which has significant purchasing power, has threatened a boycott that would not only forbid purchasing their journals, but would also forbid publishing and reviewing for Nature.
What’s weird about this is that Nature doesn’t seem to realize how precarious its business model is–I think if it takes on the University of California, it will come out very badly.

Basically, the reason that scientists publish in Nature and the other glamour magazines is that publishing articles in Nature is prestigious: these are seen as ‘first-tier’ articles and are often viewed as critical for career advancement. But this is essentially a publishing ‘bubble.’ It’s not like the editors of Nature somehow dramatically improve the quality of the article. There is no special sauce. In fact, for people in your field, given the severe publishing constraints imposed by the glamour magz, their articles are often incredibly frustrating–lots of pertinent information is either cut completely or relegated to supplement materials. One could make an argument that, if Nature and others weren’t prestigious, one would successfully impart more information elsewhere.
But what Nature fails to realize, is that if the University of California decides to boycott Nature, faculty in the university system will soon discover that they don’t need Nature. In other words, Nature is prestigious only because academia has decided that Nature is prestigious. This is a very nebulous business model. While it’s not as risky as, let’s say, catering to the fashion tastes of fifteen-year olds, the ‘value added’ by Nature per se is pretty limited. Academia can walk away with little or no cost, while Nature would get reamed.
My guess is that Nature will back down. They don’t really have a choice. They can’t afford to have the curtain pulled away.

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9 Responses to Nature’s Bubble Business Model

  1. JohnV says:

    If it works out as you guess, do you think other large university systems will start playing hardball with nature?
    Perhaps smaller universities will band together to get the best deals possible (in the fashion of athletic conferences as vehicles for tv contracts in college football).

  2. Zen Faulkes says:

    Put another way, which has the better reputation: The University of California system or Nature Publishing Group?

  3. joel says:

    I think the publishing ban would disproportionately hurt those of us searching for jobs outside of the UC-system (ie. postdocs, graduate students). Like it or not, getting a academic job in my field virtually requires publishing in a prestigious journal. Boycotting Nature and its sub-journals cuts our possible options by 50 to 75%.
    All this so UC can pay 10% what my former university pays per year?

  4. James Annan says:

    Bizarrely, Nature actually seems to believe that they do “add huge amounts of value” (see their reply and also my post). I’m astonished at the chutzpah of the claim, which seems to be based on….absolutely nothing.

  5. penn says:

    I think Nature is in real trouble here. I think that the demand for “prestigious” dead-tree journals is only going to drop. I already hate having to find a hard copy of a journal article. Over 99% of the articles I read are electronic, and there is no reason that electronic publishing (with free writing, reviewing and editing) can’t be significantly cheaper. I think movements like PLoS represent the future of academic publishing.

  6. MRW says:

    Nature obviously chose a bad time to hike the prices, and increasing it all at once is a bad PR move, but it hides another issue. All the attention seems to be paid to the increase in cost. What I’d really like to see is some analysis of whether what Nature’s asking for is fair. Is there any merit behind Nature’s claim that UC’s current rate is unfairly discounted compared to others?
    I have no idea what other Universities pay for he various Nature journals.
    One comparison I can make is the proposed rate vs. the cost if the UC librarians’ plan is followed. The only specific alternative mentioned for publication is PLoS One. Of course, it’s not the only option, but let’s take a look at it. The letter from the UC librarians says that UC faculty publish an average of 833.3 articles in Nature journals each year. PLoS One charges $1,350 to publish an article. If the all the articles going to Nature journals instead shifted to PLoS or journals with similar prices, it would come to $1.2 million per year, which is pretty much the amount that Nature wants to charge UC and is several times more than what UC is currently paying.
    Maybe that’s too much, anyway, but it seems the solution posed in the boycott won’t help the basic finances, although it may hide them by shifting the costs from the library’s budget to the authors’.

  7. Gyan says:

    If the all the articles going to Nature journals instead shifted to PLoS or journals with similar prices, it would come to $1.2 million per year
    If all UC authors did want to shift to PLoS, they could, IMHO, negotiate a much better price.

  8. MRW says:

    That’s probably true, but my point is that it’s not obvious that Nature’s proposed pricing is unreasonable, or at least it’s not obvious that it’s outside of industry norms. I would expect Nature to cost more than PLoS One… it’s generally seen as a much more prestigious place to publish.
    Don’t get me wrong, I’m not actually taking Nature’s side, I’m just wondering why no one seems to be evaluating the actual prices in a broader context. The 400% number that keeps getting trumpeted is only part of the story. A 400% increase in one year is unreasonable, but if (relative to their size, etc.) they’re only paying 1/4 of what my university is, it’s hard to see why I should support a movement to keep subsidizing them.
    I’d definitely like to move everything to a lower-priced model, and it seems hard to believe that journal prices are justified, but PLoS seems to require donations *plus* fees comparable to Nature.
    If driving down the prices of journals is the goal, it’s not clear to me that singling out Nature at one university system does much to get us there.

  9. MRW says:

    whoops… that fraction should be 1/5th

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