UPDATED: University of California Considers Boycott Against Nature Journals

The University of California (UC) system is threatening to boycott Nature Publishing Group's (NPG's) journals to protest a hefty subscription price hike. In a strongly worded response, NPG decries the UC libraries’ “sensationalist” tactics and argues that they have been receiving a large and “unfair” discount for years. The company says it is merely trying to bring charges in line with those for other libraries.

A 4 June letter that the UC libraries sent yesterday to UC faculty explains that NPG wants to raise its online license fee for 67 NPG journals by 400% in 2011—an increase of "unprecedented magnitude" that would cost more than $1 million a year. According to the letter, the NPG "ultimatum" comes at a time when the UC libraries are struggling with budget cuts and have negotiated lower prices with other publishers. The letter from the California Digital Library (CDL) in the UC Office of the President claims that NPG "has been singularly unresponsive to the plight of libraries." It points out that UC faculty members have contributed about 5300 articles to NPG journals in the past 6 years, including 638 in its flagship journal Nature. The Nature papers alone were worth $19 million over 6 years to NPG, UC estimates.

An attached fact sheet states that the average cost for an online NPG journal is now $4465, which is within the range of other journals. But NPG wants to raise it to $17,479.

The university letter also contains a threat: Unless NPG maintains its current price, UC San Francisco molecular biologist Keith Yamamoto will organize a boycott by UC faculty, including a suspension of online subscription payments. Faculty members will also be encouraged to stop submitting papers, refuse to serve as peer reviewers, and resign from NPG editorial and advisory boards. Yamamoto led a successful boycott in 2003 to get Elsevier to lower its price for Cell Press journals.

In a response issued today, NPG accuses CDL of using data out of context and "misrepresentation of NPG pricing policies." The suggestion that NPG is raising list prices "by massive amounts is entirely untrue," the response says, noting that NPG's list prices have risen only 7% over 4 years and are now capped at 7% a year.

The problem, according to NPG, is that CDL has "been on a very large, unsustainable discount for many years," and other subscribers "are subsidising them." UC's libraries now receive an 88% discount on journal list prices, and NPG wants to bring it closer to 50%, the letter says. It asks the universities to compare the proposed new download price for NPG papers, $0.56, with what UC pays for other publishers' articles. The company is also "utterly confused" by UC's estimate of the value of UC authors' papers.

"We sincerely hope that no boycotts will occur," the NPG letter says, "but we will not be bullied into continuing CDL's subsidy."

UPDATE (10 June, 4 p.m.): Today UC librarians and faculty members issued a response disputing many of NPG's points. The response says that NPG incorrectly suggests that UC implied that NPG's list prices are going up 400%, when UC was referring to its site license fees. NPG's 7% cap per year on list prices is not reasonable, but "budget busting," UC says. UC disputes the claim that it has been receiving "an unsustainable discount" for years, noting that NPG's licensing fee for UC rose 137% from 2005 to 2009.

UC also says NPG's description of its proposed new fee as a "discount" of 50% off the list price is "misleading" because most institutions receive deep discounts.

Summing up, the UC groups "categorically reject the notion that we have resorted to misinformation or distortion of any sort, as well as any suggestion that we sought to engender premature publicity." The possible boycott letter sent to UC faculty members represents both budget concerns and "a matter of principle," UC says: "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."

Speaking with ScienceInsider today, UC San Francisco's Keith Yamamoto says a few faculty members have expressed concern to him that a boycott of NPG journals would harm young investigators. But "I just don't believe that one publisher's journals will make or break" a career, especially now that journal articles are online and easy to discover, he says.

As for NPG's claim that it wants to correct an unfair advantage given to UC, Yamamoto says: "It's really hard to call a 400% increase reasonable by any stretch." Given the present economic climate, "I don't know what they're thinking."