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UC threatens ‘systemwide boycott’ of Nature Publishing Group

nature nature.JPGThe University of California is mulling a boycott of Nature Publishing Group in response to what it claims is a proposed 400% increase in subscription fees to the group’s journals, a letter from the university’s libraries reveals.

Dated 4 June, the letter says that unless NPG keeps to the current subscription agreement, faculty will be asked to cease submitting papers and undertaking peer review for NPG journals, to resign from all NPG editorial and advisory boards, and to not advertise jobs in NPG journals. Staff would also be urged to encourage “sympathy actions” from researchers outside the UC system.

The letter describes the proposed price increase as “of unprecedented magnitude”.

“NPG has made their ultimatum with full knowledge that our libraries are under economic distress,” it says. “…Capitulating to NPG now would wipe out all of the recent cost-saving measures taken by CDL [California Digital Library] and our campus libraries to reduce expenditures for electronic journals.”

It further points out that UC authors have produced 5,300 articles in Nature journals over the past six years and claims that these have contributed “at least” $19 million to NPG in revenue.

Speaking to the Chronicle of Higher Education, Keith Yamamoto, the executive vice dean of the School of Medicine at UC-San Francisco, points out that publisher Elsevier was forced to backtrack on proposed price rises for Cell Press journals in 2003 by a similar boycott. “There’s a strong feeling that this is an irresponsible action on the part of NPG,” he says.

Nature News has asked NPG for a response to the letter. It will be posted here as soon as we have it.

UPDATE – 10/06

In a statement NPG said, “This has been a shock to us at NPG, in terms of 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.”

The statement goes on to say that a 7% cap on annual list price increases for NPG site licences is in place and that this in an ongoing commitment for 2011. However, it adds that CDL “have been on a very large, unsustainable discount for many years, to the point where other subscribers, both in the US and around the world, are subsidising them”.

If CDL is regarded as a consortium of multiple libraries, says NPG, they currently enjoy an 88% discount on the list price. CDL’s average discount from other publishers is around 55% and NPG is now trying to “bring them close to a 50% discount”.

“We now call on CDL to reveal how much it spends with all the major publishers, and how this translates into cost per use, and/or other indicators of value. If NPG represents poor value for money, we will work with CDL to readjust their pricing,” says the statement.

“We are confident that the appointment of Professor Keith Yamamoto and other scientific faculty to lead the proposed boycott, will mean they will be in a position to assess value with a rigorous and transparent methodology.”

UPDATE – 10/06 (PM)

A war of words appears to be underway now that the University of California has responded with a point by point rebuttal to Nature Publishing Group’s statement on license fee increases. (see above).

The response cites the challenging budget situation the University and its library system face thanks to the economic down turn, adding, “While we agree that NPG publishes very high quality content, so do many other publishers, at more reasonable costs.”

The dispute may have only recently erupted in public, but it’s apparent that tension has been building behind the scenes for weeks. In another part of the rebuttal, UC states that, during a meeting in May, Nature’s “demeanor was markedly different from other publishers with whom we regularly conduct negotiations.”


  1. Report this comment

    Ash Dunne said:

    This is terrible behaviour from NPG. I realise that business is business but there is also meant to be a certain relationship between researchers and journals. This shows a contemptuous attitude from NPG towards the very institutions that provide them with content in the first place.

    Shameful mark on NPGs reputation, particularly at a time where science and academic budgets are precarious.

  2. Report this comment


    Nature holds its position as being the most prestigious journal to publish latest and ground-breaking research in fundamental sciences. With the respect it has, comes a natural tendency to monopolize the situation. What UC system of schools have done is worth emulating by peer educational institutions and that would probably impact NPG very deeply. NPG should seriously consider repealing the increased price.

  3. Report this comment

    Uncle Al said:

    That faculty would blood sacrifice themselves by withholding papers from a prestigious journal to benefit administrative personnel is a hot air balloon less its envelope.

  4. Report this comment

    Daniel said:

    Dear Peter,

    I’m afraid I don’t really understand your comment.

    The letter states:

    “Keith Yamamoto … has begun to assemble a group of Faculty that will help lead a UC Systemwide boycott of NPG. This means that unless NPG is willing to maintain our current licensing agreement, UC Faculty would ask the UC Libraries to suspend their online subscriptions entirely, and all UC Faculty would be strongly encouraged to…”

  5. Report this comment

    Peter Brueggeman said:

    This may be of interest

    —–Original Message—–

    From: PAMnet [mailto:PAMNET@LISTSERV.ND.EDU] On Behalf Of of; Bernd-Christoph Kaemper []

    Sent: Wednesday, June 09, 2010 7:28 AM


    Subject: Re: University of California says “no” to Nature Publishing Group

    Dear PAMnetters,

    there is no basis or justification whatsoever for these price increases.

    On September 17, 2008, Steve Inchcoombe as the new NPG managing director send his “annual letter to our customers”, cf.

    He started writing

    “I am delighted to be writing this, my first letter to our customers as Nature Publishing Group’s (NPG) Managing Director. As the first anniversary of my tenure at NPG approaches, it seems an appropriate time to reflect on some of 2008’s achievements and to share with you our plans for 2009. I will also outline our site license pricing through to 2012.”

    and continued

    “Our library customers remain an intrinsic part of NPG’s continued ability to serve the scientific community. The transition to our site-license business model has boosted access and usage to levels unimaginable ten years ago.

    Business models continue to evolve, and most publishers continue to experiment. We realize a key priority for our customers is the ability to forecast costs and budget accurately. Therefore, I am now committing NPG to price increases capped at 7% in all four major currencies (GB£, US$, Euro, Yen) for three years. This applies to all NPGowned journals and begins with 2009 list prices.”

    While the 2009 letter mentions list prices in this context and could perhaps construed to maintain, that changes in pricing models for consortia would not be excluded, insofar these do not depend solely on list prices and controlled factors such as multi-title purchase discounts and an overall consortial discount, the words above are plain english and customers can expect that these words mean what they say.

    Price increases capped at 7% until 2012 certainly exclude a price increase for UC by 400% for 2011, and “changed price models” cannot be used as a backdoor to increase prices to an unprecedented level. I do not know about american trade laws but if NPG believes otherwise, I would try to involve the Federal Trade Commission and let them investigate issues such as “coercive monopoly”, “false advertising” and other forms of fraud, that might apply here. And independent of the law, it’s simply a question of credibility. NPG is going to loose all credibility if it turns out that their self commitment of their letters to customers was not worth the paper it was printed on.

    Best regards,

    Bernd-Christoph Kaemper, GASCO Nature Consortium

  6. Report this comment

    Sue McGuinness said:

    It’s the faculty who submit their work to Nature that make it such a prestigious jounral.

  7. Report this comment

    Sue McGuinness said:

    It’s the faculty who submit their work to Nature that make it such a prestigious jounral.

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    James Salsman said:

    The sooner we transition to open-access publishing, the sooner we will stop being charged twice to read taxpayer-funded research.

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    Kevin Symonds said:

    Open-access publishing is great but in the majority of cases there is an additional cost for the public access that you get from it. It’s another layer of cost, not one less.

    Whether it’s OA deposit in UKPMC or pure OA where the author pays, that money is still coming from the taxpayer.

    For me it’s the fact that taxpayers are paying for researchers to do peer review for private companies that seems wrong. There should be some sort of payment in kind (discount on OA for example) at the very least.

  10. Report this comment

    Sally G said:

    Well put Uncle Al. But UC faculty need not worry- they can still submit when they are on unpaid furlough while Admin get their raises!

  11. Report this comment

    David Iberri said:

    A 400% increase in licensing costs is outlandish, other things being equal.

    But they aren’t.

    CDL’s licenses for NPG publications have been heavily subsidized (88% according to NPG in their reply) and it is this substantial discount that NPG is trying to eliminate with their price increases.

    That NPG is trying to recoup income by eliminating this discount — which is apparently only given to CDL — is entirely reasonable. How it was done appears to be the point of contention.

    NPG mentions that prior discussions were confidential, and so there’s little public information regarding how the decision was made, the extent of CDL’s input, whether there was an understanding that the 7% cap would apply to CDL, etc. These details would be illuminating.

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    Kaccie Li said:

    Shouldn’t subscription prices be lower these days because pretty much everything is online? I rarely see hard copies (besides ones from my personal printer) of nature articles or those form any other journal for that matter. Besides the editors and staff, who were already there in the first place, are there any new people getting paid. I don’t think the reviewers get paid right? At least, I’ve never gotten paid for reviewing a paper. After reading this, I can honestly say that I will never agree to review a paper submitted to a Nature journal (unless they pay me).

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