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.