Musings on worms turning

So I'm turning over the California/NPG situation in my head, because I—okay, because I'm obsessive, are you happy now? (Just don't ask how late I was sending email last night.)

The very cynical portion of my brain notes that it's almost certainly easier to persuade faculty to inaction than action. California didn't try to use this crisis to convince faculty to self-archive; that's work, that is, and the tie between self-archiving and dealing with NPG's extortionate tactics is weakly evident at best. California merely told faculty "don't work for NPG." Less work! Cheers! they appear to have answered.

Another part of my brain wonders about outcomes, and where exactly California will plant its flag. If NPG comes back to the table with a mere (!) 100% increase, or 50%, or for that matter 2%, will California call off the boycott? (I am obscurely reminded of Churchill's "haggling over the price.") I'm not at all sure they should, but they do have to consider how much faculty support they'll really have should the rubber hit the road.

It could well be a lot, simply from pure outrage. California's university system is hurting terribly. Not a single faculty member in all of California doesn't know that. Not ones to waste a perfectly good financial crisis, the California librarians have taken a shot at redirecting faculty anger toward NPG. If I were NPG, I'd blink.

The next question I have is who would or even could follow California's example. (I'm leaving the question of "who's got a NPG contract coming up for renewal?" off the table, partly because there's no good way I can think of to find out, and partly because NPG is hardly the only outfit with "Putting the Screws to You" as their unofficial salesforce slogan.) This isn't something a library can unilaterally go and do, or ask campus administrators for out of the blue; it takes years of patient hobnobbing, educating, champion-finding, and political-capital-building. In fact, since I haven't said so already—huge congratulations to University of California libraries for pulling this off! Well done!

I suppose the top of my list would have to be reserved for institutions that got tough with Elsevier back in 2003, such as Cornell and Harvard. (Unsurprisingly, California was in the thick of that fracas as well.) Schools with some form of open-access permission mandate might also be good candidates, since they are likely more sensitized to the issues. Even schools like Maryland where votes failed might surprise us, again because of increased awareness. Finally, schools with libraries containing strong, well-established, and growing faculty-education programs in scholarly communication are in a better place to follow California's lead than schools without such programs.

So much is noteworthy about the California action that I'm having trouble synthesizing it all just in my own head, but let's start with its scope. This is the first action I know of that implicates such a tremendous pool of faculty labor. It's similar in kind to journal declarations of independence—both are labor-withdrawal protests against maddening pricing—but California's action is extraordinarily vaster.

That very vastness threatens to pierce a few veils. One is the oft-lamented gap between faculty and librarian awareness of serials pricing, of course. Economists tell us that part of the journal pricing problem has always been faculty's obliviousness to it, made possible by writing it off as a "library issue." If the entire California faculty workforce now knows, how long before the entire faculty world does? Another is the question of labor in serials: if one state university system (granted, it is California's huge one) can credibly threaten to bring a fleet of top-tier journals to its knees merely by withdrawing uncompensated faculty labor, what are we paying publishers all this money for again?

Another pierced veil concerns the tug-of-war between faculty and journals for control. Faculty, especially junior faculty, feel at journals' mercy. If they don't get published, and published in the right journals, their career is over. Therefore they don't protest price increases or reuse policies even when they disagree with them. California faculty are threatening to exert a lot of control, suddenly—and not just against any old penny-ante publisher, either. I can only hope this is good for what economists call "market discipline."

The last veil, and perhaps the most interesting, is the veil around journals as non-substitutable goods. (Briefly: the idea is that journals can charge high prices because you can't just swap one journal for another; journals supposedly aren't commodities in that way.) I need only adduce the final paragraph of Jen Howard's report:

Although researchers still have "a very strong tie to traditional journals" like Nature, he said, scientific publishing has evolved in the seven years since the Elsevier boycott. "In many ways it doesn't matter where the work's published, because scientists will be able to find it," Mr. Yamamoto said.

If I worked for a major journal publisher, I'd have chills running down my spine at that. (I'd also be having serious talks with my salesforce about eliminating sales tactics that could land me in the gunsights, but I'm odd that way.)

I also wonder quietly about suppressed faculty ire at very-high-impact journals such as Nature. Such journals are career-makers for a very few, but the many who fruitlessly submit articles again and again can't be fond of them. How much schadenfreude is there in the serried ranks of California faculty, just waiting for an opportunity?

Finally, the thought occurs that this is a water-testing move by NPG. How much is too much? When does the boiled frog jump out of the water? Perhaps now they know.

Just to be perfectly clear, let me conclude by saying I have no idea how this will all turn out. The immediate conflict could be over tomorrow, if NPG blinks fast enough. Whether even a rapid resolution will dampen the reverberation… that is an excellent question to which I have no answer.


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Speaking from the point of view of a researcher who's been rejected more than once from an NPG journal, the latent schadenfreude angle is a significant one. In a way, NPG just handed libraries the PR opportunity of a lifetime. Although no one wants to see loss of access become a problem, it would kinda be in the interest of shredding the aforementioned veils into tatters that this drag on as long as possible.

In a state where many many faculty have faced furlough, and none have ever gotten anything close to a four-fold raise, it does appear that the tinder was already dry and hot, lacking only for a spark.

You're right about the impact of California's huge faculty group. I was impressed that a Hopkins faculty member sent his department and me (their librarian) an email about this yesterday, with a link to the letter. All of those networks, formal and informal. I guess NPG didn't realize that.

By Robin Sinn (not verified) on 10 Jun 2010 #permalink

Mr. Gunn, thank you -- that was PURE conjecture on my part, and I'm glad it wasn't utterly off-base.

Robin, yes, word gets around. It's sort of interesting to watch open-access tactics evolve. When the straightforward left-brained catechisms didn't work (except for the NIH policy, which I think can fairly be laid at their door), the action moved to a low-key, campus-by-campus whisper campaign, which resulted in the Harvard policy and all the subsequent dominoes.

For what it's worth, Jen Howard's story is at this moment #1 on the Chronk's most-viewed list, and #2 on most-emailed. Word DOES get around.

On behalf of Nature Publishing Group:
We understand that the letter from University of California and California Digital Library has raised concerns. However, we believe that the situation was not described fairly by CDL.
We have now issued a public statement on this matter, where we have fully described our understanding and position. You can find our statement here:
Nature Publishing Group will be doing all we can to bring this to a successful conclusion as soon as possible.
Grace Baynes
Nature Publishing Group

By Rachel Scheer (not verified) on 15 Jun 2010 #permalink

Just to be clear, this is a boilerplate response that has been left not only on this blog, but all over blogs on the web. Readers will notice that the commenter's name does not match the "signature."

This is not appropriate social-media engagement. It borders on spam. Fair warning: if I receive further such boilerplate comments from NPG, I will consider them spam and delete them.

If, however, NPG would like to engage -- responsively, in a human voice -- here on Book of Trogool, I would welcome that, and I'm sure my readers would as well.

The comment from "Grace Baynes" shows that not only does NPG not "get it" in terms of pricing, they don't "get it" in terms of communication with the public. I agree, this is very much like spam. Do you suppose they're trying to see if they can manage to make people even angrier?

I think they mean well and are just flustered, which is understandable. If you've never had to confront an angry online mob before, the right thing to do is... somewhat non-obvious.