People who cite Stewart Brand's insight that "information wants to be free" almost always forget the rest of the quote, which is: "Information also wants to be expensive."
Brand, a futurist best known for editing "The Whole Earth Catalog," meant that while the cost of disseminating information was falling sharply, the value of that information was rising. Technology makes the tension between those two poles constantly worse, he observed — which helps explain the current conflict between the University of California and a major publisher of scientific and technical journals.
The publisher is Nature Publishing Group, which puts out Nature as well as about 90 other specialized journals, many of which long have been viewed by faculty and students in the hard sciences as must-have publications.
Nature, which is owned by the German publishing house Georg von Holtzbrinck, knows this. That may be why it's trying to impose a 400% increase in its online access fee for UC, a hike the university says would come to more than $1 million a year. The result is talk of a systemwide boycott of Nature publications unless the firm becomes more accommodating.
But the dispute underscores a more far-reaching debate in academia: Whether the old business model of scientific publishing, in which researchers turn their work over to commercial entities for free, then pay through the nose to access it in print or online, hasn't reached the point of ultimate absurdity.
"Why are we paying to read the results of our own research?" asks Patrick O. Brown, a biochemist at Stanford's School of Medicine. In 2000, Brown co-founded the Public Library of Science, or PLoS, which today publishes seven journals on the open access model. That model charges researchers for publication of their accepted papers, but allows them to retain their copyrights and makes their work available to all users for free.
But let's go back to the UC-Nature brouhaha. In early June, the UC libraries informed faculty members of Nature's proposed rate increase, effective next Jan. 1.
This posed an "impending crisis," according to a letter signed by Laine Farley, executive director of the California Digital Library, which oversees UC's online and digital initiatives. Among other things, it would suck up all of the $1 million in annual savings the system had obtained through hard negotiating with other electronic publishers.
Of the leading scientific publishers, "Nature was the only one that had such a steep increase and said, 'That's it,'" Farley told me.
Subscriptions are a major cost problem for UC, as they are for all public institutions, because of the relentless squeeze on budgets. For the current round of renewals, UC's goal was to cut costs by 15%, which plainly would be exploded if Nature held firm.
Already, because of the rise in fees for scientific and technical journals, "we've had to decrease what we spend on books for the humanities, and that trade-off is very stark," Farley says. "Ultimately it hurts the whole institution."
The libraries let the academic community know that Keith Yamamoto, the executive vice dean at UC San Francisco Medical School, was willing to launch a boycott of Nature if necessary. That's meaningful because Yamamoto was an organizer of a 2003 boycott of Reed Elsevier that resulted in that technical publisher's rolling back a rate hike.
Yamamoto says a new boycott would look very much like the old: He would call upon faculty members to stop submitting papers to Nature publications, resign from Nature editorial and advisory board, decline to peer-review papers for the journals, and of course suspend their subscriptions.
"These publications would not exist without the voluntary efforts of the academics," he says. "Nature was counting on the university faculty rising up and saying that no matter what the price is, we have to have these journals." By showing that faculty could draw the line, he says, a boycott would give the libraries valuable ammunition.
Which brings us to the curious economics of scientific publishing. The industry business model was developed, like most publishing, back in the days when you printed on paper or not at all. Typically, a researcher writes a report detailing the results of what may be millions of dollars of funded research, and submits it gratis to a commercial publisher.
The publisher has it reviewed by a panel of other researchers, also working for free, then prints it in bound form or posts it online behind a pay wall, so it can't be read except by customers who pay through the nose for the privilege. The UC system says it pays an average of $4,465 a year for each of the 67 Nature journals it subscribes to, a fee Nature proposes to raise to an average of $17,479.