Since initial talks broke down, UC and Nature have waged a publicity battle through public statements. The university noted that UC researchers had published 5,300 papers in NPG journals over the last six years, including 638 to the flagship journal, Nature — a contribution that created $19 million in revenue for that title alone, it contended.
The publisher responded that it was "utterly confused" by that claim. "We look forward to learning more about those calculations," it countered, which sounds like a polite faculty-club way of stating: "The hell you say."
Nature maintained that even at the higher rate, UC is getting a terrific deal, as the publisher "adds huge amounts of value to the very best quality original research."
"We just put a lot of effort into making the manuscripts we publish as good as they can be," David Hoole, a Nature executive, amplified in an email to me. "There's no doubt this attracts the best authors."
Yet many in the academic community think the traditional model is hopelessly archaic, and not only because so much academic publishing today is done online, with (as Brand foresaw) its vastly reduced cost of dissemination.
Funders of research such as the National Institutes of Health increasingly insist that the work they pay for be made available without unreasonable delay and without pay barriers. They're more open to allowing researchers to pay out of grant funds the publication fees charged by open-access publishers that don't rely on subscription income.
"It's going to become more and more unsustainable to demand payment for access to original research articles," says Brown, who says the Public Library of Science has demonstrated that the open access model is economically viable and competitive with the subscription journals in quality. (PLoS charges researchers publication fees of up to $2,900, depending on the journal.)
UC's Farley says that the university and NPG have agreed to another round of talks, but Brown and Yamamoto share doubts that any agreement based on subscription fees, even at capped or lower rates, can be a long-term solution.
"If you're willing to boycott Nature, ask for something important, and it's not a discount," says Brown. "What the UCs should do is say to the publishers, five years from now we will not be paying any subscriptions, and over those five years we will help you make the transition to the open access model."
Michael Hiltzik's column appears Sundays and Wednesdays. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org, read past columns at http://www.latimes.com/hiltzik, check out http://www.facebook.com/hiltzik, and follow @latimeshiltzik on Twitter.