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Michael Hiltzik: UC goes against Nature

July 6, 2010 |  9:08 pm

Few people know better than a newspaper writer the challenges faced by traditional publishing businesses from the Internet and other new technologies. Publishers of scientific, technical and medical journals -- STM for short -- have been able to hold the line better than most against the erosion of their accustomed income sources, advertising and subscriptions.

The reason is that these publishers offer highly specialized content that has been hard to find anywhere else. As my Wednesday column reports, that's changing. The driving forces are the shrinking of university budgets and opposition by research funding bodies, including the federal government and tax-exempt philanthropic institutions.

The universities and funding entities have woken up to the absurdity of being held hostage by commercial companies making money by exploiting raw material paid for by taxpayers.

Will there be a place for the publishers of journals like Nature and Cell in the future? Almost certainly: They provide value by upholding scientific and professional standards, winnowing the most important research from a huge volume of submissions, and ensuring that it's presented clearly and informatively. But like newspaper publishers, they may have to find a new business model to exist in the changing world.

Open Access journals like those published by PLoS and BioMed Central are pointing the way. Nature and other publishers are already dipping their feet into open access culture with a modest slate of free offerings. But they have a long way to go.

The column begins below.

People who cite Steward 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 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.

Read the whole column.

-- Michael Hiltzik