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When business models and budgets collide

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A Los Angeles Times article today hosts an extraordinary collision of two modern classic narratives: The University of California budget crisis and the search for new business models in publishing and journalism.

Here's the story: Nature Publishing Group, in negotiations with the UC system over online access to roughly 67 scientific journals, has asked for a 400 percent increase in fees. UC says it currently pays an average of $4,465 a year per subscription - about $300,000 in total annually. Nature would like to raise that to an average of $17,479 a year - or about $1.2 million in total annually.

The University of California, cash-strapped and facing intense criticism over its own hiking of tuition and fees, continues to resist the increase and has threatened a boycott of Nature. In this scenario, faculty members would be asked to stop submitting papers to the journal, resign from the editorial and advisory boards, decline to provide peer reviews and suspend subscriptions.

The dispute goes beyond the budgetary, the Los Angeles Times writes:

[It] 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.

Patrick Brown, PhD, a Stanford biochemist and co-founder of the open-access journal family PLoS, thinks it has. In 2004, he wrote in Stanford Medicine magazine:

Today, the Internet delivers articles...efficiently and conveniently, transforming the economics of scientific publishing. The costs of the remaining essential functions of scientific publishers - orchestrating peer review and professional editing - don't scale with the number of copies distributed, but with the number of articles reviewed and published. But the benefits - to the authors, the scientific community and the public - grow with the number of potential readers who can access the published work. Charging for access is therefore no longer economically necessary, rational or fair - it needlessly limits access to an essential public good.

Photo by A. Strakey

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