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Secret publishing deals exposed

Nature 's roundup of the papers and issues gaining traction on social media.

Based on data from Altmetric is supported by Macmillan Science and Education, which owns Nature Publishing Group.

Twitter trends show researchers turning to a paper that sheds light on a previously hidden side of academic publishing, while others shared an article about stem-cell disputes in Italy. And World Cup fever has stirred up two studies: one on the physics of footballs and the other on physiological effects of watching your team in action.

Judging by the social-media reaction, researchers worldwide are paying attention to a report by US economists detailing the confidential deals that universities make with big publishers for electronic access to multiple journals. The prices‚ which can exceed US$1 million a year, vary hugely between institutions, and do not always represent a good buy. For instance, libraries that buy bundled deals from Elsevier (which sells more than 2,200 journals) pay about three times more per citation than they do for non-profit items such as the Journal of the American Chemical Society. (Nature Publishing Group was not included in the study.) “Large commercial publishers offer v. poor value,” tweeted biologist Ross Mounce of the University of Bath, UK.

Major publishers, including Elsevier, Wiley, Springer and Sage, offer discounts to libraries that subscribe to multiple journals at once. (Nature Publishing Group (NPG), which publishes Nature, generally sells access to most of its publications on a single-journal basis with a clear price for each, although some customers opt for discounted bundles.) The publishers generally require that the terms are kept secret (as does NPG), but Theodore Bergstrom, an economist at the University of California, Santa Barbara, and his colleagues obtained details through the US Freedom of Information Act. Their report uncovered significant inequities in the system. For example, in 2009, the University of Georgia paid $1.9 million for a year's access to the Elsevier 'freedom' collection of about 2,200 journals, but the University of Wisconsin–Madison got the same package for $1.2 million. Brigham Young University in Utah paid $77,000 more than the University of Arizona for a package deal with Sage, even though the latter is a much larger school that produces six times as many PhDs.

In an interview, Bergstrom speculated that secrecy helps to make such discrepancies possible. “A lot of librarians don't understand they have bargaining power,” he says. “They don't realize that other libraries are getting better deals.”

Bergstrom adds that he and his colleagues did not include NPG in their study because when they started their research, they thought that the company had a transparent pricing structure. That was before a dispute between the University of California system and NPG over price increases in 2010. “In retrospect, it would have been interesting to find out what kind of deals various schools were getting from Nature [Publishing Group],” he says.

According to Bergstrom, university libraries generally sign five-year contracts with built-in price increases of 5% each year, although some institutions, including the University of California system, have negotiated the yearly increases down to about 2%. One consequence of the steep terms is that many libraries decide not to pay for bundles, essentially denying their researchers access to hundreds of titles. In 2012, for instance, only 20% of the members of the Association of Research Libraries had purchased bundles from Elsevier. “I had the impression that big-deal bundles were so ubiquitous that publishing with Elsevier or Wiley would give you tremendous circulation,” Bergstrom says. “But that isn't true.” As a result, he says, researchers who publish in the more obscure titles of a major publisher should generally assume that their work will be difficult for others to find.

The report suggests that some publishing companies are damaging their own profits through such pricing approaches. If the bundles were more reasonably priced, Bergstrom says, more libraries would purchase access and articles would be available to more researchers.

Conversations on Twitter suggest widespread frustration with the publishing industry. Mounce called the paper a “MUST READ”. He elaborated in an interview: “Universities, research institutes and other subscribers are clearly being milked for every penny they can afford by the legacy academic publishers. They have a copyright-protected monopoly over academic content.”

Thomas Reller, vice-president of global corporate relations for Elsevier, declined to comment.

Bergstrom, T. C., Courant, P. N., McAfee, R. P. & Williams, M. A. Proc. Natl Acad. Sci. USA (2014)

Elsewhere on social media, commenters lauded efforts by Italian stem-cell researchers Elena Cattaneo and Gilberto Corbellini to combat pseudoscience in their field. Writing in Nature, Cattaneo and Corbellini highlight the case of the Stamina Foundation, a private organization in Italy that offers what it describes as 'stem-cell therapy' for Parkinson's disease, muscular dystrophy and spinal muscular atrophy. They note that Italy's national health services helped to pay for some of the treatments, even though various scientists have not found evidence for the 'Stamina method'. The two write that their crusade to expose the foundation and protect patients has put them on a “roller coaster of hope, disappointment, triumph and outrage.”

Researchers took to Twitter to share the story and express their appreciation. Cindy Buckmaster, director of the Center for Comparative Medicine at Baylor College of Medicine in Houston, Texas, tweeted that “we have an obligation to save the public.”

Cattaneo, E. & Corbellini, G. Nature 510, 333–335 (2014)

A tour of Twitter suggests that World Cup mania has infiltrated the lab. An article in the journal Scientific Reports (published by the same company as Nature), which describes the physics of a new design of soccer ball being used in the FIFA World Cup in Brazil, certainly drew plenty of attention. Using a kicking robot and a wind tunnel, researchers from the University of Tsukuba in Japan showed that the new ball was unusually stable and predictable in flight. Steven Ray Wilson, a chemist at the University of Oslo, tweeted: “The science of footballs, in lovely #openaccess @SciReports. What's not to like?”

Hong, S. & Asai, T. Sci. Rep. 4, 5068 (2014)

But all of that World Cup excitement has a possible downside. Twitter users have revived a paper from 2008 that reached a sobering conclusion: in a sample of German people who had already had a cardiac problem, watching Germany play at home in the 2006 World Cup significantly increased the incidence of cardiovascular issues such as heart attacks. “Enjoy #WorldCup but take good care of your health,” tweeted Jakob Agergaard, a PhD student of sports medicine at the University of Copenhagen.

Wilbert-Lampen, U. et al. New Engl. J. Med. 358, 475–483 (2008)


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Woolston, C. Secret publishing deals exposed. Nature 510, 447 (2014).

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