Bethany Nowviskie

  • Published: Jun 9th, 2010
  • Category: higher ed
  • Comments: 35

fight club soap

Tags: , ,

There’s a scene, in the filmed version of Chuck Palahniuk’s Fight Club, in which Tyler Durden leads our Everyman narrator on an expedition for biomedical waste. They’re raiding the trash bins of a liposuction clinic for lipids that can be rendered into soap. This is expensive soap, boutique soup — value-added soap. It’s the kind of soap probably only bought by the kind of woman who frequents a liposuction clinic.

“It was beautiful,” we hear. “We were selling their own fat asses back to them.”

This week, a powerful letter was distributed to all faculty of the financially-imperiled University of California system — the libraries of which are now faced with a 400% price increase if they would like to continue to provide access to 67 important scientific journals distributed by the Nature Publishing Group. One of these is NPG’s flagship journal, Nature. The price increase would bring the annual cost of a single NPG journal from approximately $4500 to over $17,000. When, in conversation today, I’ve shared this number with my librarian colleagues at home and abroad, I’ve heard a lot of incredulous laughter. But laughter turns to quiet musing (“would that work here?“) when I go on to say that the California letter threatens complete boycott, in clear terms and with the support of a system-wide advisory group on scholarly communication, of all UC faculty involvement in the production machine of the Nature group, if the costs for these journals cannot be brought in line with reality.

The UC/Nature story was covered swiftly and well by Jennifer Howard of the Chronicle of Higher Education. Her article was followed today by a set of must-read musings by Dorothea Salo, from the perspective of a repository librarian and open-access advocate. And, of course, all of this is contextualized by any number of scholarly committee and task force reports, and by the work of thinkers like Kathleen Fitzpatrick. I thought I had nothing to add, at this early stage of the UC system’s game. However, I’ve already noted enough bafflement on the part of humanities faculty and graduate students at the affair to think I should talk in a pithy way about Fight Club soap — and then share a conjecture about the bizarre, perennial surprise that seems to be attendant on these conversations.

The position in which libraries find themselves vis-a-vis Nature, Elsevier, et al is laughable — once you’ve shed a tear for all of the humanities collections (monographs and periodicals) that have already been cut in response to previous gouging by journal providers. Large companies have cornered the market on access to scientific research which universities see as mission-critical, and can therefore name their own prices. The first victims of the hard decisions forced on collections stewards at many institutions have been less costly, lower-profile, slow-knowledge, lower rate-of-use, disorganized and a la carte humanities publications — with the dire results we have seen across the academy over the last decade. Libraries have cancelled standing orders with university presses. Many presses and journals, having lost their best (sometimes almost only) clients, have responded by reducing the number of worthy book manuscripts and articles that make it into print. Others have folded entirely. A generation of humanities scholars, still struggling to meet the “or perish” tenure and promotion expectations of a bygone era, feel they have nowhere to publish. Students and faculty have lost access to whole threads of our shared, cultural conversation — conversation that continues in humanities publications their schools now cannot afford. Other threads (genres of work, areas of inquiry) have been cut short entirely.

Ready to laugh again? Let’s look at the statistics provided by the California Digital Library in its letter to faculty, and then let’s talk about soap. Articles published by UC faculty in NPG’s flagship journal, Nature, numbered 638 over the past six years. And that’s just Nature. Sixty-six other journals are part of NPG’s proposed rate hike. Approximately 5,300 articles by UC faculty have appeared in them in the same timeframe. But that’s not the kicker. Pause now for a moment to imagine the countless, unquantifiable hours of UC faculty labor that have gone not only into the research for and writing of these articles — but also into their vetting. How many UC faculty have spent how many hours engaged in peer review or serving on advisory committees to the journals that their libraries now cannot afford? How much intellectual labor already paid for by the University of California system is now being sold back to UC’s own libraries at exorbitant costs? How much Fight Club soap are we willing to buy?

And how long have we all seen this train wreck coming?

I’m a humanities PhD who has worked in an administrative position in a major research library for nearly three years. I’m still new enough to feel productive cognitive dissonance and the occasional wave of culture shock. Often this centers, for me, around the beautiful service ethic of librarians, and their desire to make things easy, and make things work for the faculty and student researchers they serve. It’s a different kind of monasticism from the “life of the mind” for which I was trained, but I recognize devotion of all sorts, and I bet you do, too.

There is, however, a distinct danger in this impulse — to provide a level of self-effacing service that does not distract the researcher from his work. With the best of intentions, it can lead to a strategy of hiding the messy stuff, or laying a smooth, professional veneer over increasingly decrepit and under-funded infrastructure. And then there’s the degree to which the service mentality prevents librarians from engaging with faculty as true intellectual partners — developing the kind of relationships that foster frankness. (Of course, we need to be met half way. Why is it that librarians’ advocacy for open access initiatives has provoked such discomfort among faculty at so many institutions that the word on the street is now: don’t speak up, don’t be pushy, know your place?)

Combined, these factors can mean librarians fail to blow the whistle on journal pricing and subsequent collections implications until it’s too late. (Witness the shock and anger of many faculty bodies at recent cancellations of humanities subscriptions or closures and consolidations of whole libraries at institutions around the country.) The University of California’s statement, its coverage in the Chronicle, and the open discourse that I hope it promotes among researchers and librarians is a great social positive — even beyond the impact I predict it will have on pricing models by monopolistic journal providers and the visibility it will provide for open-access alternatives like those outlined in the UC letter. We shouldn’t let this crisis go to waste, or overlook what it can reveal about the way we work together in higher ed.

We’re in untenable and intertwingled positions, all of us. I advocate the talking cure. Why should the first rule of Journal Club be, for librarians and faculty alike, not to talk about Journal Club?

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35 Responses to “fight club soap”

  1. Tweets that mention fight club soap « Bethany Nowviskie --
    on Jun 9th, 2010
    @ 11:42pm

    […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Jennifer Howard, Bethany Nowviskie, Matt Gold, Mark Sample, Jonathan S. and others. Jonathan S. said: RT @nowviskie: "Fight Club Soap" (New blog post on library/faculty culture & U California's threatened Nature boycott.) […]

  2. Chris Hoebeke
    on Jun 10th, 2010
    @ 8:11am

    Very good analysis, Bethany. I would add that having a captive market is not the only incentive for NPG price increases. Publishers — scholarly or popular, periodical or monographic — are trying to sustain emoluments and corner offices for a whole regime of administrators in a business infrastructure that is essentially a legacy from the print era. Look at the so-called “Drudge tax” being considered to sustain the traditional news corporations. I’m sure I’m not alone in thinking that the traditional model of publishing can’t be economically sustained much longer, that common sense will eventually lead libraries and readers to stop paying the excessive tolls levied by the obsolete middlemen we call publishers.

    Perhaps the first shot has been fired, but from my perspective, UC negotiating with NPG is like an automobile owner negotiating with buggy-whip makers.

  3. Amanda French
    on Jun 10th, 2010
    @ 11:00am

    Couldn’t agree more about the service ethic. I often think a simple intermediary screen between the user and the database or journal would solve a lot of problems — something that states, “This database/journal is provided to you by the University of Fight Club library at an annual cost of $7,500” before redirecting would be terrific.

  4. Digital Campus » Episode 57 – Fight Club Soap
    on Jun 10th, 2010
    @ 2:54pm

    […] Returning from a post-THATCamp hiatus, podcast regulars Dan, Mills, and Tom are joined by original irregulars Amanda French and Jeff McClurken to discuss the new iPhone, a nascent course management offering from Google, and the launch of Microsoft Office Web Apps. The panel applauds the University of California/California Digital Library in its showdown with Nature Publishing Group over subscription costs and weighs in on students buying and selling course spots on Craigslist. Hat tip to our good friend Bethany Nowviskie for this episode’s inspired title. […]

  5. SAMPLE REALITY · Fight Club Soap, Sold by SD-6
    on Jun 10th, 2010
    @ 7:26pm

    […] standoff between the University of California system and the Nature Publishing Group as a case of fight club soap. Bethany explains the metaphor much better than I can (I urge you to read her post), and she boils […]

  6. - Do It Ourselves
    on Jun 10th, 2010
    @ 10:12pm

    […] wife, Bethany Nowviskie (@nowviskie), has posted on the University of California’s moves to boycott Nature Publishing Group. Essentially, the publishing group takes the work of professors – authors and peer reviewers […]

  7. Power, Authority, and the Academic Journal: Thoughts on UC vs. NPG « Michael J. Altman
    on Jun 11th, 2010
    @ 9:24am

    […]  This is also a side in crisis, as the budget shortfalls of libraries like UC and other show.  Bethany Nowviskie has offered a nice analysis of the systemic problems on the reception side of academic publishing. […]

  8. » Big News in Scholarly Publishing from the Library of Maura
    on Jun 11th, 2010
    @ 9:29am

    […] Digital Research & Scholarship at the University of Virginia Library, wrote a great post called Fight Club Soap that, among other things, includes a powerful discussion of the relationship between scholarly […]

  9. See Also… » Communicating to faculty about Nature Publishing Group
    on Jun 11th, 2010
    @ 12:10pm

    […] I would welcome further discussion of this matter and how it affects the humanities. For a discussion of the humanities vis-a-vis science and technology publishing, I recommend you read the excellent blog post “Fight Club soap” by the University of Virginia’s Bethany Nowviskie: […]

  10. A small collection of resources about the University of California ‘negotiation’ with Nature Publishing Group « the Undergraduate Science Librarian
    on Jun 11th, 2010
    @ 1:52pm

    […] fight club soap from Bethany Nowviskie at – a great article by a humanities scholar linking the recent UC/NPG issue, the serials crisis, the decline in monograph purchases by libraries, and the folding of university presses. […]

  11. Bethany Nowviskie
    on Jun 11th, 2010
    @ 3:46pm

    By the way, I can die happy now. Not only have I lived to see the word “awesomesauce” in the Chronicle of Higher Education, it is in connection with my name:

  12. University of California vs. Nature « Sauropod Vertebra Picture of the Week
    on Jun 11th, 2010
    @ 7:54pm

    […] all the blogging that has been done on this, the now-infamous Fight Club post seems to be getting the most link-love and discussion, and deservedly […]

  13. Alex Gil
    on Jun 14th, 2010
    @ 2:16pm

    you want action that means something? prove to the up-and-coming graduate students/post-docs/assistant profs that their open-source work will have access to a peer-review mechanism that is respected and rewarded across the board. in a recent e-mail circulated around EELS in response to Beth’s post, Richard Cohen suggested that we focus instead on the University Presses, and I quote,

    “It seems to me that the first place to start would be the university presses. Many of them barely make money as it is, are overly protective of their bottom line, hence erratically vet titles or become too specialist, and they are part of our world theoretically. They should convert fully to serving the needs of the university’s base, its scholars.”

    although Cohen’s advise sounds like a good immediate step, it is still bound up with the logic of the university press as intermediary merchant. the brilliance of Beth’s Journal Club metaphor is that it underhandedly suggests that the way to exorcize the middle man is to emulate the way the unnamed narrator exorcizes Tyler Durden: by shooting ourselves in the face and surviving.

    practically speaking, little-old unknown me could have a publication-quality essay up and running online, where almost everyone in my field can read it, in only the time it takes me to write it. this is the first time in human history this is possible. want prestige and promotions? add a few weeks for a peer-review process; unleash the beast in an online repository that is visited assiduously by most in this or that field. heck, let the beast track down the field, and voila. this is what’s possible and practical with decade old technologies. talk about a big elephant in the room.

    the math in Beth’s argument I found exquisite as well. because it is a circle of lard morphing the producer into a consumer, the idea that the academy should avoid the cost of subsidizing an open-source scholarship in the name of fiscal responsibility can only be what Freud called a dream, a semi-rational fantasy whose sole purpose is to keep us sleeping. as semi-closed ecosystems, it is no longer a secret that we can reduce our collective costs in the long run if we simply upgraded the “presses” from petty merchants to a new breed of librarians. I say, promote them to clerics of the court, networkers, disseminators, techie ground-breakers and good riddance. there’s the elephant’s twin sister for you.

    with two such elephants in the room, I’m tempted to do a reading of the collective perversity that keeps open scholarship at bay. as we stand, we are not those rebuffed men and women going back to the cave to illuminate their dangling brethren with tales of the sun, we are more like half-stoned tourists in all-inclusive resorts, rubbing SPF-45 over inane reruns of Foucault while paying lip-service to A Better World, Inc.©

    because the cost and relatively limited amount of space in the print journals of yesteryear forced the peer-review process to be more selective, we sort of added the prestige of sportsmanship to publishing. no wonder it became THE criteria for tenure. alas, scholarship doesn’t necessarily need to win the race to be good scholarship. an honest and unconstrained peer-review system should not be afraid of watering down the wells of knowledge. in contrast to material goods, the widest distribution of the best ideas can only take place in a (non-)market open to all peers.

    look to the presses no more, look to the young scholars! they are the key! secure their peerage and you will see an open-source academy in two generations time.

    still unpublished in print…

  14. Nature Publishing Group and the University of California faculty « Library Notes for Political Science
    on Jun 15th, 2010
    @ 3:02am

    […] I would welcome further discussion of this matter and how it affects the social sciences and humanities. For a discussion of the humanities vis-a-vis science and technology publishing, I recommend you read the excellent blog post “Fight Club soap” by the University of Virginia’s Bethany Nowviskie: […]

  15. Grace Baynes
    on Jun 15th, 2010
    @ 9:20am


    I realise that your post is about wider issues of scholarly publishing and communication, and not just about the letter from University of California and California Digital Library.

    However, I wanted to share NPG’s public statement on this matter, where we have fully described our understanding and position. You can find our statement here:

    Nature Publishing Group will be doing all we can to bring discussions with CDL to a successful conclusion as soon as possible.

    Grace Baynes
    Nature Publishing Group

  16. Bethany Nowviskie
    on Jun 15th, 2010
    @ 5:11pm

    Dear Ms. Baynes — Thank you for your message, and for customizing it to indicate that you have read my post (unlike the wholly boilerplate message being left on other writers’ blogs — about which Dorothea Salo has commented).

    Rather than respond directly to your comment, I’d just like to point out to my readers that the University of California has responded to the press release you mention. UC’s response is available in PDF form, here:

  17. BBQ season : Nature sur le grill « Marlène's corner
    on Jul 15th, 2010
    @ 5:03pm

    […] commissions de recrutement dans les universités (Adventures in ethics and science) par exemple. D’autres soulignant l’aberration d’un système dans lequel une université qui contribue de manière non […]

  18. Getting out of the way
    on Sep 18th, 2010
    @ 1:35pm

    […] changing, and yet I find myself thinking about it a lot ever since Bethany Nowviskie wrote her Fight Club Soap blog post about the Nature/UC […]

  19. lis.dom » thinking about banned books
    on Sep 27th, 2010
    @ 3:40pm

    […] information, from government information and free law to the embargoes and copyright agreements and astronomical prices that often keep scholars from accessing their own work. But I still want to talk, as I so often do, […]

  20. The Age of Big Access
    on Oct 5th, 2010
    @ 8:38am

    […] a boycott (PDF) of all of Nature’s periodicals and Nature-related activities. How dare Nature sell our own work back to us at such a price, we asked. Because we need to provide access to these things, Nature knows it, and […]

  21. eternal september of the digital humanities « Bethany Nowviskie
    on Oct 15th, 2010
    @ 1:39pm

    […] written about these things. Others have, too. And — even though service under any banner is undervalued in the academy, […]

  22. Publishing Open Access has its benefits: You Can Now Search Mendeley Web for #OA content | Mendeley Blog
    on Nov 11th, 2010
    @ 4:54pm

    […] to read what you and your colleagues paid to publish. It’s an odd system, not entirely unlike how soap is made in the movie Fight Club. If you’re one of the researchers in the developing countries or at smaller research […]

  23. Publishing Open Access has its benefits – Pubblicare OA: i benefici dell’accesso aperto. « OA Bibliography
    on Dec 20th, 2010
    @ 7:03am

    […] colleghi.   E ‘un sistema strano, non del tutto diverso da come è fatto il sapone nel film Fight Club. Se  fate ricerca in uno dei paesi in via di sviluppo o presso istituzioni di ricerca più […]

  24. a skunk in the library « Bethany Nowviskie
    on Jun 28th, 2011
    @ 10:02am

    […] written a bit, from that kind of vantage point, about what I see as a fundamental misunderstanding that […]

  25. Best Practices and New Ideas for Open-Access Publications » THATCamp New England 2011
    on Oct 14th, 2011
    @ 12:44pm

    […] in a memorable (and revolting) phrase, much of the intellectual product of the academy is “fight club soap.” We produce scholarly work at great cost to our institutions and the donors and governments […]

  26. Session Proposal: Best Practices and New Ideas for Open-Access Publications - THATCamp American Historical Association 2012
    on Jan 3rd, 2012
    @ 1:30pm

    […] in a memorable (and revolting) phrase, much of the intellectual product of the academy is “fight club soap.” We produce scholarly work at great cost to our institutions and the donors and governments […]

  27. Best Practices for Open Access Journals | THATCamp New England 2012
    on Oct 11th, 2012
    @ 10:00am

    […] out in a memorable (and revolting) phrase, much of the intellectual product of the academy is “fight club soap.” We produce scholarly work at great cost to our institutions and the donors and governments that […]

  28. Notes on DH and sharing your work | Miriam Posner's Blog
    on Nov 4th, 2012
    @ 3:22pm

    […] Fight Club Soap, by Bethany Nowviskie  Some guidelines for your online persona […]

  29. why, oh why, CC-BY? « Bethany Nowviskie
    on Nov 21st, 2012
    @ 10:06am

    […] content. George Williams is right to cite price-gouging in textbook publishing (and I would add bundled journal subscriptions) as a factor that gives pause to potential droppers of the NC restriction. But (and here I’m […]

  30. Rent-a-soap | Jasper Schelstraete
    on Jul 11th, 2013
    @ 4:27am

    […] in 2010, Bethany Nowviskie wrote a great blogpost on academic publishing, comparing it to “Fight Club soap,” a reference to Chuck […]

  31. toward a new deal « Bethany Nowviskie
    on Sep 25th, 2013
    @ 5:56pm

    […] one who watches with concern as independent library holdings are converted to costly and ephemeral licensed content, and as the “medium-rare” print collections of the 19th century are weeded or transported away […]

  32. Week 4: Public Institutions and Common Goods – Class discussion notes | LIS 450
    on Oct 3rd, 2013
    @ 3:14pm

    […] Nowviskie (U Virg) – Fight Club Soap […]

  33. What Is Digital Humanities and What's it Doing in the Library?
    on Mar 18th, 2014
    @ 4:52pm

    […] away from traditionally-understood librarian roles. Several articles available on her blog, “Fight Club Soap,” “Lazy Consensus,” and “A Skunk in the Library,” challenge the concept that a good […]

  34. In the Library with the Lead Pipe » What Is Digital Humanities and What’s it Doing in the Library?
    on Apr 22nd, 2015
    @ 4:03pm

    […] away from traditionally-understood librarian roles. Several articles available on her blog, “Fight Club Soap,” “Lazy Consensus,” and “A Skunk in the Library,” challenge the concept that a good […]

  35. Work for hire: Library publishing, scholarly communication, and academic freedom | Roxanne Shirazi
    on Aug 11th, 2015
    @ 5:04am

    […] to conceal the damage that’s been wrought by disappearing staff lines. I’m reminded of Bethany Nowviskie’s comments about what happens when librarians value self-effacing service over honest engagement with their […]

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Creative Commons License This site uses a heavily modified version of Bryan Helmig's Magatheme. Work at by Bethany Nowviskie is always CC-BY. Want to know why? The falling letters are by Wayne Graham. He kindly made them to replace a set I designed in Flash in the late 1990s and had in place for more than 17 years. Not a bad run! Ave atque vale.