fight club soap

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?