Bethany Nowviskie has aptly summed up the current 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 it down with even more economy on Twitter: “Fight club soap = our own intellectual labor sold back to us as a costly product.” As Bethany elaborated in another Twitter post, it’s an allusion to “overpriced soap [in the movie Fight Club] marketed to rich women, made from [the liposuctioned fat of] their own bodies.” In the case of Nature and other scientific journals with premium subscription models, it means “universities buying back the labor they already paid for.”
As news about the conflict was making the rounds, Tom Scheinfeldt noted that the “Nature Publishing Group is a division of Macmillan, the company that played hardball w/ Amazon over ebook pricing.” Inspired by Bethany’s pop culture metaphor and Tom’s observation about the corporate structure of the NPG, I recalled a scene from the first season of JJ Abrams’ television series Alias. Secret agent Sidney Bristow has begun working as a double-agent for the CIA, trying to take down SD-6, the spy organization Sidney works for and which she thought was a legitimate government entity—but which, it turns out, is a criminal organization. In the second episode, “So It Begins,” Sidney draws a map of SD-6’s structure for her CIA handler, Michael Vaughn:
Sidney naively believes her diagram represents the entirety of SD-6. To Sidney’s dismay, however, Vaughn reveals that her legal pad rendering is a tiny piece of a much larger organization:
This is honestly the only scene I remember from five seasons of Alias. For some reason it stuck with me through the years. Perhaps because I see that larger map as a metaphor for all of JJ Abrams’ work—incomprehensible conspiratorial structures bound to collapse under their own weight.
Why am I digging out the metaphor of SD-6 now?
Because this is how the publishing industry looks (minus the criminal activity, mostly).
If we were to draw a corporate map of the Nature Publishing Group, it would look more like Michael Vaughn’s intricate diagram than Sidney Bristow’s crude—I’d say quaint—sketch.
The Nature Publishing Group is owned, as Tom points out, by Macmillan. But who owns Macmillan? The answer is Verlagsgruppe Georg von Holtzbrinck—the Georg von Holtzbrinck Publishing Group. I won’t list all of what Verlagsgruppe Georg von Holtzbrinck controls here, but it includes many of the biggest names in publishing: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, Palgrave Macmillan, Picador, Tor, Bedford/St. Martin’s, and of course Nature and a host of other academic journals.
Aside from realizing after all these years that Alias was a send-up of corporate America rather than some post-Cold-War spy drama, there is an important conclusion to draw here.
[pullquote align=”left”]We have privatized the distribution of knowledge. We have blackwatered knowledge.[/pullquote]
Thinking about the relationship between Nature and the sprawling multinational corporation that owns it reveals the extent to which we have privatized the distribution of knowledge. We have blackwatered knowledge. Knowledge that should belong to the people and universities that produced it.
The government has increasingly outsourced many services to private outfits like Blackwater, KBR, and Halliburton; in the same way, universities, colleges, and libraries have let go of whatever tenuous grasp they once held over their intellectual property. Public and private institutions of higher learning have ceded control to profit-driven enterprises like the Nature Publishing Group, EBSCO, and Reed Elsevier. And like SD-6, whose tentacles are wide-reaching yet difficult to trace, these publishers ruthlessly dominate their respective markets, leaving students, researchers, librarians, and journalists few alternatives.
Yes, I have just likened the publishing industry to a fictional criminal organization. The real question is, what are you going to do about it?