The release earlier this month of a report estimating the cost to the UK academy of carrying out peer review signalled that, after years of grumbling about rising prices for journal subscriptions, universities just may be ready to say enough is enough.
The report, commissioned by Jisc Collections, the UK universities' subscription negotiation consortium, put the cost at up to £165 million.
Lorraine Estelle, the consortium's chief executive, said the report aimed to help convince large journal publishers to rein in price hikes, which have continued to outstrip inflation despite pleas for restraint.
Ann Rossiter, executive director of the Society of College, National and University Libraries, described the provision of academic journals as a public-private partnership that depended on "both parties contributing and playing fair".
She said publishers, some of which boast operating margins of 35 per cent, had reached a "wake up and smell the coffee" moment. "They may not realise, but their gung-ho attitude is pushing the system to breaking point. They are talking about rises above 25 per cent over the next few years when universities are seeing budgets fall."
The resistance starts here
The academy's fightback was heralded in June by the financially troubled University of California system, which threatened to cancel its subscription to Nature journals and to organise an academic boycott of Nature Publishing Group when the publisher tried to quadruple charges for access to its e-journals.
Laine Farley, executive director of California Digital Library, the system's digital research library, said discussions with the publisher were making progress, although the two parties had "agreed not to discuss the specifics yet".
California Digital Library has presented publishers with estimates of the value of the peer review and research contributed by academics in the California system. The figures must also be shared with researchers and administrators, Ms Farley said, "to demonstrate why we need to find a better way to support scholarly publishing: there needs to be more of a market-driven response to calibrate fees with services".
Julia Blixrud, assistant executive director of scholarly communication at the Association of Research Libraries in the US, said subscription costs had long been a concern but the California case had provided a new "opening for conversation".
But in negotiations with publishers, libraries find their position compromised by journals' monopoly on their content, which academics would be loath to forgo. "Group procurement in other areas means that if one supplier's products are too expensive, you can buy them from another," Ms Estelle noted.
But to David Prosser, executive director of Research Libraries UK (RLUK), arguments about the need to preserve access become "pointless" when the money is simply not there. If costs of several big publishing packages rise sharply, something will have to be cancelled, he said.
Has kitty got claws?
Academic boycotts could strengthen the academy's hand in negotiations, but they may struggle to find sufficient support.
Hazel Woodward, university librarian at Cranfield University, said organising a boycott would be "like herding cats" because many academics would be unwilling to forgo publication in a top journal or give up prestigious editorial positions. "It is an intricate web we are caught up in, with libraries playing piggy in the middle," she said.
Ms Farley said California Digital Library had received an "overwhelming response" to its boycott proposal. "Faculty will make their own choices, but many indicated willingness to go along with it."
Ms Blixrud countered that although the California spat had engaged more researchers and administrators with the issue of journal costs, she had not heard talk of boycotts elsewhere.
That does not surprise John Houghton, professorial fellow at the Centre for Strategic Economic Studies at Australia's Victoria University. He said academics could not be expected to "shoot themselves in the foot", particularly when the global rise of research evaluation had placed an even greater premium on publishing in top journals.
He believes academia should take a principled approach and simply circumvent journals' unnecessary "tollbooth on the highway of knowledge" by self-archiving or publishing in open-access journals.
Ms Blixrud agreed that the California case had strengthened support for open access.
In the meantime, RLUK has instructed Jisc Collections to secure price reductions during its forthcoming negotiations with publishing giants Elsevier and Wiley-Blackwell.
"We want to work with publishers, but at some point researchers will say to themselves: 'If we aren't getting access, what are we getting out of the system?' They might look at California and take some inspiration from it."