Open Access News

News from the open access movement

Wednesday, January 24, 2007

Siege mentality at the AAP

Jim Giles, PR's 'pit bull' takes on open access, Nature, January 24, 2007.  Excerpt:

The author of Nail 'Em! Confronting High-Profile Attacks on Celebrities and Businesses is not the kind of figure normally associated with the relatively sedate world of scientific publishing. Besides writing the odd novel, Eric Dezenhall has made a name for himself helping companies and celebrities protect their reputations, working for example with Jeffrey Skilling, the former Enron chief now serving a 24-year jail term for fraud.

Although Dezenhall declines to comment on Skilling and his other clients, his firm, Dezenhall Resources, was also reported by Business Week to have used money from oil giant ExxonMobil to criticize the environmental group Greenpeace. "He's the pit bull of public relations," says Kevin McCauley, an editor at the magazine O'Dwyer's PR Report.

Now, Nature has learned, a group of big scientific publishers has hired the pit bull to take on the free-information movement, which campaigns for scientific results to be made freely available. Some traditional journals, which depend on subscription charges, say that open-access journals and public databases of scientific papers such as the National Institutes of Health's (NIH's) PubMed Central, threaten their livelihoods.

From e-mails passed to Nature, it seems Dezenhall spoke to employees from Elsevier, Wiley and the American Chemical Society at a meeting arranged last July by the Association of American Publishers (AAP)....

The consultant advised them to focus on simple messages, such as "Public access equals government censorship". He hinted that the publishers should attempt to equate traditional publishing models with peer review....

Dezenhall also recommended joining forces with groups that may be ideologically opposed to government-mandated projects such as PubMed Central, including organizations that have angered scientists. One suggestion was the Competitive Enterprise Institute, a conservative think-tank based in Washington DC, which has used oil-industry money to promote sceptical views on climate change. Dezenhall estimated his fee for the campaign at $300,000500,000.

In an enthusiastic e-mail sent to colleagues after the meeting, Susan Spilka, Wiley's director of corporate communications, said Dezenhall explained that publishers had acted too defensively on the free-information issue and worried too much about making precise statements. Dezenhall noted that if the other side is on the defensive, it doesn't matter if they can discredit your statements, she added: "Media massaging is not the same as intellectual debate.

Officials at the AAP would not comment to Nature on the details of their work with Dezenhall, or the money involved, but acknowledged that they had met him and subsequently contracted his firm to work on the issue.

"We're like any firm under siege," says Barbara Meredith, a vice-president at the organization. "It's common to hire a PR firm when you're under siege." She says the AAP needs to counter messages from groups such as the Public Library of Science (PLoS), an open-access publisher and prominent advocate of free access to information....


  1. I've read this several times and still find it incredible.  Why would the AAP pay $300-500k for advice on how to misrepresent the issue?  The next time you see an AAP press release on OA, ask yourself this question. 
  2. Does the AAP even need the advice?  It has been falsely identifying government archiving with government censorship, and falsely identifying threats to publisher revenue with threats to peer review, at least since the debate over the NIH policy in 2004.  For a more recent example, see its May 2006 public statement opposing FRPAA.  (Also see my rebuttal.)
  3. I hope that publisher-members of the AAP will disavow these tactics and that journalists and policy-makers will understand the difference between intellectual debate and media massage.
  4. Kudos to Nature for uncovering and reporting this story.

Correction (1/25/07). Nature posted this correction today:

In the original version of this story, Susan Spilka was reported as emailing a note that said "Media massaging is not the same as intellectual debate." It should have read "Media messaging", and has been changed accordingly.