Open Access News

News from the open access movement

Tuesday, September 04, 2007

Alma Swan on PRISM

Alma Swan, Watch your language, OptimalScholarship, September 4, 2007.  Read the whole thing, but here’s an excerpt to get you started:

I know that I am late in writing about the launch of PRISM, the coalition of publishers and, well, publishers, that purports to represent ‘research integrity’. I hope I don’t sound too new age if I say I was exploring my reactions to their opening salvo. I know a lot of bloggers and journalists have had a field day doling out ridicule, and others have patiently demolished PRISM’s arguments point by point (once again), and yet others have given vent to outrage. I’ve decided that primarily I just feel very sad and, secondarily, disappointed. 

Why? Because of the level of dishonesty and distortion in PRISM’s language, primarily, and because of further evidence that the partners in this ‘coalition’ are just not doing what I had hoped they would eventually do, which is to see clearly and act well....

Many people argue for Open Access on the grounds that publishers make too much profit, but that is skating on very thin ice. There are very good reasons for Open Access but this isn’t one of them....And yes, I know all the arguments about how this particular market doesn’t work properly, but we can’t expect businesses operating in it to come over all soppy and turn themselves into public services.

That, however, is exactly what they appear to be trying to do in this PRISM blurbage. And they are not only portraying themselves as mediators and curators of the integrity of research (and they know full well that the term ‘research integrity’ already has a very specific, community-embedded usage) but as custodians of the moral high ground. Their language is carefully contrived to tell untruths in the most plausible way. Phrases like ‘surrender to the government’ do sound risible, I know, and my first reaction was to giggle, but the more I read, the more incredulity settled upon me. The PRISM publishers (it is not clear who exactly they are but the list of members of the sponsoring body, the AAP, is long and includes the big commercial publishers, scholarly societies and university presses) are conflating peer review, governmental influence in the form of legislation that all publicly-funded research results should be freely available (spectacularly termed ‘censorship’ at one point: hey, don’t hold back, PRISM publishers), creator copyright, and preservation all into one argument, which is essentially that without the current scholarly publishing ‘free market’ [sic: their terminology] the whole shebang would implode. They know very well that it won’t, that peer review continues as usual under an Open Access model, and that there is no question of censorship by government. There is even an attempt to equate Open Access with ‘junk science’. Dishonourable conduct, ladies and gentlemen.

Should we be surprised, after the Dezenhall/pitbull revelations? Frankly, yes. Seeing what advice such a person would come up with was a legitimate tactic, worth exploring, and par for the course in the world of big business. Wherever there are lots of dollars to be made, play gets tough. There is, though, a difference between playing tough and playing dirty. Dirty this is, and that’s one reason why I’m sad about it all.

Pat Schroeder, quoted on the PRISM website says: “We want to share as much scientific and medical information as possible with the entire world. That’s why we got into this business in the first place.” No, ma’am. Your business works by restricting access to the information you have in your grasp. As long as that is your business model, you can’t claim the opposite. You got into the business to do what such businesses are expected to do, which is to make money. There is nothing shameful in that, but there is in telling porkies.

I said I was both sad and disappointed....Along with a raft of threats, [there are] a whole host of opportunities for publishers who are uniquely placed to solve the problems that will roll along with the changes, all the way along the value chain. I’d really like publishers to look a bit more strategically at the course of events and use their business skills to capitalise on them, providing for the research community the new services it will need over the next decades. A few, and two big publishing names in particular, are already doing so. Let’s hope others follow. There are a lot of moving targets, to be sure, and that invokes nervousness. At such times, one nervous twitch can mean shooting yourself in the foot (viz PRISM). Better to put the gun down and do something constructive....