Open Access News

News from the open access movement

Thursday, September 27, 2007

More on PRISM

Alexis Madrigal, Foundations of Science: Research Integrity or Publisher Profits?  Wired News, September 26, 2007.  Excerpt:

We'd like to introduce a new regular feature here at WiSci that we're calling, The Foundations of Science (FOS). These posts will scrutinize organizations that claim the mantle of science but may or may not be scientific at all. We'll provide you with information about who funds these groups, their biases, and why they were founded to help you evaluate the claims that these thinktank-like outfits make each day in the media.

Up first is the Partnership for Research Integrity in Science & Medicine (PRISM). During the past week, we've been covering the PR war between traditional science publishers and their open access counterparts. Traditional publishers created PRISM in response to potential government legislation that they think could impact their bottom-lines.

Organization: Partnership for Research Integrity in Science & Medicine
Acronym: PRISM
The Wired Take: As a contribution to the debate about open access, PRISM is not a good resource. While it represents the polemics of one side of the debate well, it does not answer the real question we're all asking publishers: why should their traditional subscription model for scientific journals be the dominant avenue for dissemination of peer reviewed scientific research?

Funded By: The Executive Council of the Professional & Scholarly Publishing Division of the Association of American Publishers (AAP)
Council Chair: Brian D. Crawford, Senior VP, Journals Publishing Group, Publications Division, American Chemical Society
Council Vice Chair: Michael Hays, Managing Director, Global Publishing McGraw-Hill Higher Education
Primary Purpose:
Governmental lobbying, public relations
Statement to Wired: “At this time, anything we have to say is contained on the website.” Sara Firestone, Director, Professional & Scholarly Publishing Division

The organization's name is misleading. The group's primary purpose is not "research integrity," even according to the group's own website. The site's stated mission is to "educate policy makers and the American people about the risks posed by government intervention in scholarly publishing." It takes several logical steps, and maybe some leaps, to link that mission to research integrity....

PRISM’s bigger argument is that mandating open-access would hurt science itself by dismantling the peer review process. Some worry that the law would, as one Wired commenter put it, "weaken the peer-review journals; mak[ing] them vulnerable financially by curtailing their revenue streams. Who wins? Cooked science." This reasoning conflates the survival of traditional publishers’ current business with the survival of peer-review itself. This can’t really be supported by the facts. While traditional journals are the dominant practitioners of peer review, some open access journals are also peer reviewed. If we believe in markets, it also stands to reason that there is significant money to be made in peer-reviewed scientific literature, and that some entrepreneur (social or traditional) would find a workable model....

What’s interesting is that PRISM's real targets are not open access journals themselves, but its own customers, i.e., libraries. Take a look at who is behind the public website promoting FRPPA: the Alliance for Taxpayer Access, which is run by "an initiative" of the Association of Research Libraries. We assume that at least one reason they support OA is that it would allow them to cut their journal costs, which PRISM would call its publishers' revenue.

So, it's not just disinterested angels of pure science on the open access side versus evil corporate hacks on the traditional side. All parties are looking out for their own interests and pushing the business model that works best for them. Of course, research libraries, with their good-looking if a bit bookish librarians and more limited budgets, cut slightly more sympathetic figures than Elsevier or McGraw Hill....

As a contribution to this real debate, PRISM is not a good resource. Its orientation is polemic, not scientific.


  • For a full-length rebuttal to the PRISM claim that OA will undermine peer review, see my article in SOAN from earlier this month.
  • Libraries and library organizations make no bones about their support for OA.  There's nothing secretive or deceptive about it, and nothing dishonest in their arguments for OA.  They want OA in part to make their slow-growing budgets go further in serving faculty and students, especially in the face of skyrocketing journal prices, and they want it in part to advance their long-standing, pre-OA, and pre-internet mission to facilitate access to knowledge.
  • It's a mistake to leave the impression that libraries are the only stakeholders fighting for OA or that the only interests at stake are financial.  For example, there are more patient advocacy groups than libraries on the membership list of the Alliance for Taxpayer Access, and they want OA in order to accelerate medical research that will help patients.  Period.  Researchers have career incentives but not financial incentives to want OA:  it helps authors by increasing their audience and impact, and it helps readers by removing access barriers to the research they need.  Taxpayers want OA for publicly-funded research in part for simple fairness, in part to make that research as useful as possible, and in part to maximize the return on the very large public investment in research.   For a good statement of many of these interests, see the open letter from 26 Nobel laureates in science calling for an OA mandate at the NIH (July 2007).
  • We don't have consider anyone a "disinterested angel of pure science" in order to recognize that the stakeholders working for OA are many and varied and that their interests in advancing OA are not analogous to the financial interests of PRISM members in opposing it.