Open Access News

News from the open access movement

Tuesday, September 11, 2007

Timo Hannay on PRISM and some of the debate about it

Timo Hannay, PRISM: Publishers' and Researchers' Intensifying Sense of Mistrust, Nascent (a Nature blog), September 10, 2007.  Excerpt:

For anyone who's interested here is Nature Publishing Group's (NPG's) take on PRISM: Although Nature America is a member of the AAP, we are not involved in PRISM and we have not been consulted about it. NPG has supported self-archiving in various ways (from submitting manuscripts to PubMed Central on behalf of our authors to establishing Nature Precedings), and our policies are already compliant with the proposed NIH mandate.

Those are facts. What follows is just my personal opinion.

PRISM has understandably provoked a great deal of anger among those scientists who care about how the fruits of research are communicated.  (In this sense, PRISM has achieved the exact opposite of dog-whistle politics: the only people to sit up and take notice have been those who were outraged by it. Nice work, guys.)  My main emotion, however, is closer to bewilderment. Do PRISM's proponents (whoever they are) really think that their approach will do anyone, including themselves, any good? It's tempting to suggest that they are out of touch (e.g., with the ways in which technology is changing science and scientific communication), but it's equally possible that I'm out of touch (e.g., with Beltway politics), so I guess all I can conclude is that they inhabit a different universe to the one I'm in....

The things that I find most ill advised about PRISM are the needless belligerence of the message, the crude them-and-us stance, and the distortion of complex issues into unrecognisable caricatures. I wouldn't mind so much if the issues themselves were inconsequential, but they're not. Questions about how scientific communication should be funded, and what roles government should or should not play, are central to scientific progress....

It therefore troubled me that the initial counterattacks on PRISM were themselves often lacking in nuance and discrimination. Given the high emotion generated, this was understandable, but that's not the same as saying it was correct or helpful. The most general error has been to lump all publishers together in declaring them "evil", "afraid", "money-grabbing", and so on. True, PRISM seems to have come out of the AAP, which is a publishing industry body, but right from the beginning (when I also didn't have a clue what was going on) it was fairly clear to anyone who cared to make the distinction that PRISM was not the same as the AAP....

In reinventing scientific communication for the 21st Century we face genuinely difficult challenges. Many of us, in our own different ways, are trying to find solutions. PRISM certainly doesn't help, but nor do some of the more indiscriminate responses. The best antidote to its crude belligerence is not more of the same, but an open, fair and grown-up debate. These issues are too important to be addressed in any other way.