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Feature: Science & Research

PRISM Coalition lobbies against open access

By Bruce Byfield on September 24, 2007 (9:00:00 PM)

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Forces are mashaling to oppose the open access movement, the open source-inspired movement to make academic research publicly available online. The American Association of Publishers (AAP) recently announced the creation of the Partnership for Research Integrity in Science and Medicine (PRISM), an apparent lobby group organized to resist efforts to compel academic publishers to make publicly funded research generally available. PRISM's methods appear eerily similar to those used to oppose legislation to make public documents available in an open format, as well as the actions against free downloads by such organizations as the Motion Picture Association of America and the Recording Industry Association of America.

"It's really designed to oppose open access with all kinds of misinformation," says Leslie Chan, a senior lecturer at the University of Toronto and one of the founding members of the open access movement.

Little is known about PRISM or its supporters, aside from the fact that they are using AAP resources. Linux.com's request for an interview received a response from Sara Firestone, the director of the professional and scholarly publishing division of the AAP, asking what questions would be asked. We submitted a list of questions, but Firestone and the AAP ignored subsequent attempts at contact.

However, PRISM may have its roots in a meeting in July 2006 between public relations expert Eric Dezenhall, whose company organized a campaign on behalf of ExxonMobil against the environmental group Greenpeace, and employees of Reed Elsevier and Wylie -- two of the largest academic publishing firms -- and representatives of the American Chemical Society. According to an article on Nature.com published in January, Dezenhall advised those at the meeting on how best to combat open access. Among his suggestions was that publishers should equate public access with government censorship and a lack of peer review, which is widely regarded as a measure of academic soundness and integrity.

The first result of the meeting with Dezenhall seems to have been the resistance in the last year to the Federal Research Public Access Act (FRPAA), a bipartisan bill introduced in the United States last year. According to Chan, the AAP responded to the bill by distributing a letter to enlist the paid staffs of academic professional associations in the resistance to it.

In many cases, this effort resulted in a split between the staff and boards or steering committees of professional associations. For instance, in the American Anthropological Association, the executive director endorsed the AAP letter on behalf of the association without consultation, arguing that the letter demanded an urgent response. When the steering committee of AnthroSource, an online database of anthropological journals, wrote a letter protesting the unilateral action and attempted to pass a bylaw that would prevent the executive director from similar unilateral arguments in the future, a conflict ensued that ended with the association staff forcing out the members of the steering committee.

"Debate never reached the members," said Chan, who was a member of the AnthroSource steering committee. "That was unfortunate, because one of the things we were hoping for was public debate. But it never really materialized."

Meanwhile, by creating similar situations throughout the North American academic community, the AAP was able to create the illusion that a majority of its members opposed open access -- even though at least some of them were advocating it.

Now, with PRISM, the AAP appears to be creating a similar illusion of support from all its members. Exactly which publishers support PRISM is not publicly known, although Peter Suber, a senior research at the Scholarly Publishing and Academic Resources Coalition who blogs on the subject of open access, summarizes the inferences that Reed Elsevier and Cengage Learning, two of the largest academic publishers, are among them. However, PRISM's Web site and public statements are written to "create the impression that all members of the AAP are behind the initiative," says Chan, while the group remains vague on exactly whom it represents.

In addition, PRISM's site is full of statements that members of the free software community would have no hesitation in identifying as FUD. The site's Current Issue page includes exactly the same arguments that Dezenhall suggested making more than a year ago. In addition, the page argues that open access has "the potential for introducing selective bias into the scientific record" if required by the government, and warns that government data repositories are "subject to budget uncertainties." The page also warns of the dangers of increased government spending to compete with private publishers and "expropriation of publishers' investments in copyrighted articles" and the "undermining of copyright holders."

Even at a superficial glance, such claims are obvious attempts to mislead. Peer review and its quality have nothing to do with how research is published, and many of the points on the PRISM site could apply equally well to government-funded research of any sort. Moreover, neither open access advocates or FRPAA advocate government involvement or "even a particular model of access," says Chan.

All the same, PRISM's claims were accepted uncritically in many reports about PRISM, such as the ones that appeared in Publisher's Weekly and Information World Review.

However, rebuttals of PRISM's claims have been almost as quick. Some AAP members, such as Rockefeller University Press's Executive Director Mike Rossner, were quick to issue statements saying that they did not support the PRISM position. The Association of Research Libraries distributed a Open Access News blog. Under such scrutiny, it seems unlikely that the PRISM world view is going to appeal to many other than those already predisposed to it.

Chan suggests that PRISM represents an industry that advocates protectionism instead of embracing new innovations. "The publishers have only themselves to fear," he says. "They shouldn't be fearing government or people who advocate open access. They should be afraid of other smart people who are going to run with the open access business model. It's like the music publishers being so afraid of the little guys downloading that they forgot to look out for Apple [with iTunes]."

Yet, in a way, Chan sees the emergence of PRISM as an ironic sign of hope. Like the free software movement, open access's career can be neatly summarized by the well-known quote attributed to Gandhi: "First they ignore you, then they laugh at you, then they fight you, then you win." With the emergence of PRISM, Chan says, "We're now in the third stage -- they're actively fighting us. That's an indication that open access is here to stay."

Bruce Byfield is a computer journalist who writes regularly for Linux.com.

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PRISM Coalition lobbies against open access

Posted by: Anonymous [ip: 66.66.152.74] on September 24, 2007 11:28 PM
Publicly funded studies should be, by default, be published to the public. I mean not just the results but, the data as well. So is PRISM a deliberate attempt to conceal information from the public?


While I fully acknowledge the danger of data being analyzed by those that may not have the skills required, it would appear to be equally dangerous to be in a position where results or conclusions are spoon-fed the the general populace.


It makes sense to me to have data out there that can be analyzed by more than one party/organization. Can you say second opinion?


My $.02, openly expressed,


gnulinuxgeek

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Re: PRISM Coalition lobbies against open access

Posted by: Anonymous [ip: 24.7.70.10] on September 25, 2007 05:39 AM
Well, open access doesn't really have much to do with keeping data proprietary or making it easily available. Technically, all data generated by publicly funded, and a good deal of privately funded research are available on demand. That's part of the scientific peer review process. Industry data are more difficult to access for obvious reasons, but reasonable demands can still be made when the public interest is involved, and the results have been published in a peer reviewed journal. Open access is instead concerned with making the publications resulting from research freely (as in beer) available. Journal publishers of course do not want this to happen, since they make their money off their publications. And there's nothing wrong with that from one point of view: anyone has access if they pay. The problem is that journal costs continue to accelerate, and many academic institutions are heavily burdened by attempting to keep up with the costs. So in this way, public access is limited. And I should make clear here that the major part of the public of interest is not any Joe-schmo who wishes to access and analyze data that they are not familiar with, but scientists and other researchers who need to have access to published results. A fair and reasonable compromise would be to keep the journals closed for some time after publication and then release them for free (again as in beer). We reasonably cannot expect private publishing houses to print for free; they would rapidly go bankrupt. But, the papers must be made available without burdening both public and private institutions.

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publicly funded, publicly owned

Posted by: gus3 on September 25, 2007 07:22 AM
"And I should make clear here that the major part of the public of interest is not any Joe-schmo who wishes to access and analyze data that they are not familiar with"



Why not? That joe-schmo may very well raise a point that the edjumucated scholar missed (or, sometimes, refused to acknowledge). After all, that joe-schmo bought it with his tax dollars.

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Re(1): PRISM Coalition lobbies against open access

Posted by: Anonymous [ip: 198.240.213.26] on September 25, 2007 09:42 AM
"We reasonably cannot expect private publishing houses to print for free" - -

We don't need them to print at all. This is 2007, not 1987. The research papers need to be on the Web, not on pulped dead trees.

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Re(2): PRISM Coalition lobbies against open access

Posted by: Anonymous [ip: 218.19.199.227] on December 14, 2007 02:44 AM
Yes, I agree.

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Bruce, thanks for this article

Posted by: Anonymous [ip: 198.240.213.26] on September 25, 2007 09:48 AM
I think you underestimate the power of lobbies like PRISM. They are well-funded out of the revenue stream that they are extorting from us, whereas the good guys are not funded at all. Our only chance is to bring the matter out into the open, as you are helping to do.

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PRISM Coalition lobbies against open access

Posted by: Anonymous [ip: 67.38.148.20] on September 26, 2007 02:18 AM
"That joe-schmo may very well raise a point that the edjumucated scholar missed (or, sometimes, refused to acknowledge)"
Yes, the usual wishful thinking. Rocket science ain't easy, so stop pretending that it is.
"This is 2007, not 1987. The research papers need to be on the Web, not on pulped dead trees."
That's not at all accurate. Most journals do publish online now, but just because you are publishing online does not mean that your costs disappear! You know, staff have to be paid. Don't get me wrong; I am _not_ in favour of for-profit journals, but asking them to give their products is not that answer. The public access movement would do better to focus on society-sponsored journals whose costs are minimal to free. My experience with a lot of the public access movement is that they want the commercial journals because of their high impact, but they don't want to pay for them. No free lunch dudes.

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PRISM Coalition lobbies against open access

Posted by: Anonymous [ip: 203.135.10.21] on September 26, 2007 06:26 AM
I think a good compromise would be to allow exclusive publishing rights for a time, but the data should be available from day one. My thought is that a Journal can create a well-edited article on the research and they should have the right to not compete against other entities that wish to profit from it (there is only so much money to be made in academic publishing--mostly by academic libraries). But, if it is publicly funded, the research data should be available for other researchers and the public. A fictional example would be for the Agriculture Research institute at State University to use a federal grant to study the effect of some bug infestation on some certain crops. Well, the institute should make that research available on the internet, but the conclusions by the researchers might be published exclusively in the Horticultural Science Review for one year, but since their conclusions were part of the grant, they should then be required to publish that freely on their institute website after that year. Or, the Horticultural Science Review could be creative and pay the researcher for a special article that is much more exciting and they might then have a full copyright on that article they actually paid for. But, the data and grant funded conclusion should be open and publicly available. This would be akin to many Universities having rights to the dissertations of its PhD students for their particular school or library, but then that student can clean up the dissertation and make it more interesting and readable for publishing to a larger market.

Of course, not being a researcher or publisher, my ideas could really miss some of the important issue. In the end however, I don't think a commercial or non-profit entity should have exclusive rights to something paid for by tax payers unless they buy that data and essentially pay the tax-payers back!

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PRISM Coalition lobbies against open access

Posted by: Anonymous [ip: unknown] on September 26, 2007 11:20 AM
ya ur right..i agree with u

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PRISM Coalition lobbies against open access

Posted by: Anonymous [ip: 70.244.173.123] on September 27, 2007 07:46 AM
Scientists do what their financial backers tell them to. If the NSF and NIH mandated all funded projects be published in some online journal, the scientists will do just that. If the online journal is where everyone publishes, then that's what everyone will read. Unless the publishers buy off enough politicians (a definite possibility), they are fucked.

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Re: PRISM Coalition lobbies against open access

Posted by: Anonymous [ip: 71.156.176.46] on September 27, 2007 02:47 PM
This thing about online journals keeps coming up in this thread. Why do you all think that online journal publishing if free?! Most journals do publish online, and access in general is _not_ free. It _costs_ a lot of money to publish a journal, whether it is on paper or in bits. So even if, as you say, financial backers (this is a very poor and inaccurate term) mandated online publication, as NIH has thought about doing, the problem would be to either find enough free (as in beer) online journals of high quality, or to convince commercial publishers to grant open access. The former option is still very inadequate. There is a growing number of good, open access online journals, but not enough of them. They are in general run by scientists and scientific societies, and no, so far there has been very little "tax payer" support for them. That means a lot of time and money coming from the personal funds of scientists, not government funds. And trust me, it's a lot of work. The second option has seen some progress: some journals will now allow you to make your article open access if you pay a fee. Sometimes the "financial backers" will provide funds for this, but mostly no. So again, you are asking scientists to shell out hundreds to thousands of dollars of either limited research funds or personal funds so that someone else can read their article for free. The best solutions I think are: (1) continue to promote the growth of non-profit open access journals, and (2) convince commerical publishers to open access to journals after a period of time has elapsed.
To reiterate -- online publishing does not equal free.

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PRISM Coalition lobbies against open access

Posted by: Anonymous [ip: 83.8.240.20] on October 11, 2007 02:54 AM
Thanks for very interesting article. Keep up the good work. Regards
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PRISM Coalition lobbies against open access

Posted by: Anonymous [ip: 89.61.228.164] on November 01, 2007 03:23 AM
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