Open access debate gets personal

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The debate on open access has descended into bickering, blogging and spinning by the very people who should be working together to make open access work.

Publishers have accused governments of 'interfering'; scholars have accused publishers of 'fear mongering' and of being in an industry 'trying to favour its corporate interests over the public interest without quite saying so'. At the same time, publishers have also accused open access advocates of 'rhetorical excesses'.

Much of the mud-slinging has been prompted by the formation of the Partnership for Research Integrity in Science and Medicine (PRISM) by the American Association of Publishers (AAP). The partnership, which is aimed at bringing together like-minded scholarly societies, publishers and researchers, has caused controversy from the outset.

Some scholars have launched scathing attacks on the partnership. Stevan Harnad from the American Scientist Open Access Forum called PRISM 'an anti-open-access lobbying organisation'.

Meanwhile Peter Suber, a professor at Earlham College (Richmond, US) has accused PRISM of 'cloaking its real concern about publisher revenue with 'worries' about the integrity of scholarship and peer review.'

In PRISM’s defence, Brian Crawford, chairman of the executive council of AAP’s professional and scholarly publishing division told Research Information: 'We are not anti-open access. If we are anti-anything, we are anti-government-interference in the scholarly communications process.'

PRISM is concerned that government interference in scientific publishing would force journals to give away their intellectual property and weaken the copyright protections that motivate journal publishers to make the enormous investments in content and infrastructure needed to ensure widespread access to journal articles.

Such a scenario could jeopardise the financial viability of the journals that conduct peer review, placing the entire scholarly communication process at risk.

'My answer to the open access debate is 'give it time',' says Crawford. 'The market will decide which publishing business model is best. Funding agencies do have their own economic power and authors have a choice as to where they publish their papers.'

However, open access supporter Suber is particularly cutting about PRISM's claim that 'the free market of scholarly publishing is responsive to the needs of scholars and scientists, and balances the interests of all stakeholders'.

In his Open Access News blog, he points out: 'Most scientific research is funded by taxpayers. Most researcher salaries are paid by taxpayers. Most toll-access journal subscriptions are paid by taxpayers. And publishers receive both the articles and the referee reports as donations from authors and referees.'

He continues: ‘Publishers don’t actually say that government money and policymaking should keep out of this sector, because that would really undermine their revenue. What they want is government intervention in all these areas except public access to publicly-funded research. What they want is the present arrangement of government subsidies for the work they publish, government subsidies for their own subscription fees, volunteer labour from authors and peer reviewers, double-payments from taxpayers who want access - and the label 'free market' to wrap it all up in.'

PRISM on the other hand makes the point that the processes of peer-review, promotion, distribution and archiving of articles are not free and are paid for by private sector publishers, and not with tax-payers money.

However the organisation does not have the support of all AAP members. In an open letter to the AAP, Mike Rossner, executive director of The Rockefeller University Press said: 'We at the Rockefeller University Press strongly disagree with the spin that has been placed on the issue of open access by PRISM… The [PRISM] website implies that the National Institutes of Health (and other funding agencies who mandate release of content after a short delay) are advocating the demise of peer review.'

'Nothing could be further from the truth. These agencies completely understand the need to balance public access to journal content with the necessity for publishers to recoup the costs of peer reveiw,' he writes.

So what happens next? Despite the heavy torrent of criticism, its business as usual for PRISM.

As AAP's Crawford says: 'We are currently in the process of asking our members if they want to join PRISM. As its title implies, PRISM is a broad-based organisation involving many different organisations and individuals not just publishers. We think it is important that publishers are allowed to chose their own business model and see if the public supports it.'