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Open-access debate gets personal

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Tensions between advocates and opponents of open access increase with the launch of a new partnership that is aimed at protecting the integrity of scientific research, reports Nadya Anscombe

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’ while 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 recent 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.

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

However, some scholars have launched scathing attacks on the partnership. Stevan Harnad from the American Scientist Open Access Forum called PRISM ‘an antiopen-access lobbying organisation’. In an article for Open Access Archivangelism he wrote: ‘The online era has made possible an obvious benefit for research, and the publishing lobby is trying to resist adapting to it. What needs to be kept clearly in mind is that research is not conducted and funded as a service to the publishing industry, but vice versa.’ Meanwhile Peter Suber, a professor at Earlham College (Richmond, USA) has accused PRISM of ‘cloaking its real concern about publisher revenue with “worries” about the integrity of scholarship and peer review.’

Keeping governments out of publishing

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 antigovernment-interference in the scholarly communications process.’

The ‘government interference’ that PRISM is referring to is the proposed US Senate Bill 2695 which would require not-for-profit and commercial journals to surrender their peer-reviewed articles to the federal government when the underlying research is funded with tax money.

PRISM believes that such a scenario could jeopardise the financial viability of the journals that conduct peer review, placing the entire scholarly communication process at risk. The organisation hopes to educate legislators and other policymakers about what it calls ‘the unintended consequences of government agency mandates’.  And PRISM is not alone it its views.  The USA’s Copyright Alliance and the Washington DC Principles for Free Access to Science – a coalition of 75 non-profit publishers – are also campaigning against Senate Bill 2695.

AAP’s Crawford rejects the notion that governments need to act to ‘fix’ the scientific journal publishing system. PRISM believes that journal publishers respond to the changing needs of users, scientists and the public without prompting from government and that a ‘one-size-fits-all’ approach to scientific publishing ignores the complexity and variety of business models that already exist. ‘Publishers embrace and encourage the various business models that exist within the market. Intervention from Congress would interfere with an already well-functioning and adaptable system,’ said Crawford. ‘My answer to the open-access debate is, “give it time”. 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.’

Considering the tax-payers

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 pointed out: ‘Most scientific research is funded by tax-payers. Most researcher salaries are paid by tax-payers. Most tollaccess journal subscriptions are paid by tax-payers. And publishers receive both the articles and the referee reports as donations from authors and referees.’ He continued: ‘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 tax-payers 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.

The debate is further clouded by the fact that, despite having its origins in AAP, PRISM does not have the support of all AAP’s 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-review,’ he wrote.

What’s in a name?

Rossner’s criticism of PRISM even extends to the organisation’s choice of name. He objects to the use of the term ‘research integrity’ in the title of PRISM. As he explained in the letter, ‘The common use of this term refers to whether the data presented are accurate representations of what was actually observed. In other words, has any misconduct occurred? This is not the primary concern of peer reviewers, who ask whether the data presented support the conclusions drawn. It is thus incorrect to link the term research integrity directly with peer review.’

So what’s next for PRISM? Despite the heavy torrent of criticism, AAP’s Crawford believes it was necessary to form the organisation. ‘The group of scholars that want government interference is a very vocal one. The majority of scholars just want to get on with good research and get their work published in the highest-quality journals. We felt it would be useful for us publishers to have some advocates and allies in such a hostile environment, hence the formation of PRISM,’ commented Crawford. ‘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.’

A library perspective

While legislators, scholars and publishers battle it out over open access, it is the librarians that seem to have the most balanced view on the issue.  Rick Anderson, associate director for scholarly resources and collection at the Marriott Library, University of Utah, USA said: ‘These issues are, in fact, quite complex, and the more input we can get from those likely to be affected by commercial and legislative developments in the realm of scholarly communication the better.’

He believes that open access offers real benefits to society. However, the net value of those benefits cannot be determined unless its costs are computed as well. He wants to see participants in the scholarly information chain not fighting against open access. Instead he wants to see them moving forward while taking full account of costs as well as benefits, and working towards solutions that offer a net benefit to society. In a paper in the April 2007 edition of the journal Learned Publishing, he stated: ‘To the degree that society benefits more from research than from public access to research, and to the degree that it benefits from the continued viability of the publishing industry (both for-profit and nonprofit), the solutions that serve the public best may turn out to offer something less than complete and immediate free public access to all scientific information.’