September 24, 2007

PRISM Coalition lobbies against open access

Author: Bruce Byfield

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.'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 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 critique of the PRISM claims to its members early in September, and Suber, a senior research at the Scholarly Publishing and Academic Resources Coalition, has been regularly pointing out the inconsistencies in the PRISM claims on his 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."


  • Science & Research