PRISM: should I worry?

The last week has seen a spate of immediate reaction to the newly formed PRISM – the (American?) publishers’ lobby to destroy non-commercial open access.  There is so much (germane) comment that there is no need for me to duplicate it, so I try to add a new aspect here – should I care?
Here are Peter Suber’s (almost daily) collections of rebuttals of PRISM’s position, “facts” and “logic”. If you are starting from scratch read these from PeterS:

PMR: So far there does not appear to be any response from PRISM. I am assuming that PeterS would immediately post any information whether firsthand or from another blog. So I’ll assume there hasn’t been any – and I don’t expect any.
PMR: Here are the two posts which I found closest to interpreting the motivation and strategy of PRISM, which are critical if we are to work out how to react.
[1]From John Dupuis at Confessions of a Science Librarian:
  • …I would like to talk a little about the makeup of The Executive Council of the Professional & Scholarly Publishing Division [which launched PRISM].

  • Who are the members of this Committee? Sure, the usual suspects, representatives of the major commercial publishers such as a bunch from Elsevier, John Wiley & Sons, McGraw Hill, Wolters Kluwer Health, Springer Science + Business Media, SAGE Publications, ISI Thomson Scientific….Given that they are for-profit companies, however, it’s not surprising that they would act to protect their profits….Thank god, you’re thinking, that the list above does not include any representatives from scholarly or professional societies. Surely they must understand the importance of free and open access to information, something which can surely only benefit their members, scholarship and society as a whole. Sadly, the Exec Committee also includes members from the IEEE (2, including the chair of the journals committee), American Chemical Society (2, including the chair), American Society of Clinical Oncology, New England Journal of Medicine, Columbia University Press, MIT Press, American Academy of Pediatrics, American Institute of Physics and University of Chicago Press. Unfortunately, scholarly societies see OA as a threat to the income from their publishing programs, which is used to finance all the other membership programs that they have like conferences and continuing education. It’s really unfortunate that they can’t see past these concerns to what the true interest of their members is: for their research to have as high an impact as possible and, as a byproduct of that impact, to benefit scholarship in their discipline and, hopefully, society as a whole as much as possible….

[2] John Blossom, PRISM Promotes the Interests of Scientific Publishers: Is it Better to Lobby or to Change? ContentBlogger, August 29, 2007. Excerpt:

Wired Science has the most in-your-face coverage of the formation of PRISM, an advocacy group formed by scholarly publishers to stem the legislative movement towards free access to government-funded scholarly research. This in and of itself is not a surprise, but Wired claims that the site is an example of astroturf advocacy, meaning an organization that tries to position itself as a grass-roots movement when in fact it is created by others wanting to appear to have grass roots support. PRISM is the creation of the Association of American Publishers, so one assumes that the roots of this organization are more likely to grow in the yards of scholarly publishers than the scientists providing the research….
The primary problem with PRISM is that it seems to be advocating on a range of issues which, while valid in their own right, are more about fear, uncertainty and doubt – those familiar sales tools – than the real issues at hand….
[The claim that OA will undermine peer review] seems to be somewhat disingenuous, in that there may be alternative methods for supporting effective peer review that have not been explored by scientific publishers. Certainly a government-mandated publishing of research for free that doesn’t take into account how that research is produced has the potential to be an unfunded mandate that could place an undue burden on scientific publishers. This is a real issue, but the answers to the issue may not lie with the government itself – they may lie with addressing how the peer review process is funded in general….
Surely politics should stay out of science, but there’s no indication at this time that the government would have the ability to influence the peer review process politically through these proposed [OA] mandates any more than it does today….
If the purpose of PRISM is to convince legislators that there is an advocacy group that supports the publishers’ goals then my sense is that they are going to fail. The site is not very convincing and lacks information about its supporters or any input from them that would influence people into thinking that there is a broad base of support for PRISM’s views. PRISM does raise some important issues that need to be addressed in the rush to make access to government-funded research public, especially in how to support the peer review process realistically in an era in which public access to research is becoming a given. But the broader outlines of the solutions to many of these problems would seem to lie in how the scholarly publishing community has resisted changes in publishing technologies that disrupt their traditional business models.
With some added focus and some sponsorship of honest debate between government research sponsors, scientists and publishers PRISM may yet serve a positive and constructive purpose as an advocacy group. But if PRISM remains little more than an “astroturf” organization that defends the commercial interests of publishers then it’s not likely to gain the needed respect from any of the parties that it needs to influence in this debate. Publishers in general are reluctant to engage their markets in a more conversational manner, but if scholarly publishers can position PRISM as a tool to build an honest conversation about the future of commercial and non-commercial scholarly publishing then they may be able to make some headway. At the moment I wouldn’t bet on that happening, but you never know.

PMR: The first thing to understand, especially for non-Americans such as me, is that this is in large part an American activity. Agreed that there are several large mulitnational publishers who are not strictly American, but in general it’s highly US-centric.
This type of activity is not new and for those of us who tackled the issues with Pubchem will have seen rhetoric such as  from Rudy Baum: C&EN [Amer. Chem. Soc.]: Editor’s Page – Socialized Science [2004]

National Institutes of Health director Elias A. Zerhouni seems hell-bent on imposing an “open access” model of publishing on researchers receiving NIH grants. His action will inflict long-term damage on the communication of scientific results and on maintenance of the archive of scientific knowledge.
More important, Zerhouni’s action is the opening salvo in the open-access movement’s unstated, but clearly evident, goal of placing responsibility for the entire scientific enterprise in the federal government’s hand. Open access, in fact, equates with socialized science.
Late on Friday, Sept. 3, NIH posted its proposed new policy on its website, setting in motion a 60-day public comment period (C&EN, Sept. 13, page 7). Under the policy, once manuscripts describing research supported by NIH have been peer reviewed and accepted for publication, they would have to be submitted to PubMed Central, NIH’s free archive of biomedical research. The manuscripts would be posted on the site six months after journal publication.
Many observers believe that, if the NIH policy takes effect, other funding agencies will quickly follow suit. In short order, all research supported by the federal government would be posted on government websites six months after publication. This is unlikely to satisfy open-access advocates, who will continue to push for immediate posting of the research.
I find it incredible that a Republican Administration would institute a policy that will have the long-term effect of shifting responsibility for communicating scientific research and maintaining the archive of science, technology, and medical (STM) literature from the private sector to the federal government. It’s especially hard to understand because access to the STM literature is more open today than it ever has been: Anyone can do a search of the literature and obtain papers that interest them, so long as they are willing to pay a reasonable fee for access to the material.
What is important to realize is that a subscription to an STM journal is no longer what people used to think of as a subscription; in fact, it is an access fee to a database maintained by the publisher. Sure, many libraries still receive weekly or monthly copies of journals printed on paper and bound as part of their subscription. Those paper copies of journals are becoming artifacts of a publishing world that is fast receding into the past. What matters is the database of articles in electronic form.
Which is, I suspect, the outcome desired by open-access advocates. Their unspoken crusade is to socialize all aspects of science, putting the federal government in charge of funding science, communicating science, and maintaining the archive of scientific knowledge. If that sounds like a good idea to you, then NIH’s open-access policy should suit you just fine.

I have not posted this in full as it’s copyright, but I have given the weblink and I am sure its author would wish as many people as possible to read it. I suspect it will echo the thoughts and motivations of the other PRISMites. It is significant that the terminology used here “private sector”, “socialized science”, “putting the federal government in charge” closely echoes the PRISM language.
So what is PRISM’s purpose? I suspect it is primarily to lobby the political process in the US to put pressure on the NIH to withdraw or moderate its support for Open Access. (I cannot envisage they are going to convince the Wellcome Trust to stop funding “junk science” by engaging in Socratic debate. Indeed I don’t think PRISM care anything for the scientific community except as a source of revenue. ) What they intend to do is use their junk facts and arguments to convince congressmen and governors in the US to support their cause.
Should I care? Yes, because we cannot afford to lose any battles. This will be hard fought and probably dirty and it may not be easy to see when and where the lobbying is. See this newsreport about a Governor overstepping the line. If, as we managed in the Pubchem struggle for Open Data, we are able to convince the US politicians that Open Access is for the benefit of us all then we make the next step easier. And if we lose it gets harder. OA is a series of skirmishes.
So by all means demolish their arguments and provide our own. But also keep a very close watch.
In conclusion I see no need for any non-American publishers to take the slightest involvement in PRISM. It is so clearly a US political lobbying organisation without other substance that a mid-rank, especially society, publisher would have nothing to gain and considerable reputation to lose. I very much hope that the people I know in the publishing industry will try to dissuade their organizations to steer clear.
Unfortunately I now have the feeling that battle lines have been drawn. I had hoped there might be a gentle evolution (if far too slow) towards more modern approaches. Now I think we see a fracture line.

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2 Responses to PRISM: should I worry?

  1. baoilleach says:

    Unfortunately, Cambridge University Press is also in there. :-/

  2. pm286 says:

    (1) do you have an explicit web page that shows this?

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