Miss PRISM has a rat up her pants

Alma Swan is one of the most insightful scholar/researcher/facilitator/commentators in the scholarly communication arena and I am delighted to be collaborating with her (on an Open Data project). Her writing is always careful and attractive to read. I’d tried to cut some out for brevity, but can’t…

I know that I am late in writing about the launch of PRISM, the coalition of publishers and, well, publishers, that purports to represent ‘research integrity’. I hope I don’t sound too new age if I say I was exploring my reactions to their opening salvo. I know a lot of bloggers and journalists have had a field day doling out ridicule, and others have patiently demolished PRISM’s arguments point by point (once again), and yet others have given vent to outrage. I’ve decided that primarily I just feel very sad and, secondarily, disappointed.

Why? Because of the level of dishonesty and distortion in PRISM’s language, primarily, and because of further evidence that the partners in this ‘coalition’ are just not doing what I had hoped they would eventually do, which is to see clearly and act well. […]

Until PRISM, it still seemed that these companies, if not exactly the most popular kids on the block, at least maintained some absolute integrity. They do what such businesses are meant to do – they maximise their profits, they operate within the law, they look after their employees. I speak from the perspective of one who, along with the rest of the staff of Pergamon Press (and other companies under the Maxwell Communications Corporation umbrella), once had to digest the news that many years’ pension contributions did not, anymore, reside safely in our pension scheme, did not reside anywhere in fact, but had been spent by our erstwhile employer to prop up his failing businesses. By that time, though, we had all become employees of Elsevier Science which announced – gratifyingly swiftly – that Elsevier would restore the shortfall for us all. The company was under no obligation whatsoever to do this, but it did, with no hesitation. That’s really honourable.

PMR: It is very important to give credit where it is due. Companies are not intrinsically immoral – they are made up of people. But large companies cannot easily integrate the morals of their components

Many people argue for Open Access on the grounds that publishers make too much profit, but that is skating on very thin ice. There are very good reasons for Open Access but this isn’t one of them. Most of those who argue that way live in capitalist societies and implicitly accept that the profit motive drives their country’s economy, local small businesses and personal effort (outside the public sector). And for those in the public sector who may consider themselves above all this, it would be rare for their own personal financial situation not to be tangled up with the fortunes of companies such as the big scholarly publishers. The custodian of the other large chunk of my own pension contributions is the Universities Superannuation Scheme in the UK, which of course holds Reed Elsevier shares in its equities portfolio. Anyone who has worked for any length of time at a British university has this kind of stake in Elsevier. And since Reed Elsevier is also listed on the NYSE, this probably holds true for US public sector employees as well. Elsevier’s profits, then, are going to help fund all our old ages. What a cosy thought.

But aside from this extreme example of self-interest, commercial businesses have a profit motive and that’s that. They are just doing their job. And yes, I know all the arguments about how this particular market doesn’t work properly, but we can’t expect businesses operating in it to come over all soppy and turn themselves into public services.

PMR: Yes. There is a real need for new business services in this market. There is no shortage of legitimate ways to make lots of money.

That, however, is exactly what they appear to be trying to do in this PRISM blurbage. And they are not only portraying themselves as mediators and curators of the integrity of research (and they know full well that the term ‘research integrity’ already has a very specific, community-embedded usage) but as custodians of the moral high ground. Their language is carefully contrived to tell untruths in the most plausible way. Phrases like ‘surrender to the government’ do sound risible, I know, and my first reaction was to giggle, but the more I read, the more incredulity settled upon me. The PRISM publishers (it is not clear who exactly they are but the list of members of the sponsoring body, the AAP, is long and includes the big commercial publishers, scholarly societies and university presses) are conflating peer review, governmental influence in the form of legislation that all publicly-funded research results should be freely available (spectacularly termed ‘censorship’ at one point: hey, don’t hold back, PRISM publishers), creator copyright, and preservation all into one argument, which is essentially that without the current scholarly publishing ‘free market’ [sic: their terminology] the whole shebang would implode. They know very well that it won’t, that peer review continues as usual under an Open Access model, and that there is no question of censorship by government. There is even an attempt to equate Open Access with ‘junk science’. Dishonourable conduct, ladies and gentlemen.

PMR: The core of the problem.

Should we be surprised, after the Dezenhall/pitbull revelations? Frankly, yes. Seeing what advice such a person would come up with was a legitimate tactic, worth exploring, and par for the course in the world of big business. Wherever there are lots of dollars to be made, play gets tough. There is, though, a difference between playing tough and playing dirty. Dirty this is, and that’s one reason why I’m sad about it all.

Pat Schroeder, quoted on the PRISM website says: “We want to share as much scientific and medical information as possible with the entire world. That’s why we got into this business in the first place.” No, ma’am. Your business works by restricting access to the information you have in your grasp. As long as that is your business model, you can’t claim the opposite. You got into the business to do what such businesses are expected to do, which is to make money. There is nothing shameful in that, but there is in telling porkies.

PMR: and again.

I said I was both sad and disappointed. The reason I am disappointed is that in their focus on obstructing Open Access the PRISM publishers are playing the wrong game. They are busy tying string round their ankles in case the Open Access rat runs up their pants, while ignoring the bull elephant that has stomped into the room. Open Access to research articles is going to happen, but it is surely not the most significant issue for scholarly publishers. Other things are going on that mean a much more fundamental change to what the PRISM publishers term ‘the whole scholarly communication process’. Along with a raft of threats, those things offer up a whole host of opportunities for publishers who are uniquely placed to solve the problems that will roll along with the changes, all the way along the value chain. I’d really like publishers to look a bit more strategically at the course of events and use their business skills to capitalise on them, providing for the research community the new services it will need over the next decades. A few, and two big publishing names in particular, are already doing so. Let’s hope others follow. There are a lot of moving targets, to be sure, and that invokes nervousness. At such times, one nervous twitch can mean shooting yourself in the foot (viz PRISM). Better to put the gun down and do something constructive. Many pensions could benefit.

PMR: As an (ex-)experimental scientist I make the analogy with scientific suppliers of instruments, chemicals, genekits, software, etc. These markets generally work well. There is competition, niche products, etc. Most scientists appreciate the ease of buying a kit that does something that used to take days. They pay what the market will bear. They buy image plates to measure diffraction and solve crystal structures.
What they expert the manufacturers to do is tell the truth. What are the compounds in this pack? What is the angular limit of this instrument? etc. Lying – or hype – lasts for only a short time – the market will determine the reality. And in the era of the Internet it takes only minutes to debunk a product.
The supreme irony is that the PRISMoids’ primary products are quality and integrity. And this is precisely what they are destroying before our eyes. They claim to be the guardians of quality – better than amateurs or governments. But one look at their Open Access products shows shoddiness, don’t-care, incompetence. And this now permeates their thinking. They rely on monopoly and restrictive practices – incredibly risky because when (not if) this bubble bursts they are left with nothing.
Leaving idealism aside and to echo Alma’s theme, PRISM is simply really awful business practice which is destroying their market.

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