PRISM: Nature distances itself

I have been concerned about the membership of PRISM and, specifically, UK and other European publishers who might be associated, perhaps incorrectly, with the initiative. I hadn’t got around to writing to Nature Publishing Group (who have been an enthusiastic and vauable sponsor and collaborator in our work). Now Timo Hannay has volunteered Nature’s non-involvement with PRISM. This is a long and valuable post and I shall return to some of the other issues later:

PRISM: Publishers’ and Researchers’ Intensifying Sense of Mistrust

For anyone who’s interested here is Nature Publishing Group’s (NPG’s) take on PRISM: Although Nature America is a member of the AAP, we are not involved in PRISM and we have not been consulted about it. NPG has supported self-archiving in various ways (from submitting manuscripts to PubMed Central on behalf of our authors to establishing Nature Precedings), and our policies are already compliant with the proposed NIH mandate.Those are facts. What follows is just my personal opinion.
PRISM has understandably provoked a great deal of anger among those scientists who care about how the fruits of research are communicated. (In this sense, PRISM has achieved the exact opposite of dog-whistle politics: the only people to sit up and take notice have been those who were outraged by it. Nice work, guys.) My main emotion, however, is closer to bewilderment. Do PRISM’s proponents (whoever they are) really think that their approach will do anyone, including themselves, any good? It’s tempting to suggest that they are out of touch (e.g., with the ways in which technology is changing science and scientific communication), but it’s equally possible that I’m out of touch (e.g., with Beltway politics), so I guess all I can conclude is that they inhabit a different universe to the one I’m in. Time, perhaps, to move on and get back to work.Except that PRISM — and the reaction to it — is having one particularly insidious consequence.The things that I find most ill advised about PRISM are the needless belligerence of the message, the crude them-and-us stance, and the distortion of complex issues into unrecognisable caricatures. I wouldn’t mind so much if the issues themselves were inconsequential, but they’re not. Questions about how scientific communication should be funded, and what roles government should or should not play, are central to scientific progress. If we can’t discuss these in a well-informed, grown-up way then science itself will suffer.
It therefore troubled me that the initial counterattacks on PRISM were themselves often lacking in nuance and discrimination. Given the high emotion generated, this was understandable, but that’s not the same as saying it was correct or helpful. The most general error has been to lump all publishers together in declaring them “evil”, “afraid”, “money-grabbing”, and so on. True, PRISM seems to have come out of the AAP, which is a publishing industry body, but right from the beginning (when I also didn’t have a clue what was going on) it was fairly clear to anyone who cared to make the distinction that PRISM was not the same as the AAP.
To treat the industry as one amorphous lump is a continuation of the kind of misunderstanding that leads people to group together “Nature, Science and Cell” when making comments about scientific publishing. This is a pet hate of mine. If you’re wondering where to send your red-hot molecular biology paper then it’s OK to talk about those three journals in the same breath. But if you’re talking about publishing then you’d better think again: there are hardly three more different organisations on the face of the earth than NPG, the AAAS and Elsevier (the three publishers in question).

[… second half to be discussed later …]

PMR: This is very valuable. I shan’t debate it – except to note that a major part of the problem – and confusion – is the complete lack of coherent communication from any, some, or all of the publishing community. Timo’s is only the second/third substantial contribution from any “main” publisher. All others have remained silent. Given that the prime business of publishers is communication it is enormously difficult to get any coherent response. I shall return to this later, but many of the emotions that arise on this list is because publishers simply ignore the issues.
This blog tries to be fair. Yes, I was upset by PRISM, but I hope I kept fairly cool. But in defence of the blogosphere the PRISM message “open access [equals] junk science” – is a simple factually incorrect insult. If PRISM had conducted a debate – of any sort – the emotions could have been avoided. For example – a hypothetical dialogue:

  • PRISM: Open access leads to worse science.
  • OA-advocate: Please give me evidence…
  • PRISM: A study by X showed that there were proportionally more retractions in OA papers than TA
  • OA: But Y refuted this…
  • PRISM: But Z showed that Y’s data were too limited

This is the sort of debate I would hope to see the scholarly community indulging in. But PRISM – and almost all publishers (except Nature, OUP, RUP and ColdSpring) are not communicating.

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