Wednesday, August 29, 2007

PRISM Promotes the Interests of Scientific Publishers: Is it Better to Lobby or to Change?

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. But is Wired's angry attitude towards PRISM justified?

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. Let's take a brief look at sme of the points that PRISM feels will result from unpaid access to government-sponsored research:
Undermining the peer review process by compromising the viability of non-profit and commercial journals that manage and fund it
This 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.
Opening the door to scientific censorship in the form of selective additions to or omissions from the scientific record;
There are certainly recent instances in which government research has been interfered with by political appointees in government agencies, but the bulk of this has been aimed towards communications with the public and legislators, not towards scientific papers. PRISM raises a valid concern but by conflating it with proposed government mandates to require public access to peer-reviewed publicly funded research they are playing more on sentiment than on actual evidence. 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 mandates any more than it does today.
Subjecting the scientific record to the uncertainty that comes with changing federal budget priorities and bureaucratic meddling with definitive versions
There may be legitimate concerns raised in this point based on experience with the U.S. government's implementation of its current voluntary public access program, but PRISM seems to have conflated a number of issues under one banner. They would do better to call out the specific issues for people to understand their concerns and to reduce the emotional component of this appeal.
Introducing duplication and inefficiencies that will divert resources that would otherwise be dedicated to research.
While this is a legitimate concern also, in fairness inefficiency is nothing new to the process of producing scholarly research, as are difficulties in dealing with publicly funded research programs. What this is really saying is "It's going to cost us publishers and we're not being given a penny for it."

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.
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