Wednesday, September 12, 2007

The Hysteria over PRISM

George Orwell would feel at home.

The Association of American Publishers recently unveiled a new campaign called PRISM (Partnership for Research Integrity in Science & Medicine), which is largely a website calling for scholars to write their Congressional representatives to oppose mandatory posting of scholarly articles funded by Federal research grants. Some of their heavy-handed arguments -- that mandatory posting would undermine the peer review process and open the door to censorship -- are transparently silly. Others -- that such a policy leads to inefficiency and may leave scholarly publishing subject to the vagaries of government funding -- are not, at least not transparently. But the open access advocates are irate, not about the arguments, but that an organization would oppose their cause. Some accuse AAP of a new McCarthyism against open access and demand a boycott of AAP -- presumably until the organization corrects its thinking. Orwell would have appreciated the logic.

For the record, I personally oppose many of the policies promoted by AAP, and I am associated to a society publisher that promotes more forward-looking policies. But I also realize that scholarly publishing is complex, and access is only one of many important issues we face today. As a scholar, I have faith that the best way to make decisions about change is through discourse, not through denunciations and thought-police.

Advocates of open access hired public relations firms and created ads to promote their cause long before AAP hired its own lobbyist. They also long ago created their own (multiple!) websites promoting their cause as well as advertisements, long before PRISM existed. They have received wide and favorable publicity from sympathetic reporters in various publications, including The Chronicle for Higher Education and Nature, and they have made the case for open access at many forums, including AAP sponsored meetings. It is therefore unsettling to see the hysterical reaction to PRISM (and before that, to the lobbyist hired by AAP to promote their side of the debate). This does indeed smack of McCarthy-like tactics, but not by AAP.

I feel uncomfortable defending AAP. (Actually, it is the executive committee of the Professional and Scholarly Publishing division of AAP that created PRISM.) This is an organization that too often stands for the status quo, and too seldom promotes thoughtful change. On the other hand, AAP has done some things well, and I would rather have society publishers a part of a major organization representing American publishers than to marginalize ourselves through a boycott. I recognize that members are not obliged to agree with everything an organization does, any more than publishers are obliged to agree with everything they publish. I find it particularly strange that those who head university presses do not understand this principle as well.

It may be time for all of us to stop denouncing one another and to start discussing the real issues that face scholarly publishing. Access is one of them, but there are many more, and many more important.

John Ewing

Postscript: As of 9/12/07, a Google search on "PRISM" doesn't even detect the website in the first dozen pages of results. It's hard to imagine that such a low-key, nearly-invisible effort will "mislead the public" about scholarly publishing.