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).

All progress is hard, almost by definition. I work on things like journal-database hybrids, social software, and audio-video content for scientists. In my opinion, these will all play big parts in the future of scientific communication, but if the truth be told, most scientists aren’t that interested (yet), and a few are even quite hostile (though I’ll admit than none of them has gone as far as astroturfing to make their point). So if I were to generalise about scientists with respect to my work, I would say that they are rather conservative, and that they are largely uninterested in new web-enabled ways of conducting and communicating research. As Jim Hendler pointed out, scientists are generally keener on revolutions in scientific publishing than in their own labs. If that were the end of the story then my colleagues and I would need to find other vocations. But fortunately not all scientists are the same, so we try hard to identify the forward thinkers and early adopters, working with them in the belief that others will eventually come around too.

As with scientists, so with publishers: Most are conservative and many are largely clueless about the true impact of the web, but some are genuinely well informed and progressive. Those wishing to promote change need to be able to tell the difference and resist resorting to crude stereotypes. True, scientists don’t need publishers as much as publishers need scientists. But why alienate the ones who are already in your side? It’ll only slow you down.

A case in point is the criticism that my NPG colleague, Maxine Clarke, faced when talking about “open access” projects at NPG. Not everyone shared her definition of open access and she was accused by some bloggers of using the term as a marketing slogan. (Peter Murray-Rust, who made the original point, later recanted when he understood that Maxine was being genuine, so I don’t take issue with him.)

Ignore for a moment the fact that Maxine is not a marketer or publisher but an editor (which means that she works in the interests of our readers, not NPG as a business). Even if that were not the case, her ‘offence’ was one regularly committed by open-access supporters themselves. For example, Peter Suber has posted a very similar and even longer list of NPG “OA” projects (with some input from me). Jean-Claude Bradley, in a follow-up comment, says that “‘Open Access’ has had a fairly unambiguous definition” and then proceeds to give one that’s at odds, at least to my eyes, with Peter M-R’s and Bill’s (mainly because it makes no mention of licences).

Intelligent, progressive people in publishing (there are some, believe me) look at this sort of episode and conclude that engaging with open access advocates is always a bad idea because they will never get a fair hearing. (One or two of them even tried to talk me out of posting this, and maybe they were right — let’s see.) Some people are just too quick to assume base motives, and employ words like “boycott” as if they were punctuation marks. Also, let’s be honest, sometimes open access publishers have stoked these flames to their own PR ends. For me, this cynical and wrongheaded mindset reached its apotheosis (so far) in a comment on this blog post, which suggested that — wait for it — scientists should boycott NPG for having set up the free preprint server and document-sharing site, Nature Precedings:

[G]ood call on Nature preceedings being designed to fail – I totally agree, had the same thought. I think it’s Nature’s effort to sandbag open publishing. Scientists and open publishing supporters should be crying bloody murder on this. I suggest a boycott of Nature preceedings. Hell maybe even the rest of Nature journals…

Yeah, right, that would be good for open access…

It won’t surprise you to hear that I believe NPG to be one of the more progressive publishers around. (And if you think I’m only saying that because I work here then you’re mixing up cause and effect.) The working assumption of many open access evangelists is that publishers (including NPG) are congenitally predisposed to reject anything but subscription-based business models. For example, Bora Zivkovic (now at PLoS) says on his blog:

I can bet money that Nature will go Open Access as soon as the forward-looking editors manage to persuade their backward-looking corporate overlords that the data and statistics show that this is the sound business way to go.

Sorry, Bora, but that’s about as far from the truth as it’s possible to get. Yes, Nature takes an editorial line that is sympathetic to the principles of open access (though that doesn’t stop people sticking in the boot when they report inconvenient truths), but it’s certainly not the case that publishers are holding back pressure from editors to go open access. The main reason why Nature cannot do so is the absence of a viable economic model for a top-end journal with a high rejection rate and heavy editorial input. Few of the people who criticise Nature for not being open access would also criticise PLoS Biology for losing a lot of money. But the underlying cause of both is the same: current author-side fees don’t begin to cover the costs of running such publications. That, not publisher intransigence, is the main barrier.

And just suppose for a moment that Nature decided to become open access anyway, perhaps paid for by grant funding or some kind of cross-subsidy. It’s not hard to see the criticisms that would be levelled at NPG. Here’s an imaginary blog post, based on things already said about our existing projects:

Nature‘s open access policy has obviously been built to fail. It’s nowhere near covering it’s costs, which is obviously a deliberate ploy to discredit open access publishing and provide ammo for those who claim it can never pay its way. More than that, it’s anti-competitive: no one else will ever launch a similar journal into this space if prices are being held down artificially by cross-subsidy. Isn’t this usually called “dumping” and isn’t it illegal? Jeez, we need more competition among publishers, not less. Scientists should be crying bloody murder on this. Boycott!!!

In reinventing scientific communication for the 21st Century we face genuinely difficult challenges. Many of us, in our own different ways, are trying to find solutions. PRISM certainly doesn’t help, but nor do some of the more indiscriminate responses. The best antidote to its crude belligerence is not more of the same, but an open, fair and grown-up debate. These issues are too important to be addressed in any other way.


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