18 September 2007

PRISM - a language change

The publishers' lobby organization has changed the language of its top page - no doubt the result of the wave of opposition it aroused by attempting to mislead researchers, funders and, most importantly, the policy makers.

However, no one should imagine that this means that the organization's ideas have changed, nor its way of putting a spin on just about everything it says. For example, we are directed from the top page to:

Learn more about government intervention and the risks and unintended consequences of proposed legislation;"

and, clicking on the link, we find:

Various initiatives and proposals have been put forth by special interest groups and some legislators that would force private sector publishers to surrender to the federal government all peer-reviewed articles that report on research supported by federal research grants.

Such undue government intervention in scholarly publishing poses inherent risks and problems, including:

  • Threats to the economic viability of journals and the independent system of peer review

  • The potential for introducing selective bias into the scientific record

  • Government data repositories being subject to budget uncertainties

  • Unwarranted increases in government spending to compete with private sector publishing

  • Expropriation of publishers' investments in copyrighted articles

  • Undermining the reasonable protections of copyright holders"
Let's look at these in turn: the first links the economic viability of journals with the independent system of peer review, as though if the former is threatened, as it is, the latter will also be detrimentally affected. However, this is not the case: the system of peer review exists because of the willingness of academics to give their time freely to ensure the integrity of published research work. True, it is not perfect, but it works and it would continue to work in an open access world: there is no reason whatsoever to assume that if the academic community wished peer-review to continue, it would not do so. However, the academic community could do the established commercial publishers considerable damage if they withdrew their voluntary labour. How, then, would the publishers ensure the integrity of the research record? Presumably, if the subscriptions continued to flow, they would be quite happy. Methinks they do protest too much on this point!

The second point on the introduction of 'selective bias' is presumably related to the first: they are suggesting that if peer review did not exist in an open access world, and continued in the commercial publishing world, the quality of what is published would be lowered and 'bias' would result. But this is nonsense: the answer is to repeat the points above. There is no necessary connection between commercial publishing and peer review. Indeed some publishers are quite happy to publish journals with no scholarly review, or with editorial review only - are they leaping to the barricades to prevent the rise of open access? Of course not.

The notion that somehow the existence of commercial publishing is some kind of fall-back system if government-funded data repositories were to be underfunded to the extent of ceasing to exist is also nonsense. Publishers do not maintain alternative data repositories, nor do they contribute to them. Organizations such as the ESRC Data Archive in the UK collect raw data from the researchers who collect it, along with the research instruments, coding manuals, etc. No publisher does any of this work, so to link their publishing activities to the existence of data archives is simply silly.

'Unwarranted increases in government spending' - oh my, that's really a beauty! Here is an industry that obtains its raw material free of charge as a result of government, charitable foundation and industry spending on research, and then benefits from the subscriptions of the institutions that employ those same researchers, complaining that the government might cut their profits by encouraging open access publishing. That's very rich. In effect the publishers are saying: "Look government, you spend all this money to give us raw material from which we can make a profit, so please don't encourage anything that might limit those profits!" And I love the idea of 'private sector publishing'! If only! Let us imagine what 'private sector publishing' would actually involve: first, the publishers would have to pay authors to write for them, as they pay novelists and the authors of travel books, biographies, etc., etc. Then, they would have to pay academics to review the papers they had paid for to determine whether they were appropriate to publish (of course, under this system, they would rapidly forget about peer-review, since it would eat into their profits), and then they would have to market vigorously to persuade institutions to buy their products. And, at the same time they would have to compete with a public sector open access system. Can you guess what would happen? I leave it to your imaginations.

So there's a danger of government expropriating industry's investment in copyrighted articles and, final point, of undermining the rights of copyright holders. Well now, what are we to make of this? First, the industry has invested nothing in the copyrighted articles - the investment has been made by government, etc. They have an investment in the published article, but not in the original copyrighted source. And it is a moot point, I understand, from lawyer friends as to whether an author can actually sign away his or her copyright. I believe there is no case law in the UK on this point and publishers are unwilling to take a case to court in case they lose. If this is so, then the copyright holder is the author of the text and/or his or her institution, depending upon the practice of the institution and all that can be granted to the publisher is a licence to publish under negotiated terms. Perhaps those threatened copyright holders (the authors) should bear this in mind and, instead of signing away their rights - which may not actually be lawful - they should negotiate. After all, they are now in a strong position, given the existence of open access, and free, journals in so many fields.

Take all this stuff with a pinch of salt and make sure your representative in Congress or Parliament understands that lobby talk is not necessarily reporting with integrity.

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