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“Open Access is Censorship”: Big Brother Would Be Proud

If you wanted to start a lobbying campaign designed to maintain existing barriers of access to research, how might you frame your initiative? Especially if you knew that open-access would greatly improve the research process? And you knew that you were highly responsible for a crazy-quilt copyright system that threatened libraries with insolvency?

We all know the answer: accuse your opponents of precisely the things you’re responsible for (see tactics 2, 3, and 5 here). That appears to be the approach of PRISM, the “Partnership for Research Integrity in Science & Medicine” (or is it monopoly Profits Really Increase our Shot at Mansions?). A creature of the publishers’ lobby, PRISM argues that government mandates of open access to the results of government-funded work would undermine the financial foundations of independent peer-review. According to Nature, one PR maven also advised the AAP “to focus on simple messages, such as “Public access equals government censorship.'” Here’s how the self-styled guardians of American intellectual life are approaching the issue:

In an enthusiastic e-mail sent to colleagues after the meeting, Susan Spilka, Wiley’s director of corporate communications, said [their PR advisor] explained that publishers had acted too defensively on the free-information issue and worried too much about making precise statements. [The advisor] noted that if the other side is on the defensive, it doesn’t matter if they can discredit your statements . . . : “Media messaging is not the same as intellectual debate“. (emphasis added)

No wonder AAP Head Pat Schroeder says that guaranteeing access to NIH research is “interference with” the research process.

But let me get this straight–government sets up an extraordinarily complex copyright code to subsidize publishers, and then an effort to simplify that code to allow access to government-funded research is “government interference”? Robert Hale is turning in his grave. But PRISM has powerful allies, including John Conyers, who apparently believes that if NIH articles get opened up, that “message” will “make it difficult to . . . slow the trend in compulsory licensing of pharmaceutical patents by other nations.” Yes, if you chip away at one IP right, they all fall down like dominos.
Fortunately, some university presses are rejecting PRISM’s newspeak. Heeding arguments like Peter Suber’s, they are increasingly embarrassed by association with AAP. They started criticizing the initiative almost immediately, and the courageous director of Columbia University Press has decided to “tender[] his resignation from the Executive Council of the association’s Professional and Scholarly Publishing Division.” Sadly, as Suber notes, while “the message [of Prism] is a laughingstock[,] [t]he lobbying behind the message might be effective.”

By the way, for anyone unfamiliar with library budget crises, here are some serials prices:

Sticker Shock: One-Year Subscription Rates for 2004
Brain Research: $22,386
Journal of Applied Polymer Science: $15,123
Journal of Comparative Neurology: $19,349
Nuclear Physics A & B: $25,888
Thin Solid Films: $11,943

You can probably project from these a two-tier research system: people at the wealthiest institutions can count on a full complement of research in their chosen fields, while the rest will have to scramble. That scrambling isn’t fun–I’m still smarting after an NYU library guard flatly told me that faculty status at Seton Hall does not even permit me to look at their holdings. Maybe AAP will hold a festive screening of Jude the Obscure at their next meeting.

Finally, a word of caution to others blogging on this: Be sure to check out the tactics of the firm whom the publishers have hired.