Opposition to Open Access: alert to misinformation

Here is an excerpt from last week’s Nature, Jim Giles’ article PR’s ‘pit bull’ takes on open access, courtesy of Open Access News:

The author of Nail ‘Em! Confronting High-Profile Attacks on Celebrities and Businesses is not the kind of figure normally associated with the relatively sedate world of scientific publishing. Besides writing the odd novel, Eric Dezenhall has made a name for himself helping companies and celebrities protect their reputations, working for example with Jeffrey Skilling, the former Enron chief now serving a 24-year jail term for fraud.

Although Dezenhall declines to comment on Skilling and his other clients, his firm, Dezenhall Resources, was also reported by Business Week to have used money from oil giant ExxonMobil to criticize the environmental group Greenpeace. “He’s the pit bull of public relations,” says Kevin McCauley, an editor at the magazine O’Dwyer’s PR Report.

Now, Nature has learned, a group of big scientific publishers has hired the pit bull to take on the free-information movement, which campaigns for scientific results to be made freely available. Some traditional journals, which depend on subscription charges, say that open-access journals and public databases of scientific papers such as the National Institutes of Health’s (NIH’s) PubMed Central, threaten their livelihoods.

From e-mails passed to Nature, it seems Dezenhall spoke to employees from Elsevier, Wiley and the American Chemical Society at a meeting arranged last July by the Association of American Publishers (AAP)….

The consultant advised them to focus on simple messages, such as “Public access equals government censorship”. He hinted that the publishers should attempt to equate traditional publishing models with peer review….

Dezenhall also recommended joining forces with groups that may be ideologically opposed to government-mandated projects such as PubMed Central, including organizations that have angered scientists. One suggestion was the Competitive Enterprise Institute, a conservative think-tank based in Washington DC, which has used oil-industry money to promote sceptical views on climate change. Dezenhall estimated his fee for the campaign at $300,000–500,000.

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


Subsequent articles have appeared in the Chronicle of Higher Education, Washington Post, and Scientific American, and a number of bloggers, myself included, have commented. The best place to follow the discussion is Open Access News.

Today’s Open Access News reports a letter from the American Association of Publishers’ / Scholarly Publishing Division, responding to which shows that they either don’t get it, or don’t care. In this letter, AAP/SPS claims that publishers “manage and fund the peer review proces”. Manage, yes. Fund? Get real…peer reviewers are not paid, and profitable publishers do not fund the publishing process, they are funded by it.

AAP – if you’d like to shake a reputation for deliberate misinformation – trying to pretend you are funding something you are actually deriving profits from, is not the best approach.

The American Chemical Society is one of the members of this association.

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