No Mr. PLoS, I expect you to DIE!!!!

Anger abound in the blogosphere at the PRISM organization, or Partnership for Research Integrity in Science and Medicine. As one could guess from reading the braintrust of a guy who worked with ENRON jailbird Jeff Skilling, SPECTRE PRISM is long on rhetoric and completely lacking in data.

When I say lacking, I mean zero. Zip. Zilch. Maybe I missed something, but a perusal of the website failed to yield a single survey or statistic to support PRISM's grandiose claims that...

Policies are being proposed that threaten to introduce undue government intervention in science and scholarly publishing, putting at risk the integrity of scientific research by:

  • undermining the peer review process by compromising the viability of non-profit and commercial journals that manage and fund it;
  • opening the door to scientific censorship in the form of selective additions to or omissions from the scientific record;
  • subjecting the scientific record to the uncertainty that comes with changing federal budget priorities and bureaucratic meddling with definitive versions; and
  • introducing duplication and inefficiencies that will divert resources that would otherwise be dedicated to research.

Aaaah. I love the smell of unsupported assertions in the morning. Allow me to make a few of my own.

The peer review process is not in danger from Open Access policies, which is what all the scary "government intervention" language is about. Scientists provide peer review services for free, in no small part because reviewing manuscripts with a critical eye is how we stay at the forefront of knowledge. It's how we catch each other's mistakes. And there are other benefits besides financial compensation, such as public trust and the prestige of being a reviewer for a quality journal.

Censorship is hardly a problem when the raw data, analyses, and interpretations are available to everyone for scrutiny.

The scientific record already has uncertainty that accompanies changing budget priorities. This concern is well-documented in our current system, as scientists struggle to stay afloat.

Duplication and inefficiencies are the hallmarks of large corporations, and even if this bald assertion about the government's proposals were true, electronic publishing and record-keeping mimimizes any such issues to begin with.

PRISM then offers their help, of course:

We encourage you to use this website to:

Learn more about PRISM and what you can do to preserve the integrity of America's scholarly research.

  • Review our PRISM Principles;
  • Learn more about government intervention, the threats to peer review, and other current topics of interest;
  • Endorse the PRISM Principles

Let's demystify that:

1. Review our status quo
2. Subject yourself to a slew of spooky, vaguely worded red herrings
3. Endorse our profit margins

Now that sounds like an ENRON business model, not science in the public interest. I have little doubt that the publishing industry feels rather threatened by PLoS and other open access journals, which obviously do not suffer one whit from open access policies initiated by the federal government. But why actually expect corporate cronyism to care about the public interest, when it's much easier to talk out both sides of one's mouth and pad the bottom line?

And god forbid we have priorities that include the public good at the expense of that bottom line. There's a lesson to be learned here: if you have an ideological difference of opinion, fine, just say so. But don't go spreading falsehoods just to convince others that your ideology is the correct one. It just makes you look intellectually bankrupt.

If you want more background on this issue, be sure to check out Bora's Monumental Repository. And you don't even have to pay for access to it.

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Data? You want data? Don't forget that Enron created a Potemkin village: a mock-energy options market trading control room, which was a complete and utter hoax.

You want data? PRISM can supply actors from Central Casting running around with clipboards of random numbers in neat tables, computer screens flickering with vector graphics from repurposed videogames, and legal boilerplate from Enron spin-off prospectuses.

Don't ask them for data. It would be like the Justice Department aksing IBM for data, before finally giving up on a decade's anti-monopoly action. IBM delivered a billion pages of data. The US government couldn't read a billion pages of data. They asked for an index. IBM gave them 100,000 pages of index.

Data? We got your data right here...

Censorship, did someone say censorship? Somebody tell the DI.

By natural cynic (not verified) on 27 Aug 2007 #permalink

"3. Endorse our profit margins"

Do you have any data on publishers' profit margins? (that's not a rhetorical question)

Somewhere on the Prism website, I read that the costs per journal subscription are falling. There wasn't any data provided. I don't know the truth of it one way or the other. Do you?

By Herb West (not verified) on 27 Aug 2007 #permalink

Journal profit margins? Who knows...but if you have a business model where people give you the content for free (and are desperate to give it to you, for the sake of their own careers), you get someone to look at it (which might cost a bit), typeset it, and then print it in a form which allows you to charge hundreds of pounds/dollars per year for it, then possibly you might do OK.
The costs of journals are falling? It would still cost me �72/$140 per year to get just one of the journals in my field as an individual (the institution rate is about four times that) - so they are going to have to come down just a bit more!

Looking at profit margins of publishers - off the top of my head, I picked Reed Elsevier (first one that comes to mind as I'm in the UK), who in 2006 reported a profit of 880 million pounds on a turnover of 5398 million pounds.

Your critique of traditional publishers is based on a fundamental misunderstanding of Weber's Law. A better maxim can be found at the PISD website, which explains why OA is actually an instrument of ascientism.