The battle over public access to scientific literature stretches back to the late 1990s when Nobel Prize winner Harold Varmus began plans for PubMed Central—a repository for all research resulting from National Institutes of Health (NIH) funding—and, a few years later, launched the Public Library of Science (PLoS). These easily accessible journals and repositories have struck fear into the hearts of traditional publishers, who have enlisted the "pit bull" of public relations to fight back, reports news@nature.
The Professional and Scholarly Publishing Division of the Association of American Publishers hired Eric Dezenhall, head of Dezenhall Resources, a public relations firm that specializes in "high stakes communications and marketplace defense," to address some of its members this past summer and potentially craft a media strategy. Dezenhall declined to comment for this article, citing "our longstanding policy due to strict confidentiality agreements neither to identify our clients nor comment on the work we do for them," in an e-mail response to a request for an interview. But "nobody disagrees on the goals of high-stakes communications—sell a controversial product, win an election, defuse conflict and so forth," Dezenhall notes in the "manifesto" on the firm's Web site. "The life-or-death public relations struggles facing businesses today are not about information, they are about power." In this case, the struggle is over access to scientific information.
Specifically, according to Dezenhall's suggestions in a memo to the publishers that they should "develop simple messages (e.g., Public access equals government censorship; Scientific journals preserve the quality/pedigree of science; government seeking to nationalize science and be a publisher) for use by Coalition members." In addition, Dezenhall suggests "bypassing mass 'consumer' audiences in favor of reaching a more elite group of decision makers," including journalists and regulators. This tack is necessary, he writes, because: "it's hard to fight an adversary that manages to be both elusive and in possession of a better message: Free information." Finally, Dezenhall suggests joining forces with think tanks like the American Enterprise Institute and National Consumers League in an attempt to persuade key players of the potential risks of unfiltered access. "Paint a picture of what the world would look like without peer-reviewed articles," he adds.
Of course, open access does not mean no peer review. While the National Institutes of Health (NIH) is not in the business of peer review, according to Norka Ruiz Bravo, NIH's deputy director for extramural research, the entirety of PLoS journals are peer-reviewed. "Open-access journals are peer-reviewed to the same standards," notes Mark Patterson, PLoS's director of publishing. "We wanted to provide an open-access alternative to the best journals to allow the very best work to be made publicly available."
To do that, PLoS shifted from the old model of subscribers paying to read content to an author-payment business model, in which scientific researchers pay the costs (from $1,250 to $2,500, depending on the journal) of immediately publishing their work, Patterson says. "The flagship journals PLoS Biology and PLoS Medicine are more expensive to run than the journals that are run by the community," he adds.
The American Association of Publishers declined to comment on Dezenhall's advice, but said in a statement: "Some commentators have expressed surprise that the publishing industry is making its case about an important issue that could affect the future of research and science. We believe it's important to be clear about serious unintended consequences of government mandated open access. & Legislation that would undermine the quality, sustainability and independence of science would have consequences on all those who rely on sound science."