Charles Basenga Kiyanda

It’s more than time!

During my daily (who am I kidding, hourly) slashdot browsing, I came about this commentary regarding a new advocacy group lobbying for traditional commercial scientific journals.. The lobbying group is called Prism. They’re a Partnership for Rrsearch Integrity in Science and Medicine. The main point of interest on /. was about how this lobby group is all about getting copyright respected and yet puts up watermarked images from Getty on their website, suggesting they’re using unpaid images. I’m not so much interested in that detail, mainly since they seem to have corrected their website and have put up non-watermarked images. So either their web developer was stupid or didn’t have enough coffee that morning and picked the wrong file for the website or they saw what’s being said on the internet and quickly went to Getty, apologized, paid and went on their merry way. Either way,they are wrong in so many other ways, it’s funny even without the pictures!

I quote from their website, the issue of interest to Prism is to “protect the quality of scientific research”. This issue is of vital concern to “scientific, medical and other scholarly researchers who advance the cause of knowledge; the institutions that encourage and support them; the publishers who disseminate, archive and ensure the quality control of this research; and the physicians, clinicians, engineers and other intellectual pioneers who put knowledge into action.”

A nice listing of basically anyone involved in medical science, were it not for the simple problem that Prism was established by “The Executive Council of the Professional & Scholarly Publishing Division of the Association of American Publishers (AAP)” and doesn’t list anybody else as a member. You can list anyone you want, if you’re only comprised of “pay-for-access” scientific journals, then those are the interests you’re representing.

I really like how they describe themselves everywhere that they’re an advocacy group, a partnership, a coalition (of one group, sic!) and so on. Especially since they clearly state that their group’s role is to “educate policy makers and the American people about the risks posed by government intervention in scholarly publishing.” It sounds like lobbying, it looks like lobbying, it smells like lobbying. I’m going to commit myself and just say it. I think they’re a lobbying group. There, I said the evil word. 🙂

From the political-talk on their website, it seems that their interests are really aligned with mine. They want to “advocate sustainable business models to ensure continued investment and innovation in these essential contributors to scientific objectivity and integrity.”

Wow! How great! That’s exactly what I want to do! I want to start a website that innovates in how scientists distribute their scientific results, discuss them, rate them and how good/bad science is determined. I definitely want to innovate, since I want to propose an alternative to the current peer-review system! I also want good science (objective science done with integrity, sounds good) to prevail over bad science (data fudging, unethically paying women for parts of their body, you know, bad stuff). So why do they and I clash? Ah yes… I believe that scientists should keep the copyright of the articles they publish and not give it to the person who distributes it. It’s unfortunate that the entire leverage that scientific (commercial or traditional) journals have in terms of a business model is the copyright they get to the articles they distribute. Take that away and their business model crumbles. There are 4 interesting points on their main page (if you’re a lobbying group, you should put what you have most at heart right there in the front, right? Get people to “get it” right from the start), so let’s go through them one by one.

“What’s at risk?” they ask. Their answer is that we’re putting at risk the integrity of scientific research. “How?”, might you ask. Again, they’re quick to answer.

  • “By undermining the peer review process by compromising the viabilty of non-profit and commercial journals that manage and fund it.”

Ok, that one is nice. There are numerous examples of research that went through peer-review. The classical peer-review. It came back with the holy seal of approval from “the community”, i.e. 3 experts (well, often times one of their graduate student) and one editor. The seal said “ACCEPTED”. No discussion after that, it goes through. Except the data was made up, it was generated by a random sentence generator program, made up by MIT undergrads or it was unethical research with fudged data, etc. There are even more scientists voicing their opinion, saying that peer-review is not so good. Great research gets rejected because someone feels it’s too much in contradiction of the accepted, current view. Nevermind that they could be right, they just clash too much with what’s accepted right now. Peer-review isn’t perfect, let’s not hold onto it to dear life, like it’s the only thing keeping modern science together.

  • By “opening the door to scientific censorship in the form of selective additions to or omissions from the scientific record”.

Yeah, that’s a valid concern. Except I fail to see how commercial journals are playing a positive role there. You see, I see doctoring of reports in, like, the IPCC reports where the sponsoring agencies cut out stuff or add stuff. I’ve seen governmentally doctored reports. Except those reports haven’t gone through peer review! So this is a problem of how the government operates. Yes, we should tell the government that it can’t edit reports that come out of publicly funded research. Unfortunately for prism, it has nothing to do with commercial peer-reviewed journals.

  • By “subjecting the scientific record to the uncertainty that comes wtih changing federal budget priorities and bureaucratic meddling with definitive versions”.

Let me tell you… I work at a national laboratory… if scientists aren’t being “subjected to the uncertainty that comes wtih changing federal budget priorities”… Seriously, it’s ugly. Congress hasn’t bothered telling us in the last 18 months what our priority should be. We could get shut down… Talk about uncertainties. What happens to all the reports we have that are unclassified and published on the lab web pages… Or maybe they mean to say that all open-access journals (ah yes, if you read on their webpage carefully, that’s really what they’re after! Open-access is bad!) are going to be funded by the government and that if the government stops funding them, they’re going to shut down the webpages? First of all, it’s not clear that all open-access journals are going to be 99.9% government funded and the answer is easy. Leave the copyright to the author! If my website closes, the author is free to distribute his work somewhere else! I reckon my website isn’t going to close though. 🙂

  • By “introducing duplication and inefficiencies that will divert resources that would otherwise be dedicated to research”. [emphasis in the original text]

Right…. Inefficiencies… So let me get this straight. Two years to get a paper published, in 2007, with the accessibility of the internet, is efficient?!?! Seriously?! Okay, I’m being a bit extreme. What I’ve seen on average is 12 months. Still. A year! If you want to publish a paper today, you have to surrender your copyright (which means you have to ask for permission if you want to use a figure in a presentation), you’re giving them money (there are journals who make you pay to get the paper published and to get access to their material. You just try and get a color picture in there), they take 12-18 months to get your stuff published and they call themselves efficient?! Funny stuff.

Sorry Jos, but I’m going to keep working on my idea. I think I’ve got something here.

If you want a more detailed and more intelligent rebuttal of prism, go see here. Those arguments turn around “this lobbying effort is a PR stunt and their arguments are full of misinformation, half-truth, and fear-mongering.” I agree with everything that’s said. I go a step further, by saying that peer-review is broken (at least to a certain extent) and there’s a possibility to make something that’s more efficient. That part of my argument isn’t really needed to show that prism is no good, but I make it anyway. It’s my stick, you know?

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