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Stickers, a pit bull, and Brussels: a busy month for OA.

If you had walked into the MIT periodicals room this spring, you would have seen an interesting sight. Three graduate students from the Media Lab's Computing Culture group and two undergraduates created price tags and placed them (with the librarian's blessing) on 100 journals that cost MIT more than $5,000 per year. The group also created "bonus" tags that read, "Bonus! This work contains work by MIT authors! MIT paid twice!"

Benjamin Mako Hill, one of the graduate students, wanted the project to "bring attention to the open access [OA] issue and the sky-rocketing price of scholarly journals at MIT" and to "compelling, publicly accessible alternatives to ... closed and restrictive models of academic publishing." The group hopes that after seeing the actual price of the journals, readers would visit the "Overprice Tags" Web site for an explanation of the issues.

This project was inspired by the National Day of Action for Open Access (NDAOA), created by (an international student movement for free culture) in collaboration with the Alliance for Taxpayer Access (a coalition of patient, academic, research, and publishing entities that support public access to the results of federally funded research). MIT was one of 17 universities and colleges that participated in the NDAOA, including Harvard and The University of North Carolina. The events were held on Feb. 15.

Overprice Tags is one of a seemingly endless barrage of assaults on traditional scholarly publishing that have transpired over the last couple of months as one mandate after another is created with similar language. Perhaps it is not surprising that Barbara Meredith at the Association of American Publishers (AAP) has declared that the AAP is "under siege."

According to a report published by Nature magazine in late January, the AAP learned that "a group of big scientific publishers has hired the pit bull [public relations guru Eric Dezenhall] to take on the free-information movement." Dezenhall, author of Nail 'Em! Confronting High Profile Attacks on Celebrities and Businesses, has developed a reputation for protecting reputations of celebrities and corporate clients.

Nature claims that it has received emails that provide insight into Dezenhall's interaction with these publishers. These emails said that Dezenhall "advised them to focus on simple messages," to "paint a picture of what the world would look like without peer-reviewed articles," and to equate "public access [with] government censorship."

The publishers seem to have quickly taken up the advice. In a curious twist, the AAP has aligned itself with "nine prominent First Amendment organizations" (including ALA), calling themselves the National Coalition Against Censorship. On Feb. 12, the group issued a "statement warning of the consequences of suppression or distortion of information that is essential to sound public policy and government accountability and applauding the January 30 House Oversight and Government Reform hearing on political interference with federal climate scientists."

A New Form of Censorship?

Being opposed to censorship is a good thing. But my first reaction to reading that the AAP was going to equate OA with censorship was simply, "What?" If more people can't afford to access information because the price has made it so prohibitive--even if it was underwritten by a nation in the first place--isn't that a form of censorship?

I am not the only one who is baffled about the correlation of OA to censorship. Dezenhall might be trying a deflection strategy. "He explicitly suggested to them to get supporters of public access to have to stop and talk about something else," according to Heather Young, director of the Scholarly Publishing and Academic Resource Coalition. "It is hard to see how providing access to information can be considered censorship."

"The flea has so far successfully wagged the dog, and is lately resorting to 'pit-bull' tactics to try to continue doing so," according to Stevan Harnad, a longtime advocate of OA. "The flea is, fortunately, fated to fail, and the optimal and inevitable outcome is now imminent, as the sleepy dog is at last waking and coming to its senses about what is in its own best (and hence, the public) interest in the online age."

OA Phobias

Meanwhile, at a meeting in mid-February in Brussels, Belgium, the European Commission (EC) outlined the actions it intends to undertake at the European level to help increase and improve access to and dissemination of scientific information. According to the report, "A shift like this could have consequences, leading to transitional costs and a temporary gap in the accessibility of scientific information, surmises the Commission. With the emergence of increasing numbers of repositories including not only peer-reviewed papers but PhD theses and research findings, questions also arise as to who will deposit the material and how the quality of the content can be guaranteed." In it, the EC does not take a position on mandates and states that further investigations will have to be conducted.

STM publishers and trade associations released the well-timed "Brussels Declaration on STM Publishing" at the meeting. When this column was being written, 42 publishing houses and associations had signed the document. Not surprisingly, the declaration espouses that nothing is wrong with the way things are.

This position is in stark contrast to the petition presented to the EC that was led by European institutions, many of them universities. The petition calls for the EC to implement all of its recommendations that were made the previous year, including establishing a mandate for OA articles from EC-funded research. As of this writing, more than 23,000 institutions and individuals had signed the petition.

February was another busy month for OA. But perhaps what gets lost in the whirlwind of activities are the organizations and publishers that are quietly taking action but are not actively caught in the rhetoric. And perhaps there's also a lost sense of history.

"When we digitized the journals, we had the same fears and anxieties about what might happen if we change the way we conduct business," according to Young, who is a former publisher. "It's like deja vu all over again."

Robin Peek is associate professor at the Graduate School of Library and Information Science at Simmons College. She can be reached at Send your comments about this column to
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Title Annotation:Focus on Publishing; open access
Author:Peek, Robin
Publication:Information Today
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Apr 1, 2007
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