American publishers hire a “pit bull”

The most startling news this week, picked up from Peter Suber’s Open Access News and then in Slashdot draws attention to an article by Jim Giles in Nature: PR’s pit bull takes on Open Access. In this article, which is available online (thanks are due to Nature), it emerges that the Association of American publishers and some of their members, including Elsevier, Wiley and the American Chemical Society have apparently hired a PR agent to defend them against what they see as a threat to their livelihood from open access publishing. The devil, though, is in the detail – the detail of whom they have hired.

As Jim Giles writes:

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 Exxon Mobil 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%u2013500,000.

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.

Officials at the AAP would not comment to Nature on the details of their work with Dezenhall, or the money involved, but acknowledged that they had met him and subsequently contracted his firm to work on the issue.

It is worth reading the Nature article in full. I remain open-mouthed. At least, I suppose, it means that open access is serious enough for the publishers to see it as a threat and that is a good thing. However, for scholarly publishers to be caught out in
such an expedient exercise of truth-bending is another matter – all the more so in the intellectual environment in which they operate. I am particularly surprised at Wiley, which in my dealings with it in the past has emerged as a company with a concern for quality and the ability to think out of the box – to an extent unusual among their peers. So to see them descend to tactics such as this is disappointing. I would have thought that a company like Wiley should have the nerve and the intelligence to
ride the wave, to learn where scholarly publishing is heading and position themselves ahead of the game. I do believe there is a role for good publishers in the Open Access movement and I also believe that Open Access is the way scholarly publishing is going.

Surely, also, these publishers should be paying more attention to their client base. That is where they need good and intelligent PR. The peer reviewers they are using as fodder for their (false) arguments are volunteers from the universities, as are their authors. Their customers, the university libraries, are unhappy with the very high inflation rate of their products, the students in the USA are complaining about the price of textbooks. Should they not be focusing their PR efforts in that direction?

I suppose the bottom-line question, addressed to the academic community that provides these people with their living is the classic one: ‘Would you buy a used car from someone like this?’ Are these to be the guardians of the quality of your scholarship?

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