News

Publishers hire PR heavyweight to defend themselves against open access

BMJ 2007; 334 doi: http://dx.doi.org/10.1136/bmj.39112.439051.DB (Published 01 February 2007) Cite this as: BMJ 2007;334:227
  1. Owen Dyer
  1. 1London

    A new public relations campaign to be launched by the American Association of Publishers will equate open access to scientific journal articles with government censorship.

    Email messages leaked to the journal Nature describe a meeting last summer, arranged by the association's professional and scholarly publishing division. The meeting was between employees of the publishing houses Elsevier and Wiley and the American Chemical Society and the public relations consultant Eric Dezenhall (Nature, www.nature.com, 10.1038/445347a).

    Mr Dezenhall, author of several novels and of Nail 'Em! Confronting High-Profile Attacks on Celebrities and Businesses, specialises in “marketplace defence” and has been described by an industry publication as the “pit bull of PR.”

    Mr Dezenhall described his proposed public relations strategy in a memo. He advocated “bypassing mass ‘consumer' audiences in favour of reaching a more elite group of decision makers,” arguing that “it's hard to fight an adversary that manages to be both elusive and in possession of a better message: free information.”

    He encouraged his clients to “develop simple messages,” such as “public access equals government censorship,” “scientific journals preserve the quality/pedigree of science,” and “government [is] seeking to nationalise science and be a publisher.” Mr Dezenhall suggested teaming up with groups opposed to the expanding roles of government, such as the Competitive Enterprise Institute.

    A leaked email from Wiley's director of corporate communications, Susan Spilka, said that Mr Dezenhall had criticised the publishers' response to open access campaigns as too defensive and too nuanced. “Media messaging is not the same as intellectual debate,” she noted.

    Ms Spilka declined to comment on the email but said that the industry needed to counter the “soundbites” of advocates of open access, which she described as appealing but simplistic.

    Mr Dezenhall's company, Dezenhall Resources, never comments on its clients or contracts, but the American Association of Publishers has confirmed that it has engaged Mr Dezenhall's services. The leaked emails suggest that Mr Dezenhall estimated the campaign's cost at between $300 000 (£150 000; €230 000) and $500 000.

    The publishers' move comes at a time when commercial scientific publishers are under pressure from Congress to provide free access to articles covering research that is funded by US taxpayers through the National Institutes of Health.

    Mark Patterson, director of publishing at the open access Public Library of Science, said, “The AAP's [American Association of Publishers'] action is an indication of how strong the open access movement has become. There has been huge progress towards open access over the past year in particular,” he said, and he predicted that “comprehensive open access is now inevitable.”

    Brian Crawford, a senior vice president at the American Chemical Society and a member of the association's executive chair, showed the BMJ a letter he had sent to members of the association's scholarly publishing division saying that the leaked news of Mr Dezenhall's hiring had led to “gross misinterpretation of our motives and methods.”

    The letter said, “Scholarly publishers have been slow to recognise that the misleading soundbite messages and aggressive lobbying tactics of those who wish to influence government and public policy have been orchestrated and funded by organisations wishing to advance their own agenda.”

    More than 12 000 academics have signed a petition urging the European Commission to publish publicly funded research free of charge on the internet. The question of open access is to be debated at a commission conference next month.

    Signatories include the Nobel laureates for medicine Harold Varmus and Rich Roberts. The UK Medical Research Council signed as an institution, as did the Wellcome Trust, which allows money for open access publication in its research grants.