Did Commercial Journals Use the NYT to Smear Open Access?

A story on the front page of the New York Times a few days ago cleverly smeared open access scholarly publishing as somehow responsible for the rise of low-quality, pseudo-academic conferences and OA journals.  

The piece noted a mini-trend of hustlers announcing conferences and open access journals that trade on the names of respected conferences and journals – and then charging academics high fees to participate in a process of dubious scientific value.  Such scams represent “the dark side of open access,” according to the article by Times science reporter Gina Kolata.

There is no question that such phenomena exist.  But the idea that the Public Library of Science and other OA journals are somehow responsible for these scams is absurd.  As Michael Eisen, a UC Berkeley biologist and a cofounder of the Public Library of Science suggests in a recent blog post, “suggesting, as the article does, that scam conferences/journals exist because of the rise of open access publishing is….the logical equivalent of blaming newspapers like the NYT for people who go door-to-door selling fake magazine subscriptions." 

“The real explanation for the things described in the article,” said Eisen, “is that it’s insanely easy to create conferences and journals and to send out blasts of emails to thousands of scientists hoping a few will take the bait.  It’s science’s version of the Nigerian banking scams – something far more deserving of laughter than hand-wringing on the front page of the NYT.”

Eisen goes on to note:

….if Gina Kolata and the NYT are really concerned about scams in science publishing, they should look into the $10 BILLION DOLLARS of largely public money that subscription publishers take in every year in return for giving the scientific community access to the 90% of papers that are not published in open access journals – papers that scientists gave to the journals for free!  This ongoing insanity not only fleeces huge piles of cash from government and university coffers, it denies the vast majority of the planet’s population access to the latest discoveries of our scientists. And if the price we pay for ending this insanity is a few gullible scientists falling for open access spam, it’s worth it a million times over.

The NYT’s article has raised suspicions among some members of the OA community that science reporter Gina Kolata is once again using her prominent platform to cater to corporate interests with selective, biased reporting.  Investigative journalist Mark Dowie's profile of Kolata in The Nation magazine (July 6, 1998) sums up the criticisms well: 

Deconstruct her stories, source by source, quote by quote, and a familiar pattern begins to emerge. Upon re-interviewing the people she cites, it becomes evident that she appears to have decided before making her first call what her story will say. Her questions are suggestive, her tone combative. In the interest of the appearance of balance, sources of all persuasions are interviewed. But their quotes are carefully selected, at times modified to substantiate the predetermined position. Those scientists who disagree with her are either ignored, dismissed or trumped by someone anointed with higher authority--which usually means a longer string of initials after their name. The sources who agree with the author generally outnumber those who don’t by a factor of five or six.

Dowie’s conclusion:  “In science, even more than foreign or domestic political coverage, the paper [NYT] tends to side with power – in this case corporate power….Gina Kolata’s biases suggest a Times policy that is anti-environment, pro-corporate and fundamentalist about scientific inquiry.”

Another reason that the Kolata recent piece on open access publishing raises suspicions is because Kolata’s biases (as documented by Dowie and others) appear to dovetail with the PR strategy of commercial journals.  Commercial journal publishers retained Eric Dezenhall, “the pit bull of public relations,” several years ago, as reported by the journal Nature in a 2007 piece. (Alas, Nature is not an OA journal, so it will cost you $18 to buy and read the article.) 

Dezenhall reportedly advised the commercial journals to imply that OA journals are less reliable (because not all of them are peer-reviewed) and that OA journals are government controlled (because of federal research funders often require OA publication).  A brilliant strategy if only because it deflects attention from the fact that a good many commercial journals are not so remarkably distinguished and reliable, either!  

Kolata's piece effectively advances the narrative that OA publishing is somehow not to be trusted.  The subtext:  Better to stick to the (expensive, traditional) commercial journals that prey on taxpayers for free content and insist upon absolute copyright control.


Thank you for getting the word out about this

Hi David,I'm disappointed to hear about the alleged bias of this Kolata and her article about open access scholarly journals, but so grateful that someone like you is bringing attention to the issue.  Although many readers of her article won't have the benefit of hearing about the question marks around her story, but what more can be done, other than bring attention to the issue as you have?  Kudos to you for doing that!I'm an activist lawyer, just getting into practicing and blogging about copyleft, and other legal and policy strategies to help grow our gift economy and commons culture.  I'm so excited to have found your work!  I particularly enjoyed your film "This Land is Our Land" and your 2002 article "Reclaiming the Commons."  And I look forward to reading your blog posts, past and future, as well as your book "Viral Spiral." I've only just begun to blog on similar topics, but if you're interested you can see what I've started at tiffanyclarklaw.com.  I'd really enjoy dialoguing periodically, to the extent you'd enjoy that and have the time.  In any event, I've been looking for an inspiring, activist blogger/author role model in this area, and believe I may have found him!  Thanks for all you're doing and all you've done!Warmly,Tiffany Clark, Esq.