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PR's 'pit bull' takes on open access

A Correction to this article was published on 31 January 2007

Journal publishers lock horns with free-information movement.

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 ExxonMobil 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). A follow-up message in which Dezenhall suggests a strategy for the publishers provides some insight into the approach they are considering taking.

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, and “paint a picture of what the world would look like without peer-reviewed articles”.

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 $300,000–500,000.

Media messaging is not the same as intellectual debate.

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 messaging 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.

“We're like any firm under siege,” says Barbara Meredith, a vice-president at the organization. “It's common to hire a PR firm when you're under siege.” She says the AAP needs to counter messages from groups such as the Public Library of Science (PLoS), an open-access publisher and prominent advocate of free access to information. PLoS's publicity budget stretches to television advertisements produced by North Woods Advertising of Minneapolis, a firm best known for its role in the unexpected election of former professional wrestler Jesse Ventura to the governorship of Minnesota.

The publishers' link with Dezenhall reflects how seriously they are taking recent developments on access to information. Minutes of a 2006 AAP meeting sent to Nature show that particular attention is being paid to PubMed Central. Since 2005, the NIH has asked all researchers that it funds to send copies of accepted papers to the archive, but only a small percentage actually do. Congress is expected to consider a bill later this year that would make submission compulsory.

Brian Crawford, a senior vice-president at the American Chemical Society and a member of the AAP executive chair, says that Dezenhall's suggestions have been refined and that the publishers have not to his knowledge sought to work with the Competitive Enterprise Institute. On the censorship message, he adds: “When any government or funding agency houses and disseminates for public consumption only the work it itself funds, that constitutes a form of selection and self-promotion of that entity's interests.”

Editor's note: In the original version of this story, Susan Spilka was reported as emailing a note that said "Media massaging is not the same as intellectual debate." It should have read "Media messaging", and has been changed accordingly.

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Giles, J. PR's 'pit bull' takes on open access. Nature 445, 347 (2007). https://doi.org/10.1038/445347a

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