As noted around the science blogosphere, something wicked this way comes. PRISM, or the Partnership for Research Integrity in Science and Medicine (created by the Association of American Publishers), is setting up a strawman argument against Open Access publications, claiming that the tradition of peer review is under attack. Open Access, such as PLOS journals and other initiatives, make it easier for people to have access to the research that they, as taxpayers, implicitly fund. Wouldn't you like to know what you are paying for, and whether it benefits your life? Wouldn't you like scientists to have free and easy access to published results so we can use accumulated knowledge rather than burying it?
PRISM's issue is this: if more and more research is made open access (ie, free) how will traditional publishers make any money? The concern is legitamate, but the hoopla, rhetoric, and obfuscation shown on their website suggests that they would rather bend the facts to create a non-issue (that peer review is under attack) rather than face a more real, but less sympathetic issue (how to keep making money). Their main beef seems to be the nebulous threat of "government interference," specifically that the government would like open access to the research that, ya know, it pays for. GASP.
Depending on who you talk to, this is either a very controversial issue that undermines Peer Review, a mainstay of the scientific community … or a Straw Man designed to safeguard publishers' interests. As a technophile with a science background, I admit a bias towards the blogs at Science Blogs , all of whom appear to disagree strongly with PRISM's position, and many of whom are criticizing the tactics being used. (I am also biased against language created by professional "damage control" PR spin-doctors and copyright advocates who "borrow" resources for their website) There is also the juicy matter of the conflicts that arise whenever a new technology (the Internet) displaces an old one (print media).
This issue is germaine to Bioethics for several reasons. First, it is intuitive that the quality and quantity of open discussion within any field increases with greater open access to source material. Second, a large challenge in Bioethics is reconciling the conflicts in economic and ethical interests – this fits as both a meta-issue (should bioethicists support the closed distribution of information only to those who will pay for it?), and a direct issue (should only rich bioethicists have access to NIH papers?). Third, the cause of increasing public awareness and critical approaches to bioethical issues would be facilitated by ensuring the public has access to source material so they can make their own decisions about situations without needing to rely solely upon expert (and possibly biased) interpretations.
While bioethicists may not produce a significant portion of these research papers, it is guaranteed that in the course of our work we will need access to the background information contained within, and if access is controlled by economic interests, there is a distinct risk of asymmetrical access based on how much such information affects an entity's financial condition (ie: a corporation would pay a lot more than a bioethicist could offer, all in order to keep damaging information undisclosed).
I urge attention to this issue and a critical look at all positions because, while peripheral, this affects all of us and the future of scientific and medical dialogue in our society.