Meet Kent Anderson, anti-#openaccess campaigner, publisher of Science

The news that the American Association for the Advancement of Science named Kent Anderson as its new Publisher was met with shock and widespread derision by myself and other supporters of open access publishing. In the often mocking banter about this hire, a number of people wondered what we were getting all worked up about. So, for benefit of those unfamiliar with Mr. Anderson, here is a brief introduction of his oeuvre, and an explanation of what we find so troubling about the idea of him running Science.

Anderson has a long career in medical publishing, having worked for the New England Journal of Medicine for a decade before becoming publisher of The Journal of Bone and Joint Surgery. But he is most well-known for his role as the primary author and moderator of The Scholarly Kitchen, a blog launched by Anderson under the auspices of the Society for Scholarly Publishing to provide “timely updates and interpretation on research that publishers, librarians, authors, and other individuals involved in scholarship might want to know about”.

Anderson was fairly prolific at TSK, publishing over 1,000 posts over his 5 years at the helm, but I hadn’t heard of him or read his work before an April 2010 missive, “PLoS’ Squandered Opportunity — Their Problems with the Path of Least Resistance“, which begins thusly:

[An earlier post] reminded me of what I think is a sad story, one that hasn’t been told outside of private discussions, at least as far as I know. It’s the story of an opportunity sacrificed at the altar of open access, of a radicalism blunted into tradition, of audacity channeled down the path of least resistance.

It’s the story of the Public Library of Science.

As a founder of the Public Library of Science, I took some umbrage at what turned out to be an ill-informed attack on open access publishing. Worse, it impugned our motives, suggesting (without having ever spoken to any of us) that the launch of PLOS ONE was motivated not by a desire to reform scholarly publishing, but by a simple desire to make money. This post began what can only be described as a four year long campaign to discredit open access publishing in general, and PLOS in particular. I can not begin to fully summarize his writings on the topic, so instead I’ve compiled a list so you can see yourself and decide what you think.

Kent Anderson on Open Access

Kent clearly does not like open access. He thinks it is bad for scholarly publishing – that it undercuts publisher’s ability to make money, and, more importantly to him, it erodes the quality of the products they produce (which is why we all find it so ironic that his first job at AAAS is to launch a new open access journal).

He at times raises important issues. If he were just an open access skeptic, that would be one thing. But his writing on the subject is marked by several other deeply troubling features:

  • An utter disdain for the supporters of open access and a tendency to impugn our motives.
  • The belief that science exists to serve science publishing and not the other way around.
  • The dismissal of government efforts to promote open access (especially public access mandates and PubMed Central) as needless subsidies, but the view that the product of tens of billions of dollars of public investment in research, as well as nearly ten billion dollars in subscription fees, is not a subsidy, but some kind of publisher birthright.

It is one thing when a blogger – even a prominent and institutionally sanctioned one – has these points of view. It is another when they are held by someone who is the chief publishing executive of the largest and most powerful scientific society in the world. In his new role, Anderson will not only set publishing policies at influential journals, he will be seen – and I’m sure present himself – as the publishing representative of the scientific community to Congress and other policy makers.

I fear the affect this hire will have. I am disturbed that the AAAS board chose to ignore his views of science and science publishing – or worse chose him because of these views. However, I think we should give him a chance. He knows the industry well, and is undoubtedly qualified for the position. And for all of his bluster about open access, he doesn’t seem to be stuck entirely in the past. I hope that he views his new position not as a bigger and better platform from which to promote his previously expressed views, but as an opportunity to actually represent the scientists of America, and build a publishing system that truly serves their interests, and not those of the AAAS or any other publisher.

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