Earlier this week, I mentioned something that’s been troubling me ever since I came across it a couple of months ago — the fact that BioMed Central (BMC) has a program through which pharmaceutical companies and, more surprisingly, a tobacco company have been able to subsidize publication fees for their scientists into BMC open access (OA) journals.
Corporations and scientific publishers have had an uneasy relationship, and for good reason — the record is littered with spectacular disasters, both in omission (studies hidden) and commission (studies published). Every time, new forms of disclosure and new types of barriers are created in order to diminish the chance of a recurrence.
Efforts to eliminate or at least make known such conflicts have been underway for decades. Currently, the International Committee of Medical Journal Editors (ICMJE) guidelines state the following:
All participants in the peer-review and publication process must disclose all relationships that could be viewed as potential conflicts of interest.
BMC currently lists 389 sponsoring members in 42 countries. Of these, 10 are commercial entities:
- Beijin Hanmi Pharmaceutical Co. Ltd. (China)
- Shenzhen Beike BioTech (China)
- Sanofi Pasteur MSD (France)
- Bayer Animal Healthcare (Germany)
- Bayer Pharma/Bayer Healthcare AG (Germany)
- Berlin Chemie AG (Germany)
- Novartis Group (Switzerland)
- Hershey Center for Health and Nutrition (US)
- Isis Pharmaceuticals (US)
- Group Research and Development Centre — British-American Tobacco (UK)
While it’s unclear what each corporation pays, BMC offers a few options — pay to have all author fees covered; pay to cover half of the fee, leaving the other half for the author to cover; or pay an annual fee that provides a 15% discount to your authors.
Of the 10 corporations sponsoring authorship in BMC, six cover all author costs (representing 60% of the group), one covers 50% (10%), and three provide the 15% discount to their authors (30%).
Comparing this to the institutions in four countries without any corporate sponsors — Australia, Spain, Sweden, and the Netherlands (chosen primarily because they have a high number of participants in this program) — the percentages reverse for this purely academic/foundation market: 28% provide full sponsorship, 4% provide 50% sponsorship, and 68% provide the 15% discount option.
This suggests that corporations are willing to spend more to fully sponsor their authors.
How directly are the research initiatives tied to corporate goals? It’s unclear, but the Hershey Center for Health and Nutrition®’s entry on BioMed Central concludes with this sentence:
The results of these investigations guide product development for The Hershey Company.
If BMC were dancing only with big chocolate, we might only have to worry about obesity, diabetes, and cavities. (It should be noted that the Hershey Center has published only one paper on BMC to-date.) But with pharmaceuticals and tobacco represented on the list as well, the stakes are higher.
There are three major questions in play with BMC’s approach to allowing corporate sponsorship of research publication fees:
- Is a company sponsoring an author’s fees creating a conflict? This is a more complicated question than it seems. In the case of BMC, the corporate sponsorship encompasses not particular papers but any papers produced by that company’s researchers during the term of the sponsorship. Is that direct enough to constitute a conflict? For whom is it a conflict? The authors? Or BMC?
- What should be disclosed, to whom, and when? In the papers I came across, the disclosure of sponsored author fees was non-existent. Of course, with some sleuthing, you could find out about this BMC program and see a list of the papers sponsored under such arrangements, but a clear, simple disclosure for the reader doesn’t seem to exist.
- Is a tobacco company qualitatively different from any other corporation? Generally, medical journals have categorized a few types of sponsorship as off-limits — tobacco, firearms, and alcohol. And while wine has been found to have some health benefits, the same can’t be said for bullets or cigarettes.
As an industry, we’ve grappled with how to disclose, prevent, or compartmentalize various flows of interested money into scholarly publishing. Advertising policies create zones and clear boundaries for advertisements. Author disclosures help reveal potential competing interests authors may possess. Scandals like the Elsevier fake journals episode exhibit the kind of justifiably righteous firestorm that occurs when these boundaries are crossed.
But we don’t seem to have grappled with the corporate sponsorship of author fees for OA publications.
In order to learn better whether I was seeing something new, I asked Deborah Kahn, Publishing Director at BMC, a set of questions related to corporate author sponsorships:
- What is the approximate range for each sponsorship in US$ or Euros?
- Are these annual sponsorships?
- Do you have sales people selling these sponsorships?
- Is there a different rate for academic vs. corporate sponsors? What determines the rate?
- Have you contemplated disclosures around these sponsorships?
- What are your editors told about these sponsorships?
- In the case of the tobacco company sponsorship, did you approach them or did they approach BMC?
- Are there industries you would not sell a sponsorship to, on moral or ethical grounds?
- Was there any internal controversy when the tobacco company joined the program?
- When a paper is covered by one of these arrangements (academic or corporate), how is that reflected in your editorial systems?
I sent the request at around 7 a.m. ET. I’d heard nothing in reply before this post was finished (10:15 p.m. ET 1 May 2012).
Of course, the researchers using these sponsorships are employed by the companies providing them. Yet, in most of the papers I reviewed stemming from these sponsorships, authors stated that no conflicts existed. Most mentioned that they were employed at the relevant company at the time.
Publication planning is one concern here. If a company can establish some groundwork with a few baseline papers in the literature, it can build on those with stronger journals, and ultimately create the impression of a body of literature fomented by strategic publication planning. But even without that kind of conspiracy theory, there seems to be no reason not to disclose this extra money being paid to the publisher to facilitate publication.
To me, the addition of a tobacco company to this list was especially worrisome. Cigarettes and other recreational tobacco products add nothing to health or vitality, so any science related to them seems to be about fooling people into doing something against their own best interests. For my own full disclosure, I should add that cigarette smoking took my Dad’s life prematurely. He died of lung cancer related to a lifetime of smoking at the age of 61, far too early. So I have a muted but real bias against cigarette companies and their products.
Regardless, I tried to think of an analog for this type of payment to publishers — one that has the peculiar characteristics of giving the publisher a lump sum to cover publication costs incurred by researchers the payer employs, in a manner currently requiring no disclosure. I couldn’t think of an analog. This seems like a new beast.
A disclosure could be as simple and straightforward as, “This paper’s publication fees were paid/subsidized by a sponsorship from Company X.”
The more I thought about the BMC arrangement allowing corporations cover or subsidize OA publication fees, the more I began to feel this constitutes an arrangement that should be, at the very least, disclosed clearly to readers. Moreover, it seems to be a new approach to corporate sponsorship of authors and their works, one that I haven’t seen contemplated in statements around conflicts of interest.
OA is a relatively new paradigm of publishing, and should be held to the same high standards of transparency and rigor we all strive to maintain. Corporate payments to publishers to cover or subsidize corporate author fees is a new and potentially problematic approach to funding the literature. We need to understand it, and set expectations about how it should be handled.