This is a brief follow-up to a post I published last week wondering about two things BioMed Central (BMC) does to support itself financially:
- Allowing academic institutions and corporations to sponsor their researchers’ publication fees either wholly, or at two partial levels (50% or 15%).
- Allowing a tobacco company to sponsor 100% of its researchers’ publication fees, noting that tobacco company money is usually money scientists want to stay away from (along with money from distillers and gun manufacturers).
I posed 10 questions to BMC, which Matthew Cockerill was nice enough to answer a few days later (and after a little prodding). Here is a copy of the comment he posted in response:
- What is the approximate range for each sponsorship in US$ or Euros? Supporter memberships are annual and the pricing is based on size of institution, ranging from around $2500 to $13,000. See: http://www.biomedcentral.com/libraries/supportermembership. Prepay membership is not annual – it functions as a deposit account, and it is up to the member how much they deposit. Obviously, the more articles are published by researchers at an institution, the more the institution will need to deposit in order to keep the membership account in credit.
- Are these annual sponsorships? Supporter membership is annual, prepay membership is not.
- Do you have sales people selling these sponsorships? Meet our institutional sales team: http://www.biomedcentral.com/libraries/contact_us. Since launch in 2000, BioMed Central has worked closely together with libraries to advocate the benefits of open access to researchers. The idea of memberships arose out of discussions with librarians, as a mechanism to promote open access publication and to make it as convenient and efficient as possible.
- Is there a different rate for academic vs. corporate sponsors? What determines the rate? As is standard practice, BioMed Central charges corporate customers a somewhat higher rate for products such as supporter membership, as compared to the academic pricing. As noted above, supporter membership pricing (whether academic or corporate) is determined by size of institution.
- Have you contemplated disclosures around these sponsorships? As noted in my earlier post, membership is a means to fund the cost of OA publication, in whole or in part. As such, it is one of the costs of the research, and authors are required to acknowledge the sources of funding for their research in their article.
- What are your editors told about these sponsorships? BioMed Central has spent to the last decade promoting memberships to universities, funders and corporations, with the active support of our editors.
Our editors have supported memberships, as they increase awareness of open access, reduces the financial barriers for authors wishing to publish in open access journals , and help level the playing field with subscription journals (which already have strong central financial support from serials budgets).
- In the case of the tobacco company sponsorship, did you approach them or did they approach BMC? I believe in this case we were approached by the corporation.
- Are there industries you would not sell a sponsorship to, on moral or ethical grounds? This question again confuses sponsorship with payment of publication fees. The decision to publish an article, whether from academia or the corporate sector, is made not by the publisher, but by academic editors on the basis of expert advice from independent peer reviewers. If an article is deemed suitable for publication, then an article processing charge will be payable. This charge can be paid individually by the author, or centrally by the author’s institution (through a membership). If institutions publish regularly in our journals, then setting up a membership is a natural choice as it makes payment easier and more efficient. Transparency is key, and BioMed Central journals have strong policies on declarations of funding sources and of conflict of interest, and follow COPE guidelines on editorial ethics. Many BioMed Central journals, including all the medical journals in the BMC series, use an open peer review model to offer the maximum possible level of transparency.
- Was there any internal controversy when the tobacco company joined the program? There is certainly a spectrum of opinion, within science publishing, as to how journal editors should treat research funded by tobacco companies. A few journals have gone so far as to ban outright any research which has received tobacco industry funding. Most journals, however, regard such censorship as a step too far and an infringement of freedom of speech. Instead, these journals tend strongly emphasize transparency and declaration of conflicts of interest. The method of payment, on the other hand (individual payment, vs membership payment) has not been a source of controversy.
- When a paper is covered by one of these arrangements (academic or corporate), how is that reflected in your editorial systems? Payment handling is intentionally kept distinct from, and not made visible to, the editors handling the peer review and decision-making process.
I had three follow-up questions, two of which are worth mentioning here:
- You say that authors are required to note the sources of funding, including funding of open access fees. Yet, I can’t find disclosure that lists funding of these fees (e.g., http://journal.chemistrycentral.com/content/5/1/15) or the fact that a company may have a large amount on deposit with BMC. Can you point me to an article that discloses this? Or to a BMC page that discloses corporate deposit accounts?
- Prepay members have access to reports of the papers in process (“Online statistics are available 24/7 to allow customers to view article submissions and publications from their organization.”). I interpret this to mean the sponsors of research papers who prepay get access to editorial status updates. Is this true?
While I haven’t received answers yet to these questions (I posed them over the weekend, for all intents and purposes), I found this last item troubling enough to click around a little more — I mean, sponsors getting access to statuses within a publisher’s tracking systems? Surely you jest. But quickly I found that it seems to be true. There’s even a document online showing how to check the financial status of your sponsor accounts and, through the same interface, how to check on submissions in progress.
While these are papers the company’s researchers have generated, and while it’s unclear from the example offered on the BMC site what level of detail the sponsor can glean for manuscripts in process, this kind of access to editorial status reports clearly undercuts the notion that there is a firewall between editorial and business. Worse, the low wall at BMC seems to be one-way, with the sponsor able to observe progress of works through the BMC editorial process but readers still unable to know which papers have received sponsored publication charges, in whole or in part.
If businesses can see how their sponsored editorial is doing, what’s to keep this from leading to a phone call or friendly email if a paper of particular interest is going off-track? After all, this is a feature tied to sponsorship.
I’m not naïve. I know that funders can often find out how a paper is doing, even with firewalls in place. An author might update the funder because they feel some fealty or obligation or just have that kind of relationship, and there’s little a publisher or editor can do about that except warn them not to do it. But for a publisher to offer insights into the editorial systems and statuses as a service for funders?
This seems like another new approach to adding value for funders, and one that makes me more than a little uncomfortable.