What is PubMed? Ask most authors or editors, and they’re likely to say that it’s another version of MEDLINE. That is, it’s an index of biomedical journals that is difficult to get into because it has high standards for acceptance. However, as we know, PubMed is not equivalent to MEDLINE, nor has it been for a long while. PubMed contains MEDLINE records, but also contains hundreds of thousands of other records. There are at least two pathways for admission — one that remains difficult and time-consuming and flows through the MEDLINE journal selection process, and another that is not only easy, but sometimes is actively facilitated by the NCBI. That is, if you’re willing to deposit open access (OA) content in PubMed Central (PMC), you might get into PubMed on an expedited basis via PMC — especially if you’re viewed favorably by NCBI personnel. It’s a form of leniency granted to publishers with a business model the NCBI implicitly endorses.
This secondary route into PubMed has apparently become even more lenient with the admission of reports from a non-journal, F1000 Research. F1000 Research seems to avoid calling itself a journal. It calls itself an “alternative” and a “website” and a “publishing program.” It has articles, editorial practices, and a form of peer-review. But it refuses to call itself a journal, except in one instance, which seems more of an error than an intentional usage. In some communications, it juxtaposes itself against journals.
As far as peer-review goes, F1000 Research uses what they call “open” post-publication peer-review, but which is really a cynical and confusing mélange of incomplete editorial practices. Papers emerging from this approach to peer-review won’t be indexed in PubMed (via the PMC route) unless they’ve passed peer-review — although what “passed” means isn’t entirely clear or uniformly applied, as we’ll see. Nothing’s been indexed yet — all we have is an announcement from F1000 about the acceptance of F1000 Research reports into PubMed via PMC deposits.
F1000 Research is focused on very different criteria than you might expect — namely, speed and citable objects. According to their announcement:
With our record for publication time of 30 hours and our record for receipt of referee reports of 24 hours, you could find your article listed in PubMed in under 3 days from submission! Could prove rather handy if you need something quick for those looming grant deadlines or you need to ensure you don’t get scooped.
F1000 Research is explicitly providing researchers with a shortcut to cram more citations into their CVs in a pinch, while eliding the fact that they are not publishing in a journal. Being indexed is part of projecting a misleading image. They don’t care about quality or relevance, don’t have an editor, don’t call themselves a journal — they just provide authors with an academic chit as quickly as possible. That’s cynical, and NCBI has agreed to play this game. Worse, F1000 Research calls what it’s doing “publication,” when in fact, it’s much more confusing than that.
For instance, there are articles in F1000 Research which have been effectively rejected — that is, disapproved by two peer-reviewers and approved by zero. (There are at least three such articles out of 84, or about 3% to-date.) Yet, these rejected articles continue to be published on the F1000 Research site. What journal publishes articles its peer-reviewers have rejected? It’s a contradiction, and further evidence that F1000 Research isn’t operating as a journal. It’s also problematic for the authors, whose work is being publicly rejected, and for legitimate journals, which may consider subsequent publication of rejected but published works as duplicate publication.
At its base, F1000 Research is not a journal but an open editorial office. It’s just like seeing into an editorial review process, which muddies the waters for everyone involved. They are essentially equating the unrestrained aspect of their review process with “publication,” but how can you publish papers your own reviewers have rejected or papers that haven’t been reviewed at all? Maybe publication comes later, after acceptance, which is when indexing occurs? That seems to be their rationalization.
Unfortunately, the publication line is not very bright at F1000 Research.
Once your article receives two Approved statuses, or two Approved with Reservations statuses and one Approved status, your article will be indexed — currently in PubMed, PubMed Central, Scopus, Embase, Google Scholar, CrossRef and the British Library — and the status of your article will change to ‘Indexed’.
F1000 Research doesn’t seem to be enforcing these rules precisely. For instance, one article was listed as “indexed” despite receiving two Approved with Reservations statuses and no Approved status. Then, the same situation occurred with another article. And another. One article was indexed despite receiving one Approved, one Approved with Reservations, and one Not Approved. Another was indexed despite receiving one Not Approved and two Approved with Reservations.
How are peer-reviewers selected at F1000 Research? Mainly, by authors. After all, this is an open editorial office:
As an author you will be asked to identify 5 potential referees, primarily from the F1000Research Editorial Board. If necessary, you may select others of suitable standing.
There’s an obvious problem with this — a real potential for reviewer bias, even with the caveats F1000 Research tries to put on the process. Many journals allow authors to suggest peer-reviewers, but few
solicit it explicitly limit their selections to author recommendations like this. Depending upon authors for reviewer suggestions isn’t a rigorous approach to objective peer-review. This is another indication that F1000 Research is quite right to avoid labeling itself a journal.
What do these reviews look like? They fall short of peer-reviews I’ve seen. In scanning F1000 Research, I’ve seen approvals without comment; approvals with scant comments; rejections with scant comments; and so forth. This seems like inadequate peer-review to me, and only underscores that you can’t achieve legitimacy just by saying something is peer-reviewed — how you manage and interpret peer-review really matters, which is why editorial review exists. Peer-review is a tool, not a solution.
Indexing also creates a potential problem for F1000 Research — after all, their value proposition is based on publication, which at first blush seems like making something public, but which for them means registration of the published works with the major indexing services. If F1000 Research generates a ghetto of unreviewed or rejected papers, what will that mean for those authors and for F1000 Research? One paper from November is currently unreviewed. Is that a refund waiting to be processed? What obligation does F1000 Research have to its authors? And what obligation to readers? Rejected or unreviewed papers can still be downloaded. What kind of filter is F1000 Research?
And what criteria apply to PubMed these days, if any? PubMed, PubMed Central, and MEDLINE are confusing to practitioners in many fields, including editors and authors. Now that it’s clear that PubMed is actively courting scale through OA (see its new slogan in the artwork above), even to the point of indexing a non-journal that is publishing articles its own peer-reviewers have rejected.
What standards does PubMed represent?
Ultimately, PubMed is courting brand problems. A brand is a promise. PubMed’s promise has long been understood as providing an objective, high-standard index of biomedical journals. It is no longer providing that. It is now a compromised database with a mixed bag of standards and content sources, with rules that are unevenly enforced and possibly unclear to even those operationalizing them.
What is PubMed? What is F1000 Research? Those are both very good questions.