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Something’s Rotten in Bethesda, Indeed — How PubMed Central Came to Help Launch and Initially Publish eLife

English: Rotten Mango Apple in Malaysia

English: Rotten Mango Apple in Malaysia (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The role of PubMed Central (PMC) in last year’s launch of eLife was controversial within the scientific publishing community — by publishing articles on PMC before eLife’s commercial platform was ready, the National Library of Medicine (NLM) and the National Center for Biotechnology Information (NCBI) provided eLife with immediate validation through indexing in PubMed, gave a set of billion-dollar funders access to free technology and consultations, short-circuited stated policies and practices other publishers abide by, and revealed poor management of conflicts of interest.

When asked, government employees at the NLM and NCBI asserted that nothing improper had occurred or refused to talk. When I spoke with David Lipman in October and asked him how eLife came to be included in PMC and published first on PMC, he said it had gone through the normal application process, that the Acquisitions and Selection Section had approved the application, that eLife representatives “mentioned” their site wasn’t yet up, and that he knew nothing of any discussions leading to eLife being published through PMC.

However, based on emails and documents obtained via an ongoing Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request, we now know that the initial request came from eLife, specifically and explicitly wishing to use PMC as “a publishing vehicle” to gain early traction with authors, legitimize their initiative, and advance their launch plans. We also know that Lipman, in fact, knew a great deal about the discussions about PMC publishing eLife, as he was central to them. And eLife’s application was far from normal, if any document ever truly existed — the FOIA request has not produced it in the 500+ pages sent thus far, and there is a good amount of evidence that the application was skipped. Fudging this step required many deviations in procedure for staff at NLM in order for eLife to be included immediately after a hasty decision based on private discussions between Lipman and eLife.

We also see that at the point eLife was given de facto acceptance into PMC and PubMed (March 2012), no articles had been produced, no facility for article submissions had been established, and no content could possibly have been made available for review. Acceptance occurred in seven (7) business days, despite a lack of qualifying materials (articles or files) or a formal application, which bears on the fairness of the PMC selection process, one of the primary sticking points for publishers.

Finally, even the PMC National Advisory Committee (NAC) apparently knew nothing of the special eLife arrangement, despite the fact that the agenda at their June 2012 meeting — which was attended by Lipman and others involved — included a presentation about eLife from the person who initially requested and received special treatment for eLife.

To help tell the story, I’ve recreated many of the most salient parts of the emails and documents below. In addition, I’ve scanned four of the major documents and linked to them at relevant points in this post.

The Pitch and the Catch
On February 24, 2012, Mark Patterson of eLife emailed Ed Sequeira of the NLM, with a cc to David Lipman and Jo McEntyre, making the request (link to scan of full email):

Hi Ed

I’d like to run an idea by you about a way to preview content that’s accepted for publication in eLife (the HHMI, Wellcome, Max Planck funded journal) ahead of the launch of the journal, using PMC as the publication vehicle. I’ve discussed this briefly with Jo here in the UK — hence the cc, and she felt that it might be feasible.

The motivation is that we are already getting approached by authors who have some very interesting work for eLife to consider. However, we’re unlikely to launch the journal before October/November (and authors are reluctant to wait that long). It struck us that if we could somehow preview eLife articles ‘accepted for publication’ via an established mechanism (PMC would be the best), then this could be a fantastic way to start taking submissions early and build confidence in the journal, if prospective authors can see the calibre of the early content ahead of the actual launch.

An interesting possibility (pointed out by Jo) is that if this mechanism proves popular with authors, we might want to think about making this a routine part of the publication process at eLife after launch — a way for authors to share their accepted article as early as possible. We’ll need to give that further thought.

I haven’t discussed this idea with any potential authors yet, because I wanted to see first whether it was possible from a technical/publishing standpoint.

I’d be happy to discuss on the phone next week if you have time and think that would be useful.

Cheers

Mark

Jo McEntyre is a former scientist at NCBI who is on the board of EuroPMC, formerly UK PubMed Central.

The email address Patterson used when asking for PMC’s help was a Wellcome Trust email account, which highlights the conflicts of interest in having Wellcome Trust employees on PMC’s National Advisory Committee (NAC). In 2008, Robert Kiley of Wellcome stepped down from the NAC, and was asked to recommend someone to take his place. He selected Chris Bird, Wellcome’s solicitor general. This effectively gave Wellcome two consecutive terms on the NAC. The ties between PMC and Wellcome are substantial and may have influenced the fate of eLife at PMC. The appearance of impropriety is certainly present.

The email is telling. Patterson knows what he’s asking for — publishing services, technical assistance, and a leg up with authors that will benefit eLife and its plans. He knows he is requesting to use PMC as “a publishing vehicle,” despite PMC stating publicly that it is not a publisher.

Lipman replies quickly and in a manner that seems correct initially, but soon drifts into double-talk:

Hi Mark (and hello Jo!) -

I’m glad to speak with you guys but I don’t see how you can publish articles for eLife – peer-reviewed and accepted – without eLife existing as a journal yet. You don’t need a live website for this though you could have a single page up indicating current status and approach for peer review. It would go into PMC and into PubMed (through PMC).

I’m available to speak Monday if you like.

This is a confusing set of statements, and conflicts with stated PMC policies, one of which states:

The journal must have a reasonable number of published articles in order for NLM to make a decision about its scientific quality.

With Lipman’s ambiguous response, we’re down the PMC rabbit hole, where non-publication is publication, and where journals are accepted before materials are published despite publication being a prerequisite to evaluation. However, the last sentence indicates Lipman has an approach and wants to discuss it with Patterson.

Sequiera reminds Lipman later on the same day that there are some technical reasons not to permit eLife’s request in its current form:

David

A reminder, in case you’ve forgotten: a while ago, the PMC production group and Sergey decided that we won’t take any early publications in PMC because it takes a lot of effort on our side to make sure the publisher syncs the early version with the final version, etc. We’ve made an exception for JBT because PMC is the only place the journal is available.

Ed


JBT
is the Journal of Biomolecular Techniques. The PMC version is currently framed within the association’s site. It is one of the two journals (the other being the Journal of the Medical Library Association or JMLA) that PMC publishes, despite assertions it is not a publisher.

At this point, there was a clear opportunity to tell eLife that PMC couldn’t support their request. Instead, Lipman takes this information and determines the only way to help Patterson is to have PMC become a primary publisher of finalized eLife content, as this solves the technical challenge and helps Patterson and those he represents (Wellcome and eLife):

Ed -

I would only agree if these accepted papers are “final” – i.e., there’s no assumption that they will be updated.

This indicates that the only objection Lipman was still contemplating was a technical hurdle — there is no indication that he was worried about perceptions of favoritism, impropriety, or cronyism. As we now know, this decision snowballs into PMC becoming the initial publisher of eLife, and documents show that US government employees had a high degree of awareness of what they were doing.

Complications Arise, Shortcuts Are Taken
On March 4, 2012, Patterson emails Sequeira, with a cc to Lipman and Melissa Dodd, head of production operations at eLife (scan of these emails):

Hi Ed

I’ve had further discussion with David about using the PMC author submission system to distribute accepted versions of eLife articles before launch of the journal around November of this year.

To enable this to happen, I understand that we have to have eLife included in the NLM catalogue, which in turn requires an ISSN. I’ve applied for an ISSN and will let you know as soon as this is available. Meanwhile, can you let me know of any other information that you’ll need for the purposes of the catalogue?

. . .

Best wishes, and many thanks in advance for your help with this initiative.

Mark

Note that at this point, eLife had not even applied for an ISSN, which is a prerequisite for filing an application. Yet, eLife is moving ahead as if it has been accepted. Sequeira replies:

Hi Mark

I need to talk with our Library operations people to see what they need, besides an ISSN, in order to create a catalogue record. I’ll do that today, but you may not hear back from me until next week because I’ll be away on leave for the rest of the week.

Another issue we’ll have to deal with is how to cite these articles. That means publication dates and some sort of unique identifier. Have you decided on any kind of article ID scheme beyond a DOI; like the e-IDs in the PLoS journals for example?

Is the official launch being put off till year end primarily for technical and publicity splash reasons, or is there something else? Will it be ok if the release dates for this batch of early articles are used as the official publication dates for the permanent record? So in effect, in terms of the publication record, the journal will exist as of the day the first article is released in PMC.

Ed

Sequeira slips an expression of his consternation into this email, asking exactly why this strange course of action is being pursued. Also, it’s clear that he knows they are launching a journal — “the journal will exist as of the day of the first article is released in PMC.”

To erase any doubt about how things will proceed, Lipman chimes in soon afterwards:

Ed -

In previous emails with Mark I made the point that we can’t really push this forward unless – in terms of the publication record – eLife exists with the first article we get.

d

A long email from Patterson follows, with the salient point here:

In terms of how to communicate all this relative to the ‘launch’ of eLife, I think we can view the launch of eLife as phases:

1) we will shortly launch an information site about eLife – we will be encouraging prospective authors to contact us

2) in a couple of months we’ll launch a submission site for eLife – from here on we’ll be issuing a call for submissions

3) around June/July, we’ll launch a service via PMC to publish selected author research manuscripts that have been accepted for eLife – the focus here will be on the quality of the science that’s been accepted for eLife and published via PMC, ahead of the final phase of the launch in Oct/Nov

Note Point 2 — at this stage, eLife couldn’t even accept manuscripts.

Sequeira knows they’re muddying the waters, as reflected in part of a response to the message above:

Your pre-launch site can have a list of articles that have been published, even though you need to direct people to PMC to read them.

Fitting this into your timetable, we’ll be making a subtle but important distinction between the launch of a journal, i.e., the first scientific content, and the launch of an official journal site.

How this arrangement solves any conceptual problem eludes me. As Sequeira notes, the articles will have been published on PMC. It bears emphasis that PMC proclaims that it is not a publisher, but obviously eLife was seeking a publisher, and PMC obliged. In my interview with Lipman in October, he denied direct knowledge of the process eLife went through for PMC and PubMed inclusion, yet he was directly involved. In an interview last November, Patterson disputed my claim that PMC was acting as eLife’s primary publisher at the time, yet here he is requesting exactly that.

How did eLife get accepted into the NLM catalog? In October, Lipman assured me that it had followed the usual procedure. I also asked Joyce Backus, Acting Associate Director for Library Operations at the NLM, three specific questions, which she failed to answer:

  1. When did eLife submit their application?
  2. When did the Acquisition and Selection Section consider their application?
  3. When did the idea of allowing them to post immediately on PMC arise? Who broached the idea? Who was involved in those discussions?

Judging from the emails I’ve seen thus far, eLife did not submit an application, the Acquisition and Selection Section did not consider any application, and we’ve already seen the answer to the third question. Why my clear questions were not directly answered when I was able to get the information presented here is troubling. In November, when asked directly by a journalist, Lipman refused to comment, saying, “At this time, we don’t think that engaging Mr. Anderson in a public rebuttal is productive.” Perhaps this is because there was little to rebut. Nevertheless, US government employees should answer questions posed by US citizens.

For eLife, the process from request to acceptance seemed to take a total of seven (7) business days — without any content in existence.

Copied on a discussion about eLife, Jennifer Marill of the NLM emailed Diane Boehr on March 5, 2012:

Diane, to help Ed out do we need to have cataloging work on a record for this first or does it need to go to S&A? Thanks

“S&A” seems to refer to the Selection and Acquisition Section.

On the same day Boehr at the NLM sent Judith Eannarino an email:

Judith,

Before we create a cataloging record, I wanted to be sure you’ve approved this title for the collection.

Diane

Eannarino replies to Boehr:

Diane:

Thanks for forwarding. Hadn’t seen this, but since these are such top-tier organizations and since David Lipman has given this his ok, I think it’s safe enough to create some sort of a WTC record at this point, to enable us to receive the papers. If you need a selection form from me, let me know and I can email it.

Judith

There is then an exchange between Boehr and Wilma Bass early the morning of March 6, 2012, where some concern is expressed (TA is “title abbreviation”):

Hi Diane,

. . .

Judith needs to send a selection form to get the ball rolling. Guess the TA will be Elife  (Chevy Chase). What will the reaction be to that?

Wilma

Here, staff seem to be coping with the lack of an official application from eLife. Boehr replies the same morning:

Well if it’s not in the Portal and there is no conflict in our files, I’d probably say go with an unqualified TA. I think we’ve agreed that Judith is not going to send a selection form, unless that’s critical for you. Do you think you have enough info to set up a preliminary record, so NCBI can start work on the title?

Bass’ next response shows how the team is proceeding despite there being no selection form or documentation.

Please send a selection form, leave in my in box

I’m going to pub Howard Hughes as the publisher, Chevy Chase, MD Starting in 2012

I believe “pub” it a typo of “put.” Marill re-enters the email chain later that day:

Ed,

This has been a bit tricky but TSD has created the very prelim record in Voyager: 101579614

Jennifer

This “prelim record” number is still eLife’s catalog number at NLM.

On March 13, after Sequeira returns from his vacation, Marill finishes the exchange with this:

Ed,

Assuming this goes through the normal PMC process Cataloging should get notified through the regular NCBI procedures and will update the record as needed. Jennifer

One wonders how, after all these special accommodations and shortcuts, words like “normal” and “regular” can be used to describe the process. Even before eLife had any articles or had filed an application for approval (if it ever did), it knew it had secured indexing in PubMed, had free access to a US government-run publishing platform, and that it would have months of advantage in the market.

The extent of the favoritism PMC provided eLife becomes clearer when we look at an email exchange between PMC and a non-favored publisher months later, after eLife launched on PMC.

On October 15, 2012, eLife content went live on PMC. On October 18, 2012, a staff member of Frontiers (an OA publisher) wrote to Chris Kelly at PMC:

Dear Chris,

I have a question in regards to the journal eLife that recently appeared in PubMed Central.

This journal does not appear to fulfill the 30 published articles requirement that  Frontiers needs to meet for submitting journal applications.

In fact, the journal has only 10 articles published on the 15th of October.

For Frontiers it takes 2-3 months from submission to acceptance, and form [sic] that point it takes 6 months to 1 year for our articles to actually appear live on PMC.

Do you have the same journal application requirements for all publishers?

Looking forward to your reply.

With best regards,

[Name redacted]

Kelly’s response comes quickly:

Dear [Name redacted],

The PMC application process is done in two parts for all journals. The first is a Scientific Quality Review conducted by the NLM Selection and Acquisition Section; the second is a Technical Quality Review which is done in-house by the PMC team to ensure that a journal meets our technical standards.

For the first step, the NLM Selection and Acquisition Section considers a number of factors in deciding whether the scientific quality of a journal merits acceptance into PMC. The minimum number of articles required for this evaluation may vary based on the credential of the publisher and/or sponsoring organization and of the editorial board, and on the quality of the journal’s editorial policies and practices.

Best regards,

Chris

The way this text smudges established lines, even those Kelly used previously, is worth noting. Remember, at the point eLife was accepted into PMC and PubMed (March 2012), no articles had been produced, no content was made available for review, there was no submission system, and the NLM Selection and Acquisition Section had not evaluated the journal except to take Lipman’s word for it and seemingly create a paper trail after the fact. Apparently, published standards had been abandoned by this time.

Many Frontiers journals are still not included in PubMed Central, despite Frontiers being founded in 2007.

Assisting in the Promotion of eLife
On September 8, 2012, Jennifer McLennan, a communications consultant with eLife, emailed Neil Thakur, who has been the point person on the NIH Public Access Policy, about the possibility of collaborating on publicity:

I imagine this is a long shot, but I wonder if you think there could be a joint or complementary PR opportunity . . . . I’m still pulling together plans for this side and this just crossed my mind. What do you think? Worth exploring?

Thakur emails Sequeira the same day to see what he thinks:

Hi Ed

Would PMC want to collaborate on publicity with eLife?

neil

Sequeira replies on September 10, 2012:

Hi Neil

No, this wouldn’t be appropriate. It’s a big deal for eLife but we need to treat it like any other journal coming into PMC.

Ed

Apparently, Sequeira’s opinion was not shared, as matters continued to evolve on the publicity front, and continued to draw in PMC and the NIH. On September 22, 2012, Patterson emailed Sequeira wondering if he could take a look at the editorial eLife was writing announcing “the first articles that we publish on PMC (date still TBD).” (scan of these emails) He sent the editorial as an attachment. (scan of redacted editorial) On September 25, 2012, Sequeria writes back:

Thanks for letting me have a look at this. . . . My reaction to the editorial: Now that we know for sure that you love us, we’d like you to pretend that we’re complete strangers in public.

Seriously, we’d like to play down the idea that there’s anything special about what you’re doing in PMC. Chris Kelly, who manages PMC production, is constantly fending off publishers — generally new, small journals — who push to get into PMC as early as possible because it raises their credibility and, often, their chances of survival. . . . And it’s not just the little guys. We’d had people like Peter Ashman at BMJ complain about inequitable treatment in a slightly different context.

I’m comfortable justifying what we’re doing with eLife, but anything you publish that presents this as a special deal could complicate our life greatly.

The two exchange more emails and edits before Sequeira states, “I think this works.”

The sections of the editorial they redacted before publication are:

Releasing the first content from eLife on PubMed Central is an unusual step . . . . We would like to take the opportunity to thank our colleagues at PubMed Central who have been enormously helpful in publishing these first articles.

We will be publishing further content on PubMed Central in the coming weeks. . . .

This is a very troubling set of exchanges. First, it reveals that PMC knew full well they were giving eLife significant assistance. Second, it shows that PMC knowingly sought to conceal the preferential treatment they were giving eLife. Third, and this is consistent in various exchanges, PMC knew it was acting as the publisher of eLife content. And, fourth, it shows that PMC was hoping this would slip by without too much controversy or without requiring them to do this for everyone.

There are more emails about how PMC worked hard with eLife to get their XML right prior to publication and so forth. And, this is an open FOIA request, so more documents should be forthcoming. There are still gaps in the record. I’ll share further findings and some perspective in the days and weeks ahead.

Conclusion
Last October, based on strong circumstantial and some direct evidence, I wrote that PMC had aided eLife by providing technical, consultative, technology, and indexing support in a manner that was highly unusual, and specifically designed to help eLife gain an advantage in the marketplace. I also speculated that mismanagement of conflicts-of-interest with Wellcome appeared to have had a bearing on eLife’s preferential treatment. Given these telling email and document exchanges, we now have direct evidence that PMC knowingly gave eLife significant and valuable launch assistance at eLife’s request, secretly agreeing to use US taxpayer-funded resources and salaries to abet the launch of an online journal funded by three multi-billion-dollar philanthropies (two of which are headquartered outside the US), while colluding with these entities to minimize their chances of being accused of impropriety and avoiding direct questions about how this occurred once the community was aware of the results of the deal. In addition, PMC knowingly was stiff-arming other publishers requesting indexing and inclusion.

In a way, this is a painful post to write. Many of the people in these emails I know and respect. However, the reputation of PubMed, the NCBI, the NLM, and the NIH as objective, fair, and unbiased registrars of scientific information for public use may have been severely compromised. These records and other facts strongly suggest there is cronyism, preferential treatment, an unclear set of standards, conflicts of interest, and abuse of authority. There are certainly many questions to be answered.

(Note: Tomorrow’s post will cover some vexing discussions at PMC regarding PeerJ, and how PMC coordinated with eLife on how to respond when PeerJ questioned PMC’s handling of eLife.)

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About Kent Anderson

I am the Publisher at AAAS/Science. Previously, I have worked as CEO/Publisher of the STRIATUS/JBJS, Inc., a publishing executive at the New England Journal of Medicine, and Director of Medical Journals at the American Academy of Pediatrics. Opinions on social media or blogs are my own.

Discussion

43 thoughts on “Something’s Rotten in Bethesda, Indeed — How PubMed Central Came to Help Launch and Initially Publish eLife

  1. Wow, just wow. First, congratulations on some nice investigative journalism work here. Second, when Congress starts complaining that all federally funded research needs to be open access, the answer should always be, “then the government should publish this work themselves.” It seems the government now has a journal in which to do this. This is really disappointing.

    Posted by Angela Cochran | Feb 6, 2013, 10:32 am
    • “When Congress starts complaining that all federally funded research needs to be open access, the answer should always be, “then the government should publish this work themselves.” ”

      I would agree with that response. I think most open-access advocates would. As my own (UK) govenment goes through its current sequence of inquiries into the findings of the Finch Report and RCUK’s implementation of them, I would certainly welcome the government’s stepping forward, cutting the gordian knot, and just publishing the work itself.

      Posted by Mike Taylor | Feb 6, 2013, 11:31 am
      • Politicians should act as gatekeepers of climate science, say? Could work in the UK, but honestly, should we let politics govern the publicizing of scientifically reputable but politically controversial research? Should the Chinese Communist Party be able to determine what gets published by its scientists about pollution? From the perspective of someone in the USA, I would seriously question the legitimacy of this model. I understand that scholars don’t like the profit-model of trade (and, yes, publicity is a trade). But it does at least force a modicum of credibility into the marketplace (yes, marketplace) of ideas. Because if a profit-making press is entirely lacking credibility, it will hurt their bottom line. So, unless they are deliberately playing to a narrow crowd, it will be minimally profitable, hence not viable along the lines of an Elsevier or a Springer. Not that they are perfect, by any stretch. But they are better than some political elements in the USA and China. I don’t think there’s a serious enough consideration of profitable presses serving as a kind of independent judiciary, as it were, which researchers and funding arms can equally rely upon. I am not claiming the model works flawlessly, but it is much preferable to ideological politics. This is a dangerous path to follow. IMHO.

        Posted by Gregory Kaplan | Feb 6, 2013, 12:14 pm
        • Gregory, I meant that governments should pay for the publication of science that they fund, not that they should take editorial decisions! That of course should remain the domain of academic editors!

          Posted by Mike Taylor | Feb 6, 2013, 1:00 pm
          • There’s a saying : pay the piper, call the tune. Do you firmly believe that politicians could really resist meddling once they hold the purse strings?

            Posted by Tim Vines | Feb 6, 2013, 3:42 pm
            • The Cancer Prevention and Research Institute of Texas (CPRIT) springs to mind:

              http://www.huffingtonpost.com/jim-moore/cancer-funding-texas_b_2274546.html

              Posted by David Crotty | Feb 6, 2013, 3:55 pm
            • The government already pays the piper. That’s where the funding for the actual research comes from. I don’t see where spending another 1% to fund the publishing would make a big difference.

              Posted by Mike Taylor | Feb 6, 2013, 5:12 pm
              • Government pays for research, but it does not pay for gatekeepers who supposedly judge research independently. But, if that is not a valid enterprise, then go ahead and support the PuBMedCentrals and PeerJ’s of the world. They are doing a fine job colluding between publishing and big government. But why restrict independent voices? If they can command the selling price they do, I would suggest it is because of the benefits they provide. No library is REQUIRED to purchase Nature or Science or ridiculously expensive med sci journals. They do so because, like most (if not all) things in capitalism, it is WORTH IT!

                Posted by Gregory Kaplan | Feb 13, 2013, 10:32 am
            • “once they hold the purse strings”?? You mean as in right now and since there have been public universities and research institutes? Governments have held the purse strings since at least world-war II. What time point were you referring to?

              The government is already paying everything: public universities, research institutes, their libraries, the research. Why shouldn’t government keep the subscriptions they’re currently paying (including the 32-42% in corporate profits, i.e. direct industry subsidies) and use them to pay for a scholarly communication system that actually worked? I work at an 100% public university and my library alone spends 700k€ (almost 1 million US$) every single year on publishers’ *profits* in journals alone. That’s the kind of money governments could save if all we would do was deposit every single one of our papers in arxiv (and for those who want that organize overlay ‘journals’). For my university alone (and thus my government), this would mean instant savings of a million US$, every single year, probably more as arxiv is much cheaper than current subscriptions.

              If the governments of this world decided today that not a dime of tax-funds should ever be spent on scholarly publishing again (neither, books, nor subscriptions, nor APCs), Elsevier, Springer, Wiley, etc, would all go bankrupt tomorrow. Come to think of it, maybe this is what we scientists should lobby for (as if we had a lobby): complete stop of government subsidies for corporate academic publishers. Let’s see how long academic publishers would survive on the current ~20% of industry subscriptions…

              I’ve often wondered, since I’m not an economist, how does a tax-dollar (maybe from a library of a public institution) magically turn into private money only because a shareholder of an academic publisher managed to pocket it?

              Posted by brembs | Feb 12, 2013, 1:07 pm
              • By that same token, Google and Facebook are government funded projects. Much of their technology is adapted from publicly funded universities. Indeed that whole internet is. I would charge that your real antagonist is technology transfer and patent law, not copyright on ideas, which are worth a pittance in comparison. Why not go after Tech Transfer offices, which thrive in every “publicly funded university” worth its salt. Why should any private money be earned from anything that happens anywhere, for that matter? I live in China, where most public money is still held by public hands (State Owned Enterprises). I love China, but I remain unconvinced that it works any better than Elsevier, Springer, Wiley, etc, do. And by the way, there are hundreds of small publishers — I am one — whom the previous comment does not even acknowledge as existing. Why not? Do a few bad apples (i.e. voracious corporations) really destroy capitalism? Again, is China really the solution proposed by OA advocates?

                Posted by Gregory Kaplan | Feb 13, 2013, 10:28 am
        • Somehow, I imageine that the CCP already DOES determine what its scientists publish about pollution, and probably about most other subjects. Even if they don’t do this article by article, they certainly control appointments and access to major research universities.

          Posted by Richard James | Feb 6, 2013, 1:12 pm
  2. Very interesting article. As a side note, eLIfe’s such strong assumption that the articles it received would be published, makes me wonder how stringent its peer review and editorial policies are.

    Posted by anon | Feb 6, 2013, 11:12 am
    • I had that same thought. They have authors who can’t wait for the actual journal to launch and eLife decided to go ahead and “review” the papers with no editorial standards or system in place? How bizarre.

      Posted by Angela Cochran | Feb 6, 2013, 11:24 am
  3. This events in this account are really unfortunate. It is clear to me that a public-private partnership is necessary to satisfy the legitimate demand for wide-spread awareness of information. But creating order out of the present period of disruption will require much better governance in the public sphere at PMC and like entities. The rules appear to be fine. Their application was not.

    Equally, a vigorous intellectual and legal defense of copyright is long-overdue for any of the models to monetize the work of researchers and content-creators to succeed. Subscription, various open-source models, even (maybe especially) creative commons licensing models need this.

    Some may argue “too soon” after the unfortunate suicide of Aaron Swartz. But the major blurring of the lines and facile tone of the clamor going on in favor of “free” access to all information is moving the the needle greatly in direction.

    Posted by Michael Watson | Feb 6, 2013, 11:56 am
  4. Hmm, makes me wonder how objective PMC is in the reverse situation, that is, rejecting journals that don’t have a lot of influence.

    Posted by Ellen Bilofsky | Feb 6, 2013, 11:59 am
  5. Your report appears to allege serious improprieties on the part of US Government employees. The correct thing for you to do is to forward your information to the Office of the Inspector General, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

    Posted by Ken Lanfear | Feb 6, 2013, 12:54 pm
    • Luckily, the two are not mutually exclusive. So, here’s the blog post . . .

      Posted by Kent Anderson | Feb 6, 2013, 5:31 pm
      • Ok, but don’t count on the Inspector General reading a blog. Send a formal letter with a full report. Better yet, get a member of Congress to forward the report; that will make it “ticketed correspondence” which cannot be ignored.

        Posted by Ken Lanfear | Feb 7, 2013, 10:37 pm
        • No worries. Lots of activity, I hear.

          Posted by Kent Anderson | Feb 8, 2013, 12:04 am
          • Back when Kent did his first article on this situation I posted it to the HHS IG’s online hot line but they never contacted me. I suspect they consider it a policy issue.

            Posted by David Wojick | Feb 9, 2013, 8:05 am
  6. As someone who has jumped through the NLM’s hoops in order to try to get journals included in their database, this is infuriating. I’ve had journals accepted and ones rejected; however, I always believed I was competing on a level field of play–obviously not the case.

    Great work, Kent.

    Posted by Barton | Feb 6, 2013, 5:23 pm
  7. Shocking and utterly outrageous. Nuff said.

    Posted by Vivienne Bachelet (@V_Bachelet) | Feb 6, 2013, 10:07 pm
  8. I am not defending PMC but it would be useful to see both sides here. For one thing it is normal for federal agencies to engage in advocacy of their mission, including encouraging and even funding new ventures. Green OA is arguably part of PMC’s mission. That PMC is or should be merely a passive repository may be an incorrect assumption. Second the head of an agency has broad latitude to explore new ways of achieving the agency’s mission. The eLife project may be such an exploration, where confusion is to be expected. The point is that this issue is not as simple as you make it seem. You strong conclusions are based on a number of assumptions about what PMC should be. PMC may not agree.

    Posted by David Wojick | Feb 8, 2013, 8:15 am
    • I tried to “see both sides” back in October, when Lipman and Backus both had opportunities to respond to direct questions answered ultimately by a FOIA request. It’s important to note that this isn’t about OA, but about fairness and conflicts of interest and cronyism.

      I think you’d agree that if an agency is exploring better ways to complete its mission, it should state such through a policy change or stated phase of new standards, which it applies fairly. If PMC views Green OA as part of its mission, it should state that openly, and then be prepared to accept Green OA from multiple sources.

      The issue isn’t what PMC could do, but how it has had double standards, which facts strongly suggest were based on favoritism toward Wellcome alone.

      My conclusion about what PMC should be is based on my belief that a government agency should act impartially, not abuse authority, be open, respond to questions when asked, control conflicts of interest, and follow its own publicly stated policies.

      If PMC wishes to state that it intends to be biased, abusive of authority, insular, antagonistic, conflicted, and capricious . . .

      Posted by Kent Anderson | Feb 8, 2013, 8:58 am
      • You are simply restating your case. I am trying to do two things. The first is issue analysis, which means laying out the various possible lines of argument while making no judgement about their merits. The second is drawing on 40 years experience in diagnosing and correcting confusions in federal programs. Doing OA is their core mission.

        Your emails suggest that what you are dealing with is mission creep, not mismanagement and not malfeasence. I know from experience that PMC is the OA advocate in the federal government. Whether they have that advocacy mandate may be the question. If mission creep is the problem then it needs to be corrected by clarifying and bounding the mission, which is done by higher authority.

        That you were stonewalled is unfortunate but not unusual. Agencies do not have to justify what they are doing to everyone who asks.

        If I am correct and the problem is mission creep not cronyism then your ethics complaints may be too shallow. The open question is what is PMC’s mission with green OA? Your opinion matters but it is far from decisive. We are talking about the mission of a federal agency. You cannot assume that your opinion as to what is should be is what it is, because others have contrary opinions.

        Posted by David Wojick | Feb 8, 2013, 10:17 am
        • If the issue is mission creep, then why try to conceal it? Also, why is it focused just on Wellcome initiatives (or others with clear conflicts of interest)?

          If I weren’t hearing complaints about mistreatment from other OA publishers, and since the records showed that PMC doesn’t want to do Green OA on a large scale, I might believe you. But I think you’re over-thinking this. That’s why I’m sticking to the story that is supported by the facts in hand.

          As for responding to inquiries, I do feel that government employees who decline to respond to citizens and journalists are not behaving normally. Agencies are expected to act in an unbiased manner.

          The ethics complaint is pretty well-documented, I believe. Or was the mission creep equivalent to “PMC will now give advantages to Wellcome initiatives”? That’s not mission creep. That’s cronyism.

          Posted by Kent Anderson | Feb 8, 2013, 10:34 am
          • The opportunity to do something new came from Welcome, nor do I see any conflict of interest (your case there is very weak). They accepted the funders plausible assurrances that the jpurnal would be a good one. The “blowback” language suggests they knew some publishers would object so they tried to minimize that. Agencies are always surrounded by ctitics. OA is a big fight and this may explain everything. It still may be unfair and wrong but not wrong doing. There is a difference.

            Posted by David Wojick | Feb 8, 2013, 10:54 am
            • The case on COI is not weak, but pervasive and clear.

              Allow me to explain. Conflicts of interest start at the perceptual level:

              All conflicts of interest involve perceptions or appearances because they are specified from the perspective of people who do not have sufficient information with which to assess the actual motives of a decision maker and the effects of those motives on the decisions themselves.

              Organizations have to manage the appearance of conflicts. If they fail to do that, trust can erode or be broken.

              A conflict of interest is a set of circumstances that creates a risk that professional judgment or actions regarding a primary interest will be unduly influenced by a secondary interest.

              All of these elements are present. There were clear conflicts of interest to be managed. Instead, they were allowed to become operational — Wellcome on the NAC for double the allowed time, getting special access, receiving special treatment, etc. In addition, the quick story in today’s post about Lipman and BMC scratching each other’s back is another conflict that may have been acted upon.

              Conflict of interest policies are attempts to ensure that professional decisions are made on the basis of primary interests and not secondary interests. . . . such policies work best when they are preventive and corrective rather than punitive. To the extent that they are effective, they serve two overarching purposes: maintaining the integrity of professional judgment and sustaining public confidence in that judgment. That professionals should promote these purposes constitutes the fundamental principle underlying any respectable conflict of interest policy.

              PMC management did not manage incipient conflicts of interest, and allowed them to blossom, participated in exacerbating and perpetuating them, etc. It’s actually one of the most egregious failures of conflict of interest management I’ve seen.

              http://scholarlykitchen.sspnet.org/2012/11/15/pubmed-centrals-failures-in-handling-conflicts-of-interest-with-elife/

              Posted by Kent Anderson | Feb 8, 2013, 11:08 am
        • One other point on this — if this were truly a direction PMC was contemplating in some manner, why was the PMC NAC kept out of the plan? Why not have those discussions with its own advisory group? Even when the “poster child” was presenting about the specific initiative being pushed behind the scenes?

          Posted by Kent Anderson | Feb 8, 2013, 10:51 am
          • I do not share your concept of conflict of interest as something depending on the eye of the beholder. It makes one’s enemy right by definition, an impossible situation. Government could not function if this were true. I call it Caesar’s Wife syndrome. Given that the NAC was not consulted I see no actual conflict. If the Welcome member had rammed it through the NAC that might be different.

            As to your question I am not defending nor explaining PMC, merely pointing out the possibilities. When I investigate a confusion like this I talk to a lot of people in the agency. I work hard not to jump to conclusions. Not having done that investigation I really do not know what happened, just what the little evidence presented suggests.

            The underlying problem looks like a line item on my coherence analysis matrix, namely vague procedures. PMC seems to have had relatively informal acceptance procedures which varied based on their a priori assessment of a journal’s likelihood of meeting their standards.They also published several journals already so it was a small step to publish a new journal’s articles from scratch when that journal was backed by fellow funders, especially a fellow leader in the OA movement. What is wrong here is probably the flexibility, although it makes a certain amount of sense. Whether it is unfair or not is a policy issue.

            Posted by David Wojick | Feb 8, 2013, 12:57 pm
            • This is not “my concept.” This is a foundational concept from an expert panel that informs most conflict of interest policies. I’m not “winging it” here.

              If PMC had vague procedures, why are their published procedures specific and enforced, but their procedures for eLife unprecedented and secret?

              This isn’t a misunderstanding. This is much more serious.

              Posted by Kent Anderson | Feb 8, 2013, 1:00 pm
            • This is not “my concept.” This is a foundational concept from an expert panel that informs most conflict of interest policies. I’m not “winging it” here.

              If PMC had vague procedures, why are their published procedures specific and enforced, but their procedures for eLife unprecedented and secret?

              This isn’t a misunderstanding. This is much more serious.

              Posted by Kent Anderson | Feb 8, 2013, 1:00 pm
              • My mistake. I should have said I do not share their concept and neither does the federal government as a general rule. Political enemies make these sort of appearance based accusations all the time but typically they are ignored, with good reason. Your enemies do not trust you by definition.

                As for the procedures your stuff makes clear that their actual procedures are much more flexible than what is written, which I have not seen. The actuals are more like what I described. Nor did I say it was a misunderstanding; rather it is a pretty deep confusion and yes it is serious. There are some deep policy issues here.

                Posted by David Wojick | Feb 8, 2013, 2:42 pm
                • What you call “the actuals” does not seem to exist. Long-term publishers are stone-walled, new publishers are stone-walled, and Wellcome gets in without an application? That’s beyond “flexible.” That’s bordering on “corrupt.”

                  I can tell you there’s a lot of resentment and anger in the OA community about this — even before these posts showed how cozy Wellcome and PMC were about eLife. I can only imagine how people are feeling now.

                  Posted by Kent Anderson | Feb 8, 2013, 10:20 pm
              • I do not know what you mean by stone-walled besides going through the usual application process. Perhaps you are being hyperbolic. In any case you insist that this is an ethical issue not a policy issue so we are done. I merely wanted to point out the alternative.

                Posted by David Wojick | Feb 9, 2013, 8:12 am
  9. This may be naive of me, and possibly a different discussion thread altogether.

    Could Crossref develop an abstract indexing alternative to Medline, with all doi titles included and a more algorithmically inclined filtering process? Create or use an organization with a representative mix of stakeholders that makes preferential treatment of any applicant source beyond difficult.

    “CrossRef’s goal is to be a trusted collaborative organization with broad community connections; authoritative and innovative in support of a persistent, sustainable infrastructure for scholarly communication.” http://www.crossref.org/01company/02history.html

    Crossref presents some interesting features with Crossmark and Crosscheck that could be valuable quality filters for something like this. More filters could be developed by Crossref and other non-commercial or commercial entities and individuals in an API infrastructure.

    Create an unbiased baseline exchange infrastructure that facilitates development of future analytics, extraction, integration, quality filters and publishing models. If not by Crossref, then thru another entity developed for that purpose?

    Non-US originating journals applying to Medline have long suspected anomalies in the process, but few had the willingness to voice concerns. After all, they wanted to successfully re-apply. Maybe it is time to discuss if filtering challenges and research data opportunities are sufficiently addressed at global scale thru Medline anyway.

    Could something be created that is less biased, more immediate, and for an even greater good, globally?

    Posted by Neil Christensen | Feb 8, 2013, 1:54 pm

Trackbacks/Pingbacks

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  2. Pingback: Pulling the Wool Over Their Eyes — The PubMed National Advisory Committee and Conflicts of Interest « The Scholarly Kitchen - Feb 8, 2013

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