In March 2012, executives within the US National Institutes of Health (NIH) and National Library of Medicine (NLM) began discussing with their counterparts at Wellcome Trust how PMC could secretly help eLife launch early.
On June 19, 2012, the PMC National Advisory Committee (NAC) met, where Mark Patterson of eLife, at David Lipman’s invitation, gave a presentation about eLife.
It was an unprecedented presentation — the first in the NAC’s history to focus solely on an unlaunched journal. At no time during that meeting was the NAC told that eLife and PMC were in the midst of abetting the launch of eLife. Patterson initiated the idea of PMC helping eLife, you might recall.
I wrote about much of this yesterday, sharing information gleaned from reams of printed emails, memos, and presentations generated by a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request I filed in November 2012.
Today, I’m going to explain finding something in those 500+ pages that I didn’t expect — evidence that Lipman and others, as well as executives at eLife, were also discussing PeerJ, with Lipman at one point considering bending the rules again for PeerJ, despite PeerJ not expressing any desire for special treatment. In fact, PeerJ asked pointedly for an explanation of eLife’s sweetheart deal once the secret deal’s results were on the market.
The email chain begins on June 12, 2012, at 2:45 p.m., about a week before the PMC NAC meeting. Lipman emails Binfield with the subject “congrats!!!”
The two then arrange through some brief email back and forth to speak at 2 p.m. EDT on June 19th, and Lipman provides Binfield with his phone number. After that call, Binfield provides Lipman with a list of Advisory Board members PeerJ is signing. He also asks Lipman for more:
So, here we have the head of the NCBI providing advice to a new publisher — this time, it’s about how to attract editorial board advisors — after reaching out spontaneously to that same publisher a week prior. This is reminiscent of Lipman giving eLife business advice at the June 2012 PMC National Advisory Committee (NAC) meeting. In both cases, his actions seem to go far beyond his remit.
Lipman’s spontaneous advice for PeerJ continues, through emails on July 3 (“This is really good Pete – this will keep the buzz going.”) and September 4:
It’s important to register Lipman’s spontaneous and ongoing enthusiasm for PeerJ, as it seems to color his judgment. Rather than being an unbiased manager of an index and repository of the scientific literature, Lipman is a cheerleader of certain initiatives, and shows tendencies to throw his weight behind splashy new approaches.
Chris Kelly, a production manager at PMC, then takes over communications for a time, cc’ing Lipman.
Binfield notes to Lipman in an email the same day:
I emailed Lipman and Binfield to ask about what “related items” they discussed. Binfield didn’t recall the discussion, and had nothing on his calendar showing any call occurred. Lipman’s reply is below (received February 4, 2013):
In this same September 4, 2012, email, Binfield notes to Kelly that PeerJ hasn’t launched yet. Kelly then begins to explain to Binfield the requirements for inclusion, in an email dated September 5, 2012:
This returns us to the confusing and inconsistent standards being promulgated by the NLM — they can’t seem to get this right. In one location, they state:
The journal must have a reasonable number of published articles in order for NLM to make a decision about its scientific quality.
In emails with publishers, they’ve stated:
A journal needs to be included in the NLM Collection to meet PMC’s scientific quality standard. This review can take place once [the title] has published 15 articles.
Now, we have another standard being promulgated — 30 articles.
Kelly plays by the rules he understands, even if the rules aren’t entirely consistent throughout the NLM or NCBI. He and Binfield talk on September 5, 2012.
On October 15, 2012, eLife content goes live on PMC. On October 17, 2012, Binfield sends Kelly this email (Lipman is not cc’d):
Binfield told me via email that his inquiry was an honest effort to see why one journal had gotten in so fast:
Binfield was as perplexed as anyone, apparently.
On the same day as Binfield’s email inquiry (October 17), Kelly emails Lipman (note, this was prior to my post; it appears PMC had already received complaints about its actions with eLife from others):
Kelly is referring to that day’s email inquiry from Binfield.
That same night, at 9:58 p.m. on October 17, 2012, Lipman replies:
“LO” is Library Operations.
There are two aspects to this email:
- Lipman doesn’t know the criteria the NLM is using, yet claims in other communications that the usual process was followed. Is there a usual process?
- Lipman considers non-public (i.e., editorial) review and approval of articles to be “publishing.”
Interestingly, this inexplicable idea — that completing the editorial process without making the information public equates with “publishing” — occurs later in another NLM communication. In an email sent to a librarian on December 7, 2012, in response to an inquiry citing my post on PMC and eLife, Joyce Backus of the NLM echoes this mysterious state of private publication:
This statement, which I have never seen outside of this email acquired via my FOIA request, is a contradiction of stated PMC policies and is not reflected in PMC practices in general, based on reports from the field. It also seems to be a revisionist history provoked by “eLife blowback” — that is, PMC suddenly didn’t care if the journal was actually publishing, and may include the content in PMC even if it’s not, as long as the organization has a good reputation and a decent XML DTD.
This obfuscation creates a paradox — published articles have to be evaluated before they can be added to PMC per published policy and documented communications, but the articles don’t need to be published to be evaluated. It’s a particularly convenient paradox — PMC asserts it is not a publisher; by defining “publication” as “editorial review and approval,” then using US government infrastructure to make information public for the first time, even to the extent of providing the primary output for eLife content for two months, PMC is, via this clever redefinition of reality, not publishing.
So we have PMC stating it’s not a publisher, and moving the line of what a publisher is so that it only involves the editorial review process, not the act of making information public. This is pure evasion.
The exchange between Lipman and colleagues discussing PeerJ continues on October 18, 2012, with Kelly confirming:
Lipman weighs in, with a voice that is very much like a businessman wanting to make an important acquisition:
This email is worth parsing. Here is the Director of the NCBI inventing rules again for a new, high-profile publishing initiative. But the more troubling and revealing part comes when Lipman states, “Peerj could end up being a very important journal for us . . . .” Who could the “us” possibly be in this sentence? Why would it matter to PMC which journal an article is published in? It’s a repository, after all. I can’t find a rational explanation for this wording.
Fundamentally, Lipman is making a competitive statement, a proprietor’s statement, and has a whiff of “publishing mogul” to it. He may think of himself in this way, to some extent. I saw glimpses of this as far back as 1998, when I visited the NCBI. As we’ve written about before, PMC is competing with publishers, by design. This has negative financial impacts on publishers — suppressing usage data and stealing advertising inventory. Now we have even more evidence that the Director of the NCBI thinks competitively, thinks of PMC as a publisher competing for content, and is willing to bend rules to gain what he considers to be an advantage.
This surprising set of emails reveals that just days after publishing eLife content on PMC as part of the launch of that journal — and making US government-funded infrastructure available to a new multinational journal publisher — Lipman and the NLM were ready to bend the rules again for PeerJ. Remember, journals are supposed to be vetted by a clearly stated and (actually) published process. The head of NCBI seems to have become comfortable short-circuiting this process if something struck his fancy.
For its part, PeerJ wanted nothing to do with special treatment from PMC, as Binfield wrote to me:
eLife Enters the PeerJ Discussion
The emails also show that there is more of a cabal here than I’d imagined, as demonstrated by this email from Mark Patterson of eLife to Ed Sequeira on October 18, 2012 — contemporaneous with many of the emails above. Here, we have Patterson and Sequeira working on language again, in an effort to give PMC’s publication of eLife articles a benign appearance:
Sequeira responded at the end of the day:
The two then collaborate on what Patterson should write back to Binfield. The last draft in the FOIA documents reads:
I don’t believe Binfield knew that Sequeira had a hand in Patterson’s response to him. Here is obvious collusion between PMC and eLife on how to present their deal to the public and to other publishers.
The inquiries from PeerJ should have been answered normally by staff, and shouldn’t even have been necessary, frankly — the eLife situation should never have occurred. Instead, the same activism at the top of the NCBI that led to the publication support for eLife nearly took over communications with PeerJ. In addition, the inappropriate relationship between eLife and the NLM is clear once again — these two unrelated organizations should not have been coordinating how they would respond to a third organization. Finally, we have evidence of how the Director of NCBI (and the Executive Secretary of the PMC NAC) thinks — as a competitive publisher, not as a US government employee managing a non-competitive index or repository.
When the organization running the systems to objectively and dispassionately catalog the literature has been polluted by inappropriate activism and conflicts of interest, where do we turn for objective and fair treatment?
(Note: Tomorrow, I’ll explore the conflicts of interest on the PMC NAC, and new evidence showing how mismanaged these have been.)