Journals wishing to be included in PubMed Central (PMC) have to apply — unless they hold a membership in the old guard of open access (OA) publishers. In the case of eLife, that membership was granted via the long-standing cozy relationship between PMC and Wellcome Trust. In the case of F1000 Research, it seems the membership came from a shared history with BioMed Central (BMC).
The final 200+ pages of items responsive to an expanded “F1000 Research” portion of my Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request show not only that PMC leadership once again violated its stated policies by inviting F1000 Research into PMC, even assigning a long-term contractor to reach out, but also shows another poor handling of conflicts of interest.
BMC was founded by Vitek Tracz in 2000, and sold to Springer Science + Business Media in 2008 (Springer itself was recently acquired by a private equity firm). In 2006, a journal, Biology Direct — edited then, as now, by Eugene Koonin, NCBI, NLM, NIH; Laura Landweber, Princeton University; and David Lipman, NCBI, NLM, NIH – was launched at BMC, when Tracz was still in control. Tracz subsequently launched F1000, which in 2012 launched F1000 Research. These facts provide some context for what follows.
F1000 Research Avoids Falling through the Cracks with PMC’s Help – Journals wishing to be included in PMC have to start the process themselves. As stated in PMC’s instructions, “Publisher initiates the application process,” which involves sending an email with specific information to PMC in order to start the process of evaluation. There is no evidence these emails existed in the case of eLife, and apparently PMC catalyzed the process in the case of F1000 Research.
On September 20, 2012, David Lipman sent an email to one of the main contractors for PMC, Chris Kelly:
The email Lipman cites here is one that I do not see in the files, and since this particular FOIA request is complete, I can only speculate that it didn’t contain any of the terms I queried on — “F1000 Research,” “F1000,” or “F1000R.” It may have been a more general email about a new journal.
On the morning of October 2, 2012, Lipman emails Kelly again (there is no evidence that Kelly responded to Lipman’s first email):
About 40 minutes later, Kelly replies:
Thirty minutes later, Lipman responds:
Just under 30 minutes after that (at 11:38 a.m.), Kelly confirms:
F1000 Research applied the next day.
A benign reading of this could make Lipman look like a helpful public servant with good connections. However, given past behavior, including his efforts to provide eLife with launch assistance while concealing this from the PMC National Advisory Committee along with his eagerness to get PeerJ included in PMC because “it could be a very important journal for us,” and this only adds to an emerging track record as mogul or king-maker. Add to this an apparent absence of such activism for the dozens or hundreds of other open access (OA) journals, and the silence of omission speaks loudly as well.
Flexibility has been noted around PMC processes in the past, and a certain amount of this is understandable. But there seems to be a bright line between being accommodating and being activist. Lipman crossed into the activist role yet again in the exchange above, by assigning staff to prod a publisher — and one Lipman has a history with — to apply. He could have merely emailed Tracz himself to say nothing had yet arrived, and left it at that. Instead, he assigned a PMC contractor to reach out.
The Insiders’ Game – This event also adds to the perception that OA currently has a core group of insiders running the main stage. I talked about this in a post recently about the leadership changes at PLoS, which involved swapping among eLife and PLoS leadership teams. Certainly, the founder of BioMed Central and current owner of F1000 receiving special treatment doesn’t help this perception, especially when Lipman has been and continues to be the editor of a BMC journal, Biology Direct.
Conflicts of Interest at NCBI and PMC – On February 7, 2013, Vitek Tracz emailed Eugene Koonin, a senior investigator at NCBI and a co-editor, along with Lipman, of Biology Direct on BMC, requesting that Koonin, who is also a faculty member in bioinformatics for F1000, send an email to his colleagues promoting F1000 Research. Tracz drafted an email Koonin could use, and notes in his message that F1000 Research is now facing a “battle for papers.”
On February 11, 2013, Koonin replies, copying Lipman on his reply:
That evening, Lipman replies to Koonin:
This gets us into an interesting thicket of competing interests, with Lipman and Koonin having many all at once but responding very differently.
Koonin recognizes his conflict and excuses himself from helping the new entrant. He does not resolve his conflict of interest (i.e., does not step down from F1000 or Biology Direct), but he recognizes its existence and responds as someone with a conflict might — that is, choosing one interest over another (in this case, choosing Biology Direct over F1000).
Lipman apparently does not recognize the conflict of interest between running PMC and working on the indexing of a competitor for Biology Direct, a journal he co-edits for a competing company. If he were to acknowledge this conflict, his best course would be to recuse himself from any involvement. As shown above, he did not recuse himself or even informally sideline himself, and instead became actively involved on behalf of his friend and former boss at BMC, directing contractors to ensure the journal was moved forward as expeditiously as possible.
Even faced with an email from a co-editor from the same journal citing a conflict of interest, Lipman does not acknowledge or respond to the problem. This all is reminiscent of Lipman’s apparent inability to recognize and avoid or resolve conflicts of interest around eLife and Wellcome Trust.
Consternation at PMC over F1000 Research – I’ve said before that “F1000 Research just makes my head hurt.” It seems I am not alone. Judging from glimpsed gained through emails internal to PMC, I’m not alone.
On January 23, 2013, Rebecca Stranger wrote to Joyce Backus (Director, Division of Library Operations) and Jerry Sheehan (Assistant Director for Policy Development), copying David Gillikin:
There are other signs of frustration with both understanding and implementing the F1000 Research model in the emails — brief comments and asides not worth reproducing here. There are also emails expressing dismay about how F1000 Research presented inclusion in PMC initially. On January 25, 2013, Chris Kelly wrote to David Lipman, copying Ed Sequira (Kelly’s one typo has been preserved):
Rebecca Stranger is who first flagged F1000 Research’s blog post, quoted above. She forwarded it to Kelly a few hours before the email above was sent. In an email to Sequeira and Peter Cooper, Kelly characterized the F1000 Research post as “pretty misleading stuff.”
Conclusion – At some level, this is just more of the same — more coziness within the old guard OA community and more unmanaged conflicts of interest, with some new signs of friction between F1000 Research and PMC over promotional statements.
We’re able to see this behavior because it involves a US government agency, making everything part of the public record. After all, they are supposed to be serving the needs of the taxpayer and the research community, including OA publishers who might fall outside their inner circle. These recently acquired documents add to the impression that publishers need to be part of the new “old boys” network to qualify for special treatment. There are signs elsewhere of this old boys network, with one stark example being PLoS’ move to hire a former PLoS and PMC and eLife luminary as its new CEO. Such internecine networks also foster a feeling of insulation and inherent infallibility, which can help create blindness to conflicts of interest — after all, it’s “just us,” and if we set the standards for our own behavior, who can possibly criticize us?
OA publishing may have wanted to dismantle barriers and free up the publishing landscape. Instead, it seems to be as prone to cronyism and favoritism and blind spots as any other human endeavor, which is why we need to — just as we do with every form of publishing — keep an eye on it and its special weaknesses and vulnerabilities.