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Authors listing industry sponsorship are more than twice as likely to pay open access fees to make their work freely accessible.  This bias could lead to preferential reading of pro-industry results.

The study, “And now, e-publication bias,” examined the funding source and access status of 216 extended reports published between 2007 and 2008 in the Annals of the Rheumatic Diseases, a journal published by the BMJ Group. The letter was authored by three medical doctors, a biostatistician, and a research librarian.

The Annals of the Rheumatic Diseases operates under a subscription-access model but allows authors to purchase open access rights to their article.  Titles that offer this service are often referred to as “hybrid open access journals.” To make one’s article freely available, The Annals charges US $3,145 (£1,700/€2,515 +VAT), which publishes one’s article under a Creative Commons Attribution Non Commercial 2.0 license.  At present, the journal makes all articles published before 2006 freely available from their website.

According to the study, 17% (12 of 71) of industry-funded papers were made open access, compared to 8% (11 of 145) of papers not declaring industry funding.  While the differences are significant, the size of the study was relatively small and limited to a single journal with relatively high article processing charges.  It would be interesting to see whether e-publication bias exists in other hybrid journals.

Pro-industry bias is not new to medical publishing.  Pharmaceutical and device companies often purchase reprints of favorable studies to distribute to doctors offices.  Last year, we reported on how Elsevier published six “fake” journals — essentially compendia of reprinted articles and reviews which presented data favorable to Merck’s products.  That industry would view author-pays publishing as an opportunity to promote favorable work is not entirely surprising.  The authors of the study write:

Our results show that author-paid open access publishing preferentially increases accessibility to studies funded by industry. This could favour dissemination of pro-industry results.

Hybrid journals are not the only journals at risk for biased dissemination of research results.  BioMed Central, a commercial company that specializes in the publication of full open access journals, lists many of the world’s top pharmaceutical companies as institutional members. If you are a researcher at Pfizer, Novartis, Sanofi-Aventis, or Bayer Schering Pharma, your company has already pre-paid Biomed Central to cover your future article processing charges.  Details of these arrangements are found on these companies’ BMC websites:

Do you realize that you can now publish in journals published by BioMed Central without directly paying any article-processing charges? Payment of your article-processing charges is covered by your organization’s Prepay Membership. Read more information about publishing your articles with BioMed Central.

Perhaps I’ve read enough.

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Phil Davis

Phil Davis

Phil Davis is a publishing consultant specializing in the statistical analysis of citation, readership, publication and survey data. He has a Ph.D. in science communication from Cornell University (2010), extensive experience as a science librarian (1995-2006) and was trained as a life scientist.


20 Thoughts on "Industry Sponsorship of Open Access Articles"

Welcome to the world of enterprise. But note that what you call bias is in availability, not in publication. My conjecture is that this availability advantage accrues to wealthy universities and authors as well.

Are you suggesting that this particular advantage of wealth be restricted or regulated? For all wealthy sources, or just drug companies?

Or are you merely pointing out that this is a side effect of the author pays business model? Perhaps the greater concern should be the pure author pays model, where some authors may not be able to publish important results because they cannot pay the fees.

But why would a pharmaceutical company want to make an article available? The concern is that it’s because the findings support some commercial goal that company possesses. When 2x as many author-pays articles are supported by commercial entities, the concern grows exponentially.

I wish the researchers had pushed farther to see which budgets in these commercial entities these fees came from. The concern is that they came from the marketing budgets.

Universities pay author fees because their faculty are under publish-or-perish pressures. Commercial entities pay fees for articles that advance commercial interests. Comparing the two at the “wealth” level doesn’t hit on this crucial distinction.

Universities are also under great pressure to publish. They too have commercial interests, in the broad sense, as do authors. Research is highly competitive in the financial sense. Everyone is marketing.

But the reasons for universities to want to publish are different than those of a pharmaceutical or device company. Universities want their faculty to be productive and to be seen as productive in their disciplines. It’s unlikely there’s an attempt to make their Physics 504 class more marketable. But a company is trying to sell particular products, not just general brand awareness.

I agree that universities, authors and drug companies are selling different things.

I don’t think restrictions or regulations are the solution here, but recognition that a hybrid “OA choice” model may result in preferential treatment to those with deep pockets.

While this isn’t vanity publishing in the true sense — Biomed Central’s pre-pay agreements with big pharma do make me somewhat uncomfortable — it does start looking like a two-tiered publication system.

Any pay as you go system is “tiered” as between the rich, less rich and poor. Wealthy universities subscribe to more journals, giving their researchers a big edge. Research is a money intensive enterprise.

I propose, as basic minimum, a warning notice:

“This is published by a profit-seeking organization that has a duty to its shareholders to do whatever makes the most profit. It has *NO* duty to tell the truth, or the whole truth, and if, in its opinion, it will make more profit by lying, it has a *duty* to lie.”

That’s probably a little harsh, including the last part about lying. But I’ve approved it so others can comment.

I don’t share your anti-industry views. Profit is how you pay for investment capital. More to the point no one is suggesting that these papers,published in scientific journals, are lying. In the hybrid case the drug companies are not paying to have the articles published, merely to make them publicly accessible, which is a good thing. In the pure author pays case it is always up to the journal to weed out lies. University researchers lie too, for that matter, but lying is not the issue here. Mercifully there is very little lying in science, either that or nobody is getting caught. The fraud numbers are very low.

I’m not expressing an anti-industry view. I am describing a fact.

How much actual lying goes on depends on how much lying they can get away with. It is, thankfully, hard to publish a scientific paper that contains fictional experiment results. (That’s the fundamental mechanism that keeps science honest: if you publish interesting experimental results, someone will repeat them, and if they don’t get the same results you get found out if you are lying).

However, lying by omission is easier. You choose to publish only results that are positive to your product.

Using “patent laws” companies now prevent research that might show bad things about their product. And they get away with it, so they do it.

“Business” is an incredibly simple algorithm: only those businesses that maximize profits survive. A business is forced to do whatever it can to make profits. We should not blame a business for doing it, nor should we expect it to do anything different — any more than we should expect gravity to be “kind” or evolution to be “ethical”.

We should recognize “business” what is. It is NOT a “truth determination” mechanism.

Unfortunately for your thesis (which is standard anti-industry drivel) lying is not considered to be a sound profit maximization strategy. Not a lot of books recommend it. Lying tends to occur at the individual level, as it does in the general population, including university researchers.

As for drugs, their testing is heavily regulated, in a way that does not depend on the published literature. We were talking about availability of journal articles, not drug testing. Sorry you don’t approve of patents either. It seems the world does not accord to your special standards, but that is not the world’s problem.

So let’s take aspartame

“In 1981, however, the FDA approved aspartame for consumer use based on studies that seem tainted by heavy financial interest in its approval.”

The company “forgot” to tell people that about 300 people per year will die of brain cancer caused by their product …. just an oversight, not in any way caused by the billions of profits they made out of selling it.

I don’t understand what the complaint is here. Are you now arguing, counter your earlier claims, that open access publishing gives authors an unfair advantage? In that case, wouldn’t you be working to provide more authors with this advantage?

And where do you believe peer review comes in? Is this really the old canard that open access publishing entails weaker peer review? I thought that red herring went away long ago when it was pointed out that quality papers is any journal’s brand.

No counter-claim here. In my own study, I reported that freely-accessible articles received more readership (as measured by article downloads), but no more citations.

Also, I make no claims about the rigor of peer-review in the Annals of the Rheumatic Diseases although I am leery of BioMed Central’s pre-payment publication plan and the incentives it creates.

Per increased readership, isn’t that a good thing? At least for authors.

Isn’t readership just what authors want? Isn’t that why people try to publish in “high impact” journals? And isn’t “high impact” supposed to be a measure of quality and selectivity?

So if some funders are willing to pay the cost of increased readership, wouldn’t that help attract higher quality researchers? Indeed, it is unlikely that corporations would pay for increased access to negative findings, but studies show that negative findings don’t generally get published anyway. So what’s the complaint?

Regarding this post:

An incident 30 years ago hardly makes your wild claims about endemic lying. Who are you quoting anyway? Another industry basher?

Show me some studies that show that lying is standard practice, otherwise you are just presenting a standard anti-industry line. And how about the for-profit scholarly publishing industry? Are they all lying too?

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