Article reprints can be a considerable source of income for some medical journals, and there is some worry that this source of income presents a conflict of interest for publishers.
Should journals sell reprints?
Two “Head to Head” articles published recently in the BMJ debate this issue, and the conclusions are more nuanced than just “yes” or “no.”
Taking the No-ish position,Tom Jefferson of the Cochrane Acute Respiratory Infections Group in Australia argues that banning reprints is not the answer, although journals should at least disclose financial income from reprints and the companies that purchase them. This would be no different than the disclosure forms that authors routinely fill out when submitting articles. Readers have a right, Jefferson argues, to understand potential sources of industry bias.
Large journals and large publishers are businesses. . . . You can sell me what you want, but please tell me what I am buying. Editors and publishers should fill in an equivalent form indicating their sources of revenue for the previous year and the relative amounts.
Arguing for the “Yes” side, Jane Smith, deputy editor of the BMJ, maintains that in the face of dwindling advertising revenue many medical journals need to look for outside sources of revenue. The real issue is not about revenue per se but on its potential effect on editorial bias.
Because reprints are used for promotional purposes, so follows the wicked thought that journals may be selecting individual articles—not on the strength of the science but because they are most likely to be saleable to a drug company.
Rather than attempt to argue that editorial selection is bias-free — a position that is impossible to defend — she presents a case that editors make individual article decisions on a multitude of factors and that potential reprint income should not be singled out. If reprint sales were banned, Smith argues, pharmaceutical companies would simply find another channel to get favorable research articles to clinicians. “Removing a source of revenue for journals gives no guarantee that bad studies would disappear,” she maintains.
In spite of being presented as a two-sided debate, I find Jefferson and Smith’s arguments to be complementary, not contradictory. Later in her piece, Smith argues that an open access publishing model that grants full rights to reprint and redistribute articles would result in more unwanted articles in the hands of clinicians and introduces the bias of publishing support from industry. Jefferson is not arguing that the practice must stop, only that it needs to be disclosed, just like other sources of bias from industry.
What do you think?