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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?

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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. https://phil-davis.com/


18 Thoughts on "Should Journals Sell Reprints?"

This seems like a medical issue to me and even then it seems pretty silly. Back when I taught I used reprints extensively, preferring them to textbooks. I see no reason to burden the scholarly publishing industry with useless disclosure requirements. Are we supposed to collect, prepare and print this data on every copy? This burden is not trivial.

I am also curious as to which police authority these disclosure proponents are appealing? Do they want FDA regulating reprints? Or is this just talk for its own sake, which this industry seems to be beset with? To will the end is to will the means, so be careful how much control you wish for.

I don’t think that Open Access is relevant here at all. There are plenty of journals that offer OA methods of publication that keep the articles under strict copyright regulation just as there are subscription-access journals that offer flexible copyright terms under Creative Commons licenses.

The copyright terms are what matters in this instance, not the method of access.

Something not mentioned here is the editorial bias potentially triggered by the knowledge that some authors are more likely than others to purchase large quantities of their own reprints.

This sort of information in one form or the other should appear clearly in any financial disclosure!

What form do you envision this disclosure taking? Do you want each sale package of reprints to include a report on how many the author bought, as of the time of sale of that set of reprints? I am having a hard time seeing how this disclosure is supposed to work in practice. (Once upon a time designing regulatory systems was my field.)

This post reminded me of previous thoughts I have had on the subject of reprints. I agree with the idea of disclosure of information but I haven’t thought much about the form.
Maybe, to start with, having an idea of how much of reprint revenue as a % or the total comes from authors who purchase their own reprints could be instructive as to whether it could indeed have the potential to create an editor/publisher bias.

I agree it would be nice to have some actual facts before concluding there is a problem. But even if drug companies routinely buy and distribute the journal articles about their products, why is this bad? I wish I could afford to distribute my articles.

Is there a conspiracy theory lurking here? That journals and drug companies conspire to dupe the public? Do we really need more regulation? I doubt it.

I can tell you, as someone who began my career in “content management” for a printer, (read: reprints sales) that author purchases of reprints are not even a drop in the bucket of reprints revenue. Every medical publisher I’ve worked with, and I’ve worked almost all of them state-side, sells author reprints either at a loss or break-even rate. There is far too little revenue generated on the author reprints side to warrent disclosures…

To me, the real issue is whether reprint sales have a corrupting effect on editorial selection. Unless article submissions are received with a large check for reprints — to be cashed when the article is accepted — the connection between reprint sales and editorial bias is speculative.

While one may predict that a paper supporting a medical intervention and published in a reputable journal will receive future reprint sales, it is not clear whether these articles are being accepted on the grounds that they will generate income or whether these are simply better articles?

Does anyone know of a study that blinds the source of funding to see if editors are biased (for or against) industry-funded studies?

Feel free to call me a wild eyed idealist, but the overarching problem here is that a key part of our medical infrastructure (the part responsible for developing new drugs) is a for profit sector that has the honesty and restraint of a circus barker. Until big pharma is either reigned in or becomes an arm of govt (like the rest of healthcare) medical publishing will never be free of the distorting effects of their cash, however it is delivered.

Tim: Your disdain for commerce is noted. Do you agree that this issue is not relevant to astronomy, physics, sociology, anthropology, etc., in short the rest of the sciences? It sounds like a drug problem, if that. Good luck with the nationalization.

Hi David,

Commerce is generally good, and developing new drugs is good. But surely the prescription of drugs by doctors should be based on an unbiased understanding of which is most suitable? The current system of big pharma hawking their own products doesn’t seem to align with patients getting the best possible care. The general problem doesn’t seem to be relevant to many other fields, as here scientific papers are devoted to testing ideas rather than commercial products. The specific issues surrounding the sale of reprints might be applicable in some cases, although I can’t think of any examples right now.

I don’t know that it’s confined to medicine David. I’ve always felt we must remain eternally vigilant against the pernicious influence of “big telescope.”

Very funny David, although there is a big budget fight on the Hill over funding the James Webb telescope. Some journals may well be promoting it. But the” big” I am concerned about is Big Brother, when people start talking about disclosure requirements, or any kind of new requirements, with no real evidence of a problem. Agencies love to regulate, as it is their form of growth.

My job is to ensure the financial success of our journals. Our editors’ role is to look after the journals’ standing and usefulness to readers. On the very rare occasions we discuss reprints (in general only; we never discuss the potential of specific papers) I limit the discussion to pointing out that the value of any reprints derives entirely from the authority of the journal, so to this end they should concern themselves only with picking the very best papers.

I agree with Dave Jago. I think the risk of bias can be overstated. The value of a particular journal’s reprint rests with the reputation of the journal. Any journal worth its name, would not risk its reputation (and ultimately its reprint sales) by trying to game the system.

I would like to address David Wojick’s comments. David you are right, this is an issue exclusive to medical publishing. Medical article reprints is a multi-million dollar business; it is also a very profitable business. I am not aware of any publishers who reveal the details of their reprint business (specifically). But I did check both the Elsevier and Wolters Kluwer websites, neither specifically reports reprint sales. However, Wolters Kluwer in its half-year results for 2011, reported that their Pharma Solutions division generated 51 million Euros in revenue in the first 6 months of 2011. Given that reprints are exclusively purchased by pharma companies, I would assume that this figure includes reprint sales to the pharma industry. According to the John Wiley and Sons web site, their 2010 annual report showed they earned $968 million from their STM division. Of that income, 15% or $148 million was generated by “other publishing and publishing rights” business. I would assume that reprints would be included in these figures.

David, rest assured that publishers already know exactly how many reprints they sell and how much they make from those reprints. The issue is, do they have a responsibility to report these numbers? Well, if they are a publicly traded company, they do indeed have a responsibility to report these numbers to their stockholders. Private companies and societies have different constituencies and so therefore are obligated to report to their membership and senior executives.

You can even get numbers from medical societies as well. I just went to the ASCO website and learned that their publications division generated $26 million in revenue in 2010, however they did not breakdown the sources of this income.

Do any of these companies have an obligation to report numbers to their customers? I don’t think so, but with a little work, a customer can get these numbers. I got the above numbers in a two minute search. So Phil, you can tell Tom that if he wants to know more about the business of his vendors he merely has to go to Google and do a search.

Thanks Mark, but I take the issue to be not just disclosing gross reprint sales figures, say in annual reports, but rather including some sort of disclosure of every reprint sale, perhaps also including this disclosure with every reprint copy. This is ridiculous.

I am sensitive to such suggestions because once upon a time regulatory burden was my field. In fact I helped design the burden budget and clearance program that covers all US federal regulations. People think disclosure is a free good so they want all they can get. Actually tracking and disclosing the details of all reprint sales would be a large burden with no clear benefits. A classic case of over regulation in the making.

As Phil points out, that there is even a problem is speculative at best.

Agreed David, you can over engineer these things. I agree with you on the dubious benefits of detailed data as well. Why do we need to know that Elsevier (not to pick on them) sold Pfizer $1,000,000 in reprints of articles a through z? If I had the aggregate number I could easily determine which articles were reprinted merely by doing a search on Science Direct for all articles that included the names of Pfizer’s products. In fact, I don’t even need to know the dollar value. I could probably draw up a fairly accurate list of reprinted articles purchased by Pfizer in the past year merely by going to PubMed and searching Pfizer’s product names. It is a safe bet that Pfizer bought reprints of the positive articles (whichever publisher published them).

The issue as stated seems to be an issue unique to the medical community, as others have said. As director at Penn State Press, i stopped the practice of supplying reprints to authors because i figured they could just use a photocopier if they wanted extra copies in print. Of course, we did continue to charge for photocopies made for coursepacks, and that was a significant source of income. The Journal of Scholarly Publishing offers reprints to its authors but charges for them. I guess there must be enough vain authors who like to have a better-looking print version of their articles to hand out to colleagues; I am not one of them and have never bought reprints of my articles. Instead, I post a link on my web site to the e-versions at Project Muse’s site for those who have access to the Muse database, which most people in research universities do.

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