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This is a brief follow-up to a post I published last week wondering about two things BioMed Central (BMC) does to support itself financially:

  1. Allowing academic institutions and corporations to sponsor their researchers’ publication fees either wholly, or at two partial levels (50% or 15%).
  2. Allowing a tobacco company to sponsor 100% of its researchers’ publication fees, noting that tobacco company money is usually money scientists want to stay away from (along with money from distillers and gun manufacturers).

I posed 10 questions to BMC, which Matthew Cockerill was nice enough to answer a few days later (and after a little prodding). Here is a copy of the comment he posted in response:

  1. What is the approximate range for each sponsorship in US$ or Euros? Supporter memberships are annual and the pricing is based on size of institution, ranging from around $2500 to $13,000. See: http://www.biomedcentral.com/libraries/supportermembership. Prepay membership is not annual – it functions as a deposit account, and it is up to the member how much they deposit. Obviously, the more articles are published by researchers at an institution, the more the institution will need to deposit in order to keep the membership account in credit.
  2. Are these annual sponsorships? Supporter membership is annual, prepay membership is not.
  3. Do you have sales people selling these sponsorships? Meet our institutional sales team: http://www.biomedcentral.com/libraries/contact_us. Since launch in 2000, BioMed Central has worked closely together with libraries to advocate the benefits of open access to researchers. The idea of memberships arose out of discussions with librarians, as a mechanism to promote open access publication and to make it as convenient and efficient as possible.
  4. Is there a different rate for academic vs. corporate sponsors? What determines the rate? As is standard practice, BioMed Central charges corporate customers a somewhat higher rate for products such as supporter membership, as compared to the academic pricing. As noted above, supporter membership pricing (whether academic or corporate) is determined by size of institution.
  5. Have you contemplated disclosures around these sponsorships? As noted in my earlier post, membership is a means to fund the cost of OA publication, in whole or in part. As such, it is one of the costs of the research, and authors are required to acknowledge the sources of funding for their research in their article.
  6. What are your editors told about these sponsorships? BioMed Central has spent to the last decade promoting memberships to universities, funders and corporations, with the active support of our editors.
    Our editors have supported memberships, as they increase awareness of open access, reduces the financial barriers for authors wishing to publish in open access journals , and help level the playing field with subscription journals (which already have strong central financial support from serials budgets).
  7. In the case of the tobacco company sponsorship, did you approach them or did they approach BMC? I believe in this case we were approached by the corporation.
  8. Are there industries you would not sell a sponsorship to, on moral or ethical grounds? This question again confuses sponsorship with payment of publication fees. The decision to publish an article, whether from academia or the corporate sector, is made not by the publisher, but by academic editors on the basis of expert advice from independent peer reviewers. If an article is deemed suitable for publication, then an article processing charge will be payable. This charge can be paid individually by the author, or centrally by the author’s institution (through a membership). If institutions publish regularly in our journals, then setting up a membership is a natural choice as it makes payment easier and more efficient. Transparency is key, and BioMed Central journals have strong policies on declarations of funding sources and of conflict of interest, and follow COPE guidelines on editorial ethics. Many BioMed Central journals, including all the medical journals in the BMC series, use an open peer review model to offer the maximum possible level of transparency.
  9. Was there any internal controversy when the tobacco company joined the program? There is certainly a spectrum of opinion, within science publishing, as to how journal editors should treat research funded by tobacco companies. A few journals have gone so far as to ban outright any research which has received tobacco industry funding. Most journals, however, regard such censorship as a step too far and an infringement of freedom of speech. Instead, these journals tend strongly emphasize transparency and declaration of conflicts of interest. The method of payment, on the other hand (individual payment, vs membership payment) has not been a source of controversy.
  10. When a paper is covered by one of these arrangements (academic or corporate), how is that reflected in your editorial systems? Payment handling is intentionally kept distinct from, and not made visible to, the editors handling the peer review and decision-making process.

I had three follow-up questions, two of which are worth mentioning here:

  • You say that authors are required to note the sources of funding, including funding of open access fees. Yet, I can’t find disclosure that lists funding of these fees (e.g., http://journal.chemistrycentral.com/content/5/1/15) or the fact that a company may have a large amount on deposit with BMC. Can you point me to an article that discloses this? Or to a BMC page that discloses corporate deposit accounts?
  • Prepay members have access to reports of the papers in process (“Online statistics are available 24/7 to allow customers to view article submissions and publications from their organization.”). I interpret this to mean the sponsors of research papers who prepay get access to editorial status updates. Is this true?

While I haven’t received answers yet to these questions (I posed them over the weekend, for all intents and purposes), I found this last item troubling enough to click around a little more — I mean, sponsors getting access to statuses within a publisher’s tracking systems? Surely you jest. But quickly I found that it seems to be true. There’s even a document online showing how to check the financial status of your sponsor accounts and, through the same interface, how to check on submissions in progress.

While these are papers the company’s researchers have generated, and while it’s unclear from the example offered on the BMC site what level of detail the sponsor can glean for manuscripts in process, this kind of access to editorial status reports clearly undercuts the notion that there is a firewall between editorial and business. Worse, the low wall at BMC seems to be one-way, with the sponsor able to observe progress of works through the BMC editorial process but readers still unable to know which papers have received sponsored publication charges, in whole or in part.

If businesses can see how their sponsored editorial is doing, what’s to keep this from leading to a phone call or friendly email if a paper of particular interest is going off-track? After all, this is a feature tied to sponsorship.

I’m not naïve. I know that funders can often find out how a paper is doing, even with firewalls in place. An author might update the funder because they feel some fealty or obligation or just have that kind of relationship, and there’s little a publisher or editor can do about that except warn them not to do it. But for a publisher to offer insights into the editorial systems and statuses as a service for funders?

This seems like another new approach to adding value for funders, and one that makes me more than a little uncomfortable.

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Kent Anderson

Kent Anderson

Kent Anderson is the CEO of RedLink and RedLink Network, a past-President of SSP, and the founder of the Scholarly Kitchen. He has worked as Publisher at AAAS/Science, CEO/Publisher of JBJS, Inc., a publishing executive at the Massachusetts Medical Society, Publishing Director of the New England Journal of Medicine, and Director of Medical Journals at the American Academy of Pediatrics. Opinions on social media or blogs are his own.


25 Thoughts on "Follow-up on BioMed Central's Sponsored Publication Fees — Granting Funders a View Into Editorial Reports"

The answer to #5 suggests that fee funding is not disclosed separately from reaearch funding, the former being just a small part of the latter. Do you think fee funding is so important it should be disclosed separately?

Given that many non-financial interests have to be disclosed, it seems fair to disclose that someone other than the authors paid the publication fees on behalf of the authors.

As long as reviewers are not influenced in their assessments by any knowledge of funding sponsorship, I don’t see the harm. When university presses review book manuscripts, they will reach a decision based on scholarly merit and then, for some of the books, seek financial subsidies from whatever sources are available when publication otherwise would not be possible. Would it make any difference if, say, a book were submitted for a series that was known to have an endowment provided by X so long as the scholarly review was done in the normal way? I don’t see any problem here myself.

I agree, influence should be kept at bay. Is providing pre-paid sponsorships of publication fees keeping influence at bay? Is allowing sponsors of such fees insights into editorial systems keeping influence at bay? Is the perception these things create one of influence kept at bay?

I don’t see why you wouldn’t want to disclose sponsored author fees. I don’t see why you’d allow sponsors to track papers through the system.

With systems like Editorial Manager, it is easy to give limited access to outside parties for purposes like tracking the progress of articles through the system. I don’t see what harm there is in that, so long as the funding agency doesn’t try to interfere with the editorial process. It is a good way for an agency to monitor how well its sponsored articles are being handled, information that could be useful to it in deciding whether to continue funding in the future,

Let’s see, a funding corporation sponsors research, sponsors publication, the publisher benefits directly from both on a pre-publication basis, and during the pre-publication phase allows the funder to track the articles? And you think this helps us have a scientific literature that’s less biased, less likely to suffer from corporate agendas, and less prone to error?

As long as the editorial process itself is insulated in the ways I’ve indicated, I indeed see no harm. You seem to assume that the publisher, benefiting in this way, will bring pressures, directly or indirectly, on the editors to favor publication of these articles funded by the corporation. If that were true, then the editorial process would not be properly insulated as I have stipulated.

Here’s the list of problems I see:

    BMC is getting money pre-publication from academia and industry, which they can only earn by publishing papers. Otherwise, it should be a liability on their books. This creates pressure either gross or fine — gross being the pressure to publish more maybe than they would otherwise or hire editors who have the attitude that publishing more is better, and find being the pressure perhaps to publish particular things.

    BMC is allowing these sponsors to see the titles, authors, and specifics of articles as they move toward publication. This increases the likelihood of fine pressure — if specific articles aren’t moving through as the sponsor wishes, what happens?

    BMC is not disclosing the fact that corporations in some cases have paid the article publication fee in addition to paying for the research to be done. This may seem a fine point, but imagine three years from now chasing down an article from BMC and reading it, and it has no acknowledgement that the authors received additional funding for publication fees. What is your assumption? That the authors cared enough about their research that they paid to publish it? You’d be wrong. Someone else cared enough to publish it. In this case, one of those “corporate persons” the Supreme Court established.

    BMC has accepted money from a tobacco company, and is allowing this company to publish sponsored research, including 100% of the publication fees, without acknowledgement. Does this make things better?

My opinion is that we should always be pushing to make things better — more rigorous, more transparent, more stringent. Good science is all those things. Corporations and academic institutions (aka, funders) have different measures of success than scientists do, and definitely than the public does. BMC’s approach smacks of compromising standards for pre-publication money.

Do you really think this is something you could easily explain over dinner to someone not in scholarly publishing and it not being a bit awkward? “There’s a publisher who takes money from universities and corporations up-front, then considers papers from these same places, and uses the money when they publish their papers — they refund it if it’s not used. They’ve taken money from drug companies and a tobacco company. They say all their editors are unaware of whether any papers are funded, and that it’s all OK.”

I agree that the full transparency is warranted. I’m wondering if you think there is a major difference between funding coming from academe or industry compared with government, where an agency includes in its grant money to pay publication fees? Government agencies have their agendas also….

I agree. I would like to see these fees disclosed overall. Scientific publishing is changing, and its sources of funding are changing. It’s moving to be quite supply-side. People should know who is paying the freight for the research they’re reading. The amounts may be small in each instance (but may grow); the cumulative effect may be large, and it may help people see coordinated publication campaigns and the like.

You continue to refer to “sponsorship” which is fundamentally an inaccurate and misleading term to refer to the payment of a publication fee being made by the author’s institution/funder, rather than being paid by the author personally (and then reclaimed from their institution/funder).

When an author makes use of their institutional membership account to cover payment of their article processing charge, an email notification is sent to the designated institutional administrator for that account, listing the submitting author name/email , the journal submitted to, and the title of the article, in order to allow the institutional administrator to confirm that the author is an eligible employee/grantee of the institution, entitled to use the membership account for payment.

This is, I believe, very similar to the process by which an author applies to Harvard’s OA publication HOPE fund, in order to gain authorisation for reimbursement of a submitted manuscript, should it go on to be published: http://osc.hul.harvard.edu/hope

It should be noted that the notification of the submission is not being shared with any external party – it is being shared only with the administrator at the author’s institution/employer/funder who is responsible for authorizing the payment.

Institutional administrators do not see the abstract or text of the article itself, nor do they gain access to any of BioMed Central’s editorial systems. What they necessarily do have access to is a report listing the value of all the articles that have been submitted, for which payments against the membership account have been claimed and authorized. This information is necessary to ensure that the account is sufficiently funded to cover the cost of these ‘in progress’ manuscripts, if they go on to be accepted and published.


When a company or institution pays for a service on behalf of someone else, they are sponsors. I don’t know why you’re having trouble with using simple, direct language to describe what is being done here. There are pre-paid accounts for the employees of institutions and corporations; article publication fees for these individuals are drawn from these pre-paid accounts; the authors pay nothing. That is essentially a sponsorship of author fees by the sponsoring organization.

There is a fundamental difference between what BMC is doing and what you cite, Harvard’s OA publication HOPE fund — HOPE provides reimbursement, and is not a pre-paid, pre-publication deposit provided to the publisher. At least a slight line is maintained with the HOPE approach — the author has to pay the publisher, rather than the publisher being pre-paid prior to publication.

The document on your site states, “To view your manuscripts that are in progress (manuscripts that have not yet been published) click on ‘In Progress’ manuscripts.” The screen shot for published manuscripts shows the article title, the journal that has been submitted to, author emails, institutional affiliations, and other details. What you say suggests that the “In Progress” tab shows similar information — not the abstract or text of the article, but that leaves everything else fair game. Now, if I know the title of a paper and its authors, I know a lot about that paper. What other status elements does the “In Progress” tab show?

Your model mixes some dangerous elements — commercial and academic sponsorship with BMC revenues and pre-publication reporting and snapshots of editorial systems. You can’t avoid the fundamental conflicts this mix engenders. You’re clearly servicing sponsors, not readers, because you’re actually giving sponsors more transparency than readers. You should be telling readers who paid the publication fees on each paper, at the very least. And I’d suggest you also stop letting funders be involved pre-publication. It’s a slippery slope you seem to be already sliding down.

From the HOPE website: [my emphasis]

“How do I apply for funds?

Articles submitted for publication after Sept. 1, 2009 are eligible for this program. Requests for funding may be made ***before an article is accepted*** or immediately upon acceptance, by completing this form. You’ll also need to make sure that you have deposited a copy of the article in the DASH repository before the reimbursement can be made.”

To answer your earlier question: BioMed Central holds funds on account, on behalf of Prepay Members. Funds are only debited if and when an article goes on to be published, and are reimbursable if not used.

Application for reimbursement from the academic institution that DID NOT publish their works? Again, there’s a distinction there you need to appreciate. As the publisher, you’re taking money from corporations and institutions prior to publication. The fact that it’s reimbursable if not used is even more worrisome — it means you’re even more likely to push things through so you don’t have to refund any money — that’s the incentive you’ve built for yourselves.

You’re a publisher, an entity that is supposed to represent disinterested third-party evaluation. You’re taking pre-publication money from companies specifically tied to the act of publication, building incentives that would naturally modify your organization’s behavior to accept more of such papers, allowing these companies to see important information prior to publication, and not disclosing to readers any of the salient information about sponsored publication fees, editorial previewing by companies, etc.

I don’t know how you can’t be bothered by this clearly compromised publication model.


You seem to be ignoring the point that both Matt and I, amongst others, have made a number of times. Editors of BioMed Central journals have absolutlely no knowledge of how, or even if, papers are funded. They make decisions based purely on the basis of referees reports and scientific merit. Many of our medical journals also conduct open peer review, including all of the BMC Series medical journals, so anyone can look at the peer review history and referees comments.

No, I’ve read that. You seem to think that the editors themselves provide a firewall between the straight line you’ve created from funders through authors through the publisher to the audience, but I don’t accept that because you’re not transparent about it AND it is a pre-publication situation, which is more worrisome than post-publication commercialization.

There is a real issue of transparency, and neither you or Matt have adequately addressed it except through hand-waving. Do readers know how the publication itself was funded? After all, the reader didn’t pay for it, but someone did. If a reader is holding two papers in his or her hands — one with publication fees sponsored by a corporation and one with publication fees paid by the authors without any other funding source — can they distinguish between the one with sponsored funding and the one without?

I also want to know whether your editors’ pay is in any way contingent on “productivity” or other similar euphemisms for profitability. After all, if you don’t use up all of a sponsor’s money, you might have to refund it. Are editors incentivized in any way to meet certain production levels or be more productive as far as publishing more papers? That’s what’s driving your business, after all.

I can confirm that Editors pay is in no way contingent on productivity or anything similar.

‘BMC is not disclosing the fact that corporations in some cases have paid the article publication fee in addition to paying for the research to be done.’

Isn’t this similar to a funding body providing for example the Wellcome Trust providing sanctions for Article Processing Charges to be covered in a research grant?

If an article funded by a corperation who paid the article processing charge and for the research to be carried out or by a grant which covers both the APC and the research to be carried out is editorially accepted by reviewers in their field for the scientific merit of the paper then I don’t really see the difference.

I agree. I think all such funding should be disclosed. The corporate sponsorships are just a more obvious example of the underlying problem. Each individual article may seem like small potatoes, but if someone is looking at a series of research articles on a topic from a variety of journals, and each article lists “Open access publication fees paid for by X,” and “X” is the same in each case, that could be important to know.

Correct me if I’m wrong but I thought it was comment practice to acknowledge funding sources within papers – if you think all funding should be disclosed then isn’t this in part the responsibility of the author?

It is, but there should be a process in place to elicit these from the authors, and to check a bit. If BMC is aware of funding (because of the sponsorships they’ve sold), then it’s obviously a shared responsibility.

Kent, I’d be interested to see whether you would class a university as a ‘corporation’?

I think all such funding should be disclosed. Universities aren’t corporations (at least the land-grant and private universities), but they have interests in certain things, just as any large, well-funded entity does. And then you can also follow that trail to see who is funding some things at the university (there’s been a huge increase in corporate funding of university research, for instance, and that shouldn’t be a place to hide influence). That’s how transparency should work.

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