PubMed Central (PMC) says it’s not a publisher. PubMed claims to have a fair process that it applies uniformly to include journals in its index. And as a government agency, PMC is generally prohibited from competing with one or more thriving private industries.
Yet, last week, with a set of actions around the fledgling funder-backed journal eLife, it became clear that PMC is a publisher, that PubMed’s process for indexing journals is not uniformly or fairly applied and can be exploited, and that PMC competes with both publishers and publishing technology companies, leveraging PubMed itself in these competitions.
Let’s break this down claim by claim.
PubMed Central As Publisher
PMC states definitively on its site that it is not a publisher:
PMC, itself, is not a publisher.
What is a publisher? An entity which engages in:
. . . the activity of making information available to general public.
PubMed has long been a publisher of abstracts. PMC is clearly a publisher of full-text content. Therefore, their contention that PMC is not a publisher is simply wrong.
However, there are degrees of publishing — secondary, embargoed publication is qualitatively different than primary, immediate publication. A downstream publisher is different from a primary publisher. PMC is widely understood to be a secondary, embargoed publisher.
But what if it’s becoming a primary publisher?
PMC and PubMed require publishers to establish independent editorial and publishing practices and have these reviewed and evaluated after they’ve been in effect for some time. This is how it’s described in PubMed and PMC documentation, and this what the community generally believes to be true and adheres to. For instance, getting content into PMC requires publishers to meet both technical and scientific standards, including:
The journal must have a reasonable number of published articles in order for NLM to make a decision about its scientific quality.
A journal will be deemed to be eligible for inclusion in PMC if the NLM Selection and Acquisition Section determines that it conforms to the scientific quality criteria specified in the Collection Development Manual of the National Library of Medicine.
In standard communications with publishers about these protocols, the NLM and PubMed state:
A journal needs to be included in the NLM Collection to meet PMC’s scientific quality standard. This review can take place once [the title] has published 15 articles.
So, a journal has to publish 15 articles before any review can take place.
But what would it mean if a journal’s first articles were published on PMC, and only on PMC? No review process could have occurred. There would have been no independent publication practices established, and therefore nothing to review. Allowing articles into PMC otherwise would be an abrogation of standards, or something equally questionable. It would be even more of a violation of stated policy if fewer than 15 articles were involved.
Last week, eLife published its first papers — four research articles, four commentaries, and an editorial. That’s a total of nine articles, short of the 15 required, and the minority are scientific reports. Yet, where did eLife publish them? On eLifesciences.org, their domain? On HighWire Press, where its publisher site is being built? No. It published them on PubMed Central. All URLs listed on the eLife site point to this US government Web site (http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc). In a comment on this blog last week, Robert Kiley of Wellcome Trust pointed to the only published version of eLife’s introductory editorial — which resides on PMC. The US government is acting as the online publisher of eLife.
eLife branding is prominently displayed. Within the eLife logo, the four links work separately and well. This was not a sloppy job, but a careful integration. This required coordination and planning between eLife and PMC. PMC was clearly acting as an extension of eLife.
eLife put a statement on its site about how PMC was publishing its articles:
To avoid unnecessary delays in making the first accepted articles available, we are listing articles that are ready for publication here and publishing the articles themselves on PubMed Central (PMC), the public archive for life and biomedical science literature at the US National Library of Medicine. Additional papers will be published this fall and, as planned, we will launch eLife’s journal Web site this Winter.
“Unnecessary delays” would be those we all tolerate as independent publishers in our dealings with PubMed and PMC — waiting for our hosting platform to be ready, proving our independent ability to publish by abiding by the timeframe, article count, and technical requirements of PubMed or PMC, and so forth. eLife editors are being disingenuous by saying these things are “unnecessary.” They are required, and they are the norm. The are only “unnecessary” if someone helps you short-circuit the process.
The agency of the statement is also interesting — “we” (meaning eLife) are publishing the articles themselves on PMC. This assignment of agency to eLife makes it seem that PMC had no choice in the matter, and that the US government, through the NLM and NCBI, is merely a publicly available and free publishing platform, ala WordPress.
Where was the review? Where were the standards? Where was the process?
I spoke with David Lipman of NCBI about this. He told me that eLife submitted a PMC application following what he termed “the regular procedure.” During the application process, eLife’s representatives mentioned that their site was not up. A discussion ensued, the details of which he claimed to know nothing about, and the powers that be at PMC or NLM agreed to publish the eLife articles on PMC before the normal requirements had been met, and before eLife had demonstrated any independent ability to publish. I asked him if the NLM Acquisition and Selection Section had approved the application. He said they had. I tried to contact Joyce Backus, the head of the Section, over the weekend prior to the publication of this post, but we weren’t able to connect. If warranted, I’ll write more about the questions I asked her later.
Lipman claimed that eLife “seemed like a reasonable bet” owing to the quality of its backers and its editorial staff. Yet, when asked why a publisher like AAAS or the American Chemical Society or Lippincott or a hundred others don’t benefit from the same affordances and don’t by extension seem like “a reasonable bet,” he had no good answer.
Clearly, PMC is the primary publisher of eLife. Articles in eLife appear nowhere else — not in print, not on a publishing platform through independent private means, nowhere. The editors of eLife are representing that it was their doing, but that’s clearly not true — they needed agreement and assistance from PMC, which is owned by an agency of the US government.
The implications of this are troubling. US taxpayers are now directly subsidizing a Delaware-based 501(c)3 that is also partially a UK-based charity. NLM, PMC, and NCBI have given one entity special accommodation and violated its own policies and practices to make this happen.
As if this weren’t enough, PMC’s role as a primary publisher doesn’t stop with eLife. The online version of the Journal of the Medical Library Association (JMLA) is also published primarily on PMC. PMC also publishes the Journal of Biomolecular Techniques for the Association of Biomolecular Resource Facilities (ABRF). The PMC site for this journal is framed in the ABRF site.
In much the same way that any commercial or non-profit publisher is the publisher of a society’s journal, PMC is a primary publisher — for eLife, and for at least two other journals.
PubMed’s Indexing Process Can Be Subverted
eLife published its first articles on October 15, 2012 — one week ago. Yet, search PubMed, and lo and behold, eLife articles are included in PubMed. The record in the NLM Catalog still states “PubMed Coverage to be announced” and “Not currently indexed for MEDLINE.” This distinction is functionally meaningless to our readers, authors, and most of our editors. PubMed is what they use, and PubMed is where they want to be indexed. So it’s no surprise that PubMed is what is being leveraged by PMC.
The confusion between PubMed and MEDLINE, along with how PMC can be used as a backdoor into PubMed, is what eLife is exploiting, with the help of having PMC as its primary publisher.
It takes more to get into MEDLINE. In the Collection Development Manual, the following statement appears:
Once an electronic journal has been accessible for at least six months, an editor or publisher may request that the journal be reviewed for possible indexing if at least 20 articles have been published and made available online.
This statement has a few aspects. The electronic journal must be accessible for at least six months — independently. Not published on PMC, but accessible through private means as evidence that it is sustainable and independent. For six months — not six hours or six minutes. By having PMC as its primary publisher, eLife is subverting these requirements. They are not likely to launch as an independent journal — independent of US government publishing operations, that is — until early next year.
My organization began publishing two online-only journals more than a year ago. We followed the stated requirements, which are reiterated on the application itself. We waited six months and 20 articles before submitting out applications, even a little longer to ensure that some technical issues could be worked out and some editorial roles assigned after the journals were launched. We are still waiting to be indexed in PubMed and MEDLINE. We followed the process. Dozens and dozens of other publishers do so, as well.
Being indexed in PubMed is a big deal for fledgling journals, because editors, authors, and readers often mistake PubMed for MEDLINE. Indexing in PubMed makes a difference in attracting editors, it makes a difference in attracting good papers, and it makes a difference in establishing legitimacy with an audience. Allowing certain journals to shortcut their way into PubMed in direct violation of its own stated processes and requirements is just wrong, but to leverage this to move the needle for PMC only compounds the problem. And to allow a new publisher to leverage PMC as eLife has goes one step further.
There was no one- to two-year wait for eLife to get into PubMed through MEDLINE because they got in immediately by being in PMC. No process akin to what other publishers have to go through. Immediate acceptance into PubMed. Magically. Inexplicably. With the US government as its primary publisher.
Before I spoke with him, I emailed Lipman, head of NCBI, last week to get his perspective on this. Here’s what he said:
The NLM Selection and Acquisition Section considers a number of factors in deciding whether the scientific quality of a journal merits acceptance into PMC. The minimum number of articles required for this evaluation may vary based on the credentials of the publisher and/or sponsoring organization and of the editorial board, and on the quality of the journal’s editorial policies and practices. eLife citations appear in PubMed after the articles are released in PMC, which is no different from any other non-Medline journal in PMC.
In my conversation with him a couple of days later, Lipman referred again and again back to this email, as if it explained everything. Yet, when I quoted the NLM’s own stated standards back to him, the pregnant pause was notable. And, as mentioned above, he couldn’t explain why the “practices” and “policies” and “credentials” of eLife might be stronger than those of a hundred other, more established publishers.
A matter of minutes after I received Lipman’s email quoted above, another publisher I was speaking with received a response from PMC to a general question about their policies and approach, to see if being open access (OA) made a difference to the process:
One of your new journals (it doesn’t matter if it is OA or not) will need to publish at least 15 articles before it can be evaluated by the Selections Group. Once it is approved by the Selections Group, then sample articles can be sent to PMC for data evaluation. When you’re ready to submit a new journal, please just send me the title, ISSN(s), and url.
So, again we have the 15-article requirement — for everyone, it seems, except eLife.
Lipman’s response is coded and disingenuous because he says that things like “credentials,” “policies,” and “practices” inform their decisions about what gets this magical treatment, but obviously the process as understood by people who work with the Selections Group is not the process Lipman or someone else he knows uses.
As I mentioned above, I asked him about this in our phone call. There was not a satisfactory answer. He said grand things like “we look at the big picture” and “we’ve been burned by publishers who have moved or stopped journals” (how moving a journal affects PubMed is beyond me), and “it seemed like a reasonable bet” to take eLife early.
Let’s take his words at face value — would any traditional publisher lack in “credentials” or “policies” or “practices” around a new journal and quality? Not very likely. In fact, if quality and reliability were the criteria guiding decision-making — and you might hope they would be — you’d expect a fast lane for established publishers, many of which have been around for more than a century, attract top-tier editors, and have advanced publishing infrastructure. How a journal like eLife — which hasn’t proven it can publish independently of US government subsidy, which hasn’t published the requisite number of articles, and which has yet to demonstrate solid editorial or business practices — gets a free pass suggests a strong ulterior motive is at work, something that may approach outright cronyism.
Lipman’s criteria are at worst euphemisms for a specific set of policies and practices, perhaps OA, as some people I spoke with suspect — yet, even other OA publishers don’t get this magic. They have to wait, follow procedures, and prove they can publish independently. So this exception was even more specific — it was for eLife, and that’s very troubling.
In addition to being unfair and infuriating, this event also shows how PMC is part of the competitive landscape with a definite role in determining who wins and loses. It leverages PubMed in this regard. It takes an active and biased role in who benefits and who suffers. It is competitive. And this is our next topic.
PubMed Central Competes With Publishers and Technology Companies
Thomas Jefferson stated that, “The legitimate powers of government extend to such acts only as are injurious to others.” This generally informs the distinction between government regulation versus government competition. Otherwise, a more laissez-faire approach is followed, and government agencies competing with private enterprise is clearly discouraged. In 2011, the Computer and Communication Industry Association (CCIA), in objecting to the potential for the IRS to enter the market for electronic tax returns preparation software, competing with TurboTax and its equivalents, wrote:
While we support government efforts to modernize operations, improve taxpayer services and utilize the tools and technologies of the Information Age, we cannot support the government as a competitor in commercial markets. Such activity is antithetical to a successful free market and unfair to American taxpayers and shareholders of private businesses, who are forced to compete with publicly-funded government entities. Simply put, the U.S. Government exists to perform essential functions for its citizens. Launching commercial enterprises is not one of them.
Concerns over government competition with private enterprise permeate many legislative actions, and are foundational to a democracy that emerged from a domineering ruling government. In the case of PMC, we have to recall that “free” is a price in the commercial market — one that makes PMC competitive both with publishers and with technology companies.
PubMed Central Competes with Publishers for Traffic. A recent analysis showed that deposit in PMC by physiology journals decreased traffic to the publishers Web property by 14%. Traffic is the lifeblood of online publications. It allows publishers to sell advertising, show off related content, establish their brand, communicate with potential authors, track their success, sell site licenses, and measure editorial initiatives. PMC competes with all of this by maintaining a redundant set of articles which draws traffic away from the main publisher sites. PMC also makes PMC “free article” links more prominent in search results than similar publisher links, another obvious ploy to compete with publishers for traffic and brand prominence.
PMC Leverages PubMed to Tilt the Playing Field Unfairly. The issue noted above — favoritism within PMC and PubMed for publishers that conduct business in a way the leadership there must privately approve — creates competitive advantages for publishers of a certain type. That is, certain OA publishers are allowed to be indexed immediately in PubMed, skipping that messy and dicey period other publishers must endure and overcome, during which time authors and editors are a little uncertain of the new initiative and rely on the reputation of the publisher and other editors for sustenance. By getting indexed faster — immediately, in fact — eLife unfairly leapfrogs other journals that are doing it properly, by the rules, and according to published protocols. This gives eLife a competitive advantage with authors and editors (who immediately have a PubMed-indexed journal to edit and publish in), thereby creating a competitive disadvantage for others. There isn’t a level playing field.
NCBI Competes with Technology Companies. PMC is also competing with technology companies. By publishing JMLA and JBT, PMC is taking potential business away from HighWire Press, Atypon, Silverchair, Publishing Technology, or a number of other potential technology providers. Other OA library journals, such as College & Research Libraries (CR&L), pay for commercial hosting, as they should. There is no reason for the government to be providing free technology to JMLA or JBT. The same goes for eLife. By publishing eLife before the HighWire Press installation for eLife is complete, PMC is providing an unfair market advantage to eLife but also competing with HighWire Press — perhaps eLife will find the PMC solution satisfactory and cut short its efforts at HighWire. The US government shouldn’t be providing them with an alternative to a signed contract, nor should it be removing journals like JMLA and JBT from the technology marketplace.
It’s no secret that PMC has been competing with traditional publishers for a long time, and is becoming more competitive with each passing year. From quashing of the PubLink proposal years ago — wherein PMC would have been a dark archive and all free papers would have resided on publisher sites — to the relative suppression of publisher links in deference to PMC links on PubMed search results, the leadership and governance at NCBI, PubMed, and PubMed Central has been conducting a campaign of favoritism for certain OA publishers and for OA in general while competing with traditional publishers. And if this weren’t bad enough, PMC is also competing with the publishing technology industry by taking potential customers off the market and subsidizing their publication efforts with taxpayer funds.
Close Ties Between PMC and eLife
As I mentioned above, the special treatment afforded eLife seems to approach cronyism, which is defined as “partiality to long-standing friends, especially by appointing them to positions of authority, regardless of their qualifications.” So it’s not surprising that there are relationships between eLife and PMC. For instance, a member of the eLife Board of Directors, Elizabeth Marincola, served on the original PMC National Advisory Committee (NAC) from 2000-2003. Currently, Christopher Bird, the Solicitor for the Wellcome Trust — a major funder behind eLife — serves on the PMC NAC.
These ties are worth noting. Given the exceptional treatment eLife has received, these relationships do not appear to be innocuous.
As I’ve noted elsewhere, eLife is skirting some major reputational issues, eliding them in hopes nobody notices — issues such as the conflict of interests inherent in funders acting as publishers. In addition, the editor-in-chief is funded by HHMI, one of the funders of eLife, and the two deputy editors are funded by Wellcome Trust (Watt) and Max Plack (Weigel), the other two funders of eLife. There is no unbroken line between funders and eLife’s top editorial decision-makers, making this journal a real insiders’ game.
eLife’s first approach to get its materials out has been to subvert rules and standards through insider dealing and cronyism. This is not a good sign for their alleged neutrality and fairness going forward, and suggests that their ability to manage conflicting interests is less robust than imagined. The proponents of eLife have told its critics to wait and see what eLife does before judging it. We’ve seen a few things now. They are not reassuring.
So it seems PMC — by taking a “reasonable bet” in violation of its own policies — is now an odds-maker cooperating inappropriately with at least one customer by using a stacked deck and, by becoming the primary publisher of eLife, dealing from the bottom of the deck. No wonder the “bet” seemed “reasonable.” PMC controls the odds.
Last week, we saw a set of problematic and untoward activities come to full light as PMC became the primary publisher of eLife content in violation of its own stated policies — policies its own staff reiterated just last week via email to another publisher. These problems include:
- Breaking its self-definition of not being a publisher, by becoming the primary and sole publisher of eLife
- Breaking its own stated policies and practices for inclusion in PMC, and therefore PubMed
- Leveraging PubMed indexing in a more general sense to reward certain publishers PMC leadership favors
- Making exceptions and granting waivers without explanation
- Competing with both publishers for traffic by manipulating PubMed to favor PMC articles and by hosting redundant versions of published content
- Competing with publishing technology companies by taking customers off the market and undercutting contracts currently in place
In total, these practices and policies raise many questions about how PMC is managed, how PMC is spending its $1-3 million budget, how PubMed works and is being used by those in a position of authority, and whether the NLM is managing the evolution of online publishing in fair, objective, even-handed, and trustworthy manner.
PMC needs to play by its own rules, and apply them objectively and uniformly. It should not say one thing and do another. It should not subsidize private publishing initiatives with government funds. It should not put its thumb on the scale for initiatives it likes, providing unfair advantages. It should not be the primary publisher for any online journal. It should stop dishing out PubMed indexing selectively, based on opaque judgment calls rather than transparent public criteria. NLM should manage NCBI and PMC more conscientiously, and make them stop competing with publishers and technology companies.
eLife should conduct itself in an above-board manner and stop using insider dealings to seek an advantage. Public officials should stop using public resources to affect private markets or provide advantages to businesses run by people they happen to personally agree with.
I have had the greatest respect for many of the people and procedures at the NLM over the years, but the problems I’ve described above are real, and they are solvable. Therefore, they should be solved quickly if the NLM is serious about providing an objective, reliable, and fair indexing infrastructure for online journals.