Last week, I wrote a long post about a number of things going on at the US National Library of Medicine (NLM), primarily regarding their PubMed and PubMed Central (PMC) initiatives. There are now some updates to share, some further information about how eLife has been treated, and more evidence that PMC can stumble into competition with technology providers.
But first, a recap, with some pertinent updates included.
The three main thrusts of what’s going on at NCBI, PubMed, and PMC are:
- Cronyism — Favoring journals run by friends over journals run by anyone else. The Wellcome Trust, for instance, has had a position on the PMC National Advisory Committee (NAC) since 2005, first filled by Robert Kiley and more recently by the organization’s solicitor. Wellcome is a friend of PMC, and eLife received special treatment (more on exactly how much below). Based on evidence in comments and social media citations, the mirror-image of this cronyism is widely experienced — other journals, including open access (OA) journals, have been following the rules, waiting for indexing, waiting for inclusion in PMC and PubMed, while eLife breezed in, likely because some of the main people involved on both sides know and like each other, and perhaps somewhat because everyone involved works for a powerful funder (Wellcome, HHMI, NIH, or Max Planck). So journals from established publishers have to wait, but those published by cronies of PMC get right in.
- Competition — Favoring certain business models over others, and also competing with technology and its position of authority over the PubMed index. One comment on last week’s post pointed out that the American Physiological Society was treated differently when it decided to publish an OA journal. Suddenly, PMC was interested in facilitating their indexing and inclusion, despite a sometimes contentious past between principals in both organizations. This little bit of evidence underscored the assertion many have made behind the scenes — PMC has a strong OA bias, and is working to tilt the entire biomedical publishing business to OA despite its role as a government agency in a library setting. This bias isn’t as strong as the cronyism around eLife, but it is apparently real.
- Confusion — Exploiting the general confusion between PubMed and MEDLINE to give themselves and their friends advantages in the market. The other aspect that became clearer based on comments and other communications is that the confusion between PubMed and MEDLINE is real, and is being exploited by PMC to great effect. I recall clearly when PubMed was established that it was basically a “port” of MEDLINE into a browser-friendly environment. This is what people still think it is. But it’s not just that. Instead, it’s a separate database of journal titles and content that is assembled by different means, with different standards, and for different reasons. MEDLINE is in it, but more is in it, as well — specifically, titles not indexed in MEDLINE. By tying PMC deposit to PubMed indexing and exploiting this confusion, PMC has given itself and its chosen ones a strong competitive advantage.
The cronyism, competition, and confusion become all the more obvious in the minutes of the last PMC National Advisory Committee (NAC). The meeting was held June 19, 2012, in Bethesda.
The mission of PMC as stated here (it has shifted somewhat since its founding) is:
PubMed Central was established to support NIH’s mission of disseminating the results of biomedical research widely to the public and to the scientific community. PubMed Central employs electronic publishing technology to archive, index and distribute peer-reviewed journal literature in the life sciences. The PubMed Central National Advisory Committee shall advise the Director, NIH, the Director, NLM, and the Director, NCBI, on the content and operation of the PubMed Central repository. Specifically, the Committee is charged to establish criteria to certify groups submitting materials to the system, monitoring its operation, and ensuring that PubMed Central evolves and remains responsive to the needs of researchers, publishers, librarians and the general public.
There’s a lot that can be said about this statement — especially the hard transition of concepts between the first and second sentences, as if one logically follows the other — but notice the wording after “Specifically,” which is the only part of the statement that has been retained throughout the PMC NAC’s existence. It states the NAC should spend time talking about establishing criteria and monitoring. Given these specific charges, you might imagine that the PMC NAC would be concerned with ensuring that its criteria were clearly articulated and uniformly applied. A level playing field is all that’s needed, which a solid, clear, and uniform process should foster. Given the primary objective stated in the first sentence of the missions, you might also find it reassuring if the majority of the discussions centered around information about how effective PMC’s activities have been in improving patient health outcomes, reaching educational goals, and finding favor with researchers and practitioners. There is some of this early on in PMC’s lineage — notably, updates on ClinicalTrials.gov and electronic health records (EHR) integrations (and one interesting section in 2011 about a study showing how ineffective PMC has been with health care practitioners) — but that’s not what the majority of time has been spent on at these meetings. Over the last few years, politics has become an increasing focus of PMC NAC meetings.
Unfortunately, the agenda and minutes of the recent meetings look more like a meeting of OA Central, rather than PubMed Central.
A Special Guest, and Special Advice
Much of the June 2012 meeting was spent hearing from an unlisted guest — Mark Patterson from eLife. At this point, eLife had not even accepted its first paper. It’s worth remembering that Wellcome Trust has had members on the PMC NAC since its early days. It’s also worth noting that having looked through all the minutes from PMC NAC meetings since their inception, nothing like this has ever occurred — a single new publication and an unproven publisher given the spotlight to describe what it’s doing. The videoconference represents a good portion of the minutes, and must have lasted quite a while.
At one point, Patterson said:
The costs of eLife will be totally underwritten by the three funders, at least initially, so that the journal can become established
Yet, just a few months later, a US government agency would become the primary publisher of eLife content, making government subsidy part of their funding scheme, intentionally or not. This bears further emphasis, I believe, because the three funders behind eLife have billions of dollars at their disposal. In a political season such as we have now in the US — with concepts permeating the atmosphere like the “top 1%” and “millionaires and billionaires playing by different rules” thanks to government action or inaction — this has a weird resonance. It might appear that PMC is helping the big funders preferentially, and showing deference to pocketbook rather than proven ability.
Within this conversation, there’s an interesting passage:
Dr. Patterson said that eLife does not plan to charge for an initial period, perhaps three years, and that the longer term business model will be developed over the next year or so. One possibility is to introduce a journal with a high acceptance rate. Another possibility is charging submission fees. He noted that publication fees would not be sufficient to cover costs. Dr. Lipman commented that if eLife was going to introduce a high-acceptance-rate journal, it might be best to do it in a timely way rather than waiting two or three years.
So, not only did the PMC NAC invite an overview of a specific initiative for the first time in its minuted existence — and, specifically, a splashy, well-funded OA initiative — but it also seems that David Lipman was giving business advice. It’s the type that perhaps a meddlesome board member might give, but Lipman is not on the eLife board. Combined with the fact that this was an unprecedented videoconference announcing a single initiative to the PMC NAC and that PMC abetted eLife’s initial publication process a few months later, it’s another sign of both broad and specific cronyism and of boundaries that have been severely eroded.
Boundaries and rules need to exist if we’re going to have a level playing field at the NLM.
Not Recorded, Not Tracked
The lack of concern with process is also striking in other communications I had last week, specifically with Joyce Backus, Acting Associate Director for Library Operations, NLM. I sent her an email the week prior with these specific questions about eLife’s inclusion in PMC and its decision to become the primary publisher of eLife content:
- When did eLife submit their application?
- When did the Acquisition and Selection Section consider their application?
- When did the idea of allowing them to post immediately on PMC arise? Who broached the idea? Who was involved in those discussions?
- How typical is it for the published criteria for inclusion to be waived? When was the last time this occurred? What made you waive them in the case of eLife?
- Are there minutes of the meetings of the NLM Acquisition and Selection Section? Could I have a copy of the minutes for the meeting(s) in which eLife was discussed?
She responded without any specific answers, only to say that these decisions are not recorded because they are done at a staff level; that the reputations of eLife principals factored into the decision; and that the minimum number of articles stated and restated in requirements on their site are more of a “guideline” that they routinely ignore or work around if other factors dominate their thinking.
I restated my questions, looking for specifics. The questions that remained unanswered were:
- When did eLife submit their application? This seems to be an easy one to answer, even if it was handled by staff and not the committee.
- When did the idea of allowing eLife to post directly to PMC arise? Who broached the idea? I’ve heard through the grapevine one version of this story, but would like confirmation from PMC.
- Who was involved in these discussions about posting eLife content directly to PMC? This seems important to know, for transparency and accountability.
Questions 4 and 5 seem to be answered, and in a surprising way at least to me. Essentially, the criteria we read and abide by are much looser in practice than they seem, and are almost whimsically applied. This gets back to the role of the PMC NAC. Why are they not evaluating these criteria and their implementation? Question 5 is answered because there is no real process, just a bunch of staff operating within what appears to be, at best, a loose framework.
The first question matters because Lipman said that eLife submitted their application following “the regular procedure.” If so, there should be a date of submission. It’s a direct question with a simple answer.
Backus responded to my second request for answers in an interesting manner:
My previous email is responsive to your questions in the way I am able to respond. As I noted, selection decisions are a routine part of our daily work and are not recorded committee decisions or tracked processes.
That last sentence only underscores a lack of disciplined process — according to Backus, the process is not even tracked.
For anyone who has filled out an application, sent files, abided by stated NLM submission criteria, and scrupulously followed the process, it’s more than a little anticlimactic to learn that the process is not even tracked.
And, still, nobody at NLM can say how eLife came to be posted on PMC — who was involved in the conversations, who made the decision, when the decision was made.
More Meddling in the Publishing Technology Marketplace
Reading the most recent minutes of the PMC NAC — with a lengthy section from the head of SPARC updating the group on OA legislation, and another long update from Chris Bird from the Wellcome Trust about OA initiatives in Europe — it seems PubMed Central is more concerned with driving the OA agenda through than in managing its own processes to ensure a level playing field for publishers, librarians, scientists, and the public.
In this framework, its role as a technology support for those it favors also goes back a few years, suggesting that its position in the market itself is problematic.
In 2008, when the Journal of Clinical Investigation wanted to move from HighWire Press to independent publishing, the manager of JCI was then a member of the PMC NAC. The motivations for the move were both financial and technological, I learned through email communications. According to minutes from June 17, 2008, PMC helped to smooth the road by providing free XML for the transition, advice on data design, and free hosting of major elements for at least half a year:
PMC helped JCI with the project by supplying its entire JCI archive and by providing advice on data design. The website has been functional since January 15, 2008. There are still some gaps, Mr. Hawley said. PMC is still serving as the host for PDFs and images
This bridge assistance as a technology provider helped JCI leave HighWire without forcing JCI to incur some of the commercial costs for the transition. Typically, moving from one platform to another or to a self-hosted environment requires a publisher to fetch XML from their compositor, validate the XML in the new system, get the PDFs, secure the images, and run systems in parallel at least for a time. It’s a normal cost of doing business. In the case of JCI, PMC provided the XML and advised on its use, potentially stealing business from one part of the publishing technology world, while also hosting PDFs and images for JCI for more than six months, allowing them to leave HighWire earlier than they were ready to leave on their own, potentially robbing HighWire of months of business, as well. While PMC allows its participants to extract their content at any time, it rarely “helps.” In addition, Hawley reported back in on progress to the PMC NAC, making it appear that PMC had a management interest in the transition (Hawley emailed me that JCI did not act at the behest of PMC, but the minutes document interest in the JCI transition at the NAC level).
This effectively made PMC a player in shaping the technology market for JCI — and, again, taking a special interest in those its leadership has close ties with.
The role PMC plays relative to scanning, XML hosting, image and PDF hosting, and online publishing overall needs to be re-examined. It is too competitive for a government agency, and as all scholarly publishing becomes online publishing, this competitiveness hits at too many levels — hosting, archiving, image processing, multimedia, search, usage, indexing, and so forth. The JCI story is just an example of how a basically competitive stance can get tangled up in governance issues and appear somewhat questionable. It would be better if PMC didn’t have any hand at all in solving online publishing for its participants.
Questions linger about PMC’s management and role, questions both large and small. There are questions specific to PMC being the primary publisher of eLife content. There are questions about the process — its rigor, its fairness, its disconnects — around PubMed and PMC indexing and inclusion. There are questions around whether PMC has drifted off its moorings and into OA waters, creating an environment of favoritism and political action that’s inappropriate given its remit. And there are questions about PMC using government infrastructure to play a hand in the commercial publishing technology market.
I hope more answers are to come. Until some changes occur, we will continue to play on a field tilted in certain directions by the NLM, NCBI, and PMC, a field capable of tripping up some of us and creating shortcuts for others, one that is managed opaquely and rather poorly by those who represent themselves as the officials in charge, and one that poses as disinterested but which pushes some interests, mostly toward supporting the OA business model and perceived “friends” of PMC.