The Double Down.

Last week, eLife transmitted another batch of articles to be published on PubMed Central, compounding the problems I outlined two weeks ago:

  • A government agency creating a shortcut for its cronies
  • A government agency which states in numerous places it “is not a publisher” acting as the sole publisher of eLife content
  • A government agency competing with technology providers, through eLife and at least two other journals
  • A government agency competing for online traffic
  • A government agency subsidizing a two-country non-profit/charity by the US government and taxpayer funds
  • A new publishing entity with structural conflicts of interest that apparently is unwilling or unable to stop itself from using insider dealing with PubMed Central to advance its cause

The open access (OA) movement was catalyzed by a dubious complaint about publishers exploiting taxpayer-funded research. Now, we clearly have a new OA publishing business exploiting taxpayer-funded publishing technology, management, and processes to advance its launch plans and gain a competitive edge. And apparently, they aren’t letting the irony stop them.

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.


16 Thoughts on "More eLife Articles on PubMed Central — The Government Subsidy Continues"

When has “hosting” constituted “publishing”? PMC hosts every article in the archive.

Do you really believe eLife doesn’t serve it’s own articles for financial reasons?

This is “competing with technology companies”? How is this so when eLife has it’s own web site and it would cost them next to nothing upload and serve their articles off their own site? I expect they do it to avoid the waste and confusion of having the same article at two permanent locations on the web.

This is “getting a competitive edge from taxpayer-funded publishing technology, management, and processes to advance its launch plans and gain a competitive edge”?

The fact you make some big issue out of something so trivial is laughable.

If you have a problem with anything it seems you have a problem with PMC per se. If so, why don’t you focus on that rather making mountains out of mole hills.

PubMed Central has always been a secondary publisher of scientific content. With eLife, it became the sole and primary publisher of eLife content — the only place you can find it. There is no publishing at eLife that is independent of PubMed Central. That makes PubMed Central eLife’s de facto publisher, just as Elsevier is the publisher for a society journal.

I don’t think eLife has any lack of funds. I think they used their relationships inappropriately (with the NLM’s inappropriate agreement) to publish on PubMed Central early. There was no reason to do this — they have the money and are contracted with HighWire Press to launch there, etc. They just weren’t willing to wait, and PubMed Central broke its own rules and policies to aid and abet this particular initiative, even though it didn’t meet its minimum standards. That’s one of the signs of cronyism — giving your friends advantages without requiring them to meet the same standards as everyone else. Is it a coincidence that a major Wellcome Trust figure served on the board of PubMed Central for years, only to be succeeded by the Solicitor for Wellcome Trust? Is it a coincidence that eLife was given center stage at the June 2012 PubMed Central National Advisory Committee meeting — an unprecedented act, based on my review of PMC NAC minutes since 2002? Is it a coincidence that the head of NCBI, which runs PubMed Central, gave eLife business advice at this same meeting, a clearly inappropriate action?

PubMed Central publishes two other journals (primary publisher), so is taking those journals off the market for publishing technology. By giving eLife early access to publishing technology, PubMed Central is depriving the market of a couple hundred thousand dollars in revenues, and putting at least some risk around the contract eLife has with HighWire Press. What if eLife thinks in December that PubMed Central’s solution is just dandy, and it’s free? Free is a great price. What’s to stop PubMed Central from becoming the primary publisher for other journals?

The benefits eLife is getting include: free publishing technology, faster time to market, immediate indexing in PubMed, and government-subsidized management of their publishing platform. Who else has this in scientific publishing? Nobody. Who is providing it for eLife? The US government. That’s “getting a competitive edge from taxpayer-funded publishing technology, management, and processes to advance its launch plans and gain a competitive edge.”

I do have a problem with PubMed Central — it is an anachronism in the networked world, it competes with publishers for traffic and brand inappropriately, and now it is acting as the primary publisher for at least three journals. It bends its own rules to suit some agenda it won’t state openly, and it doesn’t create a level playing field for the market. Have you read the other two posts on this? This is a potentially serious scandal at the NLM on many levels. If you can’t see that, then I think you’re not able to see these issues clearly. You shouldn’t make a molehill out of a mountain.

If you want to know what an anachronism is, ask librarians. It’s the subscription publishing model and what a pain in the butt it is dealing with publishers over licensing agreements for digital access. Our library wastes 5 FTEs on inter-library doing idiotic stuff like printing off articles and then re-scanning them to send them out on inter-library loan. Trying to figure out what they can do for each publisher’s journals since they all have different agreements. Our library and I am sure others purchase paper journals in some cases just so they don’t have to deal with the draconian license agreements of some publisher. That’s an anachronism!!

So, you’re saying that generating value for readers, and testing this value in the market via sales, is anachronistic? I disagree.

Of course publishers provide value and should be paid for what they do. It’s the subscription model that is an anachronism. It is not the only way publishers can get paid. With licensing agreements being used to control access, the subscription model creates huge headaches for librarians. Not all publishers abuse it but a number do and it is a real problem for librarians and the readers they serve. .

But getting paid to publish someone’s articles is to me less a validation in the market of readers and users than getting paid for the value you create in bringing articles to market that mean something to those people and are important and useful.

As I’ve pointed out elsewhere, “author” is a mode, not a person. Most researchers are readers more of the time than they are authors, and practitioners in most fields are rarely if ever authors.

This could also lead to a lot of costs coming down on the heads of fewer places if authors have to carry the full load. Right now, readers are more common, so costs are more distributed throughout the system.

If you’re having to print out articles and scan copies to send via interlibrary loan- that is anachronistic. Most standard license agreements now allow ILL via electronic transmission or Ariel systems, so it might be worth pointing this out to any publishers who won’t let you do that…

Kent, I agree with you that PMC has given eLife unfair priority in hosting their articles by bypassing the requirement for a suitable sample of articles prior to archiving approval (although it does say in step 3 of their “Add a journal to PMC” regulations that “Smaller samples may be evaluated at PMC’s discretion”, so they are not breaking their rules per se). There is certainly something fishy going on and your posts do a good service of putting them under public scrutiny.

But your definition of a publisher seems skewed to support the point you are trying to make (or as David said, to make “mountains out of mole hills”). I see a difference between publisher and distributor. In many cases, like Elsevier, publishers also act as distributor. In the case of eLife and PMC, it seems to me that eLife is doing its job as a publisher, handling the process of turning manuscripts into papers (or edited PDF files). PMC is doing the distribution job, by archiving the papers and making them available online (at a low cost to their budgets I would think). This may still be beyond the role they were designed to perform, but it is not the “mountain” you are making it look like.

When a government agency is the sole source of a journal’s content, it is its primary publisher. There is no other business model for eLife beyond publishing articles, but getting eLife to market faster will give them major advantages later, feeding into their likely business model. And Lipman gave them business advice in a meeting. And they provided them with technical consulting. So, PMC has done about all it can as a publisher to help eLife, given where the initiative is.

I think Elsevier does a bit more for the societies they contract with than PMC does for eLife. PMC doesn’t do anything in serving eLife articles than it does for any other journal.

Publishing technology? You mean server technology. I am not familiar with the other journals but eLife provides everything else included the PDF and XML versions to PMC. All PMC does is archive it and serve an HTML version automatically generated from the XML and the PDF that eLife gives it. Beyond that eLife provide their own web site and simply link to PMC’s copy.

“The benefits eLife is getting include: free publishing technology, faster time to market, immediate indexing in PubMed, and government-subsidized management of their publishing platform. Who else has this in scientific publishing?”

Who get this? Every other journal in PubMed Central. BTW, it’s available to your journal as well, if you choose to apply.

“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.” This is out of the PMC mission statement. That’s their agenda. You may think it is an anachronism but a lot of people disagree and find it very useful. They have over a half a million unique users a day.

PMC provided technical consultation to get them going, as well, and there’s a hint that they colluded on business planning (see the prior note about what was in the June 2012 minutes). There is no sales model for eLife yet, so that’s out of the picture, but getting them to market faster by short-circuiting PMC’s own stated requirements is definitely a great help in the market. I’ll write more about the value of this later this week. However, to the extent that PMC’s assertion that it is “not a publisher” has always been a fallacy (if you publish content, you are a publisher), the eLife scenario crosses the line into being the primary publisher of a journal’s content, and an extension of eLife. That makes them a publisher clearly.

Every other journal I’ve seen has to demonstrate that they can publish independently for a time, usually six months, more often longer, and generate at least 15 articles for PMC to evaluate. They tell people that they need 15 articles before they can even begin evaluating the content. But with eLife, they published 9 articles without question. That’s a violation of their policies, and disproves your assertion that “every other journal in PubMed Central” gets this. They do not get what eLife received.

Free content will generate users, and that’s the basis of their competition with publishers. They are using the publishers’ own content against them, stealing traffic. The promote the PMC version in PubMed at the expense of the publishers’ version. That’s not a level playing field.

Kent, by the technical definition of “publication” in the Copyright Act, I suspect what PMC does cannot be considered publication but rather a public “display.” here is the pertinent section from the Act:

“Publication” is the distribution of copies or phonorecords of a work to the public by sale or other transfer of ownership, or by rental, lease, or lending. The offering to distribute copies or phonorecords to a group of persons for purposes of further distribution, public performance, or public display, constitutes publication. A public performance or display of a work does not of itself constitute publication.

To perform or display a work “publicly” means—

(1) to perform or display it at a place open to the public or at any place where a substantial number of persons outside of a normal circle of a family and its social acquaintances is gathered; or

(2) to transmit or otherwise communicate a performance or display of the work to a place specified by clause (1) or to the public, by means of any device or process, whether the members of the public capable of receiving the performance or display receive it in the same place or in separate places and at the same time or at different times.

I completely disagree. So, you’re saying that by serving as the sole source of eLife content, PubMed Central cannot be considered to be distributing copies by sale or other transfer of ownership, despite the copies being released under CC license? That they are not distributing copies to a group for the purposes of further distribution, public display? That they aren’t distributing this beyond friends and family?

Can you explain why you’d assert this isn’t publication? Even eLife is asserting that it’s publication.

For some reason, I tend to agree with Kent. It appears to me that the sole distributor of ELife is PMC. If so, ELife is receiving a government subsidy and enjoying an unequal advantage in the market. Additionally, the PMC rules were made to avoid trivial journals enjoying distribution and legitimacy. From Issue one, ELife has been placed into the PMC archive. How do we know what is being published has any value?

As for OA and what it should be and is, the jury is still out. Right now OA journals on the one hand are open to those with deep pockets, while on the other are surviving on the uncertainty of grant monies.

Regarding suffering library budgets. I think that is a problem of the libraries and not one created by publishers. If you have value, prove it and the budget will increase. BTW I think libraries have great value.

Kent, I posted my reply to the original 10/22 post but I see it should go here, where the conversation continues. So to repeat:

Kent – I’m confused by some of the conflation of issues in this [i.e. the original but now continuing] post.

There is a long argument about PMC as a backdoor into PubMed vs. the waiting time for Medline. This is a function of the role of PubMed as a superset of citation data including content in PMC and several other sources as well as Medline, so it seems that your argument should be about the relationship of PMC to PubMed, or more specifically the inclusion criteria for PubMed, not about eLife. If Medline is thought of as a value-added service applied to more highly curated content (I don’t know if medical library colleagues would agree with that characterization but it’s one way to think of it), some of the apparent conflicts and claims of unauthorized ingress go away in my view. But you may have an argument that there should also be a lightweight process for inclusion of non-OA citation data in PubMed with a similar vetting process as that used for PMC.

With respect to eLife, one thing I didn’t see in your post (but perhaps I missed it) was whether eLife leapfrogged over other journals waiting in line for inclusion in PMC (not Medline). If not, then the fact that NLM may have been flexible in its treatment of eLife, a journal surely bound to meet its scientific criteria, doesn’t seem like a criminal infraction. Ed Sequeira’s note to Marty Frank seems equally accommodating to me: “NLM wants to see a reasonable number of articles published before it approves a journal for PMC, but given the backing of APS and the Physiological Society, I expect the threshold to be low in this case.” So i’m not sure where I see the cronyism and unequal treatment, unless it’s been shown that there were other journals waiting in a PMC queue that met all of the criteria (including technical criteria that might affect ingest readiness) that were pushed to the back of the line. Since PMC is a full-text repository, it’s hardly surprising that it’s responsive to requests for full-text deposit from qualified journals.

I think the primary publisher argument is weak with respect to eLife, unless they decide to abandon their plans to go live on HighWire. Here again, it’s hardly a scandal that PMC, as a fulltext repository chartered to support wide public dissemination of the biomedical research literature, would be willing to accept deposits of qualifying content a few months in advance of eLife’s go-live date. That hardly makes it a primary publisher. But your post does rightly highlight changing notions of dissemination and the role of repositories in an increasingly online and increasingly OA world. Is arXiv a primary publisher? Should it be? Would an embrace of this role of repositories by publishers help to lower the costs of formal publication and contribute to sustainability and affordability? I’m not making any assertions here so much as articulating what I see as a set of questions that we’re all grappling with – and will continue to for some time to come.


I’ll respond point-by-point in both places you’ve put this comment.

The argument about PMC being a backdoor into PubMed is that, to most people outside a small circle, MEDLINE and PubMed are synonymous. Publishers, authors, readers, and I’ll bet a number of librarians either think so, or haven’t stopped to think there might be a difference. Inclusion in PubMed is a carrot offered by NCBI for joining PubMed Central, so they have asserted value and, I believe, done nothing to clarify the situation because the confusion serves them well. Why should a business model choice give you such an advantage? That’s another implicit question. But there has been confusion and not clarity about what PubMed is, and that confusion has, I believe, been exploited to drive PubMed Central forward. In the case of eLife, this was especially egregious because they got into PubMed without meeting normal NLM requirements for even PubMed Central inclusion.

Which brings me to your second question about leapfrogging. Yes, eLife leapfrogged other publishers waiting for inclusion in PubMed Central. If you read the original post, you’ll see that another publisher I was speaking with was receiving emails from PubMed Central about their inclusion criteria, which required 15 articles and data submission, review, and approval. This journal had been requesting inclusion for months, and this email was just confirming the requirements, which PubMed Central confirmed in the manner shown. In the meantime, eLife, without having published anything elsewhere (a PMC requirement), was ushered right into PubMed Central, and indexed into PubMed. You say “it’s hardly surprising that [PMC]’s responsive to requests for full-text deposit from qualified journals.” That’s the problem — eLife wasn’t, by PMC’s own rules, “qualified.” It cut the line with PMC’s tacit assistance, and nobody at NLM can give me any specifics about who approved this, when it was requested, and when it was approved. That sure sounds like cronyism as I defined it in the original post, don’t you think?

There is a related issue here, which is conflict of interest (COI). COI is often based on appearances — apparent COI is COI. A scrupulous organization wishing to avoid the appearance of conflicts of interest will do whatever it can to be attuned to these and not make decisions that appear as if they are serving interests other than their mission and purpose. In this case, PubMed Central allowed two consecutive terms of Wellcome Trust board members, the latest being their solicitor. Then, when Wellcome launched a journal with two other funders, did PubMed Central behave scrupulously and draw a bright line between itself and the interests of its board members? No, they did exactly the opposite. They invited Mark Patterson in to speak via videoconference in an unprecedented manner, then without leaving an apparent trail, moved to rush eLife content onto their platform and become its primary publisher. That’s the kind of scandal-level COI stuff of legend, the kind that gets leaders of organizations into serious hot water. And David Lipman has said he feels no need to respond. How’s that for admirable leadership?

The “primary publisher” argument is really important, and I think it’s important to think hard about this, because each step is important. First, what is a US government agency doing helping a private enterprise launch itself? That’s not its role, and not what taxpayer money should be used for (funny how OA uses taxpayer funds when its suits its purposes, even if there are three billion-dollar charities backing the new business). Nobody else is publishing eLife — not eLife, not HighWire Press, nobody. PMC is the only place you can get the primary version of the articles. PMC is also the primary publisher of JMLA and at least one other journal. That’s not right. arXiv is not a primary publisher because it’s defined itself as a repository, but you could argue the case. In any event, eLife has defined itself as a journal, and PMC is acting as an extension of eLife and providing the primary and sole version of eLife content to the world. It’s not its secondary, archival, repository publisher. It’s its primary publisher. Imagine if I went to a library, and the librarians agreed to take my unpublished work and print, bind, brand, and disseminate it for me under my brand and theirs. That library would become my primary publisher, especially if it was the exclusive source of my works. It might be a library for everyone else, but it would be a publisher for me. That’s roughly what PMC has done on behalf of eLife. And, yes, actually, eLife could sever its contract with HighWire given what PMC has provided them with. At least two other journals have been taken off the market because PMC serves as their primary publisher. Should PMC even be creating this possibility for eLife, and this reality for the other two journals? I think it’s way, way, way over the line here.

This whole situation is wrong — from a conflict of interest perspective, from a government role perspective, from a cronyism perspective, from a commercial perspective, and from an accountability perspective.

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