About a year ago, while attending a publishing strategy meeting focused on open access (OA), a couple of OA publishers told me that eLife articles had just been published on PubMed Central (PMC) and were available nowhere else. Given PMC’s protestations that it “is not a publisher,” this situation seemed wrong. More aggravating to these publishers was the fact that eLife apparently received special treatment, avoiding stated requirements before their content was not only included in PMC but actually published originally there. On top of it all, eLife had not yet demonstrated any independent publishing capabilities, since the eLife site had not yet launched.
I wrote about how this looked from the outside and included notes from my initial interview with the Director of the National Center for Biotechnology Information (NCBI) at the NLM, David Lipman (who is also Executive Secretary for the PMC National Advisory Committee). Lipman represented during our conversation last year that eLife had submitted a PMC application using “the regular procedure” while also asserting that he knew nothing about any conversations that might have gone on leading up to the launch of eLife on PMC.
After what struck me as unsatisfactory answers and aggressive stone-walling, I filed a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request about a week later. I’ve been receiving documents based on this and other FOIA requests ever since and have published numerous posts on what I’ve received. The final packet responsive to my initial request arrived earlier this month — another 330+ pages of emails and internal documents to pore over. Many documents were familiar, but some expanded on items I’d seen before, while some were brand new and a bit startling.
As an aside, I never anticipated that inquiring about eLife and PMC would yield 859 pages of documentation. Now that the entire request has been fulfilled, the sheer scope of what went on can be appreciated. It wasn’t nine pages or 59 pages — it was 859 pages.
A few things come into sharper focus thanks to these additional documents:
- Lipman was intimately involved in discussions around the inclusion of eLife and its special treatment, from the very beginning through the moment when eLife articles debuted on PMC
- When Lipman disavowed knowledge of what happened leading to eLife publishing its first content on PMC, he was not telling the truth
- Plans to publish eLife articles on PMC were fairly concrete even before eLife secured its ISSN or was able to put up any sort of basic Web presence
- In order to pull off the strange publication process that eLife required, the NLM had to resort to “lying” to its own systems and processes
- Those involved were very clear that this was special treatment for a “friend,” and that they wanted to conceal this special treatment from the community at large
This is a long post in which long email threads are recreated, typos and all.
Let the Games Begin — Again
Last February, I published a post detailing the copies of relevant emails I’d received at the time. As a refresher, on February 24, 2012, Mark Patterson at eLife (then writing from a Wellcome Trust account) pitches the idea of publishing eLife articles on PMC in an email to Ed Sequeira at the NLM, with copies to Lipman and Jo McEntyre of UK PMC.
That same day, in a newly revealed email, Lipman responds to Sequeira:
Exactly what “‘preview’ mode” represents isn’t clear. As you’ll see, Lipman has a habit of using quote marks around vague ideas he’s trying to push. Sequeira responds to Lipman about 70 minutes later:
Lipman responds five minutes later:
A minute later, Sequeira responds:
Five minutes later, the thread ends with Lipman replying:
As noted in the post from earlier this year detailing the first batch of emails about these interactions, Lipman wrote an intentionally vague email responding to Patterson and McEntyre that same day, cc’ing Sequeira. We now have additional emails showing more conversations branching from this thread and showing Lipman’s intimate involvement in setting up eLife on PMC. Three days later (February 27, 2012), Lipman wrote to Sequeira, copying Bart Trawick:
NIHMS is the National Institutes of Health’s Manuscript Submission system, which was designed to facilitate the submission of final peer-reviewed manuscripts — you know, the kind that cost NIH $47-50 each to convert into XML and QA. Here we see Patterson trying to create a back door into PMC for eLife papers, and Lipman pushing staff to find a way to make it happen.
Sequeira responds the same day:
Note that Sequeira is clear that eLife’s request is about publicity. Trawick responds to the thread about a half-hour later:
“LO” is “library operations.” I don’t know what “RRN” is.
In a response to Sequeira’s email above, Lipman shows his hand:
The phrases in “quotes” are worth pausing over. There is a “relationship” between PMC and HHMI and the Wellcome Trust. Indeed there is — so much so that the Wellcome Trust was allowed to handpick a successor for the PMC NAC as one Wellcome employee rotated off, and they picked their solicitor to take over this de facto seat on the NAC. When the Wellcome Trust’s solicitor’s term was expiring in late 2012, Lipman wrote in an email to a group trying to drum up candidates:
Then there is the use of the word “certify.” Every journal “certifies” papers by publishing them — some more plausibly than others. So how the certification of eLife differs from the certification of any other journal isn’t clear. I think the nice way to say it is that Lipman is being artful as he tries to move the eLife cause forward.
A Brief Interlude As We Contemplate the Concepts of “Fairness” and “Honesty”
I’d like to pause a moment so we can regain our bearings and remind ourselves that two issues at the heart of this controversy are fairness and honesty. To put this into context, I’ll use an unrelated email exchange from June 11, 2012, between Chris Kelly and Sequeira regarding Bentham, an OA publisher:
This independent exchange provides some interesting contrast to the eLife and PMC discussions. Entire organizations can get special treatment — special positive treatment or special negative treatment. But most striking, of course, is Sequeira’s claim, contemporaneous with PMC’s moves toward assisting with the launch of eLife, that:
[w]e do not accept a journal into PMC or PubMed with the idea of helping the journal progress and prosper. We expect the journal to do that on its own.
The evidence suggests otherwise, unfortunately. That’s not fair, and that’s not honest.
And Now Back to Our Main Feature . . .
Returning to our email exchanges from February and March 2012 between Lipman, Sequeira, Patterson, et al, we start at a point originally captured in an earlier post. On March 4, 2012, Patterson emailed Sequeira, with a cc to Lipman and Melissa Dodd, head of production operations at eLife (scan of these emails):
Now, we get into a new branch on the same tree. Lipman replies to Sequeira the same day (Sunday) in a separate thread, copying Dennis Benson at the NIH:
Sequeira responds the next day:
A week later, on March 12, 2012, Sequeira emails Lipman with copies to Chris Kelly, Jeff Beck, and Sergey Krasnov:
Lipman replies less than an hour later to cheerlead for eLife:
It Becomes Clear That eLife Is Driving the Bus
Three days later (March 15, 2012), Sequeira sends a long and specific email to the team of Kelly, Beck, and Krasnov, adding Sarah Post Calhoun:
This email bears some analysis. First, this concrete plan sounds like it was largely dictated to PMC by Patterson, who seems to have been emboldened by his conversations with Lipman. Second, the lengths to which PMC is going to accommodate eLife are extraordinary — basically, fooling their systems across the board in order to help eLife launch sooner and gain a market advantage. The use of words like “illusion” and “lying” is striking. Third, eLife is getting all of this attention at no cost — basically, a custom platform build months in the making is being completed on the backs of US taxpayers.
The attitude of entitlement at eLife doesn’t stop there, unfortunately. As we move from March 2012 to September 2012, things get a little frosty between eLife and PMC, as eLife’s preferred launch date approaches. This email dated September 19, 2012, from Sequeira to Lipman, with copies to Kelly, Krasnov, Jim Ostell, and Peter Cooper, indicates the emerging tensions:
About 45 minutes later, James Ostell, who was included on Sequeira’s email to Lipman and who is Chief of the Information Engineering Branch of the NCBI, replies to the entire chain:
There are more emails in this thread, alternating between disbelief at how “cheeky” eLife is being and confidence that they can get it done nonetheless. It’s interesting to watch this UK-based publisher pushing US government employees around so blithely, spending US tax dollars with impunity.
The night of the same day, Lipman emails Patterson:
Patterson replies the next morning:
Lipman forwarded this thread back to Sequeira, Kelly, Krasnov, and Beck:
In case there was any doubt that Lipman was involved throughout this process, from the initial discussions through to hand-holding eLife during the final steps, we can now lay those doubts to rest — despite Lipman’s initial and demonstrably false assertions that he didn’t know anything about the details of what happened to cause eLife articles to appear on PMC early.
And if there was any doubt as to which group was catering to which, it’s clear PMC was catering to eLife at this time, taking favoritism to some pretty extreme lengths.
More About PR Efforts
One of the most memorable quotes from the earlier batch of eLife and PMC emails came from Sequeira, who wrote in an email about edits to the eLife press release:
Thanks for letting me have a look at this. . . . My reaction to the editorial: Now that we know for sure that you love us, we’d like you to pretend that we’re complete strangers in public.
In an email from the day before these memorable lines were written, Sequeira writes to his internal staff (Kelly, Krasnov, Beck, and Cooper):
Krasnov’s reply starts another interesting exchange, and shows the general lack of comfort with the approach to eLife that permeates many exchanges:
Sequeira responds a few hours later:
This reference to “what we did for BMC” is hinted at again in another email chain starting on October 16, 2012, just a day after the eLife articles went live on PMC. The thread has Sequeira seeking advice about developing a statement to respond to complaints. Judith Eannarino writes the last message on the thread:
We’ve seen Eannarino before — she is the LO individual who gave eLife a “what the crap” record number in order to grease the skids for it.
There are a few points to pull out of this message. First, special accommodations are made supposedly based on the credentials of the publisher — but eLife had no credentials at this time other than funder credentials (which are not publisher credentials), while PLOS and BMC credentials certainly pale compared to those of major society or commercial publishers with 100+-year track records, many of whom were at the time waiting to get their OA content into PMC and thereby into PubMed. Second, if BMC (which was founded by Lipman’s friend Vitek Tracz, the man who also hired Lipman to edit a journal at BMC) received some form of special treatment sufficiently beyond the pale to leave an uncomfortable memory in employees minds, and then F1000 Research, another Tracz product, received its own special treatment this year, what are we to think about conflicts of interest and fair play?
While this appears to be “more of the same,” it is both a lot more of the same — creating a more comprehensive picture of the duplicity and favoritism practiced at PMC around eLife and potentially other publications — and it is in some ways new. The new information includes:
- insights into how uncomfortable NLM staff was with the way eLife was being handled
- documentation of how involved Lipman was end-to-end and at a detailed level in launching eLife on PMC
- evidence of how much PMC catered to eLife’s whims
- emails showing how funders like Wellcome and HHMI are viewed by government employees working on PMC
- clues that the conflicts of interest between Lipman and Tracz may go deeper (and further back) than we’ve previously thought
Overall, these emails provide yet another eye-opening, embarrassing, and disappointing portrait of PubMed Central management.