English: Old Beggar, 1916, by Louis Dewis, pai...
English: Old Beggar, 1916, by Louis Dewis, painted just outside his clothing store in Bordeaux (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

A recent post adding to the long reveal of PubMed Central (PMC) cronyism and conflicts of interest noted once again that the Journal of the Medical Library Association (JMLA) has used PMC as its primary publishing platform for about a decade. JMLA is one of only two journals allowed to do this, raising questions about why this happened and whether it’s acceptable.

T. Scott Plutchak was kind enough to provide some background on how JMLA came to be published on PMC. To quote Plutchak:

This goes back to the very early days of PMC – the fall of 1999. (Long before the NIH Public Access Policy was even a glimmer in Heather Joseph’s eye). I had just been appointed to succeed Michael Homan as editor (I served until 2006), and there was much discussion among MLA Board members & headquarters staff about how to make the journal available electronically, preferably open access. The various options that had been identified so far were all in the $20K plus range annually (which, despite T Anthony’s superficial analysis of the association’s budget would have been a significant cost to an organization that has always operated on a slightly frayed shoestring).

In November of that year Lipman did a presentation about PMC at the annual AAMC/AAHSL meeting. NLM was trying to encourage publishers to deposit their content and as Lipman described the conditions of participation it occurred to me that we probably met those conditions. I introduced myself to Lipman afterwards and he asked me to follow up by email, which I did on December 30, 1999. He then put me in touch with his colleague Liz Pope for followup. I see that it was six months (June 22, 2000) before I got back in touch with Pope. Much of this delay was caused by the need to get consensus from the MLA Board that this what we actually wanted to do (in those antediluvian days, the board only did business when they met in person three times a year – how quaint!) Between working through the technical issues with NLM and sorting through the policy issues with the MLA Board, it was another year before the first issues of the BMLA/JMLA appeared.

What may be relevant to the current discussion is the Draft PubMed Central Policy that Pope sent me in July of 2000, describing it as “a first draft of a PMC policy for working with publishers.” In that document, the “Minimum Requirements for Participation” are given:

“Pubmed Central will accept only peer-reviewed material from journals in the life sciences that satisfy one of the following criteria:

“• The journal must be archived in one of the major abstracting and indexing services such as EMBASE, Biosis, MEDLINE, Science Citation Index, Agricola, PsychINFO or Chemical Abstracts.

“• If it is a new journal, at least three members of the journal’s editorial board must currently be principal investigators on research grants from major funding agencies (e.g., NIH, NSF, DOE, NASA, or HHMI in the U.S., or equivalent organizations abroad).”

Note that there was no requirement that the journal have its own digital presence. The BMLA clearly met the conditions, so there was nothing untoward or exceptional about our participation or NLM’s willingness to host the content. Any journal, print or otherwise, could have participated under those same conditions.

The JMLA Editorial Board (on which I am currently serving a 3-year term) does take up the issue from time to time of creating a fully featured website for the journal, but for the time being the current arrangement meets our needs. Marty Frank (who I consider a good friend) and I have sparred occasionally about what he perceives as the “unfairness” of this, but I can’t get too worked up about it. I have a hard time figuring out who is harmed by it.

Plutchak has a well-deserved reputation as being eminently reasonable and balanced in his thinking, so I took his “I have a hard time figuring out who is harmed by it” comment seriously. Who is harmed by it?

I thought about it for a good while. Ultimately, I determined that his formulation begs the question: Is “harm” the proper standard at all?

There is another possible standard to use as a starting point in considering this situation — fairness — and, through this, we can get to the standard of harm. Fairness has been at the center of the PMC scandal involving eLife and apparently others (BioMed Central and PLoS being implicated in recent emails, and F1000 Research being implicated as benefiting from favoritism at the NLM and NIH, as well).

To explore the fairness of the JMLA situation, let’s imagine I’m one of two people who get into a concert without a ticket because a friend let us in. Nobody is harmed — the ticketholders still get to see the concert — but is what I did right? The performers aren’t harmed, the audience isn’t harmed, yet it is still unfair. Why should I get something for nothing?

As to the question of harm, let’s assume the friend who got me into the concert is someone who was not a police officer a few years ago but who has since become a police officer, sworn to uphold a standard and maintain fairness. Again, nobody is harmed directly, but the integrity of this particular officer, and of the force overall, suddenly can be called into question, as can my integrity for accepting the favor and seeing the concert through to the end.

Now, let’s take it further. Let’s assume the police officer also drives me to the concert each time, making it completely cost-free for me to go. I don’t have to pay for gas, parking, or tolls. Everyone else has to pay for these things, but I don’t. I’m literally getting a free ride.

It seems unfair to attend a concert in this manner. I would dare you to explain it face-to-face to another concert-goer, no matter how much you can rationalize the concept of “harm.” But more importantly in our field, reputations are bound to be harmed — both the reputation of the police and the reputation of the people sneaking in without paying what everyone else pays.

Plutchak points out in another comment that JMLA would have been on PMC no matter whether it was independently hosted or not, so the PMC dollars would have been spent hosting JMLA content in any event. His argument is that no new money was spent at PMC by hosting JMLA at PMC.

The problem with this logic is that it evades the overall context, which is that everyone else on PMC is paying to publish their content independently, adding to the economy and being responsible stewards of their independent existence. Within this context, what Plutchak describes is freeloading by definition — getting all the benefits with none of the costs (or, more specifically, avoiding the payment of separate hosting and publishing costs and being allowed to send all of your traffic to PMC). With one exception, everyone else on PMC is independently hosted and supporting the majority of their traffic themselves, but JMLA is not. After more than 10 years of benefiting from this arrangement, the MLA has saved between $200,000 and $500,000 (or more) in hosting costs. That’s a real benefit others have not shared. That is not fair, and it also has removed a few hundred thousand dollars from the technology economy. There is certainly economic harm, albeit on a small scale — which gets to the issue of generalizability. Because small economic harm on a large scale would amount to massive economic harm, the JMLA situation is nearly unique. To preserve that uniqueness, it must remain unfair. And so we arrive at the point where unfairness and harm intersect.

As a result, JMLA has become accustomed to government-sponsored publishing services and seems reluctant to give them up, as Plutchak notes — discussions at the Board level have only resulted in inertia.

It’s apparent that the MLA is benefiting from this, according to an editorial summarizing a survey of members:

Sixty-three percent of respondents said that the JMLA is one of the top three to five most important programs or projects provided by the Medical Library Association. We will be working hard to live up to user expectations.

Membership in the MLA is driven to some extent by this journal benefit, which is being offered through taxpayer-funded infrastructure, absolving the MLA from the responsibilities of hosting and attendant costs.

This is somewhat at odds with MLA aspirations, as stated in this section in their “About” section on ethics:

The health sciences librarian provides leadership and expertise in the design, development, and ethical management of knowledge-based information systems that meet the information needs and obligations of the institution.

It seems clear that the MLA has benefited from free, taxpayer-funded publishing services for more than a decade in a way every other publisher but one has not. Recent insights into other unrelated matters have thrown their practices into question. Why are they allowed to stay off the technology market while everyone else has to pay?

I hope this attempt to explain the problem results in better decision-making going forward — for the integrity of the MLA and for the sake of its reputation. Ultimately, the question above can only be answered by the governance of the MLA.

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.

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18 Thoughts on "Should the Journal of the Medical Library Association (JMLA) Stop Using PMC As Its Publishing Platform?"

Fair or not, i still would have difficulty with a government hosting my journal’s only outlet. It creates the perception of undue influence. Suppose, for example, a reviewed and accepted article made an argument the Government (Capitol G intended.) really, really did not like. Would this influence my decision? Can PMC pull the plug?

That’s a good point–there’s great value in being able to control your own fate. I’ve written about it in the past (http://scholarlykitchen.sspnet.org/2013/01/24/mendeley-connotea-and-the-perils-of-free-services/) but perhaps this brings in a new angle. If you’re dependent on someone else for your publishing platform, and you’re not the paying customer calling the shots, you’re at the mercy of someone else’s agenda. The functionality of your journal could change drastically with little notice, or your journal could disappear altogether. It’s certainly a risk to be balanced against the reduced (or eliminated) costs offered.

Someone once mentioned freedom of the press matters only if you have a printing press.

It’s perhaps worth noting that during the past 10 years or so, while hosted on PMC, the MLA has also protested other governmental actions (e.g., the Patriot Act). Government is intrusive on the one hand, but government relieving the MLA of a small financial burden seems OK to them. Who’s to say that their resistance to the Patriot Act and other governmental actions might not have been tempered somewhat by their reliance on PMC? The perception of having a conflict of interest relative to the government’s role in information systems might play a role in any future discussions at the MLA, as well.

For the past 50 years or more NLM and MLA have had a close working relationship. NLM has pumped hundreds of millions of dollars into the medical library community as that base is their primary user community. First with the Medical Library Assistance Act and now through the National Network of Libraries NN/LM. The two organizations have had joint publications programs in the print days. I ran a joint publishing program in the 70’s that produced Cataloging Copy for several thousand medical libraries. So hosting the JMLA is noting new or unusual. The two organizations have worked together on many projects.
It seems to me that the community has much bigger issues to worry about than stressing out the Medical Library Association with this issue.

The NLM has many partners, including the MLA (http://www.nlm.nih.gov/about/partners.html). AMIA publishes their own journal (JAMIA). AAHSL doesn’t rely on the NLM for publication services and hosting. HIMSS certainly does not. Again, why the MLA? It seems from Scott Plutchak’s story that it was a fluke, not an intentional partnership overture directed at NLM partners. So, saying this is just a natural extension of a long-term partnership is both inaccurate and obscuring. It was a fluke, and the MLA has benefited almost exclusively from it. (The other journal hosted solely on PMC seems to have benefited because its leader joined the PMC NAC, and because they are just down the road from the NLM in Bethesda.)

The MLA is receiving a benefit nearly nobody else can. The timing of this becoming an issue for the MLA isn’t something under their or my control, and that’s life. It sounds from what Plutchak wrote that the MLA has been aware of this as a potential problem for a while, but kept kicking the can down the road. Maybe they should have been more proactive.

While there are different partners, none are as close as MLA and for the 43 years I have been involved with NLM, Lindberg, Humphreys, and Lipman have never managed by fluke. This team is conservative and looks at issues from many different sides. Nothing that NLM does is by accident. Decision making is painfully slow and deliberate. If they support MLA it is not by accident.

Well, that’s not what the recent revelations or Scott Plutchak’s insights indicate. The facts seem at odds with your perception of NLM’s deliberateness. It all underscores why only MLA and later, one publisher who is down the road and who joined the PMC NAC the year prior to their journal mysteriously migrating into PMC.

The entire eLife story reeks of sloppy management and poor controls. Even staff pointed it out. That’s what has been so disturbing about this. I had the impression before that NLM and PMC were well-managed and thoughtful. The past year has completely changed my perception, and the JMLA story fits better with this new perception than with my prior beliefs.

As Project Coordinator for multiple NLM and NN/LM Outreach projects to improve access to health information for all, and a JMLA author, I’d like to point out that MLA and its members support the NLM mission of bridging the digital divide. We are their “feet on the ground,” promoting MEDLINE, PubMed, MedlinePlus and the many other resources produced by NLM that contribute to a healthy nation – but only if they are used by professionals and patients to make evidence based clinical decisions. Congress funded the original Medical Library Assistance Act to ensure that access to medical research would be available to all, regardless of ability to pay, and NLM works with all members of the National Network/Libraries of Medicine to make this happen.

Please note that librarians are generally underpaid and unable to pay authors’ fees to make their work available electronically, which is why I will no longer submit articles to other journals for medical librarians. Also, JMLA is professionally edited, proofread and produced by MLA staff, with the print edition reaching me in rural Wisconsin before the final version appears in PubMedCentral. PMC is NOT the only publishing platform for our journal.

Thanks – Peg

PMC is the only online publishing platform for JMLA. MLA currently spends more than $190,000 on its web site. Obviously, it can publish content independently.

While I’m sympathetic with your the other issues you raise, they are irrelevant to this post’s points. This has nothing to do with partnerships, librarian pay, or how JMLA content is generated. It has to do with a nearly unique and unfair advantage MLA has in publishing its journal, how this creates harm in the information economy MLA participates in.

Mr. Anderson,

I’m surprised that no one has brought this up but MLA does publish the JMLA early to members through their membership login. Just as Journal of Bone and Joint Surgery publishes to is members or those paying for it MLA publishes their journal behind a firewall first. So this question of why MLA is being published on PMC is in my mind sort of ridiculous. MLA has been publishing first to the membership for years. We are seeing the information before it becomes “official” on the website. Then the information is archived on PMC. Just because we archive immediately unlike some journals who have embargoes or only do it when demanded by the government seems very strange.

Julia M. Esparza
Clinical Medical Librarian/Associate Professor

I’ve never heard about this, which would be surprising. Also, there is no mention of this in MLA benefits statements or on the JMLA site. What form does this take? A PDF? Or a full-blown searchable web site?

It take the form of a table of contents. It is mentioned here http://mlanet.org/publications/jmla/index.html and the announcement is made in MLA Focus which is only sent to the membership. The membership can access the Preprint (named that because it has not actually been printed on paper yet for almost a month to 6 weeks prior to the print arrives. Then the information is not made available on PMC for almost another month. I know because I was tracking all of this because I recently had an article published. I was frustrated that the article was not available in the Archived format so that I could let people know it was freely available.

I’m still not clear on what you’re saying this is. A listing of articles in an email? Then that’s not published content, just a published list. That’s completely different. As for your link, that points to nothing I can discern related to what you’re talking about.

You really have a problem with PMC, don’t you? How about applauding them for finding such a cost-effective way to publish their journal! Just because it doesn’t put any money in a publisher’s pocket. The only unfair aspect is that PMC don’t let everyone do it. Lots of things are unfair – universities paying huge amounts of money to access journals full of articles produced for free by their staff springs to mind.

I do have problems with PMC, which I and others have outlined in sometimes exquisite detail here over the past 12-18 months. I hope you’ve been following along. These problems include:

1. Designing their search interface to steal traffic from publishers, including OA publishers
2. Secretly helping eLife launch its journal, hiding activity from even its own advisory committee, as well as from the US taxpayer
3. Costing the US taxpayer millions per year doing redundant article conversions

Your statements about “journals full of articles produced for free by . . . staff” is outdated and absurd. I recommend you read this, by a thoughtful academic researcher who is pro-OA but sees problems and a lack of rationality in much of the rhetoric: http://www.danielallington.net/2013/10/open-access-why-not-answer/

You’ve noted PMC’s relationship to JMLA is unfair. That’s a start. Does JMLA want to remain in that kind of unique relationship with everyone knowing that they’ve consciously chosen to? Is it fair to all the platform providers, or to all the publishers who do run independently?

I have two comments to make in addition to the one above. One to you as editor of Journal of Bone and Joint Surgery. If you were given the option to provide JBJS free to the public immediately through PMC would you? Second, you mention about fairness in that BMLA now JMLA was brought in under the original guidelines of PMC. The US government and other governments around the world have “grandfathered” situations. Most notably is the FDA and the many “grandfathered” devices and drugs. This isn’t the only situation. The EPA and many other government organizations have changed their rules along the way. I can’t help but wonder if your comments are specifically because you don’t like MLA’s policy of pushing for open access?

Julia Esparza
Clinical Medical Librarian/Associate Professor

You should read more carefully. I’m the CEO/Publisher, not the editor.

I would not make JBJS freely available on PMC if I could, because we would fail as a business, and there would be no more JBJS. It’s that simple.

Your point about grandfathering is changing the agency of the post. I was posing the question to MLA governance, not to the government. We already know PMC is full of cronyism. Now, is the MLA going to step up and put itself on a level playing field as a journal publisher?

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