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.
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.