When I filed my first Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request back in November of 2012, I had no idea the volume and content of the materials I might receive. Would it be a small packet of innocuous documents? Just a letter with nothing to follow?
Now, with well over 1,000 pages stacked up and more than a dozen blog posts filed, it seems time to take a look back at what we’ve discovered during 2013 about PubMed Central (PMC), its management, its behavior, and its limitations. This post is an attempt to inventory and summarize what we now know, for the sake of putting it all together a bit better and presenting you with a meaningful retrospective.
Most of the posts discussed below can be found here, along with some related posts.
PMC management plays favorites. This was revealed in a number of ways. Documents show that PMC greased the skids for eLife to promote its launch and allowed eLife to use PMC as a publishing platform while other publishers were ignored or actively rejected. Documents show that PMC allowed Wellcome Trust to appoint its own National Advisory Committee (NAC) member replacement. Emails show that PMC has done favors for BioMed Central and PLOS, while shutting other publishers out entirely or affecting an air of unbiased fairness in order to maintain the appearance of objectivity while at the same time doing favors for their cronies. And documents show that PMC management speaks of “relationships” and “friends” as they play favorites.
PMC allowed US government resources to be used by a UK startup. While open access (OA) is supposedly all about making sure taxpayers get ultimate value from the research their taxes funded, PMC spent US taxpayer money via contractors and technology deployment to support the launch of eLife, a funder-backed journal with its primary offices in the UK.
PMC spends a lot of US taxpayer money uploading and checking author manuscripts. The budget for PMC is about $4.5 million, and nearly all of it is spent dealing with author manuscripts, a dubious expense given the high duplication rate these have with publisher deposits. In addition, PMC’s efforts to increase compliance by NIH researchers could lead to a doubling of expenses in an environment of government spending caps, putting the PMC premise in question.
US taxpayers are not the primary beneficiaries of PMC. Traffic estimates show that US taxpayers provide PMC with only about 40% of its traffic, making others the major beneficiaries of a system US taxpayers are paying for.
PMC management pulled the wool over the eyes of its own advisory committee. The PMC NAC was kept in the dark about how PMC and eLife were collaborating on launching eLife content early on PMC, so much so that the June 2012 meeting — contemporaneous with a high level of activity around the eLife launch on PMC — featured a talk by Mark Patterson from eLife during which nothing of the joint effort was mentioned. The same meeting also featured David Lipman, Executive Secretary of the NAC, speaking as if nothing unusual were going on between the two groups.
The PMC NAC may be too weak to actually oversee PMC. Despite all of the revelations this year about conflicts of interest, insider dealing, improper use of government resources, and direct questions about its own role in such matters, minutes from the June 2013 PMC NAC meeting reflect no discussion or even awareness of these issues among members of the group. This suggests that the PMC NAC is not designed to provide effective oversight, or lacks the ability to carry out this function.
Two journals are using PMC as their primary publications platform. The Journal of the Medical Library Association (JMLA) and the Journal of Biomolecular Techniques (JBT) slipped into PMC during an early phase, and have benefited from free government publishing services ever since. In fact, JBT moved from commercial hosting to PMC-only hosting when its editor was named to the PMC NAC, another sign of insider dealing. PMC’s hosting of these journals not only deprives technology providers from revenues and costs taxpayers money (both lowering tax revenues and driving traffic to PMC, increasing bandwidth costs), but makes these organizations look like they are freeloading.
PMC sought to hide is work with eLife from the community and the US taxpayer. Numerous emails show that staff and management at PMC and the NIH sought to conceal their efforts with eLife to expedite its launch using PMC. They were clearly uncomfortable about what was being done, and worked to sweep it under the rug.
eLife and PMC collaborated on eLife editorial material and publisher messaging. PMC staff were asked to review eLife launch editorial drafts prior to publication, because the two groups were so cozy, leading to changes that obscured how the two entities had worked together. They also coordinated communications to other publishers in order to divert suspicions.
Funders aren’t saints. When Wellcome Trust, HHMI, and Max Planck announced their intention to publish eLife, the entry of funders as publishers struck many as fundamentally wrong. But the reputations of these groups are superlative, so things were allowed to proceed. If the past year has demonstrated anything, it is that funders need as much monitoring as any other publisher, if not more. Their incentives are different, but they are incentives that can lead to shortcuts, collusion, and exploitation. Funders are not saints, nor are the editors they hire or the staff working for them. For example, one of the editors of eLife publicly blamed PMC for eLife’s launch assistance, attempting to deflect blame despite documentation showing the request came from eLife (via a Wellcome Trust email account).
David Lipman was not honest or open about his role in helping eLife publish first on PMC. Starting with assertions that eLife had followed “the usual process” and that he knew nothing of the details, Lipman sought to distance himself from the eLife situation. Documents revealed that he not only was a primary instigator of the effort to publish eLife on PMC, he remained heavily involved throughout. When confronted by a citizen and taxpayer, he equivocated and evaded responsibility or accountability. He has not spoken publicly since, except to say in an interview that he felt no need to respond.
eLife management and editors also ran away from the situation. Through a combination of emails and comments after the first emails were revealed, it became clear that editors and staff at eLife also wanted to distance themselves from the situation and not take personal responsibility for their roles in getting special treatment for eLife via a US government agency.
The relationship between Lipman and Vitek Tracz requires close examination. Favors done by Lipman for Tracz apparently include actively working to get F1000 Research more actively addressed by PMC contractors and staff, getting special treatment for BioMed Central titles, and perhaps even doing something else in the early days of BioMed Central, which current emails only hint at. This relationship requires a very close look, especially given Lipman’s role as an editor on a BioMed Central journal (hired by Tracz for this role).
Leaders at Wellcome Trust, PMC, and eLife apparently have no grasp of what constitutes a conflict of interest. Evidence shows leaders in these organizations exploiting conflicts of interest and speaking in ways that show they have little grasp of what constitutes a conflict of interest, suggesting these people need some remedial training on these issues.
The search results of PubMed are designed specifically to compete with publishers, and keep traffic going to PMC. Emails show that the rationale for the design that places links to PMC versions on the search results list while links to publisher versions are one layer deeper, requiring another click and page load, is primarily driven by the desire to retain traffic and compete with publishers.
Some OA advocates failed to see the problem here. While not revealed directly by the documents obtained by the FOIA requests, the fact that some strident OA advocates accused me of being anti-OA throughout this, or anti-science, beggars reason. OA publishers were the ones being mistreated. This was not “anti-OA” but “anti-cronyism” and “anti-deception.” It was about being open, about accountability, and about understanding how a US government agency became a tool used by a UK-based charity cum publisher. Science is about gathering and evaluating evidence in light of a hypothesis to see if the hypothesis proves out. I merely gathered evidence based on the hypothesis that PMC leadership was unwilling to tell the entire story, and I believe the evidence supports the hypothesis.
If someone had told me that the FOIA requests I filed would generate evidence enough to justify even one of the above statements, I would have been surprised. However, over the past year, the scope of mismanagement and its apparent duration have been astonishing to me. Clearly, there has been something rotten in Bethesda, as I first sensed. However, I never could have guessed that so much would be wrong, biased, improper, or unfair. It’s a shocking list.
And it’s not over with yet. Some requests remain ongoing, and are producing materials still. Stay tuned.
For me, 2013 will go down as the year where we saw that PMC has significant management shortcomings and flaws in its governance. It cannot lecture anyone about standards, fairness, openness, or propriety — at least not until it becomes openly accountable and sets things right.