The Wellcome Trust journal announcement sowed confusion and consternation from the start. Was it a journal, a preprint experiment, some new and strange hybrid? Why would Wellcome, which is funding eLife currently and recently committed to an extended term of support, also fund a branded F1000 journal? If F1000 Research already exists, why create another title that seems to do the same things and take the same approach, but within the strictures of Wellcome-funded research? Why work with a commercial publisher?
Discussions on Twitter and elsewhere highlighted the announcement as strange and unwieldy. Wellcome and F1000 both seemed reluctant to call what they’re doing a “journal,” using the more cryptic term “publishing initiative.” F1000 Research has exhibited this reluctance to be specific about what they’re doing for years. They seem to want all the trappings and benefits of being a journal without the responsibilities.
Yet, if it walks like a duck, quacks like a duck, and looks like a duck, it’s probably a duck. And Wellcome Open Research certainly resembles the duck known as F1000 Research — with publication prior to peer review, rejection of blinded peer review (authors invite post-publication peer reviewers), and no requirements for article forms (you can publish a picture, for example). No new ideas here, and F1000 Research has not really worked all that well, either as an outlet for strong research or a model inspiring emulation.
On Twitter, Robert Kiley, Wellcome’s head of Digital Services, was soon pinned into admitting that Wellcome Open Research is a journal, and one that will guard its papers in the usual manner:
— Robert Kiley (@robertkiley) July 10, 2016
Wellcome seems to want to blaze a trail to a funder-sponsored publication platform, with Kiley quoted as saying:
The expectation is that this, and other similar funder platforms that are expected to emerge, will ultimately combine into one central platform that ensures that assessment can only be done at the article level.
Peer reviewers would be invited by the authors. This is an abdication of objective peer review practices and responsible editorial approaches. But for F1000 Research, “objective peer review” means not disinterested peer review, but rules-based peer review. This means that it only accepts papers from people affiliated with research institutions or with MD or PhD degrees. For instance, F1000 Research refused to peer review a paper because the author didn’t have these academic credentials — her two Master’s degrees and extensive experience apparently weren’t sufficient to even get her paper reviewed.
Recently, the ability of F1000 Research’s peer review process to identify and deal with plagiarism, and respond to plagiarism charges in the proper manner, has also been criticized. (Additional reading here and here.)
The weakness of post-publication peer review is brought up again in coverage of the new publication, with Kiley providing no convincing reassurance that they have any new ideas or solutions:
It doesn’t take very many words to explain that something is either seriously problematic or largely fine. Furthermore, the fact that the referees’ name and referee report are public means the referees are more careful and conscientious to back up their comments because they know that they will be publicly judged.
My eyes widened at the idea of a paper being “largely fine.” Is this a new standard for scientific publishing, one in which a general approach of cursory review is acceptable? I’ve been a peer reviewer for years, and if you don’t chew on nearly every sentence, you’re not doing your job.
Maybe he means to say that it doesn’t take many words to write an anodyne review for a friend.
Post-publication peer review as a substitute for pre-publication peer review is really quite a game — publish first, and thereby put reviewers in an awkward spot of having to decide to undo a publication decision that’s been made without peer review. This creates a much higher barrier for rejection. And it’s still not clear that indexing services know how to deal with papers and materials unpublished in the F1000 Research model.
Wellcome Open Research brings back to the fore the inherent conflict of interest (COI) with funder-sponsored journals, which I wrote about in 2012. This is not a minor point, and deserves some reiteration.
A good place to start is the International Committee of Medical Journal Editors (ICMJE) definition of COI:
Conflict of interest exists when an author (or the author’s institution), reviewer, or editor has financial or personal relationships that inappropriately influence (bias) his or her actions. . . . Financial relationships (such as employment, consultancies, stock ownership, honoraria, and paid expert testimony) are the most easily identifiable conflicts of interest and the most likely to undermine the credibility of the journal, the authors, and of science itself.
Wellcome is funding the research and the publishing outlet, creating a clear conflict that compromises their or their designees’ ability to believably execute unbiased publication decisions and evaluate works to a standard. Wellcome has avoided a perceived conflict becoming an actual conflict with eLife so far because eLife is open to submissions from anywhere, and because eLife has a robust and independent peer review system. Having authors invite their friends to give a paper a quick once-over and thumbs-up isn’t the same thing.
So the conflicts are more than just perceptual with Wellcome Open Research. F1000 only gets paid when Wellcome authors publish with them — not when they submit, not when they are rejected, but when they publish, adding to the straight line of conflicts. To put a finer point on this, imagine if this were Pfizer Open Research teaming up with another commercial publisher. Would you believe that Pfizer Open Research — dedicated to Pfizer researchers — and the commercial publisher were making publication decisions in the same manner as a third-party journal run by an independent company?
The motivations for Wellcome — to demonstrate value for funding, to have research outputs, and to show research throughput — may not be entirely commercial, but they are prone to the same conflicts of interest.
This inherent COI from a funder also puts authors in a tough spot:
- I received funding from Wellcome.
- I did a study, and it turned out well.
- On the one hand, it makes a lot of sense to get the paper published in a very high-impact and prominent journal in the field I work in. On the other hand, Wellcome has established a journal of its own which is a mixed bag and has no direct relevance to me or my colleagues. Should I submit it to their journal? Will they punish me if I don’t? Or should I submit it to the top journal? Which path is better for my career?
This is not an easy dilemma for a researcher or research team to solve. I’d argue it’s not a position they should be in.
There is also the weak peer review associated with author-invited reviewers, which can only be exacerbated by the post-publication status of the works contemplated here.
Tying themselves to the F1000 wagon is also a puzzling choice for Wellcome. Wellcome has promised to pay all the publication fees F1000 will charge, an exclusive arrangement. F1000 is a commercial organization. Clearly the commercial prospects of F1000 are bolstered by this announcement. Vitek Tracz, the owner of F1000, is a serial entrepreneur, and F1000 is reaching a stage when he must be looking for the exit (rumors have rumbled for a year or more that this is the case). What happens to Wellcome Open Research when (not if) this happens? What if it goes to one of the major commercial publishers, as other properties have in the past? Is this deal the last piece of the exit strategy Tracz was executing, putting a major named journal into the F1000 portfolio before he shops the company?
Fortunately, all these machinations to start a “publishing venture” and foist an overly-friendly peer review process on it seem to have been met by healthy skepticism. Many of the points above were articulated in a flurry of exchanges on social media and email.
Others noted that Wellcome continues to divert research funding to support redundant and unnecessary publication efforts, which is clearly the case given the fact that a commercial entity is benefiting directly from what appears to be an exclusive arrangement. This is a troubling use of philanthropic dollars — bolstering the fortunes of a for-profit company.
While there was the predictable cheerleading of this announcement by the usual suspects, it’s reassuring that the serious side of our industry seems to have generally caught on to these games of quasi-journals, unreliable peer review, wasteful spending, and the obvious COI problems with funder-backed journals. I’m hoping that authors also can sniff out the problems and limitations, and that serious efforts to enhance the intellectual rigor of peer review and the quality of published research gain more support in the future from funders who really want to see scientific and scholarly information improve at a more fundamental level.