v32#1 Headwaters — Holding Funders Accountable

by | Apr 1, 2020 | 0 comments

Column Editor:  Kent Anderson  (Founder, Caldera Publishing Solutions, 290 Turnpike Road, #366, Westborough, MA   01581-2843; Phone: 774-288-9464)

In January, I attended the Academic Publishing in Europe (APE) meeting in Berlin.  One notable thing about this meeting is that the organizer and founder is able to get funders from European Union policy bodies and philanthropic grant-making organizations to speak with librarians and publishers directly.  This has provided fireworks every time, and has illustrated how infrequently these important discussions occur. Consequently, there is little understanding between the two parties.

For proponents of Plan S, there seems to be a willful ignorance at work.  Robert Jan-Smits was called out at last year’s APE meeting for not consulting with publishers beyond “the Bigs” (i.e., Elsevier, Springer-Nature, Wiley, and some major non-profit publishers).  As a result, Plan S has had a consistent blindspot — which occasionally lurches into public disdain — around society publishers, even to the point of stating that perhaps it would be fine for some of them to go broke as a result of Plan S.

Roles and responsibilities around open access (OA) have become rather confused.  Years ago, funders strayed from their lane and began dabbling in publishing — from funding PLOS’ founding (fine) to launching their own journals and publishing platforms (conflict of interest, so not fine).  Objective peer-review and editorial review are vital to ensuring a level of integrity around scientific information, and to extend funder interests into the evaluation of results isn’t proper. 

At the APE meeting this year, it’s seemed from comments and descriptions of publishers that they want to transform publishers from trusted, independent intermediaries and into service providers.  This suggests they have something on their mind other than having their research outputs judged in a disinterested manner. My worst fear is they want a thumb on the scale. They definitely cast a large shadow over the researchers they fund.

But can the desire to please funders lead to the distribution of misleading information? 

The most salient example I’ve come across involves a $25 million NIH-funded study of cell phone radiation and brain cancer.  The study claimed to have identified a linkage, but no peer-reviewed journal agreed, and the research went unpublished.  However, the PI was so desperate to record a result that he posted a preprint on bioRxiv. The resulting media coverage created an unwarranted (albeit brief) public panic, and a rare rebuke from the American Cancer Society.  This is a particularly egregious example of what can happen when peer-review is skirted as authors curry favor with funders.  

There’s also something hypocritical in funders claiming that publishers need to change.  Judging from what I saw at the APE meeting in Berlin, the funders and policymakers need to improve things on their end, as they seem to be shirking their primary responsibilities — the funding of research and researchers.  This hypocrisy becomes all the more galling when you see them diverting money and expending resources on expeditions into publishing.

At the meeting, a funder walked the audience through how the new private German company created to manage Projekt DEAL — a large, “transformative” contract with Wiley — will manage the money, institutions, and authors affected by the deal.  At APE, funders blithely spoke of supporting APCs to the full extent, not appreciating what that might mean as APC subsidies will recede if the subscription model comes under serious threat.  They seem to think that their role is infinite, their money endless, and the problems of underfunded young scientists, research units, and labs negligible. I’d disagree. I think those last few things should be their primary and perhaps only focus, given how problems with funding of science are killing careers and stifling discovery.

Putting a spotlight on this, but seemingly unaware of it, Marc Schiltz, Secretary General of the National Research Fund of Luxembourg (FNR) and President of Science Europe, discussed a survey of scientists where they were asked to rank the threats to science.  Limited access to articles ranked #7, and Schiltz made much of this.  However, inadequate research funding ranked #1, and as I recall from seeing the actual stats and not just a list, this was ranked as the #1 problem by a mile. 

Inadequate funding is and has been the fundamental issue for science, scholars, libraries, and publishers for years.  More and more students are being told that their future lies in STEM fields, even as jobs have become more difficult to find, teaching positions more limited, and research funding increasingly scarce. 

As Fred Dylla said at the 2015 APE Meeting, “The #1 issue in public access is the public funding of science.”  After all, science that isn’t done is the least accessible of all. 

Yet, in Berlin, here were funders talking openly about diverting large sums from their their primary mission budgets — money that should be used to support science and scientists and scholars — and putting large sums to set up private companies to monitor spending on transformative agreements, support APCs, and fund start-up publishers badged with their own names. 

Who is holding funders accountable?  Who is ensuring they are spending money on their primary mission?  Who is interrupting their influence so the information space isn’t littered with bad information? As publishers and librarians — roles that have historically been vital to speaking truth to power — we can ask these questions, and join the scholars and researchers we serve in requiring satisfactory answers.  Which labs went underfunded to pay for the staff and overheads involved in administering Projekt DEAL? What other research grants are being curtailed to support other ventures into publishing? What information is being distributed that pleases funders but falls short of editorial and peer-review standards?

How funders spend their money and exert their influence matters.  The science and scholarship that isn’t funded will never be discovered or distributed.  And researchers who feel they have to distribute inadequate reports just to please funders are helping to confuse the public and erode the reputation of science in society.

We can all do better, funders included.  

Kent Anderson is the CEO and founder of Caldera Publishing Solutions, editor of “The Geyser,” a past-President of the Society of Scholarly Publishing, and founder of “The Scholarly Kitchen.”  He has worked as an executive of a technology startup, and as a publishing executive at numerous non-profits, including the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), the Massachusetts Medical Society, and the American Academy of Pediatrics.

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