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Tuesday, September 18, 2007

Review of Richard Smith on medical journals

John Hoey, An editorial dissection, Open Medicine, September 18, 2007.  A book review of Richard Smith's The Trouble with Medical Journals, Royal Society of Medicine Press, 2006.  Excerpt:

...The penultimate section, which contains Smith’s analysis of the ethics of medical journal publishing, addresses the vested financial interests of both commercial corporations such as the giant Reed Elsevier (publisher of The Lancet, among many others) and of medical societies and associations who publish journals. According to Smith, both species of publisher achieve (through pharmaceutical and classified advertising and reprint sales) levels of profit that cannot be justified by their costs or by the “value added” to the research they publish. Smith cites the impressive profits of Reed Elsevier and the important share of this contributed by scientific content, and takes a guess at the revenues of the New England Journal of Medicine (owned by the Massachusetts Medical Society). The fact is that very few people know exactly what kind of money is made from the publication of research that is handed over by its authors, along with copyright, for no payment.

The BMJ must have made money for the British Medical Association during Smith’s tenure, but how much this might have been is not revealed....

Smith’s analysis challenges the ethics of a publishing model whereby association publishers support their own interests by raising money from pharmaceutical advertisers while the contributing authors (most of whom are not association members) are either unpaid or receive only token rewards for their intellectual contributions.

This is what is wrong with the current system of publication by most professional societies. The desire to make money to further the ends of the society—in essence, a lobby group for its professional members—on the backs of authors and other contributors who receive no financial return for their contributions, and by charging university and public libraries, academics and the public (who through tax dollars pay for the research being published) prohibitive subscription rates and download charges is both abhorrent and unethical....

Smith writes, “My answer is that if the society and the research have value then other ways will be found to fund them. If they don’t, then they shouldn’t be funded anyway....”

There is little in Smith’s analysis that is encouraging for the conventional model of medical journal publishing....

The editorial costs of handling a growing amount of relevant medical- and health-related information may soon overwhelm even the deep pockets of large professional societies and commercial publishers. Increasingly, communities of individuals are taking this on (for example, the growing medical pages on Wikipedia and even this journal, Open Medicine), driven not by commercial goals, but by the desire to exchange ideas and the fun of working together.

Smith is cheering us on.