I keep trying to figure out whether the CMAJ’s recent unofficial series of articles on various types of “open” is irony-aware or just pushing forward without realising what they’re doing.
Brief background: the Canadian Medical Association Journal is THE major Canadian medical journal. They’ve been around for 100 years, and become rather prominent in the English-language medical publishing world, ranking quite well in various impact rankings. CMAJ was an early adopter of a free-to-read-online access model.
Then, in 2006 there was a kerfuffle over editorial independence, leading to mass firing/resignation of journal editors (who went on to found Open Medicine, which styles itself as more open and more ethical/transparent than CMAJ). In January 2010, CMAJ became “no longer free for all” by restricting immediate free access to a portion of the journal’s contents.
The past week or so has seen a variety of CMAJ articles on open stuff: research, news items and commentary. I’ve been looking at some of these rather incredulously, unsure of whether the inherent irony and conflicts of interest here are editorially recognized or not.
What really caught my attention was the way that an article titled “The association between a journal’s source of revenue and the drug recommendations made in the articles it publishes” was summarized in a commentary titled “Covert pharmaceutical promotion in free medical journals” (PDF, not freely available) and in the weekly CMAJ roundup as “Free journals may be biased.” This was then picked up my major news sources such as the Globe & Mail “Free journals often promote costly or problematic drugs, study finds” and Reuters “Widely read free medical journals hype drugs: study.”
Yes, you read that right. An article about how a journals’ acceptance of drug ads correlated with biased drug information in said journals was spun as “free journals are junk” a year after CMAJ – which incidentally accepts a whole bunch of pharmaceutical advertising – stopped being entirely free online.
In case you needed a little more conflict of interest with that irony, here’s a screenshot of the banner drug ad on the very page from which I downloaded the article:
With their recent access model shift, the CMAJ of all journals should understand that access models are not the same as business models, and that free access to medical journal content may be supported by several different revenue streams, including association membership fees, advertising revenue, grants, reprint/offprint charges, and publication fees to authors.
Hmm, a drug ad on an article talking about drug funding for medical journals.…While I wouldn’t go so far as to imply that CMAJ is an industry-mouthpiece “fake journal” like some, this recent spin of “drug industry funded/biased” into “free to read” does make me wonder what’s up. Do they not realise that they’re incriminating themselves here?
CMAJ has followed this conflation of free access with pharmaceutical sponsorship with a bunch of coverage of open data – a current semi-hot topic (rapidly being eclipsed by non-confidence votes in parliament) thanks to Steven Harper’s March 18 “Open Government” strategy announcement.
First a news item alleged that “The systemic secrecy in which Health Canada shrouds data is “outdated” and “embarrassing” in comparison with the openness of other countries” , quoting co-author of the medical journal funding study Joel Lexchin as well as open government activist David Eaves. The next day, a news item lauded US President Obama’s Open Government Initiative. Just a few days later, CMAJ published an editorial titled “Will Open Government make Canada’s health agencies more transparent?”, which rightly criticizes the “black box” of Health Canada decision making, including the drug approval process.
While I’m glad the CMAJ is championing some forms of openness including more open government information, CMAJ’s own editorial decisions/independence (latter link to PDF), funding streams and potential pro-drug-industry bias are real elephants in the room here. Are the editors aware of this?
What do you think? Boldly sidestepping the issue of one’s own conflict of interest, or not being forthright enough to acknowledge it?