Embargo Watch

Keeping an eye on how scientific information embargoes affect news coverage

Faculty of 1000 strikes a blow against the Ingelfinger Rule

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I’ve been growing more and more concerned about the effects of the Ingelfinger Rule, the policy by which journals refuse to publish anything that’s appeared in the mainstream press or in other journals. (Of course, some journals don’t seem to notice when they’re publishing authors who self-plagiarize, which would seem to be an Ingelfinger violation, but that’s a subject for our sister blog, Retraction Watch.)

Journals vary in how strictly they apply the rule, but it’s become clear to me that Ingelfinger, much more than embargoes themselves, is what gives journals the stranglehold they have over control of scientific information. Even if reporters didn’t agree to any embargoes, they’d find that a lot of researchers wouldn’t talk to them about their work, because it would jeopardize the coin of the realm: Publishing in journals. That stranglehold maintains journals’ place atop the hierarchy — and their profits.

So I was very interested — to put it mildly — to hear that one scientific publisher was striking back.

Faculty of 1000, for those Embargo Watch readers who are unfamiliar, facilitates post-publication peer review and describes its mission as follows:

The core service of Faculty of 1000 (F1000) identifies and evaluates the most important articles in biology and medical research publications. The selection process comprises a peer-nominated global ‘Faculty’ of the world’s leading scientists and clinicians who rate the best of the articles they read and explain their importance.

The site’s faculty have written more than 100,000 evaluations to date. (Disclosure: F1000 is owned by Vitek Tracz, who also owns my former employer, The Scientist. I worked at The Scientist from 2002 to 2008, and its current editor, Sarah Greene, gave me my first full-time job in journalism, as editor in chief of Praxis Post.)

Recently, F1000 has begun allowing scientists to deposit — and therefore publish — their conference posters on the site. That is a great opportunity for other scientists to find out what’s being presented at various conferences, and, given that this is F1000, see what others think of the work.

But remember Ingelfinger. What if journals decided depositing a poster at F1000 counted as pre-publication, and refused to publish papers based on the data? That would certainly scare off a lot of scientists.

So F1000 went to publishers and asked. The responses varied. A lot of journals — including Nature and the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS) — had no problem with publishing posters on F1000. Neuroscience and computational biology journals were particularly supportive, Rebecca Lawrence, F1000’s director of new product development, told Embargo Watch.

Others — including the BMJ journals — were fine with it “as long as the journal article contains enough information beyond the poster,” which is fairly likely given that posters are preliminary, and aren’t peer-reviewed. Some , such as The Lancet family of journals and all of the Cell journals, had some variation on “it’s up the editor.”

Then there were the Ingelfinger purists. Go ahead, those journals said, run your poster on F1000. Just don’t try to submit to us. That would be prepublication. That group includes some biggies: the American Chemical Society’s journals, Blood, and Circulation journals, published by the American Heart Association (AHA) — although Stroke, another AHA journal, is in the “no problem” category — and Science.

It’s unclear where the New England Journal of Medicine — where the Ingelfinger Rule was born during editor Franz Ingelfinger’s tenure — fits, says Lawrence:

I am currently trying to turn around some of the journals on our prior publication list, most notably NEJM who have remained consistently vague.  Their response to me reads like ‘it’s OK so long as there is enough extra in the paper over the poster’ but I can’t get them to confirm that this is what they mean.  And Science’s response that: ‘a project to publish abstracts, and even more so posters, by a commercial scientific publisher would cause a problem for Science and similar journals and possibly jeopardize subsequent publication’ seems inappropriate given that the type of organisation doing this should be immaterial, and they of course publish plenty of physics papers, many of which have previously been submitted to the well established preprint repository, ArXiv.

Remember when I wrote above that Ingelfinger lets publishers ensure their profits? Re-read what Lawrence italicized in her email if you’re wondering what I meant.

But it turns out at least two journals aren’t living up to their threats.

Blood, published by the American Society of Hematology (ASH), had a particularly vehement response to F1000’s questions, Lawrence tells me. So you’d think they would be on the lookout for papers that started out as posters deposited at F1000.

If so, that lookout needs a better set of binoculars.

Take a look at this poster from the 2009 ASH meeting. Then look at this paper in Blood, published online in October of last year.

Do the same for this poster from the 2010 Society for Molecular Biology and Evolution meeting, and this paper published online in Blood last September.

Yup, the papers are based on data published in the poster.

Of note: Blood publishes the poster abstracts for ASH’s meetings every year, including the one from the 2009 conference that turned into a paper for the journal. This is not unusual for journals published by societies. And many societies themselves make abstracts available online, as Embargo Watch readers will know, because some have insisted on embargoing them even if they’re freely available. Thankfully, several have changed those policies. But embargoed or not, no one seems to consider that prior publication.

To be fair, such posters change a great deal between when they’re submitted and when they’re presented, so the versions in Blood are old anyway. Perhaps that’s why it’s OK with Blood if they publish them, but not if F1000 does. But that’s not exactly in the spirit of Ingelfinger either, is it?

And here’s something else that doesn’t seem consistent with Ingelfinger: Many journals, including NEJM, argue that putting oral presentations online is fine, and won’t count as prepublication — despite the fact that such presentations often contain lots of slides, far more than could be fit onto a poster. NEJM’s policy:

Posting an audio recording of an oral presentation at a medicalmeeting on the Internet, with selected slides from the presentation,will not be considered prior publication. This will allow studentsand physicians who are unable to attend the meeting to hearthe presentation and view the slides.

Now the other journal that isn’t living up to its threats: The American Chemical Society is also on the “no way” list, but take a look at this poster from the 2010 Intelligent Systems for Molecular Biology meeting, and this paper, published in October in the American Chemical Society’s Journal of Proteome Research.

Three papers published after allegedly being pre-published, and the sky hasn’t fallen. Remarkable!

There may be more, Lawrence tells me. F1000 has only checked for papers published based on posters deposited through July of last year. The site doesn’t hide what it’s doing, and in fact figures the journals can benefit:

We are shortly going to include an alerting system so someone can indicate they are interested in the poster and would like alerting when it is published. Rather than take anything away from journals, this will therefore actually push users to the published work in the journal and generate interest, as most people will want to see the peer-reviewed version of the preliminary work in the poster.

Lawrence is still trying to turn around the reluctant journals. My suggestion for doing that, now that appealing to the good of science hasn’t apparently worked? Remind them that the sky didn’t fall now that two journals have published. Oh, and some journal called Nature doesn’t seem troubled by the practice.

I contacted Blood and the Journal of Proteome Research for comment, and will update with anything I hear back.

Kudos, F1000.

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Written by Ivan Oransky

April 1, 2011 at 9:30 am

Posted in Uncategorized

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