The New York Times’ serial open access slimer Gina Kolata has a clear conflict of interest

Yesterday the Gina Kolata published a story in the New York Times about the fact that many clinical studies are not published. This is a serious problem and it’s a good thing that it is being brought to light.

But her article contains a weird section in which a researcher at the University of Florida explains why she hadn’t published the results of one of her studies:

Rhonda Cooper-DeHoff, for example, an assistant professor of pharmacotherapy and translational research at the University of Florida, tried to publish the results of her study, which she completed in 2009. She wrote a paper and sent it to three journals, all of which summarily rejected it, she said.

The study, involving just two dozen people, asked if various high blood pressure drugs worsened sugar metabolism in people at high risk of diabetes.

“It was a small study and our hypothesis was not proven,” Dr. Cooper-DeHoff said. “That’s like three strikes against me for publication.” Her only option, she reasoned, would be to turn to an open-access journal that charges authors to publish. “They are superexpensive and accept everything,” she said. Last year she decided to post her results on clinicaltrials.gov.

Why is that sentence in there? First, it’s completely false. There are superexpensive open access journals, and there are open access journals that accept everything. But I don’t know of any open access journal that does both, and neither statement applies to the journals  (from PLOSBMC, Frontiers, eLife and others) that publish most open access papers.

Is the point of that sentence supposed to be that there are journals that will publish anything, including a massively underpowered clinical study, but they’re too expensive to publish in? That would fit the narrative Kolata is trying to develop – that people don’t publish negative results because it’s too hard to – but this too is completely false. Compared to the cost of doing a clinical trial, even a small one, the article processing fees for most open access journals are modest, and most offer waivers to those who can not pay.

It may seem like a minor thing, but these kind of things matter. There are a lot of misconceptions about open access publishing among scientists and the public, and when the paper of record repeats these misconceptions it compounds the problem.

So why does something like this get into the paper? I assume the quoted researcher said that, or something like it. But newspapers aren’t just supposed to let people they quote say things that are patently false without pointing that out.

 

Kolata has been covering science for covering science for all of the 15 years that open access publishing has been around, and used to work for Science magazine. So it’s just simply not credible to believe that she thinks this assertion about open access is true. Instead, it sure looks like she quoted a source making a false and misleading statement about open access to stand without countering it because it fit her narrative of people not being able to publish their findings.

 

So, after reading this article I made a few Tweets about this, and would have let it go at that. But then I remembered something. A few years ago, Kolata published a story about  “predatory open access publishers”, in which Kolata characterized such publishers as the “dark side of open access”.

I wrote about this story at the time, and won’t repeat myself here, but suffice it to say that her article went out of its way to condemn all open access publishing because of some bad actors working at its fringes, while ignoring the far more significant sins of subscription publishing.

Sensing a bit of a pattern, I searched to see if she’d ever written other things about open access, and came upon a 2010 article on Amy Bishop, the Alabama who scientist who shot and killed three of her colleagues at the University of Alabama Huntsville, contains this bizarre paragraph on open access:

One 2009 paper, was published in The International Journal of General Medicine. Its publisher, Dovepress, says it specializes in “open access peer-reviewed journals.” On its Web site, the company says, “Dove will publish your paper if it is deemed of interest to someone, therefore your chance of having your paper accepted is very high (it would be a very unusual paper that wasn’t of interest to someone).”

What is the point of bringing open access into a story about whether a murderer did good science? Did Kolata go through her published papers and evaluate each of the journals in which it was published and offer up some kind of synthesis? No. She cherry picked a single article published in an open access journal and, instead of criticizing the science, she made it about the journal and its method of publication. This paragraph seems to be there just to knock open access publishing and to associate publishing in open access journals with being a murderer!

If it was just once, or maybe even twice, I’d just chalk it up to bad reporting or writing. But three separate gratuitous attacks on open access seems like more than a coincidence for someone who has had such a long and distinguished career around science.

It wouldn’t be the first time that members of the science establishment (and the science section of the New York Times is amongst the biggest bulwarks of the science establishment) have taken pot shots at open access and open access journals. But I was curious why Kolata seems to make such a habit of it, and so I went back to her Wikipedia page to find out when she had worked at Science, to see if maybe she had been poisoned by their long history of anti open-access rhetoric. Turns out is was 1973-1987, before open access came along.

But I noticed the following line in her biography:

Her husband, William G. Kolata, has taught mathematics and served as the technical director of the non-profit Society for Industrial and Applied Mathematics in Philadelphia, a nonprofit professional society for mathematicians.

SIAM, it so happens, is a fairly big publisher, with, according to their IRS Form 990, annual subscription revenues of around $6,000,000 (and another $1,000,000 in membership dues, which, for many societies, are often just another way to subscribe to a journal). Now as publishers go, SIAM hasn’t been particularly anti open-access, and their journals engage in so-called “hybrid” open access in which they’ll let you pay an extra fee to make articles freely available (enabling the publisher to double dip by collecting both open access fees and subscriptions, since only a small number of authors choose the open access option).

But given that the ~$125,000 per year that Kolata’s husband makes from SIAM is threatened by changes to scholarly publishing, including open access, it would seem that Kolata has at least a mild conflict of interest here in trying to prop up the subscription publishing industry and in denigrating new models and new players in the industry.

At the very least the fact that, in addition to her own lengthy career in science publishing and science journalism, Kolata’s husband has been involved in running a scientific society that is primarily involved in publishing, makes it seem highly unlikely that her digs at open access are born of ignorance. And whether her motivation is to prop up the dying industry in which her husband just happens to be employed, or if she’s just on some kind of weird petty vendetta, we should watch carefully when Kolata writes about open access in the future and not let her get away this kind of sliming any more.

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One Comment

  1. Walter Kyle
    Posted November 3, 2015 at 3:50 am | Permalink

    Thanks for the expose on Gina Kolata. She `interviewed` me in 1992 after I published a piece in The Lancet which identified specific monopools of polio vaccines contaminated with simian retroviruses and a unique use by gay men in US for suppression of HSV-2. I find your critique of her conflicts insightful and profound.

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