Head To Head

Should journals sell reprints? Yes

BMJ 2011; 343 doi: http://dx.doi.org/10.1136/bmj.d6428 (Published 14 October 2011) Cite this as: BMJ 2011;343:d6428
  1. Jane Smith, deputy editor
  1. 1BMJ, London WC1H 9JR, UK
  1. jsmith{at}bmj.com

Jane Smith argues that stopping journals selling reprints will not benefit research or readers, but Tom Jefferson (doi:10.1136/bmj.d6448) sees the competing interests as a serious problem

Let’s leave aside for the moment the wicked thought that some journals might accept articles solely because they will bring in reprint revenue and assume that journals have mission statements, explicit or not, that are to do with meeting the needs of their readers and which drive their selection of articles.

My starting point then is that firms in general make products that they hope their customers value—and if they do value them they will pay for them. So if the product and the buyer are not illegal (or morally reprehensible) why wouldn’t a journal want to sell copies of its articles to anyone who wants to buy them? Moreover, if a journal is proud of what it publishes then the argument applies even more strongly.

Vital income

Medical journal revenues are surprisingly precarious. Their readers don’t usually buy them directly; journals are paid for by institutions or funded though advertising and sponsorship, and some readers get their journals as a benefit of membership of a society (and in many cases the society does not hand over funds to the journal but expects the journal to help fund its other activities). Institutional budgets are always being squeezed, and the future of institutional subscriptions is being challenged by the open access model (where instead of users paying to access published research through subscriptions, authors or funders pay for it to be published, and users access it for free).1 Advertising revenue (which not all journals get) is a dwindling source for all types of print publication, and online advertising has not grown to take its place.

In such a climate journals seek revenues where they can find them—and selling bulk reprints is a welcome source of revenue for many journals. The problem is, of course, who buys reprints and what they do with them.

Effect on quality?

It is usually drug (or device) companies that buy large numbers of reprints of individual articles (generally research studies), which they then distribute to their customers and potential customers. Whether labelled as “education” or “marketing” such activities are, of course, promotional in the widest sense of the term, but it’s the respectable end of promotion: a 5000 word research article to a professional recipient is hardly in the same category as a free trip to the Alps. And because reprints are used for promotional purposes, so follows the wicked thought that journals may be selecting individual articles—not on the strength of the science but because they are most likely to be saleable to a drug company.

But journals that do that soon get found out. These articles are given away to clinicians, who know something about research design and clinically important outcomes and are sceptical about the results of single trials. There are bad studies out there—“marketing masquerading as research”2—but there’s a growing literature exposing it and its techniques.3 4 5

And, in practice, journals use several criteria to select their articles. All have an incentive to select the best possible research because it drives readership, impact factor, and subscriptions, and all need to have one eye on saleability (whether to institutional subscribers, advertisers, philanthropists, or reprint buyers)—or they won’t last long. Why should reprint sales be singled out as especially bad?

But let’s assume that journals stopped (or were stopped from) selling reprints of their articles. Would that actually prevent companies from providing copies of research articles to clinicians? Hardly. The zeitgeist in scientific publishing supports open access, wider distribution, and data sharing, so it would be exceptionally totalitarian to stop drug companies from handing out research articles.

Indeed, the logic of the pure open access would enable companies, like anyone else, to distribute any research to anyone. In the open access model the research is published under a creative commons licence giving anyone the right to reproduce and distribute the article. The purest form of creative commons licence has no restrictions, though some publishers (including the BMJ Publishing Group) adopt the version that restricts such free reuse to non-commercial uses. But if pure open access became the norm then companies (like anyone else) would become free to reproduce and distribute whatever they liked. Journals may no longer have an incentive to choose a weaker study because of its sales potential, but on the other hand the authors and funders of such studies may be very eager to pay their author fees. Journals collectively would lose because there would be less revenue circulating round the system; companies would gain; and clinicians would probably get given even more reprints. Removing a source of revenue for journals gives no guarantee that bad studies would disappear.

Notes

Cite this as: BMJ 2011;343:d6428

Footnotes

  • Competing interests: The author has completed the ICJME unified disclosure form at www.icmje.org/coi_disclosure.pdf (available on request from her) and declares no support from any organisation for the submitted work; JS is employed by the BMJ Publishing Group, which sells reprints from its journals. These represent about 7% of the BMJ’s income and about 5% of group income. As an open access journal the BMJ limits its creative commons licence to non-commercial use. The BMJ passes 10% of reprint income above a certain amount to the authors.

  • Provenance and peer review: Commissioned; not externally peer reviewed.

References