• The Open Access Interviews: WebmedCentral's Kamal Mahawar

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

The Open Access Interviews: WebmedCentral’s Kamal Mahawar

In any discussion about scholarly communication today two thorny issues quickly emerge: the so-called access problem, and the problem of declining peer review standards. Kamal Mahawar, co-founder and CEO of a new web platform for publishing biomedical research called WebmedCentral, believes he has a solution to both problems. WebmedCentral, however, is not without its critics.

The access problem afflicting the research community is essentially an issue of affordability. Researchers submit a paper to a publisher, who then invites other researchers to assess it for quality and value. Assuming it is deemed to be adequate the paper is then published in a journal. To fund this process publishers sell subscriptions to their journals. Research institutions buy these subscriptions to ensure that their researchers have access to all relevant research being done around the world.

As library budgets have declined, however, research institutions have struggled to find the necessary money to pay for all the subscriptions their faculty require, depriving researchers of access to more and more research — a phenomenon known as the serials crisis.

Advocates of open-access publishing (as distinct from self-archiving) believe that the answer to this access/affordability problem is for researchers to abandon publishing in subscription journals and publish in OA journals instead. Rather than imposing charges for access (subscriptions), OA journals levy a publication fee, or “article-processing charge” on authors, or more usually their institutions. This enables publishers to make the papers they publish freely available on the Web, and so provide unfettered access to them.

The problem with OA publishing, however, is that the publication fees are far from cheap — around $1,350 to $3,000 per paper. Consequently, not all researchers have access to the necessary funds. While some OA publishers offer waivers for those without the wherewithal, this is generally done on a case-by-case basis, and the practice could very well be discontinued at some point in the future. If it was, indigent authors could find themselves unable to get their research published, particularly authors based in the developing world.

Raghavendra Gadagkar, a researcher at the Centre for Ecological Sciences at the Indian Institute of Science in Bangalore, made this point eloquently in a letter to Nature in 2008. He concluded that author-pays OA, “does more harm than good in the developing world”.

Decline in quality

Meanwhile, there is a growing conviction that the quality of peer review is declining. This concern was addressed recently by the House of Commons Science & Technology Committee. In its report, the Select Committee stated: “the integrity of the peer-review process can only ever be as robust as the integrity of the people involved”; and it concluded that “oversight of research integrity in the UK is unsatisfactory.”

Kamal Mahawar — whose day job is Consultant General and Bariatric Surgeon at City Hospitals Sunderland NHS Trust in the North East of England — believes the answer to the present crisis in scholarly communication lies in making research papers open access, but without imposing a publication fee on authors. More radically, he believes that any attempt to undertake pre-publication review should be abandoned.

Mahawar’s reasoning is that since the bulk of the costs associated with publishing research papers arises from the process of managing peer review, and the quality of the reviewing is in any case open to question, pre-publication review has become an unnecessary tax on the research community.

All that is needed, he adds, is to provide a low-cost publishing platform, let researchers post their papers on it, and then have independent researchers from other institutions review the papers — a process known as post-publication peer review.

As Mahawar put it in a written submission to the Science & Technology Committee inquiry, “There is widespread belief that pre-publication peer review, ineffective and harmful as it may be, is a necessary evil. I believe time has now come for scientific community to discard pre-publication peer review and concentrate on reinforcing post publication peer review.”

Of course there is no shortage of people happy to share with you their views on peer review. What is different about Mahawar is that he has put his money where his mouth: a year ago, with a group of colleagues, he launched WebmedCentral as an open-access post-publication peer review platform for biomedical science.

WebmedCentral promises to publish all papers submitted to it within 48 hours without reviewing them, and then help authors solicit reviews for the papers post factum.

Suspicion and criticism

To Mahawar’s disappointment, however, the research community has reacted to WebmedCentral with a degree of suspicion and criticism. It did not help that there were initially no details available on the site indicating who owns and manages the service.

Amongst other things, this led to speculation that WebmedCentral was some kind of marketing channel to enable the pharmaceutical industry promote its products. There were also complaints that its publication model would “flood the market” with unreviewed papers and “threaten the current models (including PLoS ONE)”.

In January, PLoS ONE associate editor Matt Hodgkinson posted a detailed and critical review of WebmedCentral on his blog Journalology. Many of the articles on the site, he concluded, “are unpublishable in any biomedical journal”; and he suggested that, given its copyright policy, it would be misleading to call WebmedCentral “open access”.

In a separate post, Hodgkinson criticised WebmedCentral for not publishing its ownership details. Having discovered these for himself in the Companies House database, Hodgkinson posted them on his blog, and ended by saying: “Drs Mahawar, Malviya, Kejariwal, Mr Jain, you should be proud of launching a site that aims to reform biomedical publishing. Why hide away?”

It was not a promising start for a new venture. But Mahawar and his colleagues believe that their cause is a worthy one so they have persisted. And to their credit they have responded to the criticism and made a number of changes, including publishing ownership details on the site and updating their copyright policy. They are also currently looking at how they can introduce an additional quality control layer on the site so that readers can, as Mahawar puts it, more easily judge "which sections have been found by reviewers and faculty to be of a better quality”.

Mahawar has also responded to Hodgkinson’s review. In his response he denies that it is misleading to call WebmedCentral open access, and he suggests that Hodgkinson’s review may have been too judgemental.

He is also unrepentant about publishing what Hodgkinson called “fringe science”. As he put it to me, “That some of these articles would be considered unpublishable in the current system is the whole point of WebmedCentral”.

He added, “It is inevitable that early on we will attract submissions which have not found a place elsewhere but gradually we hope to move the emphasis away from the act of publication to science, and then the quality of submissions should improve.”

Another obstacle the service faces is that researchers have shown themselves generally reluctant to commit time to post-publication reviewing, a point that post-publication review advocate and former BMJ editor Richard Smith has had to concede.

Put this point to Mahawar, however, and he responds: “We feel that other journals have been distracted by pre-publication peer review and were thus not able to give post-publication peer review much attention. Since this is our sole review model, we take it very seriously and are likely to be more successful as a consequence.”

But the greatest obstacle WebmedCentral faces is that it still lacks a business model. As one researcher commented on FriendFeed, “I don't see a viable business model and no evidence of an active reviewing community. Lot of things like this have been tried and none succeeded yet. People are not willing to submit good work to such unrecognised systems. Would love to see something like this succeed but I don't think this will be it.”

Comments like this also do not faze Mahawar. “We believe that if we provide a service which the community values, money will not be too difficult to find,” he told me. “We are exploring all options including philanthropic donation, advertisements, and angel investment for continued funding of this venture.”

The good news is that post-publication peer review is gaining favour — helped no doubt by the perceived success of Faculty 1000 (although it should be noted that F1000 only reviews papers that have already been traditionally reviewed and published in a regular journal).

On the topic of post-publication review the Science & Technology Committee Report remarks, “While pre-publication peer review continues to play an important role, the growth of post-publication peer review and commentary represents an enormous opportunity for experimentation … We encourage the prudent use of online tools for post-publication review and commentary as a means of supplementing pre-publication review.”

In other words, for the moment post-publication review is seen as an adjunct to pre-publication review. Whether it will eventually replace traditional pre-publication peer review, and if so how it will be facilitated and funded, remains for the moment unclear. In the meantime, however, experiments like WebmedCentral are surely to be welcomed.

Below Mahawar answers some specific questions about WebmedCentral.

Kamal Mahawar 

Q: Can you clarify when WebmedCentral was launched, what your position is at WebmedCentral, and who else is involved? 

A: The portal www.webmedcentral.com (commonly known as WebmedCentral) was officially launched in August 2010. It is owned by a company called Webmed Limited, which is registered in England.

I am a shareholder, director and CEO of the company. The others involved are my friends Deepak Kejariwal (shareholder, director and chairman), Mr Ajay Malviya (shareholder and director) and Mr Manish Jain (shareholder, director, and CFO).

In addition we have a technical team based in the US, UK, and India running our day-to-day affairs. We also have a number of scientists helping us as advisory board members, faculty, and scholarly reviewers. 

Q: You say on the site that “Biomedical publishing needs radical changes to empower authors, reviewers and readers.” Can you say more about why you launched WebmedCentral and how you hope it will address the changes you feel are necessary? 

A: Biomedical publishing is a multibillion dollar industry that thrives on two basic types of publishing model: reader-pays (funded by libraries or readers) and author-pays (funded by research agencies or authors). The money involved is significant and effectively excludes a large section of the scientific community from participating in academic debates, as they simply cannot afford it. The developing world is especially disadvantaged.

On probing further, it becomes clear that the costs arise mainly from pre-publication peer review. Journals organise this reviewing on behalf of the community and they charge the community for doing so. It does seem rather ironic that the same scientists who write articles for free and review them for free have to pay to actually read them (or publish them with open access journals).

Furthermore pre-publication peer review as the gate keeper of science has come under increasing criticism and scrutiny. Post-publication peer review, on the other hand, aims to generate a debate around every published work and each manuscript as if it were a work in progress, with constant monitoring by the community and updating by authors.

WebmedCentral is trying to build a dynamic platform where publication is not considered the end point of scientific communication, but the beginning. This is backed by raw data, free commentary and reviews and author interaction. We will enable these facilities on our portal and it will then be up to the scientific community to use it.

Our model uses the latest internet technologies to facilitate publication. It will allow every scientist, from any part of the world, who has anything to say to express it freely without any fear of rejection by peers. Peers can make their comments post publication if they so wish.

This approach allows us to keep our publication costs very low and delays are practically non-existent (articles are mostly published within 48 hours). We are trying to build a fair, low cost, efficient platform for scientific communication.


Q: Earlier this year PLoS ONE associate editor Matt Hodgkinson wrote a critical review of WebmedCentral. Do you feel that review was unfair, inaccurate or unbalanced in any way? (One could argue that PLoS ONE is a competitor to WebmedCentral: perhaps Hodgkinson should have added a statement to his review indicating his affiliations?)

 A: Please find attached here our response to Matt Hodgkinson’s blog posting. I have sent it to Matt as well for him to post it on his blog. 

Q: In his review, Hodgkinson referred to a number of contradictory messages on the WebmedCentral site about copyright and concluded, “Calling WebmedCentral ‘open access’ would be misleading.” Does he have a point?

 A: We have clarified this point in the attached document. WebmedCentral is open access and the terminology is not at all misleading. 

Q: Hodgkinson also said that the site includes fringe science and that many of the articles on the site are “unpublishable in any biomedical journal”. Would you agree?

A: That some of these articles would be considered unpublishable in the current system is the whole point of WebmedCentral. We do not wish to judge articles before publication. It is inevitable that early on we will attract submissions which have not found a place elsewhere but gradually we hope to move the emphasis away from the act of publication to science, and then the quality of submissions should improve.

If you agree that making a commodity scarce increases its value, by making publication a non-issue, we seek to take the emphasis away from the act of publication to the science itself. In such an environment, an author has nothing to gain by publishing substandard research under their name, and everything to lose. It is our belief that serious authors looking to enhance their reputation will find this freedom of expression empowering, whereas casual authors will soon bring disrepute upon themselves. 

Q: As I understand it, to address the above point you intend to add an extra quality control layer on the site. Presumably that would mean that the fringe science would remain, but there would be a second layer on top of that which would include some more traditional peer review services?

A: The additional layer being planned would make it easier for a reader to judge which sections have been found by reviewers and faculty to be of a better quality. It would still not prevent anybody from publishing what they want as that is our core principle and we do not wish to compromise it.

Intermittent intervention 

Q: How do you normally seek reviews of uploaded papers, or are authors expected to organise their own reviews?

 A: Reviews are primarily organised by authors, but WebmedCentral intervenes intermittently and invites additional reviewers. We also have our own scholarly reviewers and a team of faculty helping in this task. 

Q: I have had complaints that WebmedCentral “spams” researchers asking them to review papers. Would you accept that charge, or are researchers simply overly sensitive to such issues?

A: As I say, WebmedCentral intermittently invites reviewers to generate debate around published work. We all (including myself) receive such requests from journals all the time and that is mainly due to the fact that number of articles published is increasing geometrically whereas the number of reviewers is not.

WebmedCentral’s answer to this problem is, as I mentioned, to move the emphasis away from the act of publication per se, which we believe is responsible for the massive rise in the number of publications. 

Q: There have been a number of attempts to shift scholarly publishing from a pre-publication review model to post-publication reviewing — including, of course, the attempts by PLoS ONE. To date, however, it has proved very difficult to attract much in the way of post-publication commentary. Where it does occur it tends to take place not on the site where the paper was published, but elsewhere on the Web — on, for instance, researchers’ blogs, and via Twitter etc. Why do you think this is, and how do you think sites like WebmedCentral can encourage more commentary on the papers themselves. 

A: We have already been more successful in generating post-publication debate than many others and we hope to be able to improve upon our performance in future by several planned interventions.

We feel that other journals have been distracted by pre-publication peer review and were thus not able to give post-publication peer review much attention. Since this is our sole review model, we take it very seriously and are likely to be more successful as a consequence. 

Q: As I understand it, WebmedCentral has published 558 papers since it was launched. Are you pleased with this figure or disappointed? What are your expectations for submissions going forward? 

A: We are very pleased with what WebmedCentral has achieved in less than a year. It is much beyond our expectations. We expect to grow by 100% every year for the next few years in terms of hits to our website, growing our user base, and growing the number of articles submitted and reviews posted.

 Q: Unless I am mistaken, the only income you receive from WebmedCentral is from the premium upload service you offer (which costs $50), which I assume is minimal. You and your partners must however have invested (and continue to invest) considerable sums of money in the site. Is WebmedCentral a philanthropic project, or is it a commercial venture that has yet to develop a business model?

A: We believe that if we provide a service which the community values, money will not be too difficult to find. So far, the costs are being met by shareholder investments. We are exploring all options including philanthropic donation, advertisements, and angel investment for continued funding of this venture.

With hindsight 

Q: I believe that Matt Hodgkinson’s review of WebmedCentral was sparked partly by the fact that there was no indication on the site of who owns the company behind it. There are a number of OA publishers whose ownership is obscure, and whose business practices many believe to be suspect. You have now added ownership details to WebmedCentral. Do you regret not having done so from the beginning? 

A: We were hoping that the community would take our venture at face value and it would not matter who was behind it. We were also trying to avoid any undue publicity which would inevitably bring potential disruption to our routine professional lives.

However it soon became evident that some scientists were becoming suspicious that we had links with the pharmaceutical industry and other vested interests that we are trying to hide.

With hindsight, it would possibly have been better to reveal our names from the outset. However as Hodgkinson found out earlier this year, this information has been available in the public domain throughout for anyone who really wanted to find out.