Sunday, 21 August 2016

The duplication of BioMed Central.

This post is about something strange that happened in 2014 and my attempts to deal with it.

Towards the end of my master's, I wasn't sure what to do next, so I picked up a part time consulting job, basically looking into public health statistics and compiling the trends and developing models to forecast them. I ended up doing a Ph.D. after my master's but I kept doing this job on the side. The first project I worked on involved the epidemiology of tuberculosis in Quebec, which is a fairly serious problem up North. It lead to two papers, one looking at the statistics and one forecasting them into the future. Working on these papers was a good learning experience but I would say that they are not as good as my physics papers, which I am more proud of.

The second paper was published in BioMed Central (BMC) Public Health. BMC is a massive journal network owned by a massive publishing company, Springer, and there are over 100 BMC journals, which I believe are all pay-to-publish open access. Pay-to-publish always seems kind of sketchy but there was definitely a peer-review process.

One day, I was compulsively checking my citations on Google Scholar and noticed that there was a new citation to my first TB paper, bringing the total up to two. I clicked to see who cited me, and found that the two citations were 1. my second TB paper on BMC Public Health, and 2. also my second TB paper, on the domain (don't bother going there, it's just an ad site now). My paper was randomly hosted on this Russian website with no explanation, so I decided to look into it. I found that the entire BMC database, consisting of hundreds of journals and tens of thousands of papers, was completely duplicated on this Russian server, with no explanation. I don't understand why someone would do this, and the BMC papers are free to read anyway. In addition to duplicating my paper, they also had links to rough pre-publication versions of the paper, including MS Word track-changes notes, that were still hosted on the BMC server.

I decided to contact the editor-in-chief of BMC, who was nominally in the UK but actually in Cyprus. I mentioned the serious issue that their whole website was duplicated on a Russian website, and the less serious issue that my rough drafts were still being linked to. The editor responded to me saying:

Please note that authors of articles published in BMC Public Health are the copyright holders of their articles and have granted to any third party, in advance and in perpetuity, the right to use, reproduce or disseminate the article, in its entirety or in part, in any format or medium, provided that no substantive errors are introduced in the process, proper attribution of authorship and correct citation details are given, and that the bibliographic details are not changed. If the article is reproduced or disseminated in part, this must be clearly and unequivocally indicated. Please see the BioMed Central copyright and license agreement for further details.

Furthermore, as stated in our ‘About this journal’ page ( the pre-publication history including all submitted versions, reviewers' reports and authors' responses are linked to from the published article. We are unable to remove the pre-publication history of the manuscript following its publication in the journal.
 In other words, she completely ignored the fact that I was trying to tell her about HER ENTIRE JOURNAL NETWORK being pirated, and instead decided to focus on a minor editorial policy. That was honestly a bit disturbing, how little she cared. I sent another email telling her that she ignored the important part of my email and asking if it bothered her that her entire journal database was copied on another website.

Meanwhile, I looked for a better way to get into contact with somebody in charge, because the editor of the journal didn't seem to care. I managed to find the secure whistleblower ombuds page for Springer, which is basically for people who want to report scientific fraud and related misconduct. I left a message explaining the situation, and my concern as to how casually the editor seemed to be taking it. A few days later I got two messages, an email from the editor apologizing for the misunderstand, and a secure message in the ombuds inbox from the legal team:

we have looked into this and the Legal Department will approach the contact that it given on the (fake) site. Please rest assured that Springer takes piracy very serious. In order to protect our authors´ rights and interests, Springer proactively screens websites for illegal download links of Springer eBooks and subsequently requires hosts of such download sites to remove and delete the files or links in question. This necessary action has become increasingly important with the growing number of eBooks within the Springer eBook collection.
Eventually, the fake version of BMC on disappeared and my citation count went back down to 1, and the issue appeared to be resolved. I am still left wondering, however, why someone would bother duplicating a massive network of free papers to their own server, and the whole incident with the editor left me a little wary of BMC.

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