I see that it’s been nearly three weeks since I posted, maybe the longest gap since I started this. It wasn’t a conscious decision, just a combination of deadlines and life in general.
Back in April, I got an email out of the blue from a ‘Project Manager’ at Research Features, a digital magazine “…born from a passion to break down barriers that exist in the dissemination life cycle from researcher to the mass audience.”
Dear Dr. Herron
I would like to speak with you concerning your work with the Collaborative Research: De Novo Evolution of Multicellularity in a Unicellular Volvocine Alga study.
We would like to discuss your involvement in the July edition of Research Features. In this special edition, we will focus on coverage of 14 research projects from around the globe.
In addition to the research covered, we will host content from a variety of thought leaders from various government agencies and societies from the world of Biological Sciences.
Would it be possible for us to speak briefly about this?
I thought this was pretty unusual. The ‘study’ he referred to is my NSF grant, not something media usually report on. News media don’t usually contact me (or, I think, most other scientists) out of the blue to report on my work. Science news stories typically stem from publication in a high-profile journal (Science, Nature, PNAS, and the like), a press release from the institution(s) where the work was done, or (less often) a presentation at a scientific meeting. I haven’t published anything in a top-tier journal lately, given a talk where a reporter was likely present, or had a press release written about my work, so I was skeptical right off the bat. I figured I had nothing to lose, though, so I replied that I’d be happy to talk.
We settled on a time that worked for both of us (he was in the U.K.), and he called me at the arranged time. The more he explained what he was offering, the skeezier it sounded. After he explained the process, I told him I didn’t think I was interested, but I agreed that he was welcome to send a follow-up email. I’m glad I did, because it saves me having to wonder how accurately I’m remembering our conversation.
As confirmed, we would create a 4-page article providing a clear and detailed overview of your research. We will of course ensure we highlight any aspects of this work and development that you are keen to emphasize, so we have a flexible and tailored approach and would never publish anything without your full approval.
This is REALLY unusual. Reporters do not, as a general rule, give veto power to the subjects of their reporting. Any suggestion that their subject should have any control over the finished product is a good way to get a journalist’s hackles up. And by the way, I think you mean “If confirmed,” not “As confirmed,” since I didn’t confirm any of this.
After I provide some background text, answer some interview questions, and send some relevant images, they would
…like to begin working with you on this as soon as possible and would aim to have the first draft completed within 4-weeks from receipt of background material.
Once the initial draft is complete, we will then ask for your first approval. As confirmed, we will NOT publish anything until you have given us the green light to proceed.
Once visuals have been included and the article has been finally approved, we shall then host it immediately in our digital online repository, where it shall always remain for people to access, download and share for FREE.
So they will write the article, give me full editorial authority, and publish it as open access. For this, they ask a “nominal fee”. This is what the Project Manager told me early in the conversation: a “nominal fee”. I don’t remember if I asked him then or if it came up later in the conversation, but the “nominal fee” turned out to be $2230.
In what universe is that nominal? $10 is a nominal fee. $2230 is a fairly typical charge for open access publication (PLoS Genetics, for example, is $2250); it is in no way nominal.
But that’s not what’s sketchy about all this. They’re of course free to charge whatever they like. Yes, calling two grand nominal is a bit misleading, but it’s not as if he tried to hide the actual amount; he told me the amount on the phone, and it matches the followup email:
The final cost as confirmed is $2,230 USD. This is a final, tax-free sum, and covers everything as stated.
What’s sketchy about this is that it’s self-promotion passing itself off as journalism. Research Features calls itself a ‘digital magazine’. It LOOKS like a magazine, and a slick one at that (kudos to their layout and web development teams):
It’s full of what look like articles, though their authorship is not attributed. They’re not articles, though; they’re ads. Ads for researchers, ads for labs.
The followup email makes that pretty clear:
We will of course ensure we highlight any aspects of this work and development that you are keen to emphasize, so we have a flexible and tailored approach and would never publish anything without your full approval.
So this is advertising, but for what audience? To whom are we selling?
The digital edition of Research Features will be sent out to over 90,000 science professionals worldwide, along with being hosted on our website and your article will be distributed across key social media channels, such as Twitter and Facebook, giving you broader impact and wider coverage of the tax paying lay public.
The tax paying lay public? Is this about getting more grants? Attracting postdocs?
A more generous interpretation is as outreach, increasing the ‘broader impacts’ of research by explaining it outside of the academic journals. I don’t buy that. If outreach were the goal, there’d be no reason Research Features couldn’t write about research and interview the researchers without subjecting the resulting articles to the researchers’ approval. There’d be no reason to emphasize the distribution to science professionals. No, their ‘flexible and tailored approach’ sounds much more like something an ad agency would say than a news source.
To be fair, they do say that
We are not a news media company. We are not a scholarly publisher. We sit somewhere in the middle and feel very comfortable in our unique space.
So they’re not being dishonest about what they offer: it’s self-promotion.
It still seems sketchy to me. I’m not naïve; I know we all do self-promotion. I do it with my academic website, and I sometimes write about my own work here. Paying for it, though, paying real money, seems a bit messed up. Are people paying for this with grant money? If so, are we okay with tax dollars going toward individual researchers’ self promotion? Does that go on the ‘Publications’ line of the budget? I’ve read lots of grant budgets and budget justifications, and I’ve never seen something like this itemized. I can’t even imagine trying to justify the $2230 expense to my program officer at NSF.
Am I wrong to think this is sketchy? Has anyone used this or a similar service?