One of our journals has published several articles describing use of a particular cell line X, which belongs to company Y. The authors included employees of company Y. A reader at a university, Dr Z, wished to gain access to cell line X, and requested it from company Y. He was informed by the director of science of company Y that ‘...it is Y’s intention to keep control of the integrity of the X materials as much as possible, thereby taking care of our licensees’ interests. Hence, Y does not widely disseminate the X material to academic institutions.’
The researcher complained to the editor-in-chief of the journal that this violated the general principle that materials described should be made available for further work, and for independent testing of the reproducibility of the published results.
The journal requires authors to accept that “By publishing in [the journal], authors agree that any viruses, plasmids and living materials, such as cell lines or bacterial strains, that are newly described [my italics] within the article are available without unnecessary delay and at a reasonable cost to members of the scientific community for non-commercial purposes”. As cell line X was not first described in our journal, the authors have clearly not broken the letter of the undertaking, but there is a more generic principle to ask the committee to discuss.
A search on Google Scholar yields over 800 articles that describe cell line X, in a number of different journals. Some of these have less qualified author undertakings, stating that reasonable access to reagents should be available for non-commercial work. However, examination of a sample of the 800 papers showed that all had authors from commercial companies—presumably licensees of the X cell technology—and that none were from purely academic institutions. This was confirmed by a further letter from the director of science of company Y, in which he states that “Licensees and potential licensees have to meet a number of requirements that can guarantee the correct use of the X cell technology from a technical as well as a legal perspective. Based on this consideration one of the policies company Y applies in licensing out the X cell technology is that we exclude academic institutions”. In response to the researcher’s point that the technology is therefore not accessible to independent scientific validation, the director of research of company Y wrote “In view of the fact that our X cell technology is fully approved by the FDA and that the technology is in use for preclinical and clinical research by a substantial number of licensees, we are confident that independent scientific validation is not an argument to share our X cell line with Dr Z”.
The editor-in-chief may wish to consider his response the next time a paper using cell line X is submitted to the journal.
The Forum were unanimous in their conclusion that this was clearly unacceptable behaviour on the part of the authors. If a journal has a condition of publication that reagents should be available for further work, then the journal has every right to see this implemented. The editor in this case told the Forum that his journal’s instructions to authors state only that “newly described” cell lines or bacterial strains should be available to the scientific community. The Forum suggested changing the instructions to authors to be more specific. The Forum also suggested rejecting future papers from these authors. The advice was to encourage the complainant to write a letter which the editor should publish in the journal, along with an accompanying editorial on this issue. Other advice was to consider contacting some of the other 800 titles informing them of the situation.