The Lausanne-based publishing house Frontiers, founded by the neuroscientists Henry and Kamila Markram, has been recently added to the Beall’s List of potential, possible, or probable predatory scholarly open-access publishers. Was this decision justified? I wish to share here some of my recent investigations.
Previously, I reported about an editorial conflict at the Frontiers medical section in Laborjournal and Lab Times. In May 2015 Frontiers sacked almost all of its medical chief editors. This was because those chief editors had signed a “Manifesto of Editorial Independence”, which went against one of the key guidelines of Frontiers, namely that editors must always “allow the authors an opportunity for a rebuttal”. Associate editors are namely instructed to always “consider the rebuttal of the authors”, even “if the independent reviews are unfavourable”. At the same time, chief editors claimed to have had little, if any, influence over the editorial processes at Frontiers. Since the Frontiers Executive Editor Frederick Fenter fired all 31 signatory chief editors, Frontiers in Medicine has been operated without an Editor-in-Chief and with few Chief Specialty Editors. Medical ethics requirement for publication, originally introduced by the previous chief editors, were not implemented in the Frontiers instructions for authors. There appear to be few people in a position to provide oversight, while the associate editors handle manuscripts which they often receive directly from authors. Some of these associate editors are no strangers to controversy themselves; Alfredo Fusco, who is also a frequent author at Frontiers in Medicine, has had several of his papers retracted and is facing a criminal investigation over alleged data manipulations.
The Frontiers in Medicine “purge” led me to inquire into how Frontiers’ unique editorial model works in their other journals. What I learned is that even the associate editors often find their power limited: once a manuscript has been sent out for peer review, Frontiers editors have hardly any option to reject it. This may explain how controversial papers came to be published in Frontiers, e.g. one denying that HIV is the cause of AIDS, or another suggesting that vaccinations cause autism.
On the other hand, Frontiers is quite popular with many scientists and research organisations. How can a publisher which helped pioneer such innovations as open access and name-signed peer review, have come to this?
Frontiers’ story began in 2007, with the first journal Frontiers in Neuroscience. One of its very first accepted articles, before the new journal was officially accepting submissions, was a theory on the origins of autism by journal founders Kamila and Henry Markram. Since then, their Intense World Theory (formerly Intense World Syndrome) has been published in various Frontiers neuroscience-related journals. There, the Markrams’ COI statement always proclaims “the absence of any commercial or financial relationships that could be construed as a potential conflict of interest”. Yet these two authors have an apparent ownership interest in the journals they publish. Henry Markram is listed as Co-Founder & Editor-in-Chief at Frontiers, Kamila Markram as Co-Founder & CEO. The mass sacking of medical chief editors suggests, they might be in a position to decide on the employment and remuneration of their editors.
Meanwhile, Frontiers manages according to own website “54 open access journals, 55,000 editors, 38,000 articles”. Some Frontiers editors I communicated with were quite content with the publisher. Anne Simon, professor at the University of Maryland in the USA (and one of the whistle-blowers in the case of Olivier Voinnet, which I have been covering for Lab Times), is also Editor-in Chief (EiC) of the journal Frontiers In Virology. She describes her experience as “extremely positive“. Unlike the medical chief editors, Simon says she was never was left in the dark about submitted manuscripts or witnessed their inappropriate handling by associate editors or reviewers.
Simon explained to me in an email that she sees the Editor-in-Chief as
“the next point of contact for editors who are having problems handling a manuscript or needing advice, and authors, who may be upset with decisions and want to contact someone other than the editor who handled the manuscript”.
“we are frequently called upon to politely nudge late reviewers, when the editor and journal managers have been unsuccessful, or if there is an editor who is slow in the review process”. Maybe this is why Frontiers in Virology is one of the best cited Frontiers journals, because the chief editors are free to do their jobs? Simons clarifies: “Most journals can operate smoothly without EiC most of the time. But when something comes up, (…) then the EiC is a critical part of the journal for making decisions about exceptions to journal “rules” and dealing with papers that have possible ethical issues”.
Apparently Frontiers in Medicine can operate without an Editor-in Chief, and indeed it has done for months now. But what about the ethical duties Simon was mentioning?
Matthias Barton, cardiology professor at the University of Zurich and former EiC of Frontiers in Medicine and Frontiers in Cardiovascular Medicine, told me that when he and his fellow editors were sacked, their ethical policies were also shown the door. New medical ethics guidelines, which he and his colleagues had established to preserve clinical safety and patient protection, were revoked. For example, Barton and colleagues stipulated that “For each manuscript submitted, every author needs to electronically complete and sign the COI form provided by ICMJE [International Committee of Medical Journal Editors], and all completed COI forms need to be submitted with the manuscript”.
Today, however, there is no requirement or even option for every author to provide a signed COI statement at Frontiers in Medicine, despite ICMJE guidelines. Instead, the corresponding author simply has to make one click to verify COI status on behalf of others.
Another example of the post-purge reform: Frontiers does not distinguish in their section “Case Reports” between human and animal subjects anymore. The guidelines for manuscript submission are the same for both. No mention is made that human patient identity must be specifically respected and protected, in fact the new Frontiers guidelines there are same as for horses and cattle. The previous definition of the “Case Report”, as written by the now absent editors, was focused on human patients only and included demands such as: “Manuscripts must not include any information that allows identification of the patient. This includes, but is not limited to, names, initials, and hospital information” as well as “as anonymity cannot be guaranteed by simply covering the eye area with a black bar, the patient, parent, or guardian must be shown the photograph intended for publication, provide informed consent for its publication, and be informed by the authors that the image will be visible on the internet”. For Frontiers in Medicine, these rules are now a thing of the past.
Simon also stated:
“Having a scientist as EiC who is in the same [research-] field as the journal is important for making informed decisions”.
However, this does not appear to be the case for the new head of Frontiers in Cardiovascular Medicine. After the editorial purge, the journal received its new EiC, Hendrik Tevaearai Stahel, professor of Cardiovascular Surgery at the Inselspital in Bern, Switzerland. Cardiovascular medicine is a branch of internal medicine and requires an utterly different medical specialization than cardiac surgery. A heart surgeon cannot replace a cardiovascular internist. Dr. Tevaearai Stahel’s CV is rather inconclusive in the area of cardiovascular medicine than one would anticipate for the EiC of this journal.
Frontiers’ philosophy is to give all authors a chance to publish their work in one of their journals. In basic science, this is, to a degree, a laudable approach indeed. Many scientists convincingly argue that every single research study should be published and judged by the scrutiny of scientist colleagues in post-publication peer review. Yet this option is not available at Frontiers, and while the reviewers are named, their peer review reports are kept confidential. This concept to publish almost every manuscript, while keeping the peer review process rather opaque, has possibly contributed to the recent placing of the publisher Frontiers on the Beall’s List.
With medical studies, which go beyond laboratory experiments, the issue of proper editorial process is even more serious. Doctors adjust their patient treatments according to recent developments and publications in their field. This is why there are strict ethical rules and quality guidelines for clinically relevant medical publications, as issued by the ICMJE and the World Association of Medical Editors (WAME). Therefore, there can be many reasons for a submitted manuscript to be rejected. However, at Frontiers, the rejection option is not always available. Generally, a peer reviewer can only withdraw from the peer review; recommending rejection is not an available option. If a reviewer does withdraw, the handling editor is automatically prompted to find a replacement reviewer. Theoretically, this can go on back and forth until two positive peer reviews are finally obtained. Occasionally, associate editors skip the search for willing reviewers altogether and perform the peer review themselves.
Tamas Szakmany, honorary senior lecturer in intensive care medicine at the Cardiff University in UK, reports of his experience as a reviewer for Frontiers in Medicine:
“The piece in question was lacking very basic aspects of a scientific manuscript and the authors failed to make any amends. I made it very clear at the first response to the authors that the paper was unacceptable in this format and although they made some small changes, they did not address any of my major comments. The subsequent rounds of “revisions” were getting nowhere and as there was no option for me to reject the manuscript in the online review system and the Editor couldn’t make this decision as he was forced to give further “chances” for improvement, I felt that I had no other option than to withdraw from the process as the authors were clearly not willing to understand”.
“From a reviewer point, there is no opportunity to reject a paper, only to endorse or ask for further revisions”.
The specialty chief editor responsible for the above-mentioned Szakmany-reviewed manuscript was Zsolt Molnár, professor for intensive care medicine at the University of Szeged in Hungary. Molnár was among the signatories of the editorial Manifesto, which resulted in his removal together with 30 other chief editors. While still in his post, Molnár protested about the unrejectable manuscript to the Frontiers in Medicine “Editorial Office” – actually a publisher-run department outside of any academic editor control. He received a reply from the journal manager who explained:
“once a paper is sent for peer-review, we want to give the authors the chance to discuss with the reviewers in the interactive review stage. You can always reject a manuscript BEFORE [caps in the original] sending it to reviewers/review editors”.
Yet just in the previous sentence, the journal manager also explained:
“Regarding rejecting before interactive review: the reason we strongly discourage this is because Frontiers wishes to overcome one of the common concerns that authors have – that the editors have overruled their chance to discuss their paper with the reviewers”.
This sounds somewhat like a Catch-22 situation, in which the very act of sending out a paper for peer review precludes the ability to reject this paper on the basis of the review, should it turn out negative.
The resulting high acceptance rate at Frontiers goes hand-in-hand with the fact that the publisher has offered its chief editors a reward of €5,000 “for each batch of 120 papers submitted to your section in 2015”.
Yet under certain conditions, Frontiers has no problems with rejections at all, even of positively reviewed manuscripts. Lydia Maniatis, formerly adjunct psychologist at the American University in Washington DC, had such an experience. She submitted a rather critical Commentary (a publication type generally published by Frontiers free of charge) on a certain Frontiers in Human Neuroscience article which dealt with visual shape perception. Her manuscript was assigned an associate editor, but soon rejected. The reason was: despite one endorsing review, another reviewer chose to wordlessly withdraw. No specific criticisms from this reluctant reviewer were forwarded to Maniatis. No replacement reviewer was appointed, despite Maniatis’ many requests. Instead, the associate editor reviewed the manuscript himself, despite being a child psychologist and autism specialist rather outside the field. He decreed that Maniatis’ revised manuscript was “not adequate and lacked clarity and focus”, without providing any further explanations. With the support of the journal’s Chief Editor, the rejection was final. Maniatis later published her criticisms on PubPeer and PubMed Commons and was finally able to engage with the authors of the paper.
After Frontiers was listed as a potential predatory publisher, Nature News has reported on the scientists’ protests about this addition to the “controversial ‘Beall’s List’”. The Nature Publishing Group (NPG) is owned by the German publishing house Holtzbrinck Publishing Group, which is also the partial owner of Frontiers. Indeed, as I reported for Laborjournal and Lab Times, NPG became a major stakeholder in Frontiers, publicly much celebrated by both publishers. Then, at the beginning of 2015, a break came. NPG representatives have left the Frontiers board, with Henry Markram taking over their duties. The current administrative board lists the Markrams, some Frontiers employees, the reviewing board member PricewaterhouseCoopers (USA), a representative from the private equity firm CVC Capital Partners (Luxembourg), and Michael Brockhaus, Head of Group Strategy at the Holtzbrinck Publishing Group. I have reached out to Brockhaus, through his personal assistant, for a comment on the nature of Holtzbrinck’s financial involvement with Frontiers, yet received no reply.
One could assume that NPG has sold or withdrawn their investment in Frontiers, however one fact suggests that there has not been a total financial divorce: Nature journals keep advertising for the Frontiers-owned academic social network, Loop, by posting links to authors’ Loop profiles (which are created automatically for all Frontiers authors) on their article websites. Certain editors told me that they did not succeed in having their Loop account fully deleted.
Loop may help Frontiers and NPG scientists to connect, but not every account belongs to a bona fide user. The network contains a number of obviously inappropriate or bogus accounts, and Frontiers has been informed by then-EiC Barton about certain questionable Loop profiles. Some, such as the profile “Isha FB1 TEST Jan” (whose only content was a photo of a pornographic film actress) were removed, but others remain active: an Indian “Genius Mind”, a US professor by the name of “Alpha Shred”, a teenage professor from Macedonia, a Chinese senior researcher “Eagle Eagle Jg”, a student of a geographically bizarre “Amedeo Avogadro University of Eastern Piedmont” in Lebanon, and finally a US based CEO called “mis souri” whose speciality is the “wonderful sport of duck hunting”. Frontiers thanked Barton in January 2015 for sharing the information on these strange researcher profiles, but has yet to remove them.
Regardless their publishing and editorial policies, Frontiers journals have recently joined the Committee on Publication Ethics (COPE) en masse. Coincidently or not, prior to this the Frontiers journal manager Mirjam Curno joined the committee as council member. While most other journals list their editors-in-chief as their COPE contact, none of the listed Frontiers journals does. Instead, their COPE contacts are exclusively the employees of the publisher, working in managerial capacities – and not involved in the editorial process of the journals. Some of these employees have little experience in the research fields they are now supervising. One is a former earth scientist, now in charge of veterinary science, neurology and psychiatry. Another studied English and Croatian at university but is now an oncology, endocrinology and public health specialist. Yet another, who supervises several Frontiers life science journals despite having studied earth sciences, has no PhD. In fact, a number of Frontiers journal managers carry no academic credentials beyond a bachelor’s degree, in a field unrelated to their Frontiers duties. All of this would not necessarily be a problem if these managers were assisting and answering to the senior academic editors of their respective journals. Instead, as the sacked medical chief editors have experienced, these journal managers interfered with the editorial process, by occasionally advising these editors to keep recruiting further reviewers or dissuading them from rejecting a manuscript.
Editorial independence, free from the meddling of the owner and publisher is a key principle of good editorial practice in science publishing, as stipulated by highly respected organizations such as ICMJE and COPE. Shortly after sacking its editors, Frontiers listed its medical and other journals as “Following the ICMJE Recommendations” and, as mentioned, became member of COPE. These events however do not mean that Frontiers is bound to change its internal policies. Why? Simply because both organizations seem not to mind when those who publicly subscribe to their rules don’t actually consider adhering to them.
The author wishes to thank NS, RP, PSB, SC and JB for their critical comments on this text.
28.10.2015: The institutional affiliation of Lydia Maniatis has been corrected -LS
06.11.2015: Two journals, which list their EiCs as COPE contacts, were erroneously attributed to Frontiers Media. The reader “MH” has pointed out the mistake in a comment below. This text correction means that not a single Frontiers journal lists its chief editor as COPE contact. -LS
Frederick Fenter of Frontiers about this article (source: his rebuttal letter to Jeffrey Beall):
If you are interested to support my work, you can leave here a small tip of $5. Or several of small tips, just increase the amount as you like (2x=€10; 5x=€25). Your generous patronage of my journalism will be most appreciated!
I very much liked your essay. I also work at the same institution as Jeff Beall, but that’s purely coincidental.
My own experience at Frontiers in Neuroscience was quite positive. I was invited to contribute an article on paradigm shifts in neuroscience, and even though most historians of science now reject the concept I rose to the challenge based on the quality of the other contributors to the issue. Frontiers’ peer-review process was transparent. My reviewer made reasonable objections, most of which I accepted, but some (e.g. “rewrite your article to argue against paradigm shifts”) I could not for obvious reasons. My editor was also reasonable, and my manuscript went to press quite rapidly. I balked at paying to publish, but in my case the fee was waived.
I think that the dangers that you and Jeff Beall identify are real. On the other hand, my experience with Frontiers was no worse than those I’ve had with traditional journals in my field, some of which acted much worse in their choices of peer reviewer or in pressuring me to sign off on deficient and even plagiarized manuscripts. I also like reaching an audience of scientists, not historians, and am happy that 500 people have viewed my essay within a month of its publication. It usually takes ten years to garner this many readers in traditional journals.
The world of academic publishing is changing. There are new pressures and new dangers, and it’s important that scholars like you keep a close eye on what is going on. I’ve had enough terrible experiences of corruption within the traditional system to keep an open mind about ventures like Frontiers. Let’s hope that it works out for the best.
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A quote from Tamas Szakmany: “The subsequent rounds of “revisions” were getting nowhere and as there was no option for me to reject the manuscript in the online review system and the Editor couldn’t make this decision as he was forced to give further “chances” for improvement, I felt that I had no other option than to withdraw from the process as the authors were clearly not willing to understand.”
It seems to me that ‘no option for a peer-reviewer to reject the manuscript’ is not in line with Principle 4 of “The Netherlands Code of Conduct for Academic Practice”. From http://www.rug.nl/about-us/organization/rules-and-regulations/algemeen/gedragscodes-nederlandse-universiteiten/code-wetenschapsbeoefening-14-en.pdf :
“Principle 4. Impartiality. In their scientific or scholarly activities, academic practitioners are led by no other
interest than academic interest, and they are always prepared to account for their actions.
4.3. A reviewer carefully reflects whether they can offer an impartial assessment of a manuscript, for instance when it concerns a competing research group.
4.4. In assessing the performance of others (peer review of research and manuscripts), academic practitioners are led by scientific or scholarly arguments, and they refrain from assessing a manuscript if there could be any doubt about the impartiality of their opinion.”
See http://ukrio.org/wp-content/uploads/UKRIO-Code-of-Practice-for-Research.pdf for the UKRIO Code of Conduct.
Reblogged this on Blog do Pedlowski.
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Just want to clarify some of the details of my experience with FHN. I actually did go through a fairly extensive interactive review process that led to a revision and the unconditional endorsement of one reviewer. The second reviewer withdrew without responding to my last set of comments. The rejection decision was not accompanied by any negative review either by the second reviewer or by the Associate Editor (who, as Mr. Schneider points out, didn’t have the remotest connection to the field). Any explanation I received from him was in the context of personal emails. When I appealed the decision, the responses were almost exclusively from “managerial level” personnel. The Chief Editor did respond with an email into which he had copy-pasted one of the uninformative, boiler-plate rejection criteria from the journal’s website.
During my earlier investigation, I have been in contact with Frontiers Executive Editor, Frederick Fenter. Here are his replies to my questions, dated August 19th, 2015, which concern the issues featuring in the main article:
“(1) The members of the Journal’s editorial board, as published on the Journal homepage, have complete authority over the content that is published and are completely free of any commercial pressures.
(2) Frontiers employees have well-defined administrative roles, in which they have no mandate or authority concerning the suitability or content of articles and editorial projects, which are entirely with the external editorial boards.
(3) Chief Editors have complete oversight of all manuscripts in their section/journal and can access them at any time; they can intervene and take any action they consider necessary at any time during the review process.
Frontiers Associate Editors are fully qualified to judge the scientific soundness of contributions in their field and to make an “accept” decision on an article. Their names are made public on every paper for which they are responsible, to acknowledge their role and for transparency. To imply otherwise is disrespectful, to say the least. Many journals around the globe allow associate editors to make accept/reject decisions (but without the transparency inherent in Frontiers’ processes).
The contact person for journals in the COPE-member database are not required to be a member of the external editorial board.
Editorial independence is a concept focused on the content that a journal publishes, not about whether there is a strong editor in chief calling all the shots. From the WAME definition of editorial independence: “Editorial decisions should be based on the validity of the work and its importance to readers, not the policies or commercial success of the owner. Editors should be free to publish critical but responsible views about all aspects of medicine without fear of retribution.” This holds for Frontiers, as stressed above and in many other places.
As Executive Editor, I ensure that the Journal Managers understand their responsibilities, and I address any issues they raise requiring senior managerial input. I provide a senior point of contact for our editors. I have no mandate or authority to decide on content or the validity of any editorial project.
The Frontiers Editor-in-Chief oversees the Frontiers principles and publishing model and appoints Chief Editors, who are proposed for appointment after extensive discussions and research and after assurances that the Chief Editors understand the Frontiers model. He has no mandate or authority over content. Your message states that Dr. Henry Markram is “simultaneously Editor-in-Chief of all Frontiers journals”, which is factually incorrect; he is Editor-in-Chief – i.e., a senior manager – of Frontiers as an organization, responsible for its ethical and publishing policies. The Journal Chief Editors, as clearly explained on our journal websites, remain the ultimate editorial authority for their respective Frontiers Journals. All this was explained in detail in our blog post Frontiers acts to defend distributed editorial independence, which can be accessed on our blog (http://blog.frontiersin.org/2015/05/07/frontiers-acts-to-defend-distributed-editorial-independence/).
Your message refers to publication of articles by Dr Kamila Markram and Dr Henry Markram in Frontiers titles. Dr. Kamila Markram does not exert editorial supervision; as mentioned above only the editorial boards have authority over content. Nor does Dr Henry Markram, as editor-in-chief, exert editorial supervision. Both are, however, active researchers, and as such are fully welcome to submit their work to Frontiers. These contributions will be subject to the same independent and external editorial decision process as all other submissions. As one of the world’s leading neuroscientists Dr Henry Markram has also been appointed Assistant Field Chief Editor of Frontiers in Neuroscience, and in that role he exercises the same authority as any other chief editor over specific articles in whose review he is involved.”
Based on Frontiers’ guidelines (see below) Chief Editors actually seem to have ultimate and total control over the rejection (and therefore of acceptance) of a manuscript. Only they can endorse a rejection by reviewers and editors. Obviously, not endorsing a rejection is tantamount to acceptance. Why is Frontiers designed this way? Do any other journals give Chief Editors the power to override rejection by reviewers/editors?
“22) Associate Editors can recommend the rejection of an article to the Chief Editor, who needs to check that the authors’ rights have been upheld during the peer-review process, and who can then ultimately reject the article if it is of insufficient quality, has objective errors or if the authors were unreasonably unwilling to address the points raised during the review.”
Obviously, if reviewers and editors reject an article, they have deemed it of insufficient quality. Again, why does the CE, who likely will not have the necessary expertise, have the power to override this evaluation?
In the case of Frontiers in Medicine, the issue remains that there are none of EiCs and only 3 chief speciality editors (with narrowly defined areas of responsibility) present, while a large number of papers has been published since the editorial mass dismissal in May 2015.
indeed, chief editors have ultimate power. but this is not a prerogative of Frontiers solely. Frontiers maybe makes it clearer. So the question “why is Frontiers designed this way” is not so pertinent. They chose to be this way, point. Furthermore, no-one is obliged to submit their manuscripts there if they don’t want. I never heard any colleague submitting to Frontiers because the paper could not be rejected there (for increased acceptance rate yes, but this is common to so many journals).
Also in the case of Frontiers in Medicine, someone is acting as editor, one way or the other. I don’t see anything wrong in that, in the same way I don’t see anything wrong in an editor acting as a reviewer (provided that (s)he discloses the joint role of reviewer and editor).
Personally, I don’t see Frontiers as a predatory publisher. Actually I am not worried at all by “predatory publishers”. All publishers are predatory in a way.
Actually, reviewers and editors have very different functions and these should not be mixed. Reviewers do NOT accept or reject manuscripts. Their role is to ADVICE the editors about the quality/suitability of a manuscript. The final responsibility to accept or reject lies with the Editor-in-Chief. As an EIC myself, I have several times rejected manuscripts despite positive reviewer comments, because of deficiencies that were identified by the handling associate editor or myself. The opposite is rarer, but I have seen cases where a reviewer clearly was going over board with his/her criticisms, which I then chose to ignore.
In short: the role of an EIC is much more responsible than just counting “votes” from reviewers. Science is not democratic. Hence the paramount importance of having EICs who have a deep understanding of their fields. Of course, for journals covering a very broad field, the role of the EIC is taken over by associate/specialty editors. The EIC can overrule them, but should only do that in exceptional cases and not without any good reason.
Dear Guillaume, thanks for your comment. At Frontiers, a reviewer can either advice acceptance or provide further demands. The associate editor cannot reject a paper, and can only recommend rejection to EiC or chief speciality editor. At the same time, associate editors are automatically instructed to give authors another chance to reply to reviewer comments, or find replacement reviewer if one withdraws. Frontiers in Medicine lost both EiCs and almost all chief speciality editors. There is basically hardly anyone to issue a rejection. Yet a large number of papers has been published after the mass sacking, since all associate editors, including Fusco(!) are still there and active.
In which other famous journals – Nature, cell or Science, does the editor not have the ultimate power? The system is designed to cater to the ivory towers, everything, whether to send out or not for review, which reviewers, when to send out for more, everything is biased. How is Frontiers being blamed here for doing the same, may be more farly? What is the problem with having more open access journals, everybody is charging anyway. It is not like elife is doing a social work. They are a new club pretending to be good! that is all.
The statement below is COPE’s position on Frontiers. We have posted this on our website also.
Like the DOAJ does now, COPE has a rigorous and stringent process for scrutinizing members before they are accepted and we review this process as needed. Frontiers has been a member of COPE since January 2015. In the interests of complete transparency, we note here also that one of the Frontiers staff, Mirjam Curno, is a member of COPE council – a position she was elected to when she was employed at the Journal of the International AIDS Society in 2012 and which continued (with the agreement of the COPE Council and on becoming an Associate Member of COPE) after she moved to Frontiers; she is now also a trustee of COPE. (NB, She was not involved in drafting this statement.)
We note that there have been vigorous discussions about, and some editors are uncomfortable with, the editorial processes at Frontiers. However, the processes are declared clearly on the publisher’s site and we do not believe there is any attempt to deceive either editors or authors about these processes.
Publishing is evolving rapidly and new models are being tried out. At this point we have no concerns about Frontiers being a COPE member and are happy to work with them as they explore these new models.
In addition to the above statement I want to make it clear that in accordance with how we handle COIs at COPE, Mirjam Curno was not involved at COPE with the decision about whether or not they were admitted as members.
Dr Virginia Barbour
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All readers of this blog with experiences with students and with assessing the (scientific) output of students will be aware that almost all students are able to work together with the teachers to improve the (scientific) level of their output.
All of you will as well be aware that there is a certain level of quality of the work of students and that it is not allowed to provide a degree to students who are unable to reach this level. So the level of the work of these students can show a high variation, but there is always a lowest possible level. Such students are unable to get a degree. There is a huge variation in level of the different universities. This implies that there is of course also a huge variation in the amount of students who are able to pass the exams (etc.)
The same is of course the case for manuscripts submitted to (peer-reviewed) journals. There is a huge variation in the level of the papers which are accepted and which get published, and there is as well a huge variation in the way how editors, peers and peer-reviewers are working together with the authors to improve the manuscript.
There will however always be a certain proportion of manuscripts of which the scientific level is too low to be published in the journal in question, even with alot of help and guidance of peers and editors. Such papers will be rejected and both the peers and the editors of the journal in question have a high responsibility that such papers are not added to the body of scientific knowledge.
The statements of Anne Simon, professor at the University of Maryland in the USA, and the statements of Tamas Szakmany of Cardiff University in UK are thus in agreement with each other.
(1): No problem as long as the authors are willing to work together with the editors and the reviewers to improve the manuscript and no problem as long as the basic level of (an improved version of) the manuscript is solid.
(2): A big problem (in this case currently on http://scholarlyoa.com/publishers/ ) because there is no option to reject the (small part of) manuscripts which lack this scientific level.
The option ‘withdraw from the process as the authors were clearly not willing to understand’ is ridiculous when it comes to assessing the (scientific) output of students.
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Two more ridiculous and contradictory things with Frontiers:
– Frontiers has recently published an article warning from predatory journals while their own journals are considered as predatory journals:
– There are much more editors than authors: thousands of editors against hundreds articles published!!!
I am not sure why the previous comment says hundreds of articles – their websites states that they have published 38,000 papers.
What is ridiculous though, is the claim that at Frontiers the “very act of sending out a paper for peer review precludes the ability to reject this paper on the basis of the review, should it turn out negative”. I am not sure where this rumour started, but it is obviously not true.
This is how it actually works:
a) A manuscript can be desk-rejected without being sent out for review, if it contains obvious and serious problems (similar to most other peer reviewed journals)
b) After a manuscript has been sent out for review, it is not possible to reject it before the authors have had a chance to respond to the reviewers´queries. This procedure is afaik unique to Frontiers – and I think it is a good solution for many reasons. For example, it prevents rejection based on reviewer misreadings.
c) If the authors’ rebuttal is deemed unsuccessful by the reviewers they can say so, and the associate editor can then propose that the ms should be rejected. Or if the authors’ revisions are deemed successful, the reviewers can endorse publication, and the associate editor can then propose that the ms is accepted. Note that it is the associate editor who makes the decision to recommend accept/reject (like all other journals that I know of, the reviewers give advice to the editors, but the editors make the decisions).
d) The specialty chief editor oversees all decisions about both reject and accept, as a final quality check. I believe this final stage was recently introduced as a response to the critique from the FI Medicine editors (who did not like the idea that associate editors had the power to accept manuscripts).
I meant ‘thousands editors per journal”. Please take a look at any Frontiers journal and you will see that the number of editors is much higher than the number of articles published so far.
Apparently, they try to make a ‘kidding newwork’.
I might as well point out another frequent misunderstanding… It is correct that chief editors get a reward for “each batch of 120 papers submitted to your section in 2015”. But do note that it is for papers SUBMITTED and not for papers ACCEPTED. Editors thus have no financial incentive at all to accept papers! I am sure that Schneider did not mean to be intentionally misleading, but on a casual reading it is easy to think the reward is for accepted manuscripts (especially because he writes that the reward “goes hand in hand” with the “high acceptance rate at Frontiers”).
Btw, am I the only one who is curious why Beall has not cared to give a motivation for his decision?
I appreciate your concerns, but this is what Frontiers writes on the topic of rejection:
“Submissions can only be rejected by the Chief Editor, while the Associate Editor who handles a manuscript can only recommend to reject a manuscript. The Chief Editor may override an Associate Editor’s recommendation to reject the manuscript and insist to call in further reviewers to continue the review process.”
This does point towards the systematic preference of acceptance over rejection.
I wish to point out yet again, that Frontiers in Medicine operates utterly without EiCs and largely without chief specialty editors. I am not sure who decides about rejections there now. Previously, the former chief editors claimed to have experienced that papers were accepted without their knowledge of their submission (http://www.labtimes.org/editorial/e_631.lasso).
Also, you mentioned above it is in your view appropriate for handling editors to act as reviewers. Please consider that at Frontiers handling editors can be selected or proposed by the authors themselves. This COI might influence the peer review done by these editors in place of proper, independent reviewers.
In general, it would be very useful to obtain information on Frontiers acceptance/rejection rates. If you have any connection to this publisher, please help me to make this information publicly available.
See also in the article above:
“Meanwhile, Frontiers manages according to own website “54 open access journals, 55,000 editors, 38,000 articles”!!
Kidding network? The journals are large and each contains many specialty sections which all have their own editorial boards, so there is nothing strange about the numbers reported above. Indeed it is the size and quality of the Frontiers editorial (chief and assoc. editors) and reviewer (review editors) boards that make the journals attractive to authors. The better the board, the better the chance to get expert opinions on your manuscript 🙂
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The ‘better’ ? What is the “better” in science? And, how do you know whether something is ‘better’ or not?
Is Drosophila for example better than mouse, Arabidopsis or ape to study genetics? No, there is no better or less good.
The same for editorial board and peer review.
“Good, Better, Best…Worse, Worst etc” all are subjective adjectives particularly in science.
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“Human & Environmental Dangers Posed by Ongoing Global Tropospheric Aerosolized Particulates for Weather Modification”, by J. Marvin Herndon, June 30, 2016, PMID:27433467. FOUND AT:. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov. RETRACTED. The reviewers name is listed but the review report is kept confidential. The article is also found on the Frontiers in Public Health website. Why wasn’t the author allowed to revise to avoid retraction? I find this suspect given the secrecy of the topic.
“Frontiers in Zoology” is published by Biomed Central and “Frontiers in Neuroendocrinology” is published by Elsevier. These journals do not belong to Frontiers Media.
Many thanks, text corrected! My apologies for mistake.
It is also worth clarifying that NPG was never a stakeholder of Frontiers Media. This so called “alliance” is about the Loop project. Now NPG is a part of the company Springer Nature (which is owned by Holtzbrinck). So, Springer Nature and Frontiers Media are two separate and competing companies. In fact, for the Loop project, NPG is a “customer” of Frontiers Media. Meanwhile, Springer Nature gets rid of the NPG and frontiersin journal connections. This however may be still confusing, and has been used for a long time to lure authors, reviewers and editors to Frontiers Media.
MH, thank you for your comment. My present information was based on the facts that:
1. Nature Publishing Group bought a stake in Frontiers in 2013, “the company said it was taking a majority investment but wouldn’t say how much that cost”: http://blogs.nature.com/news/2013/02/nature-publishing-group-buys-into-open-access-publisher.html
2. The current administrative board of Frontiers lists as signatory Michael Brockhaus, Head of Group Strategy at the Holtzbrinck Publishing Group.
Dr. Kamila Markram, co-founder and CEO of Frontiers, in her reply to the concerns raised by Prof. Dorothy Bishop writes at http://deevybee.blogspot.com.es/2015/06/my-collapse-of-confidence-in-frontiers.html the following: “Let me reassure you that the Frontiers process works extremely well for the vast majority of papers that are peer-reviewed. In fact, the paper in question is a good example of how our policy of transparency works. Readers with doubts about a published article, or about potential conflicts of interest, can scrutinize the qualifications of the handling editor and reviewers, as you did, and this will provide useful information for their assessment of the article.”
Although Dr. Markram encourages readers to communicate their doubts about potential conflicts of interest with respect to published articles, it would be useful to know that some action is actually taken once such concerns are reported. Following the Frontiers Review Guidelines (http://www.frontiersin.org/Design/pdf/ReviewGuidelines.pdf), concerns about two articles recently published in Frontiers in Psychology were emailed to the Frontiers editorial office. The email was sent on 30/10/15 and the concerns are summarized below:
According to Frontiers Review Guidelines, Frontiers claims to maintain a peer-review process. Some recent incidents seem to suggest that the claimed standards in reviewing are not always met. We see here (http://journal.frontiersin.org/article/10.3389/fpsyg.2015.01082/abstract) a recently published article in Frontiers in Psychology. Upon reading it, we see that the author, both the editors (as it is part of a special issue) and one of the two reviewers all share an affiliation at http://biolinguistics-bcn.info/people/. (**NB. After we reported the issue to Frontiers, this website seems to have deleted much of its content, but check Google cache): Two of them are listed as external members/collaborators and two of them as core members of the same research group. The fact that the editor, one reviewer and the author have recently conducted work together (see the program of this conference http://www.er.uqam.ca/nobel/bioling/PAVIA2015/program.htm for featuring joint work between the author, the reviewer and the editor or this article http://journal.frontiersin.org/article/10.3389/fpsyg.2014.01463/abstract for joint work between the reviewer and the editor) in a topic that seems related to the topic dealt with in the article is a clear violation of the Frontiers Review Guidelines.
What is even more disturbing is that the above article does not mark a single incident of what looks as a potential failure to adhere to the ethical standards that Frontiers seeks to meet. In another article (http://journal.frontiersin.org/article/10.3389/fpsyg.2015.01355/abstract) in the very same issue of Frontiers, we see that the editors, the author and both reviewers all come from the same research group, listed as either core members or collaborators. The author of the second article mentions in the acknowledgments that “Preparation of this work was supported by funds from the Spanish Ministry of Economy and Competitiveness (grants FFI2013-43823-P and FFI2014-61888-EXP)”. These are grants awarded to the two editors (check Google cache for http://biolinguistics-bcn.info/about/research-lines-and-funding/). This looks like another conflict of interest (point 10 in section ‘Financial’, page 3 of the Frontiers Review Guidelines).
I hope you see the multiple conflicts of interest that arise in both cases. Given that (i) the peer-review process has been seriously compromised on the above mentioned grounds and (ii) your journal publicly claims that a peer-review process without conflicts of interest is ensured (see Frontiers Review Guidelines), retractions seem necessary. Failure to do so may be subject to various forms of legal action in the European Union (Misleading Advertising, Article 2, Directive 2006/114/EC).”
This email was sent to Frontiers 7 days ago. Given the transparent process that Dr. Markram so enthusiastically advertises, one would expect some kind of (re)action from Frontiers. Even a minimal “thank you for your time. We had no idea but are currently looking into it” would be an indication that some action will be taken and the reported concern is taken seriously. Surprisingly, Frontiers remains silent. No reply. Not a single word. No indication of action. No expression of concern. No appreciation of the fact that readers spent some time to point out apparent conflicts of interest.
Dr. Markram claims that Frontiers’ policy of transparency allows readers to “scrutinize the qualifications of the handling editor and reviewers”. Well, this scrutinizing is not always easy. It seems that Frontiers permits authors and reviewers to selectively list some of their affiliations (compare http://journal.frontiersin.org/article/10.3389/fpsyg.2015.01082/abstract and http://journal.frontiersin.org/article/10.3389/fpsyg.2015.01355/abstract with http://journal.frontiersin.org/article/10.3389/fpsyg.2014.01463/abstract. Affiliation 3 in the latter is absent from the other two articles even though some of the mentioned individuals were listed as members of the very same group at the time these articles were published).
One wonders: Do people at Frontiers check for potential conflicts of interest before they publish an article? If not, how is the peer-review process maintained uncompromised? More to the (worrying) point, do people at Frontiers take some kind of action when readers alert them about potential conflicts of interest? And, finally, what qualities make a publisher predatory?
A majority of studies in high IF journals not being reproducible does not seem to be a concern because they have titled EiC independence and by Beall’s definition are not predatory in turn, because are not oa and therefore not on Beall’s list. The real concern here for scientific introspection is that Beall’s impulsiveness (although it appears more like the inevitable outcome of a carefully orchestrated agenda over some time) is an attempt to silence a well-regarded and attended platform for scienticifc dissonance, not readily available on traditional pathways of publication. I suspect that Beall has simply compromised the integrity of his otherwise worthwhile eneterprise and that he is largely appealing to a converted group simply by the nature (no pun intended) of their position within a hierarchy that depends on prestige by association.
The manifesto challenging editorial independence against Frontiers is notable not only for what it claims to be an abrogation of editorial independence (a worthwhile cause ), but also for the disappointment of editors who took on a role believeing it would bring them closer to an elite world by association (there is some rant about a dissipating cosy relationship between frontiers and npg). I just wonder if the manifesto would have materialized if Frontiers had fostered the dependence of its reputation on the Nature brand.
There is always room for criticism, no one should stiffle constant checks and balances irrespective of the stated principles on foundation and sure they can be corrupted by monetary inetersts, but Beall shows a short-sighted and pervasive lack of empathy for the cause of innovation in science and the way it is delivered. His effort simply trashes the work of many dedicated scientists who put their integirty at a premium whether editors or authors associated with the journal. As such he has made himself a villain to many.
I received this message from Frontiers today:
“Frontiers in Human Neuroscience was launched in 2008. In just 6 years, it has become the #1 most-cited journal in psychology, the #1 most-cited open access journal dedicated to neuroscience and the 10th most-cited journal in all of neuroscience. It is also the 2nd and 3rd largest journal in all of psychology and neuroscience, respectively.”
I still don’t have a strong opinion on Frontiers and Open Access, but so far the model seems to be working for me. I have gotten more views in seven weeks for my Frontiers opinion piece than I have in fifteen years for any of my traditionally published essays.
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