What we often perceive as independent quality certificates of publishing ethics are sometimes apparently nothing more than a fig leaf. This is especially true for journals self-registering with the International Committee of Medical Journal Editors (ICMJE). Yet most strikingly, even official paying members of the Committee on Publication Ethics (COPE) are not really bound to follow the rules of good editorial practice this organization advices. This happens with open consent of COPE, as the examples of Frontiers and also Nature Publishing Group demonstrate. In fact, the COPE council even appears partially managed by the very publisher which openly admits to ignoring its publication ethics guidelines: Frontiers.
After the Swiss publisher Frontiers was listed by Jeffrey Beall as a potential, possible, or probable predatory scholarly open-access publisher, the Frontiers Communications Office provided a comment under the relevant news article in Nature. It argued against Beall’s listing by mentioning the awards Frontiers received and the Frontiers membership on the Committee on Publication Ethics (COPE). In fact, Frontiers writes on their website, under the heading Publication Ethics and Malpractice:
“Frontiers endeavors to follow the guidelines and best practice recommendations published by the Committee on Publication Ethics (COPE). […] Frontiers follows the International Committee of Medical Journal Editors (ICMJE) guidelines including its recommended authorship criteria. Frontiers in Cardiovascular Medicine is listed as a journal following ICMJE recommendations on its website.”
So how can a publisher, which journals obviously received the approval of such highly respected publishing ethics organizations as ICMJE and COPE, find itself on Beall’s list? One clue might be: because both ICMJE and COPE leave it to their subscribers as whether to actually follow their recommendations. Publishers, who choose to ignore the ICMJE and COPE advice on publication ethics, are neither requested to comply, nor are they banished if they don’t.
As a reminder, the editorial conflict at Frontiers arose because medical chief editors felt they had little influence on which papers were accepted for publication in their journals and on which criteria. They also perceived the publisher-imposed rules, which strongly discourage manuscript rejection, as hurdles to their editorial duties to prevent the publication of seriously flawed medical papers. Yet in a reply to the editorial Manifesto, Frontiers wrote:
“Frontiers practices abide by these guidelines [ICMJE and COPE]. We are now formalizing this by officially registering our journals with these associations. Frontiers in Cardiovascular Medicine, for example, is listed by ICMJE as a journal that complies to their guidelines”.
Right after the sacking of almost all medical chief editors, Frontiers biomedical and neuroscience journals were indeed enlisted en masse as “following the ICMJE Recommendations”, including Frontiers in Medicine and Frontiers in Cardiovascular Medicine, which did not even have their accountable chief editors anymore. Interestingly, a section of ICMJE recommendations concerns “journal owners and editorial freedom”. On the latter, it says:
“The ICMJE adopts the World Association of Medical Editors’ [WAME] definition of editorial freedom, which holds that editors-in-chief have full authority over the entire editorial content of their journal and the timing of publication of that content. Journal owners should not interfere in the evaluation, selection, scheduling, or editing of individual articles either directly or by creating an environment that strongly influences decisions. Editors should base editorial decisions on the validity of the work and its importance to the journal’s readers, not on the commercial implications for the journal, and editors should be free to express critical but responsible views about all aspects of medicine without fear of retribution, even if these views conflict with the commercial goals of the publisher”.
I have contacted ICMJE with an inquiry, how the journals of a publisher, which seems to openly oppose the ICMJE and WAME-defined editorial independence, could become listed as following these very recommendations. This was the unsigned reply I received:
“The list includes journals whose editors or publishers have contacted the International Committee of Medical Journal Editors (ICMJE) to request listing. We are not able to confirm the actual editorial practices of non-ICMJE journals. As is noted at our website: The ICMJE cannot verify the completeness or accuracy of this list”.
My understanding was therefore, that just because a journal has itself listed as “following the ICMJE Recommendations”, it does not necessarily mean that this journal or its publisher are also required to actually implement these. The self-accomplished ICMJE listing is obviously not really attached to the actual act or even intent of “following the ICMJE Recommendations”.
Indeed, the ICMJE Journal Listing Request Form seems to allow anyone to self-enlist as “Following the ICMJE Recommendations”, apparently without further proceedings attached to it. Also, as Darren Taichman, Secretary of ICMJE, wrote in his follow-up email to me: “ICMJE does not collect fees from or certify anyone. And, Frontiers is not a member of ICMJE”. Therefore, in the case of ICMJE one should always make a distinction in publishing ethics expectations between its proper members such as The BMJ, JAMA or The Lancet on the one hand and the “Journals Following the ICMJE Recommendations” on the other.
With the Frontiers involvement with COPE however, it is different. Frontiers COPE membership is official and it costs. Even though the Swiss publisher enlisted only 50 of its 54 journals (thus also reducing its annual membership fee from £5,353 to £3,275), it still is one of the larger contributors to the COPE budget (COPE is legally a charity and thus likely relies on membership fees and donations).
Frontiers joined COPE in January 2015. Exactly one year before, the COPE council member Mirjam Curno, joined Frontiers in her main professional occupation as journal manager. Virginia Barbour, Chair of COPE, has specified in her email to me and in comment on my earlier Frontiers article:
“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.”
As aside, Curno is not the only COPE council member primarily employed by a commercial for-profit publisher, who is also simultaneously COPE member. Treasurer Chris Leonard is Head of academic and journals publishing at Bloomsbury Qatar Foundation. Former Treasurer and now Co-Vice-Chair Chris Graf works as associate editorial director at Wiley-Blackwell.
It proved rather difficult to engage with Curno on the matter of editorial ethics in regard to her current main employer, Frontiers. In August 2015, I wrote Curno an email, addressing her explicitly in her function as COPE council member (for lack of other options I used Curno’s contact email @frontiersin.org). My inquiry was about the shortfall of editorial independence at Frontiers, as perceived by the former medical editors and detailed in their editorial Manifesto. My specific concern presented to the COPE council member Curno was, that this situation might be in conflict with the Code of Conduct for Publishers as issued by COPE. The Code namely stipulates that publishers should ”foster editorial independence” and that they
“should work with journal editors to set journal policies appropriately and aim to meet those policies, particularly with respect to:
– Editorial independence
– Research ethics, including confidentiality, consent, and the special requirements for human and animal research
– Transparency and integrity (for example, conflicts of interest, research funding, reporting standards – Peer review and the role of the editorial team beyond that of the journal editor”
Yet these were exactly the demands which the Frontiers medical editors have issued in their manifesto and for which they were collectively sacked by Fenter on behalf of the publisher.
Since that email two months ago, I never received any reply at all from my direct addressee Curno. Instead, soon afterwards, an email from Frederick Fenter, Frontiers Executive Editor arrived:
“I have learned that you have been in contact with my colleague Dr. Curno with another round of questions. I remain your contact here at Frontiers for any such requests”.
In his follow-up email, Fenter stated the following:
“Please do not confuse COPE’s business with Frontiers’ business. If you have queries for COPE, please use their well-established procedures. Questions concerning Frontiers should be addressed to me. There is absolutely no conflict between our way of operating and the COPE guidelines. The processes we have implemented are fully compliant, which is obvious to those who read publicly available information”.
Fenter then proceeded on to explain the Frontiers principles, most of which I have already relayed in a comment to the relevant article. While I am very grateful to Dr. Fenter for addressing all my concerns rapidly and in detailed and extensive manner, he could hardly help me understand the side of “COPE’s business” in regard to Frontiers, for which I specifically have contacted Dr. Curno.
In fact, I was somewhat surprised that a COPE trustee is, for some reason, not able to correspond on her own about the implementations of COPE guidelines by its publisher members. I was left confused as to whether Dr. Curno is a dedicated academic, appointed as COPE trustee against her numerous highly qualified competitors for her engagement and contributions to publication ethics, or if she is currently rather a non-autonomous COPE delegate of her main employer, the publishing house Frontiers. The fact that all communication regarding Curno’s role at COPE happened through her employer at Frontiers, Fenter, as well as the COPE Chair, Barbour, might be interpreted as evidence for the latter.
Regarding concerns about Frontiers editorial process, Barbour (who is also one of the founding editors and formal editorial director of PLOS Medicine), wrote in her email to me and in the COPE public 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”.
However, Frontiers is not the only recent COPE publisher member which seems to openly take a stance which might be interpreted as contradicting COPE guidelines. Another such example is the much bigger Nature Publishing Group (which mother company, the German publisher Holtzbrinck, also partially owns Frontiers). NPG also has recently joined COPE, with 123 of its journals, including the flagship Nature and other Nature family journals.
Shortly before this, the journal Nature Communications has retracted a paper, with apparently the sole argument being that of authors’ disagreement over the approval of publication. I have reported on this conflict involving Jan Ellenberg, head of research unit at EMBL in Heidelberg, and his former postdoctoral scientist, Aïcha Metchat, for Laborjournal, in German. In such cases, where “there is no reason to doubt the validity of the findings”, COPE retraction guidelines advise the editors to consider a correction, instead of retraction. Even Nature’s own website is quite in agreement with COPE and refers to retractions solely as “notification of invalid results”, which “are judged according to whether the main conclusion of the paper no longer holds or is seriously undermined”. Otherwise, the NPG retraction policies give no mention of authors’ conflicts over the publication of otherwise valid data.
Yet Alice Henchley, Head of Press at NPG, has forwarded me this statement by the Chief Life Sciences Editor at Nature Communications, Niki Scaplehorn:
“Since the publication of the retraction, we have indeed become members of COPE, which provides guidance on publication ethics. The COPE guidelines do not, however, replace our editorial policies, which remain in effect as they were when the decision to retract the paper was made and are clearly detailed on our website”.
Thus, COPE members are not really that bound to precisely follow COPE guidelines. Originally, COPE was founded as “a forum for its members”, and beyond this: “COPE provides advice to editors and publishers on all aspects of publication ethics and, in particular, how to handle cases of research and publication misconduct”. The COPE website also insists: “All COPE members are expected to follow the Code of Conduct for Journal Editors”. Yet this very Code advises that “editors should follow the COPE guidelines on retractions”, which Nature Communications did not. Also, in several instances the Code unmistakably stipulates the demand for editorial independence, the deficit of which Frontiers has been accused of. Understandably, as a discussion and advisory forum COPE is in no position to enforce the adherence of its members to the guidelines they have voluntarily subscribed to. But even then, do such journals and publishers have to be welcomed or tolerated by COPE as its members?
One could argue that it is a wiser approach to engage uncooperative publishers as COPE members, with the expectation that they would little by little eventually adjust their editorial practices to the COPE guidelines on publication ethics. This might be one very enticing future outcome. Another, less desirable one, could be that the new COPE members, likely together with their financially dependent representatives on the COPE council, could simply write a new set of publication ethics guidelines, which may be very different from the current one. Indeed, COPE is a constantly developing discussion forum, and the currently valid guidelines for editors and publishers were formulated by the earlier COPE members’ circle. Who knows, if in the future COPE code of conduct, a demand for editorial independence might actually be deemed as editorial misconduct. After all, there are not many industries where such high profits are being made as in academic publishing.
02.11.2015: The PLOS affiliation of Dr. Barbour has been corrected as a former one, according to her own feedback (s. below). I apologise for using outdated information from the PLOS website (http://blogs.plos.org/speakingofmedicine/author/virginia_barbour/).