This is my currently final (two-part) instalment on the topic of Frontiers listing by Jeffrey Beall as a potential, possible or probable predatory publisher. This time I will focus on the Frontiers scientists: the authors as well as the academic editors. In brief, it appears that Frontiers’ own rules for peer review and conflict of interest are sometimes being bent and broken to boost scientists’ publication record. As result, in better cases personal ideas and largely data-free opinions are published as peer reviewed papers, often outside the journal’s original scope. In more embarrassing cases, pseudo-scientific and esoteric nonsense was peddled as original peer reviewed research. Though maybe, Frontiers is being instead secretly trolled and ridiculed by its own authors and academic editors. In any case, the publishing house profits through additional publication fees, increased output on citable (even if totally scope-unrelated) papers per field journal and thus likely an improved journal impact factor.
What does actually make a publisher a predatory one? Online depositories like BioRxiv allow authors to upload for public view any submission, yet everyone is fully aware that such publications are not peer-reviewed. Post-publication peer review journals like F1000 Research, ScienceOpen, PeerJ and, up to some degree, The Winnover, publish every submitted manuscript which suffices an internal quality control. The peer review happens, as the name says, after the publication and is fully transparent (the authors then update their original paper to a final version, which addresses the reviewer comments).
Predatory publishers however, do not perform any peer review (at least nothing worth being deemed as such), while specifically pretending to the opposite. This pretence allows authors to pass off their papers in predatory journals as peer reviewed, thus strengthening their academic CVs and publication records. In return, the predatory publisher is nicely remunerated by the naïve or dishonest author.
Exactly this deal predicts why such publishers would never introduce a post-publication peer review: everybody would then be able to shame their weak and inappropriate manuscripts, publicly. The authors would stand embarrassed; their publication would also never be listed on the NCBI portal for peer reviewed biomedical literature PubMed. This is what actually happened to a certain parapsychology paper in F1000 Research. Also, predatory journals would never follow the current trend of making peer reviewer reports public, even anonymously. While even more traditionally structured journals like eLife and EMBO J publish entire peer reviewer reports (sometimes even named), such move would expose straight away the deficiency or absence of a peer review process of a predatory journal.
At Frontiers, peer review happens traditionally, before publication, and the reviewer reports are not released. Only the reviewers themselves are named. These are predominantly the official “review editors” at Frontiers, sometimes however, also external peer reviewers are recruited or the handling associate editor performs the peer review him- or herself.
I will present two cases, where certain Topic Collections in Frontiers in Human Neuroscience and in Frontiers in Computational Neuroscience have revealed certain inconsistencies at the editorial handling and peer review process. For the lack of original protagonists’ replies to my invitations to comment, the following interpretations on how these two collections came about are my own speculations. However, the otherwise described facts are cross-linked and speak for themselves.
- Paranormal activities at the Frontiers in Human Neuroscience
In January 2012, Hauke Heekeren, chief specialty editor of Frontiers in Human Neuroscience and professor for Biological Psychology and Cognitive Neuroscience at the Freie Universität Berlin, received a certain manuscript submission. The author was Enrico Facco, anaesthesiology professor at the Italian Università degli Studi di Padova, together with his postdoc, Christian Agrillo. Whatever the original submission read like, the final paper now contains statements of the kind:
“Several studies have proposed psychobiological interpretations of near-death experiences (NDEs), claiming that NDEs are a mere byproduct of brain functions gone awry; however, relevant facts incompatible with the ruling physicalist and reductionist stance have been often neglected”
“Facts can be only true or false, never paranormal. In this sense, they cannot be refused a priori even when they appear implausible with respect to our current knowledge”
Agrillo and Facco obviously argue, that whatever people “witness” during their near-death experiences (god, afterlife, dead people, etc), may indeed be rooted in what science dismisses as esoteric or paranormal. The two authors proceed first to debunk all the rational, medical, explanations to patient-reported visions, and then to suggest that these visions do offer evidence for the scientific validity of “a partial dissociation between body and mind” and “meeting deceased people”. Finally, the authors advocate for academic respect and scientific attention to “spirituality and other still misunderstood mind activities (the so-called altered states of consciousness), including NDEs, hypnosis, meditation, and mystic experiences”.
One would fully agree if the chief editor Heekeren would have laughed and rejected this bizarre submission to his serious neuroscience journal right away. Yet he did not. Some months later, Heekeren accepted this study for publication, after peer review by three senior scientists, including Bruce Greyson and Pim van Lommel, NDE researchers as well and proponents of the somewhat controversial concept that our consciousness is a “non-local” entity and as such not physically associated with our brain as organ.
Why did Heekeren ever consider this submission? Why did he recruit these unconventional reviewers? Why did he publish this paper in his journal?
My interpretation is: Heekeren was testing, how serious a publisher Frontiers is. Will such unscientific study be flagged and retracted? Will there at least be some critical comments? Apparently: not at all. The only two comments, by the author Agrillo and an “Esprit Public Relations” person, were promptly deleted.
Thus emboldened, the psychology professor from Berlin might have decided to test the Frontiers system a bit more. This time Heekeren has invited Facco to contribute to Frontiers in Neuroscience an entire collection, named “Non-Ordinary Mental Expressions”, which then indeed proved to bountifully contain parapsychology and esoterics. As Facco’s partner, Etzel Cardeña, professor of psychology at the Lund University in Sweden, was invited as collection editor well. Cardeña does not really hide his supernatural talents: he is a member of the Parapsychological Association, where he describes his area of expertise as: “Anomalous experiences (unusual but not necessarily pathological experiences such as mystical, psi-related and out-of-body experiences) and parapsychology”. The website also informs:
“The Parapsychological Association is an international professional organization of scientists and scholars engaged in the study of psi (or ‘psychic’) experiences, such as telepathy, clairvoyance, psychokinesis, psychic healing, and precognition. The primary objective of the PA is to achieve a scientific understanding of these experiences”.
Indeed, Lund University’s own parapsychologist did deliver. Cardeña’s editorial opinion article, “A call for an open, informed study of all aspects of consciousness”, claims right away that
“psychological dissociation, hypnosis, and preconscious cognition are now well integrated into mainstream science”, in a very bold move equalling those with other “phenomena now accepted in science such as the existence of meteorites, the germ theory of disease, or, more recently, adult neurogenesis”.
The Lund University professor goes on to silence the critics of paranormal studies and to demand that “telepathy” and “precognition” (which is another word for clairvoyance) be given serious research attention as well. And, as not to appear as a lone raving lunatic, Cardeña concludes his demands with a long list of signatory supporter “scientists”. This invited opinion was edited by Facco’s postdoc, Agrillo, and peer reviewed by a Canadian psychology professor, Imants Barušs, who, unsurprisingly, is another parapsychology proponent.
Beyond other remarkable works, the collection also includes a certain Original Research Article by Thomas Rabeyron, clinical psychology professor at the Nantes University in France. It was edited by Cardeña, and concerns “anomalous retroactive influences on cognition and affect” as well as “retro-priming” and “psi”, which in lay terms are actually clairvoyance and telepathy. Rabeyron’s paper is about his attempt to replicate some former parapsychology studies, and in his first experiment, he claims to have indeed found some evidence for supernatural powers among young people and especially males. However, he could not reproduce these results in his second experiment, despite that his “highest scoring participants“ were often “believers” or even convinced of their own clairvoyance. Despite this irreproducibility, Rabeyron did not turn a parapsychology sceptic himself. He writes down his apparent disappointment that he could not fully reproduce the staggering paranormal activity research of the field’s grandmaster and former board member of the Parapsychological Association, Daryl Bem. This retired psychologist and Cornell University professor was incidentally also the peer reviewer of Rabeyron’s original research article in Frontiers. In deference to the mighty Bem, the author seems to blame himself and his experimental setup, for suppressing the psychic abilities of his participants during his experiments on telepathy and clairvoyance.
Another peer reviewer of this Rabeyron study was Julia Mossbridge, research associate at the Psychology Department at the Northwestern University, USA. Together with some co-authors, she contributed a Review Article to the collection; peer reviewed by some academically otherwise unspecified “Freelance Writer” from USA, and yet again, Bem. Mossbridge et al conclude that clairvoyance “has been under investigation for more than three decades, and a recent conservative meta-analysis suggests that the phenomenon is real”.
Heavy stuff indeed, and one starts wondering what actually goes on inside certain haunted psychology departments of our universities. I only hope these scientists do not really possess psychic power themselves, otherwise I would place myself in serious voodoo danger by calling out their “research” as pseudo-scientific raving nonsense and waste of public money.
Sam Schwarzkopf, Research Fellow in Experimental Psychology at UCL, who was also a critical commenter of this Frontiers collection and the peer reviewer of the above-mentioned paranormal manuscript in F1000 Research, told me his views:
“There isn’t anything wrong with people submitting that kind of work to new journals like Frontiers – or, more recently, F1000 Research. What is wrong is if studies like these are accepted into the scientific record without solid peer review. Which is why I like the F1000 Research (or PeerJ) model of having the entire review process public”.
But, maybe all these doctors and psychologists were actually engaged in a huge prank on Frontiers and its readers, possibly thought up by the mischievous chief editor Heekeren?
If so, the joke is still going on. One would think that a collection containing such outrageous pseudo-science would not be even for a minute tolerated at a serious academic journal as Frontiers in Neuroscience. Yet it passed editorial processes and peer review with flying colours and educates all interested neuroscientists worldwide ever since.
As it seems, Prof. Heekeren might have very cleverly exposed the lack of editorial oversight and peer review deficiencies at Frontiers, right inside his own journal. Hardly anyone noticed so far, while Frontiers surely earned some article processing charges from the collection authors.
In the next part, I will show how another possible team of “guerilla” neuroscientists have placed a collection on peer review integrity at a Frontiers journal by bluntly hijacking the Frontiers peer review process. Their apparent act of peer review pirating made a major point for their demands for more integrity and transparency, yet their irony and sarcasm were lost on Frontiers.
Update 16.02.2016: Etzel Cardena published on 15.12.2015 in Journal of Scientific Exploration an essay titled “The Unbearable Fear of Psi:
On Scientific Suppression in the 21st Century“, which “Appendix 1 is an Editorial censored by the then-editors of the Journal Frontiers in Human Neuroscience“.
Update 30.08.2016. Apparently, EiC Heekeren is not done trolling his own journal with pseudoscience. In May 2016, his Frontiers in Human Neuroscience published a paper by Delorme et al, titled “Prediction of Mortality Based on Facial Characteristics“. Its authors hail from the parapsychology-promoting “Institute of Noetic Sciences” in California. From the abstract:
“Our results support claims of individuals who report that some as-yet unknown features of the face predict mortality. The results are also compatible with claims about clairvoyance warrants further investigation”.