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.

Dunderhead

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BioRxiv allow authors to upload for public view any submission, yet everyone is fully aware that such publications are not peer-reviewed.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.

  1. 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”

and

“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”.

18 thoughts on “Part 1: Frontiers in Paranormal Activities

  1. While I understand that you frame your post as your ‘own speculations’, I think your portrayal of this issue is inaccurate. Like many of my colleagues, I am concerned about some of the problems Frontiers has had. However, I have no reason to believe that Prof. Heekeren has acted in any untoward way.

    As I have already pointed out to you in private, special collections like these were not ‘invited’ by the Editor in Chief but typically initiated after being solicited via automated email. This was one of the problems I bemoaned – but it seems this was stopped. I can’t comment much on that NDE article Hauke himself edited but at least from a cursory reading it doesn’t seem as strikingly laughable to me as you imply. It is doubtless unorthodox but the main case it seems to make is that some evidence needs to be examined more closely. It does not strike me as inadequate to highlight that. It took several months to be accepted which suggests it was subjected to reasonable scrutiny.

    I stand by my statement quoted in your blog. Science should be based on evidence, not dogma. Unorthodox views should be publishable provided they are supported by evidence. It should be unsurprising that novel approaches to scientific publishing have teething problems. In my view, Frontiers should adapt its model to have an open peer review system and pay-for-submission business model like F1000R or PeerJ. This would go a long way to addressing its problems. But I don’t buy the narrative about corrupt editors on a nefarious money-making/reputation-building scheme.

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    1. Dear Sam,
      thank you for your feedback. I have contacted Hauke Heekeren twice under his established institutional email address, as well as over Twitter, yet received no reply. He may indeed have been utterly unaware of the Facco-Cardena collection, yet then he would have been ruefully neglecting his direct duties as chief editor, outlined by his Frontiers EiC colleague, Anne Simon, in my other post: https://forbetterscience.wordpress.com/2015/10/28/is-frontiers-a-potential-predatory-publisher/
      I also wrote to Dean Mobbs, another reviewer of the Agrillo&Facco paper (who, unlike other two reviewers, is a serious neuroscientist without known claims to soul immortality), under his current institutional email address in Columbia University, NY, but received no reply as well. I have now forwarded him the link of this blog post and asked to comment.
      I did not contact the otherwise mentioned established parapsychology researchers, because, quite honestly, as biologist I have my difficulties taking their “research” into soul immortality, telepathy and psychic abilities seriously enough.

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  2. I am really getting annoyed by the use of my quote on manuscript quality. It had a context, mainly that I was under the impressions the authors treated FrontiersIn as a dump, and often didn’t care to provide a well prepared manuscript. It has nothing to do with the review process or the quality of the studies.

    In your last piece as well as here this context is not given.

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    1. Dear Dennis, many thanks for your comment. I believe however there is a misunderstanding, since you never were interviewed or shared any information for “Frontiers in Paranormal Activities”. I wonder if you were referring to my criticism of the scientific quality of the Cardena publications and his Frontiers collection, and invite you to discuss this, if you are interested.

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  3. Here is another paper in Frontiers where a personal idea or hypothesis is presented as fact: “Bread and Other Edible Agents of Mental Disease”, http://journal.frontiersin.org/article/10.3389/fnhum.2016.00130/full

    In this paper, bread is presented as a food item that will cause damage to the intestinal lining in all people, not just people with gluten intolerance, eventually leading to mental health problems. This paper is presented as a Review, not a Hypothesis, suggesting that the statements of this papers are factual. Although an interesting hypothesis, this paper makes several ill-founded statements that lack citations or support. It also has a sensational and fear-evoking tone to it that does not belong in a scientific and peer-reviewed paper.

    You can read my comments here: https://microbiomedigest.com/2016/04/12/problems-with-bread-and-mental-diseases-paper/ and on Pubpeer: https://pubpeer.com/publications/257893F28D8B6B25CA57D3B50095FD

    Elisabeth Bik @microbiomdigest

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  4. This time Heekeren has invited Facco to contribute to Frontiers in Neuroscience an entire collection

    The eagerness with which Frontiers journals invite people to open these “research topics”, and the incentives they provide, have caused people smarter than me to compare the publisher to multi-level marketing.

    Together with some co-authors, [Mossbridge] 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”.

    One of the co-authors there was Dean Radin, of the Institute of Noetic Science, also editor of and frequent contributor to “Explore” (published by Elsevier).
    http://loop.frontiersin.org/people/25515/publications

    He was also a co-author on “Electrocortical activity associated with subjective communication with the deceased”, in Frontiers in Psychology, edited and reviewed by Zoran Josipovic
    http://journal.frontiersin.org/article/10.3389/fpsyg.2013.00834/full

    Researching the neural correlates of spirit-channeling mediumship could indeed be an interesting topic, but I was concerned to read down into the article and discover that the authors actually believe themselves to be studying objective “communication with the deceased” (and its neural correlates):

    Responses were transcribed and then scored for accuracy by individuals who knew the deceased persons. Of the four mediums whose accuracy could be evaluated, three scored significantly above chance (p < 0.03). The correlation between accuracy and brain activity during the 20 s of silent mediumship communication was significant in frontal theta for one participant (p < 0.01).

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  5. People seem to be reading “Electrocortical activity associated with subjective communication with the deceased” as an innocuous and uncontroversial inquiry into the neural correlates of an altered subjective state of consciousness:

    no claims to “prove” medium communication. it’s about correlates of a subjective perception.

    This is an understandable mistake if you concentrate on the paper’s conclusion. After calling for further research, the authors finish with the words “Taken together, the study’s findings suggest that the experience of communicating with the deceased may be a distinct mental state that is not consistent with brain activity during ordinary thinking or imagination.”

    But in the text, the authors are quite explicit that in their statistical analysis they focussed on accurate reception of information from dead people — see their section “Correlation between Accuracy and Electrocortical Activity (Experiment 1)” That is to say, Delorme et al. do claim that the mediums’ communication with dead people was an objective phenomenon.

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  6. “[. . .]

    Another peer reviewer of this Rabeyron study was Julia Mossbridge, research associate at the Psychology Department at the Northwestern University, USA. [. . .]

    [. . .]”

    On
    http://WWW.Albany.edu/~scifraud/scilog/scilog97_page1.html
    it was claimed that Dr. Sheldon L. Epstein was fired by Northwestern University for lecturing that Nazis killed and for lecturing that these murders were unethical.

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  7. This article is terrible. The author probably has never read anything that he’s talking about, but he’s self-entitled enough to write a whole post about it.
    If you don’t care or you don’t take this kind of study seriously, why post about it? If you don’t want to read the literature/debates, why write down this?

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  8. This post and others about Frontiers, including the uncovering of their disgraceful employment practices provides ample reasons for their position on Beall’s list. There is much quackery about in their pages.

    However, in Frontiers defence, perhaps as @microbiomedigest notes, it is about bread. I myself must confess to eating bread regularly, including tonight, so my judgement on the matter is likely to be clouded.

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