In this article, I will compare editorial policies of two for-profit open access (OA) publishers, Frontiers and Hindawi. Though both are members of OASPA and COPE as well as sponsors of DOAJ, respectively, Frontiers has been placed on the controversial Beall’s list of predatory publishers. Nevertheless, both OASPA and COPE expressed being “fully satisfied” with Frontiers. The two publishers are regularly criticised for their excessive email advertising, occasionally compared to “spamming”. Unlike Hindawi, Frontiers successfully negotiated publishing agreements with Western (predominantly European) research institutions, such as the German Max-Planck-Society, and a number of research centres and universities, which ensure that Frontiers authors will get their article-processing charges shouldered by their institutional libraries.
My analysis suggests that editorial independence is still possibly a tricky issue with Frontiers, and much less so with Hindawi. While Hindawi academic editors apparently enjoy exclusive responsibility for managing the peer review and making decisions about acceptance or rejection of submitted manuscripts, these processes are tightly regulated at Frontiers. There, chief editors are expected by contract to deliver a certain minimum of published papers per year, while manuscript-handling associate editors are basically powerless. Rejections are not allowed until every single reviewer recommends it, and are even then at the discretion of the chief editor. Frontiers’ bold claim of “full editorial independence” seems less credible, once you read through the editorial contracts, which I make available below.
Both publishers, Hindawi and Frontiers, were founded by a husband-and-wife team. The physicist Ahmed Hindawi and his wife, the mathematician Nagwa Abdel-Mottaleb, started their publishing house in their home country Egypt in 1997; 10 years later they converted Hindawi to open access. Just in the same year 2007, the OA publisher Frontiers was founded by the neuroscientist couple Henry and Kamila Markram at the elite university EPFL in Lausanne, Switzerland. Unlike the Hindawis, Henry and Kamila Markram are both still active scientists at EPFL (the husband also runs the controversial European 1-Billion Euro prestige programme Human Brain Project). Both Markrams occasionally publish their own peer reviewed cooperative research at Frontiers, where they function as Editor-in-Chief and CEO, respectively. Also, Frontiers began as a non-profit foundation, which, according to Kamila Markram, originally “raised a total of about 400,000 Swiss francs including that from local philanthropists”. It is unclear who these philanthropists were and whether they asked for their donations to be refunded, after Frontiers converted to a for-profit business. Though Frontiers describes the investment by German academic publishing giant Holtzbrinck as merely “a stake” or “an interest”, the Swiss publisher seems to be in fact 100% Holtzbrinck owned (at least in 2015, evidence here and here). Despite hopeful announcements, which misled some medical Frontiers editors, Markrams publishing house never became part of Holtzbrick-owned Nature Publishing Group or the later SpringerNature merger.
In her interview with Richard Poynder, Kamila Markram finally mentioned the general manuscript rejection rate for Frontiers to be at around 19%. Hindawi publishes the acceptance rates alongside every journal, which even can be low as one-quarter.
Neither Hindawi nor Frontiers make their peer review reports public, but Frontiers names the reviewers, who are usually members of the specially recruited “Review Editors” list. These are managed by “Associate editors”, who are supervised by “Chief Editors”. The Chief Editors are also the only ones who receive from Frontiers a salary (€15,000/year), and are entitled to reject a manuscript.
Hindawi operates their journals without editors-in-chief (EiCs), there is no hierarchy among their editorial board members. I communicated with several Hindawi editors via email. Some handle a dozen and more of manuscripts per year, while others are invited by Hindawi to edit submissions only very rarely (or, not at all). This seems to depend on the journal and its popularity with authors. Hindawi editorial manager Michael Fayez explained the company’s principles in his email to me:
“The responsibility of managing the peer-review process is shared equally among the members of the Editorial Board. Every manuscript submitted to the journal is directed to one of the Editors, who can either reject the manuscript straight away or send it to external reviewers. Once the review reports have been received, the Editor will decide whether to accept or reject the manuscript based on the review reports. The name of the Editor who accepts a manuscript is indicated in the final published version of the article”.
“Editors are free to either select reviewers from our suggested list, or to use any other qualified reviewers, who are then checked by our staff to ensure that they are of sufficient seniority and they have no conflict of interest with the manuscript’s authors”.
This in principle was also confirmed to me by several Hindawi editors. Klaus Wimmers, professor at the Leibniz Institute for Farm Animal Biology in Dummerstorf, Germany, said:
“I have also never experienced any interference from the publisher. Manuscript rejections were always accepted. I have had the final decision. The Journal always provides an exhaustive list of available reviewers – their publication lists can be consulted via a link, in order to decide whether these reviewers have the appropriate expertise. The list is very helpful and well compiled”.
A professor at a German university clinic (who chose not to be named), stated he always obtains two to three reviewer reports from appropriate peer reviewers before making a decision, and sees the absence of an Editor-in-Chief as unproblematic, since most EiCs would only perform representative functions. As if to confirm his views, Hauke Heekeren and Misha Tsodyks, EiCs of two key Frontiers neuroscience journals, so far preferred not to explain to public their decisions to publish paranormal pseudoscience or a nonsense paper by a seemingly confused retired surgeon Ivo Janecka. As aside, Janecka apparently soon self-plagiarised his Frontiers work in a follow-up paper elsewhere.
The unnamed Hindawi editor claimed that he rejects quite a lot of inappropriate submissions, often before even sending them out for peer review. Like with Wimmers, his decisions were never challenged by the publisher. The publisher’s representative Fayez declared in this regard:
“Rejected manuscript cannot be considered again “as it is” in any of our journals. However, authors may update their paper based on the feedback they received during the review process and submit it again. In this case, we send the paper to the same Editor who had previously rejected it to make sure that the paper is sufficiently updated to go through the peer review process again”.
It seems therefore, the Egyptian Hindawi is a traditionally-operated academic publisher like any other, be it OA or subscription one. The publisher provides the technical side and promotes the journal, while the responsibility for the content, namely for research quality and proper peer review of their publications, lies largely with the journal’s academic editors. This is also what is generally understood under editorial independence. What happens when an editor should make a mistake or act inappropriately? Fayez points to Hindawi ethics guidelines and declares:
“In such cases, we investigate the situation, and, if necessary, a committee of Editorial Board Members may be formed in order to take a decision”.
The Swiss publisher Frontiers has a very hands-on attitude to ensuring editorial integrity. Occasionally, the publisher seems to place ardent amateur enthusiasm over professional qualifications at the peer review process. A former chief editor of Frontiers medical journal complained to the publisher that some of editors and reviewers assigned to clinical papers not only did not have the right medical qualifications to handle those, but that some of them were not even medical doctors. Yet according to the publisher, they actually did not have to be. The journal manager in charge, Judy Mielke, replied to this concerned medical editor in an email, available to me:
“I understand from Fred [Fenter; Frontiers Executive Editor, -LS] and Mirjam [Curno; Frontiers Editorial Office Manager and COPE trustee, -LS] that this is in discussion and our point of view is that one MD as a reviewer or associate editor is sufficient”.
The inappropriate handling editor was eventually revoked and the manuscript reassigned, but the complaining Frontiers editor was soon afterwards sacked, together with 30 other colleagues, after they issued a Manifesto demanding editorial independence. In any case, the practice of inviting field outsiders as editors and peer reviewers is still tolerated at Frontiers, as the case of Janecka paper recently demonstrated.
Hindawi editors seem to operate outside of the publisher’s tutelage. As a Hindawi editor told me, independently seconded by another one:
“Editorial board members regardless of journal do not have contracts, this is a free obligation without ties”.
The situation is very much different with Frontiers editors. Their contracts are quite long and contain some very peculiar stipulations.
Frontiers Field Chief Editor (EiC) contract contains stipulations such as:
“The Field Chief Editor is appointed for a one year term, […] subject to termination by either party for any reason upon a minimum of thirty (30) days’ notice”
“The Field Chief Editor is ultimately responsible for […] driving the journal to publish at least 1200 high-quality articles per year across the entire ﬁeld”
“Frontiers offers an honorarium for Field Chief Editors of EUR 15,000/year for every full year covered as Field Chief Editor, provided […] the journal publishes a minimum of 500 articles per year by the second year”
The subordinate Specialty Chief Editors can also be sacked anytime with 30 days’ notice and are instructed in their contracts:
“The Specialty Chief Editor is ultimately responsible for […] driving the journal to publish 120 high-value articles per year in the specialty”.
Thus, Frontiers chief editors risk being sacked (sometimes even without a 30 day notice) if they should be too picky about what is actually published in their journal. Instead, they are encouraged by contract to constantly invite their editors and colleagues to contribute “Research Topics” (even if on paranormal activities). With such Research Topics, the Frontiers rules of rigorous peer review seem sometimes suspended.
But what about the associate editors, who are directly responsible for recruiting reviewers, supervising the peer review process and making the decision on whether to accept a submitted manuscript? Well, while EiCs are given €15,000 per year for a certain number of accepted papers in return, Frontiers makes sure lowly associate editors perform their tasks honestly by not corrupting them with money:
“This is a volunteer appointment whose acceptance does not give right to any ﬁnancial compensation. No honorarium is paid to Associate Editors, to ensure that there is no conﬂict of interest in accepting or rejecting articles”.
It seems Frontiers associate editors are entirely dependent on the reviewers to unanimously accept or reject a paper and are not allowed to make any qualified decisions on their own: “unanimity is required when accepting or rejecting a paper”.
This is what their contract instructs the Frontiers associate Editors:
“Make the ﬁnal decision whether or not a paper is acceptable for publication by ensuring all quality, validity and ethical standards have been met and that all Review Editors agree to the publication
Recommend rejection of a paper if Review Editors unanimously agree that an article is not acceptable for publication”.
The contract repeatedly makes clear to the handling editors:
“You may not, however, reject a paper on your own. You will need to make a recommendation for rejection to your Chief Editor, which you may only make if there is unanimous agreement among the Review Editors to reject the paper. The Chief Editor reviews whether the paper was handled in a fair and unbiased manner and takes the ﬁnal decision whether or not to reject the paper”.
How does the Frontiers peer review process work? Guidelines for Associate Editors offer insights:
“When submitting a manuscript, authors are requested to select an Associate Editor from the board whom they believe to be both knowledgeable and unbiased for editing their manuscript. This “preferred Editor” will be automatically invited to handle the review process”.
The handling editor then invites reviewers (otherwise Frontiers invites them automatically using a computer algorithm) and manages their communications with authors. Associate editors are repeatedly reminded that
“manuscripts can only be recommended for rejection before reviewers are assigned or after the authors have had a chance to respond to review comments”.
Thus, at Frontiers, rejections are a tricky business. If as author you are smart enough to select a friendly editor, your manuscript will safely pass the dangerous phase where editors are still allowed to reject it (i.e., prior to peer review). But even then, from the available documentation it is not at all clear if you can simply resubmit to another Frontiers journal, or even to a different editor at the same journal, after applying some cosmetic changes to your rejected paper. As soon as your manuscript has entered peer review, rejection becomes very unlikely. As long as at least one reviewer supports the publication, you are entitled to keep on rebutting any comments their more sceptical peers may bring up. As a former Frontiers reviewer Guillaume Rousselet mentioned, this can easily go into fifth and even eighth round of revision. The weary reviewers will either eventually consent to accept your paper, or withdraw from peer review. They can then be replaced with new reviewers, or the handling editor him- or herself can step in and act as peer reviewer, until two positive reviews are available. Congratulations, you now have a paper in Frontiers!