The Swiss publishing business Frontiers was placed by the US librarian Jeffrey Beall on his well-known and hotly disputed list as “potential, possible or probable predatory publisher”. Frontiers however was not prepared to take this lying down. The publisher’s Executive Editor Frederick Fenter first tried it nicely. Shortly before Christmas 2015, he flew to visit Beall at his University of Colorado in Denver, with the senior manager Mirjam Curno in tow. Curno is incidentally also board member and trustee of the Committee on Publication Ethics (COPE). Afterwards, Fenter stopped being nice. In August 2016, he bombarded around ten senior officials at the University Colorado in Denver with letters and a dossier (see below) demanding that they make sure Frontiers is removed from their employee’s private list.
Thing is: University of Colorado has nothing to do with the so-called Beall’s List. The list is part of the librarians private blog on WordPress (same platform I use). In fact, this is the disclaimer which Beall placed on his site clear for all to see:
“These views represent the personal opinions of the author (Jeffrey Beall) and may not reflect the position of the University of Colorado Denver or the University of Colorado System”.
Beall’s listings of certain open access publishers and journals are his private opinions, and are to be respected as such under the freedom of speech. He didn’t impose his black list of open access publishers as a reference for all those other libraries and funding institutions which chose to orient their decisions on the Beall’s List. In fact, the reason why they do so is the conspicuous absence of any “certified” or “official” black lists elsewhere. Instead, we have white lists, such as DOAJ, OASPA and COPE, and Frontiers is on all of them: as a paying COPE and OASPA member and as a sponsor of DOAJ. One could interpret this whitelisting connected to exchange of money as a kind of conflict of interest, which makes white lists less reliable indicators than black ones. Also, some small or non-profit open access publishers simply can’t afford these costs of whitelisting. Does it make them evil predators? Not necessarily. Others, like the medical journal white list of ICMJE, are joined by self-enlisting, there is no oversight (see my report here). All Fenter had to do to get his Frontiers medical division certified as “following ICMJE guidelines”, was to type in the journal names correctly. Finally, the “executive editor” Fenter also announced in 2015 that Frontiers will be joining WAME, though this “world association of medical editors” does not accept publishers as members, for the simple reason of editorial independence.
On the other hand, there are really no personal incentives to run a black list. It is rather nerve-wrecking, one makes hardly any friends, but plenty of enemies, in fact Beall-bashing is a rather popular sports among academics on social media. Next, how to finance the blacklist? Certainly not by charging the blacklisted journals or those who don’t want to be listed. Even if any independent funding subsidies should came along, such official blacklisting body would spend all this money on legal costs after the first unhappy publisher decides to deploy the lawyers. In short, blacklisting journals “officially” is likely to be simply not doable in practice. Which leaves us for the foreseeable future with the lone blogger Jeffrey Beall and his private hobby of evaluating open access publishers.
Another interesting point is: Beall is accused of unjustly naming Frontiers as predatory publisher. Yet the whole category of “predatory” publishers was invented by Beall himself, it is not an official term and is in fact much disputed. There are enough academics who claim there is no such thing as predatory publishing. Thus, Beall is being criticised for unjustly placing a publisher into a category which he invented himself.
Neither are Beall’s professional duties at his university library affected by his views on these open access publishers. Beall is in no way involved into University of Colorado decisions to subsidise article processing charges (APC) of their authors. If any Denver-based researcher should claim APC support for his or her publication in Frontiers, it is completely outside Beall’s influence.
Now, that Frontiers disagrees with this librarian’s privately held views, the publisher demands of his academic employer to impose disciplinary measures or coercion against Beall. Extending Fenter’s logic, every single academic employee who publicly criticises Frontiers is to be made to retract such criticisms under threat of sacking. Will Fenter next write a letter to Giulia Liberati’s employer, University of Louvain, regarding her revealing report on reviewer experience at Frontiers? Or to University of Glasgow, the employer of Guillaume Rousselet, for venting his frustrations about his editor experience? A bizarre supposition indeed, but: this is in fact exactly what Fenter already did previously.
In early 2015, a conflict between Frontiers medical chief editors and the Swiss publisher escalated. Back then, Frontiers had just been expelled from the Nature Publishing Group (NPG) family. While NPG merged with the German publisher Springer to SpringerNature, Markram-run outlet was left behind with the mother company Holtzbrinck, also based in Germany. In these turbulent times, the Frontiers medical editors demanded in a Manifesto the enforcement of medical publishing standards and editorial independence in line with the ICMJE guidelines, which the publisher in turn rejected as going against their own rules and principles. As the result, Fenter dismissed all of the 31 critical editors in a single executive decision (see my report here). But he didn’t stop there, the Executive Editor wrote a complaint letter to the academic employer of one of these editors, as reported by ScienceInsider. Fenter claimed that one former Frontiers chief editor “coerced others to give up their voice and band behind him, and made false and unfounded allegations“. In fact, the emails made available to me suggest quite the opposite of coercion: all editors joined the protest enthusiastically and out of their own accord. Just as in the letter to Beall’s university below, Fenter offered the university officials his help steering their decision process with this letter from May 11th 2015:
“In my capacity as Executive Editor of Frontiers, a Swiss-based open-access scholarly publisher, I would like to bring to your attention our recent interaction with a member of your institution, ____ in cc to this email. In his position as Chief Editor of Frontiers in ____, we have disagreed with ____ on the definition of editorial independence and authority over medical publications, which has unfortunately led to the dismissal of a number of Chief Editors in several Frontiers medical journals.
In the spirit of full transparency, Frontiers has reported this incident to the boards of the three organs that publish ethical guidelines for medical publishing: ICMJE (which lists Frontiers in ____ as a complying title), WAME and COPE (to which Frontiers will join as a member in 2015).
You can find the full details of this disagreement in this blog post: http://blog.frontiersin.org/2015/05/07/frontiers-acts-to-defend-distributed-editorial-independence/
Should this be of interest to your institution’s ethics committee, I am at your disposal to address your questions or concerns”.
Now, Fenter used his established strategy again. This time, he was even assisted by at least 3 Frontiers Editors-in-Chief (EiCs; it is not clear if or how coordinated these efforts were). Below I quote and offer links to full versions to letters by Idan Segev, (Frontiers in Neuroscience), Axel Cleeremans (Frontiers in Psychology) and Martin Klotz (Frontiers in Microbiology). As EiCs, these editors are entitled to a Frontiers honorarium of €15,000 per year which depends on their publishing a certain number of papers per year (not just receiving as submissions, see my earlier report and editorial contracts).
The following is Fenter’s letter to University of Colorado officials, with a link to a large dossier he assembled to prove his point about greatness of Frontiers and wrongness of Beall.
Please allow me to present myself as the Executive Editor of Frontiers, the open-access publisher based at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Lausanne, Switzerland. I would like to bring to your attention the irresponsible and unprofessional actions of one of your colleagues, Mr. Jeffrey Beall – actions that have no place in a university community that values intellectual reputation and that claims to defend the highest standards of intellectual honesty.
As you know, Mr. Beall maintains a blacklist of “predatory publishers.” In October 2015, he added Frontiers to this list, an action that is both unjust and unfounded. Recently, it has come to our attention that he is circulating a document (included in the report sent with this letter) in which he “justifies” his blacklisting, which is based on the comments of a very few angry or even discredited bloggers. In the attached letter, Mr. Beall himself states this: “The evidence has accumulated. I think the scientific community has made this decision for me.” His slanderous position is entirely based on hearsay and weak proxy arguments, on which he refuses to take a stance dignified of a research librarian. His presumptive use of the word “community” is particularly baffling—Frontiers is a community-driven publisher, with an international editorial board of 60’000 researchers and over 140’000 distinct authors. Just in the University of Colorado system we have 137 editors and 257 authors. I provide some additional information on this in the attached report.
Despite our attempts to talk to Mr. Beall—whom I met with personally on 14 December 2015 for a two-hour presentation of our program—he refuses to articulate any justification for his action, preferring rather to hide behind the biased and subjective comments of others.
Frontiers’ Open Access publishing model is founded on rigorous, collaborative and transparent peer review, driven by the broad research community and enabled by innovative, cutting-edge digital technology. Our goal is to deliver a trusted, scalable scientific publishing service to the whole research community, through respected journals whose quality is reflected in outstanding impact metrics. In the attached report you will seethat:
- Frontiers publishes several of the most-cited journals in the world;
- Frontiers is internationally recognized and has a strong track record of bringing innovative IT solutions to scientific communication and is winner of the 2014 ALPSP Gold Award for innovation in publishing;
- Frontiers returns millions to the scientific communities each year (for example in 2015, the total for waivers, honoraria and awards exceeded 3 million dollars);
- Frontiers articles are picked up by the press thousands of times each month.
- Mr. Beall himself is not considered an objective voice in the debate and has expressed strong bias against open-access publishing. This is of course his right, but there is ample evidence that his use of the blacklist is not characterized by sufficient intellectual integrity.
Mr. Beall has published a set of established criteria by which he claims to make his assessment (many of which themselves display his inherent bias). We provide a point-by-point analysis of our operations according these very same criteria—it is ludicrous that we have to undertake this exercise, but since he refuses to deliver an explanation, we took the time and effort to demonstrate that Frontiers operates professionally and ethically according to the criteria he invokes. The statement on his blog that he has carefully analyses each program (where there is no evidence of such) is a sign of malicious intent to damage our reputation.
I am sure you understand the seriousness of the situation. A member of your academic community is making unsubstantiated public accusations of unethical practice against Frontiers. He will not engage with us to explain or justify himself. This attack against the integrity of our international editorial boards and against the 240 employees of Frontiers will not be allowed to stand.
Please let me finish with an anecdote that illustrates the confusion and loss of credibility that Mr. Beall’s actions bring upon your institution, as well as on ours. We were contacted by the CLOCKSS archive about our participation; this organization has the mission to guarantee the permanent archiving of scientific literature. Shortly after starting the process, we were informed by their publisher relations manager that they “do not work with Publishers on Beall’s list.” I called the director and requested they make an informed decision based on facts (which you now also have at your disposition). We were subsequently welcomed into the program, and CLOCKSS promptly announced the partnership on their website (https://clockss.org/clockss/News#CA8). The fact we are mentioned on “Beall’s list” is time consuming and damaging to our reputation, but I hope you see that it also tarnishes your institution by association.
Specifically, the document that Mr. Beall has circulated reveals the scandalously sloppy nature of his work (especially for a research librarian), and we will be filing an ethics complaint with your University on this point.
I am writing to you personally because your university is directly implicated in this absurd and slanderous action, and I believe you have the authority to correct the situation rapidly and effectively. I have put Professor XXXXX, in copy.
Please let me know if you would like to discuss the matter further. I would be pleased to take the requisite time to provide you with any additional information you need to make an informed decision concerning the actions of your colleague, Mr. Beall. In fact, I would be pleased to fly back to Colorado to discuss this in person with you, if you so desire.
Frontiers is working to improve the way research is validated and disseminated through the development of open-science tools; this is a bold experiment that frightens some traditional-minded thinkers. In fact, I would much rather be spending my time exploring how Frontiers might expand its collaboration with the University of Colorado, which, as a large and prestigious institution, is particularly well positioned to become a leading voice as these developments unfold – as it has been with your institution’s involvement with MOOCs, for example. Mr. Beall’s biased and ill-informed blacklisting of Frontiers and its innovative approach is certainly not the most effective way for the University of Colorado to participate in the open-science revolution.
Very much hoping to have the opportunity to discuss these matters with you,
Very best regards,
Frederick Fenter, Ph.D.
ENCL: Report “Jeffrey Beall’s Blog: Frontiers’ Position”
CC: XXXXX; Kamila Markram, CEO of Frontiers”
Idan Segev, from Hebrew University, Israel, EiC of Frontiers in Neuroscience and closest collaborator of Frontier’s founder and supreme Editor-in-Chief Henry Markram, spoke in his letter to University of Colorado officials about “Frontiers beauty”. This beauty seems to be even measurable, by the lovely impact factors of Frontiers journals:
“Note that Frontiers is very heavily indexed by Thomson Reuters, who have awarded impact factors for 19 of our journals so far – several of the Frontiers journals with impact factors over 5. Such IFs cannot be obtained if our processes are as sloppy as Mr Beall alleges”.
Segev also insists Frontiers rejection rate is around 30% (and not 20% as they used to write to potential authors or 10% as they admitted internally). He also explains how ethical publishing is maintained at Frontiers: by placing their own senior manager as COPE trustee:
“Frontiers is very aware of ethical issues concerning scientific publications; so much so that our Editorial Director, Dr Curno, is a council member of the Committee on Publication Ethics: COPE”.
Segev then comes to talking hard business and accuses Beall of slander, while making the University of Colorado responsible:
“I view the attack of your employee – Mr. Jeffrey Beall – as an attack on my credentials as a scientist as well as on my own University (and the Hebrew University is one of the leading universities in the world). […] As he works in your University, I expect you to take action and make sure that Frontiers is taken out now from his “black list”.”
Axel Cleeremans, from Université Libre de Bruxelles, Belgium, is Editor-in-Chief of Frontiers in Psychology. To make clear who the University of Colorado is dealing with, he also signed his letter at the bottom as “Member of the Royal Academy of Belgium”. Cleeremans made clear that Beall is not qualified to interpret the predatory publisher concept which the offending librarian himself invented:
“There simply are no grounds in fact to include Frontiers on this list, as it is not even a “potential” predatory publisher. None of the criteria developed by M. Beall apply, and one is thus left wondering about the extent to which this is some sort of personal vendetta that M. Beall is now engaged in. This, needless to say, impinges on the reputation of the University of Colorado”.
Cleeremans then demands that the Denver University forces Beall to amend his private blog, so the Belgian professor’s own Frontiers journal doesn’t suffer:
“I am therefore asking you to take action in this respect. While Frontiers in Psychology has now grown to the point that M. Beall’s antics can do little to damage its reputation, it is simply unprofessional and detrimental to library science for the University of Colorado to let this continue”.
Martin Klotz, from City University of New York and EiC of Frontiers in Microbiology, addressed his letter directly to Beall. He first of all corrected his interlocutor that Frontiers is not at all owned by the Nature Publishing Group. However, Klotz previosuly insisted on something else in his own CV, when proudly proclaiming himself as “Editor-in-Chief: Frontiers in Microbiology (Nature Publishing Group, IF 3.941)”. In his letter to Beall, Klotz now makes clear what he thinks of his blog activities regarding Frontiers:
“I am losing context between your status and role as an academic librarian with tenure at a premier academic institution (https://scholarlyoa.com/about/) and your black-listing of Frontiers as a “predatory publisher” in the public domain (your site), which is based on blogger comments and hearsay instead of accessible results of academic research”.
Just like Cleeremans, Klotz keeps defending his own Frontiers journal as impeccable. Based on this argument, they demand the whitelisting of an entire large publishing family. Regardless of what other Frontiers journals are up to: Frontiers in Human Neuroscience happily keeps on publishing papers about afterlife and clairvoyance and autism-causing bread, Frontiers in Public Health waved through a paper promoting chemtrail conspiracies. Even Segev’s own beautiful Frontiers in Neuroscience showed worrisome peer review deficiencies by publishing an utter nonsense paper or silencing critical reviewers in order to accept a bad study. Frontiers in Pharmacology fell for a most blatantly manipulated paper from Malaysian cheaters (the peer review took less than a month), and retracted a peer reviewed plant pharmacology paper for “insufficient scientific quality”. These and other cases of questionable scholarly publishing went unmentioned, as if they don’t exist. Or maybe these impactful Frontiers publications are simply “hearsay” and deluded ravings of “discredited bloggers”.