Academic Publishing Guest post

Editor sacked over rejection rate: “not inline with Frontiers core principles”

Frontiers describes itself as "a community-rooted, open-access academic publisher", and boasts a ~71,000 head strong "virtual editorial office". This guest post by Regina-Michaela Wittich, a former senior editor of a Frontiers journal, narrates how she was sacked by Frontiers because she rejected too many papers for being of insufficient scientific quality, instead of sending them into the "rigorous" Frontiers peer review process

Frontiers, the Switzerland-based publishing company run by EPFL professor and brain simulant Henry Markram and his wife Kamila and owned by the German giant Holtzbrinck and some investors, describes itself as “a community-rooted, open-access academic publisher”, and as such it boasts a ~71,000 head strong “virtual editorial office” which is bigger than the number of all Frontiers articles published since its inception in 2007 (~65,000). This communal character however doesn’t mean that the editorial board the size of a large town is invited to have any actual influence over editorial policies at Frontiers (which fits into one open-space office in Lausanne). In fact, the following guest post by Regina-Michaela Wittich, a former senior editor of a Frontiers journal, narrates how she was sacked by Frontiers because she rejected too many papers for being of insufficient scientific quality, instead of sending them into the “rigorous” Frontiers peer review process (allegedly “enhanced with artificial intelligence”) where rejection becomes quite unlikely, and reviewers are sometimes reminded of their duty to be constructive.

That firing of an editor to protect the Frontiers business model was not even something special: in 2015, Frontiers mass-sacked 31 medical editors because they wanted to raise the bar and introduce some minimal standards on what counts as a medical publication. Thus liberated, Frontiers could finally publish cutting-edge medical research which the Illuminati try to suppress, e.g that vaccines make children develop neurological disorders, or that Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s can be prevented simply by eating chocolate, or that indoor dampness is a cause for horrible debilitating disease best treated with thyroid hormone.

The Lausanne-based publishing house is a powerful enterprise and not to be messed with. Frontiers annihilated Beall’s list and the entire concept of potential predatory publishers, after Beall dared to place the Swiss publisher on his now defunct list. Presently, Frontiers advises European Commission on the future of scholarly publishing.

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Frontiers Executive Editor Fred Fenter, marching for science on April 22nd 2017. Source: Frontiers tweet

Frontiers claims to publish only “high-quality” research, and their secret is: “all papers [are] assessed to be technically correct and of good quality. Reviewers may recommend rejection based exclusively upon objective errors”. Which occasionally leads to pseudoscience, bunk, nonsense, and utter coucou stuff published in Frontiers. My regular readers already know some examples of what came out of “the most rigorous and objective reviews”, some of which I listed here. Just before last Christmas for example, Frontiers in Psychology brought for the romantically-inclined scholarly gentleman some statistically very significant “original research” on “romantic love and hate”, followed by a bit of scientific advice on how to get laid.

The task of a good editor is to keep such awful stuff out, and indeed everyone with insider knowledge of editorial process in scholarly publishing knows what kind of  scientifically abysmal drivel or salami-sliced offal editors get served every day. It is a business decision for an author-pays (Gold) Open Access publisher to reject all that, in order to maintain quality, or wave it though after some “rigorous” peer review, and pocket the article processing charges (with Frontiers up to $2950 a pop). It is not just a Gold Open Access problem: also subscription-based journals must fill their pages with something, or risk being thrown out of the subscription package or terminated by the publisher.

Scholarly publishing is a business, and the microbiologist Regina-Michaela Wittich, professor at Consejo Superior de Investigaciones Científicas (CSIC) in Madrid, Spain, failed to understand that while acting as a specialty chief editor for Frontiers in Microbiology. Her Editor-in-Chief superior, Martin Klotz, professor at Washington State University, set her right about the “Frontiers™ principles in the evaluation and decision making” when he sacked her. Incidently, same Martin Klotz in 2016  wrote to Beall demanding to reverse his placing of Frontiers on the blacklist, the act of which had Klotz “insulted personally” and which he described as “based on blogger comments and hearsay”, obviously referring to me. About his own journal, Klotz wrote to Beall:

“Every submission to Frontiers in Microbiology is being scrutinized for quality by the handling editor and, if the script is not being rejected outright, it is being reviewed by a minimum of two reviewers. I know the system well as I have handled the review process for more than 100 manuscripts. It is an open and transparent peer-review process that produces a value-enhanced product if the manuscript is being published. The editorial process is completely independent of the publishing (business) process, the control is solely in the hands of academic scholars like myself. May I add that the majority of my section chief editors as well as myself are
sought after reviewers or editors for Science, Nature (and its clones), PNAS, Cell, ISMEJ, EMI, mBIO, AEM, FEMS journals and other journals that publish original research, reviews, opinions and perspectives in the field of Microbiology”.

One of these section chief editors, Wittich, acted as reviewer for Journal of Bacteriology and Applied and Environmental Microbiology of the highly respected society ASM, for 12 years each. Her rejection rate there was of around 80%, yet noone complained, as she told me. At Frontiers, it was different. She was sacked, and her manuscript rejections reversed.

My experiences as a Specialty Chief Editor of Frontiers in Microbiology

By Regina-Michaela Wittich

It happened in July of 2012 when I received an invitation by email from Henry Markram, Editor-in-Chief of Frontiers, to participate in the launching of the new Frontiers in Biotechnology and Bioengineering Journal, in an editorial position. I agreed, and became, based on my preceding research fields and interests, an associate editor for the section on Microbial Biotechnology, Ecotoxicology and Bioremediation (MEB), in those days a section also being found within the journals Frontiers in Microbiology, and Frontiers in Environmental Science. In the coming years I took about 14 manuscripts – if I remember it correctly – from which two I rejected immediately because of being completely out of focus or with no chance to get editorially improved; the others went into the review system of Frontiers in Microbiology which became the dominant source for manuscripts submitted to the MEB section.

Four years later, in mid-October of 2016, I was invited to replace one of the two specialty chief editors (SCE) of the MEB section who took on a new academic position and had to drop the function of SCE within the MEB section.  For me, this resulted in becoming familiar with a new editorial task, and to work up many of the accumulated manuscripts from my predecessor which were still being in the interactive review process of the Frontiers system. This resulted for about three months in an almost full-time job, working for long in the very late afternoon and evening, including almost all of the weekends, until getting to equilibrium of incoming manuscripts and those to be channelled to publication or being rejected.  Most of the time I spent in the evaluation of the quality of the scientific content of the manuscripts from which a relatively high number was below the acceptable level I was used to as a reviewer or associate editor for other journals within my field. As a consequence I let pass to publication several manuscripts of low scientific quality and/or generally unacceptable usage of the English language.   Upon having reached the before-mentioned equilibrium also all of those type were rejected, especially when I couldn’t recognise any chance for significant improvement.

In spring 2017 I received an email from the Executive Editor Frederick Fenter, announcing the payment of  7,500 € as a personal honorarium, a sum which I considered at least as adequate for the work I had invested as being an SCE for the Journal.

On their web pages the Journal stated that ‘Frontiers in Microbiology publishes outstanding discoveries within its field’ what I understood as the journal would publish only outstanding discoveries. In 2017 I reminded several of the Associate Editors, including Guest Associate Editors responsible for a Research Topic, to have a stronger look on the quality of the manuscripts handled by them, in order to maintain a high quality; and in an extreme situation I managed, in collaboration with my SCE companion and the Editorial Office, the downgrading of two of the Associate Editors from the board (one of them had never edited a manuscript and I didn’t find any reason why he should continue in this function), and in an extreme case, the elimination from the board of two Guest Associate Editors who, over a longer period of time, had invited reviewers mostly providing non-substantive reviews; obviously in order to get their research topic rapidly filled with articles.

During autumn of 2017 I made a rough calculation of the rejection rate of manuscripts handled within our MEB section: it had increased from about 25 % from my start as an SCE to about 37 %, when taking into consideration all those manuscripts from the early launch on of the section.

In summer I had already been invited by the Frontiers Editorial Office to join the EcotoxicoMic 2017, the First International Conference on Microbial Ecotoxicology, to be held in November in Lyon (France) in my function of SCE and as such being responsible for a new research topic on that issue. The conference was sponsored by Frontiers, sponsoring also me by paying the inscription and a conference dinner; the costs for travel and lodging went on my wallet. At the conference I met one of the Frontiers Journal Development Specialists. This woman provided me with some statistical data generated from our MEB section. In this meeting she mentioned that the rejection rate within the MEB section had increased to over 60 %, a factor which could not be tolerated by the editorial office, and not without explaining to me that in the past a number of Frontiers’ Chief Editors had to leave the Journal.

Just a few days being back from that conference I rejected a manuscript submitted to the research topic Microbial Ecotoxicology without letting it enter in the editorial process. It was claiming the production of novel biosurfactants by a naphthalene-degrading Pseudomonas strain. The novelty of the compounds was not shown experimentally by unequivocal chemical analyses, the latter generated information known since many decades, apart from the arbitrary proposal of chemical structures. The reasons for rejection as I mentioned them:

“The content of this manuscript does not meet the standards of rigor required by the journal to be considered for publication.”

And in detail:

“1) This ms does not fit at all into the research topic Microbial Ecotoxicology, 2) the isolation of  PAH-degrading bacteria became legion since the 1970s and the steps in the catabolism of naphthalene had been elucidated in the past and is known since long, as well as the production of biosurfactants since the 1990s. The authors may take into consideration that Frontiers in Microbiology (only!) publishes OUTstanding discoveries within its field.”

The reaction by the above-mentioned Journal Development Specialist was a very prompt one, just next day:

“… I notice that yesterday you rejected the manuscript 335975 submitted to the Microbial Ecotoxicology RT, without giving the Topic editors [Guest Associate Editors who suggested a Research Topic (RT) and responsible for the papers within their RT, – RMW] the time to assess it. I had a look at the manuscript and I do think it does fit the scope of the Topic. For this reason I believe the Topic Editors should be given the chance to decide whether the manuscript can go to review or not for a number of reasons: 1) they are established scientists and we trust their judgement 2) the authors of the manuscript were in the PC list [not clear what this is, -RMW] 3) one of the main principles of Frontiers is that we do not select for impact and we give the community (both authors and editors) the opportunity to decide which contributions might be relevant for the community. For these reasons, we will put manuscript 335975 back into review and allow the editors to assess it.

In addition, I had a look at some of the last manuscripts you rejected and I really appreciate that you take the time to include specific reasons for these rejection. This is excellent and I believe it is useful for the authors. …”

The friendly goodbye came a few days later from the Journal Development Manager:

“ … The recent rejections that have been reinstated into the review system have been reinstated because they have not undergone a fair, rigorous or transparent peer review process. It is the collective responsibility of both the editorial office and our editors, particularly chief editors, to ensure that this fair, rigorous and transparent peer review process is carried out for every manuscript. As mentioned in my previous email, we seem to have unaligned expectations of the editorial process, and in particular the manner in which decisions are communicated.

I hope you can understand this decision. Your efforts to maintain the quality of the journal over the past few years has been much appreciated, but unfortunately your expectations are not inline with Frontiers core principles.“

And from the Field Chief Editor of Frontiers in Microbiology, Martin Gunter Klotz, just a few minutes later; obviously having anticipated the above-mentioned email to me from the Editorial Office:

“There are several reasons for why bye are seeking change in editorial leadership in several specialties, the two most common reasons for this decision are 1) deviation from Frontiers™ principles in the evaluation and decision making, and 2) un-fitting style of communication with reviewers and authors. In case of the latter reason, this was occasionally coupled with comments that were perceived by recipients as if the SCE had spoken on my behalf, which I could not confirm when being contacted. This really cannot be and is another reason – in addition to the ones Liz has provided – for my decision to bring about change.”

I think that I have to mention that I never had spoken in his name, or even mentioned it in my editorial decisions. But what else could he write, in order to finish our collaboration?

Regina-Michaela Wittich

Research Professor, Spain









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40 comments on “Editor sacked over rejection rate: “not inline with Frontiers core principles”

  1. Pingback: Le piège des accords transformants | Frederichelein's Blog

  2. Ilan Vardi

    “However, the majority of our contemporary academics disguise what is true with what is false and never surpass the limits of scientific fraud and posturing, using the science they have at their command only for vile material interest. And when they meet a man who sincerely searches for the truth, refusing falseness and lies, and rejecting ostentation and fraud, they take him for a fool and ridicule him.”

    Anyone care to guess who said that and when? (It’s my translation.)



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