The Lausanne-based publishing house Frontiers, founded by the neuroscientists Henry and Kamila Markram,has been recently added to the Beall’s List of potential, possible, or probable predatory scholarly open-access publishers. Was this decision justified? I wish to share here some of my recent investigations.
Previously, I reported about an editorial conflict at the Frontiers medical section in Laborjournal and Lab Times. In May 2015 Frontiers sacked almost all of its medical chief editors. This was because those chief editors had signed a “Manifesto of Editorial Independence”, which went against one of the key guidelines of Frontiers, namely that editors must always “allow the authors an opportunity for a rebuttal”. Associate editors are namely instructed to always “consider the rebuttal of the authors”, even “if the independent reviews are unfavourable”. At the same time, chief editors claimed to have had little, if any, influence over the editorial processes at Frontiers. Since the Frontiers Executive Editor Frederick Fenter fired all 31 signatory chief editors, Frontiers in Medicine has been operated without an Editor-in-Chief and with few Chief Specialty Editors. Medical ethics requirement for publication, originally introduced by the previous chief editors, were not implemented in the Frontiers instructions for authors. There appearto be few people in a position to provide oversight, while the associate editors handle manuscripts which they often receive directly from authors. Some of these associate editors are no strangers to controversy themselves; Alfredo Fusco, who is also a frequent author at Frontiers in Medicine, has had several of his papers retracted and is facing a criminal investigation over alleged data manipulations.
The Frontiers in Medicine “purge” led me to inquire into how Frontiers’ unique editorial model works in their other journals. What I learned is that even the associate editors often find their power limited: once a manuscript has been sent out for peer review, Frontiers editors have hardly any option to reject it. This may explain how controversial papers came to be published in Frontiers, e.g. one denying that HIV is the cause of AIDS, or another suggesting that vaccinations cause autism.
On the other hand, Frontiers is quite popular with many scientists and research organisations. How can a publisher which helped pioneer such innovations as open access and name-signed peer review, have come to this?
Frontiers’ story began in 2007, with the first journal Frontiers in Neuroscience. One of its very first accepted articles, before the new journal was officially accepting submissions, was a theory on the origins of autism by journal founders Kamila and Henry Markram. Since then, their Intense World Theory (formerly Intense World Syndrome) has been published in various Frontiers neuroscience-related journals. There, the Markrams’ COI statement always proclaims “the absence of any commercial or financial relationships that could be construed as a potential conflict of interest”. Yet these two authors have an apparent ownership interest in the journals they publish. Henry Markram is listed as Co-Founder & Editor-in-Chief at Frontiers, Kamila Markram as Co-Founder & CEO. The mass sacking of medical chief editors suggests, they might be in a position to decide on the employment and remuneration of their editors.
Meanwhile, Frontiers manages according to own website “54 open access journals, 55,000 editors, 38,000 articles”. Some Frontiers editors I communicated with were quite content with the publisher. Anne Simon, professor at the University of Maryland in the USA (and one of the whistle-blowers in the case of Olivier Voinnet, which I have been covering for Lab Times), is also Editor-in Chief (EiC) of the journal Frontiers In Virology. She describes her experience as “extremely positive“. Unlike the medical chief editors, Simon says she was never was left in the dark about submitted manuscripts or witnessed their inappropriate handling by associate editors or reviewers.
Simon explained to me in an email that she sees the Editor-in-Chief as
“the next point of contact for editors who are having problems handling a manuscript or needing advice, and authors, who may be upset with decisions and want to contact someone other than the editor who handled the manuscript”.
“we are frequently called upon to politely nudge late reviewers, when the editor and journal managers have been unsuccessful, or if there is an editor who is slow in the review process”. Maybe this is why Frontiers in Virology is one of the best cited Frontiers journals, because the chief editors are free to do their jobs? Simons clarifies: “Most journals can operate smoothly without EiC most of the time. But when something comes up, (…) then the EiC is a critical part of the journal for making decisions about exceptions to journal “rules” and dealing with papers that have possible ethical issues”.(Video) Predatory Publishing + How to Avoid It
Apparently Frontiers in Medicine can operate without an Editor-in Chief, and indeed it has done for months now. But what about the ethical duties Simon was mentioning?
Matthias Barton, cardiology professor at the University of Zurich and former EiC of Frontiers in Medicine and Frontiers in Cardiovascular Medicine, told me that when he and his fellow editors were sacked, their ethical policies were also shown the door. New medical ethics guidelines, which he and his colleagues had established to preserve clinical safety and patient protection, were revoked. For example, Barton and colleagues stipulated that“For each manuscript submitted, every author needs to electronically complete and sign the COI form provided by ICMJE [International Committee of Medical Journal Editors], and all completed COI forms need to be submitted with the manuscript”.
Today, however, there is no requirement or even option for every author to provide a signed COI statement at Frontiers in Medicine, despite ICMJE guidelines. Instead, the corresponding author simply has to make one click to verify COI status on behalf of others.
Another example of the post-purge reform: Frontiers does not distinguish in their section “Case Reports” between human and animal subjects anymore. The guidelines for manuscript submission are the same for both. No mention is made that human patient identity must be specifically respected and protected, in fact the new Frontiers guidelines there are same as for horses and cattle. The previous definition of the “Case Report”, as written by the now absent editors, was focused on human patients only and included demands such as: “Manuscripts must not include any information that allows identification of the patient. This includes, but is not limited to, names, initials, and hospital information” as well as “as anonymity cannot be guaranteed by simply covering the eye area with a black bar, the patient, parent, or guardian must be shown the photograph intended for publication, provide informed consent for its publication, and be informed by the authors that the image will be visible on the internet”. For Frontiers in Medicine, these rules are now a thing of the past.
Simon also stated:
“Having a scientist as EiC who is in the same [research-] field as the journal is important for making informed decisions”.
However, this does not appear to be the case for the new head of Frontiers in Cardiovascular Medicine. After the editorial purge, the journal received its new EiC, Hendrik Tevaearai Stahel, professor of Cardiovascular Surgery at the Inselspital in Bern, Switzerland. Cardiovascular medicine is a branch of internal medicine and requires an utterly different medical specialization than cardiac surgery. A heart surgeon cannot replace a cardiovascular internist. Dr. Tevaearai Stahel’s CV is rather inconclusive in the area of cardiovascular medicine than one would anticipate for the EiC of this journal.
Frontiers’ philosophy is to give all authors a chance to publish their work in one of their journals. In basic science, this is, to a degree, a laudable approach indeed. Many scientists convincingly argue that every single research study should be published and judged by the scrutiny of scientist colleagues in post-publication peer review. Yet this option is not available at Frontiers, and while the reviewers are named, their peer review reports are kept confidential. This concept to publish almost every manuscript, while keeping the peer review process rather opaque, has possibly contributed to the recent placing of the publisher Frontiers on the Beall’s List.
With medical studies, which go beyond laboratory experiments, the issue of proper editorial process is even more serious. Doctors adjust their patient treatments according to recent developments and publications in their field. This is why there are strict ethical rules and quality guidelines for clinically relevant medical publications, as issued by the ICMJE and the World Association of Medical Editors (WAME). Therefore, there can be many reasons for a submitted manuscript to be rejected. However, at Frontiers, the rejection option is not always available. Generally, a peer reviewer can only withdraw from the peer review; recommending rejection is not an available option. If a reviewer does withdraw, the handling editor is automatically prompted to find a replacement reviewer. Theoretically, this can go on back and forth until two positive peer reviews are finally obtained. Occasionally, associate editors skip the search for willing reviewers altogether and perform the peer review themselves.
Tamas Szakmany, honorary senior lecturer in intensive care medicine at the Cardiff University in UK, reports of his experience as a reviewer for Frontiers in Medicine:
“The piece in question was lacking very basic aspects of a scientific manuscript and the authors failed to make any amends. I made it very clear at the first response to the authors that the paper was unacceptable in this format and although they made some small changes, they did not address any of my major comments. The subsequent rounds of “revisions” were getting nowhere and as there was no option for me to reject the manuscript in the online review system and the Editor couldn’t make this decision as he was forced to give further “chances” for improvement, I felt that I had no other option than to withdraw from the process as the authors were clearly not willing to understand”.
“From a reviewer point, there is no opportunity to reject a paper, only to endorse or ask for further revisions”.
The specialty chief editor responsible for the above-mentioned Szakmany-reviewed manuscript was Zsolt Molnár, professor for intensive care medicine at the University of Szeged in Hungary. Molnár was among the signatories of the editorial Manifesto, which resulted in his removal together with 30 other chief editors. While still in his post, Molnár protested about the unrejectable manuscript to the Frontiers in Medicine “Editorial Office” – actually a publisher-run department outside of any academic editor control. He received a reply from the journal manager who explained:
“once a paper is sent for peer-review, we want to give the authors the chance to discuss with the reviewers in the interactive review stage. You can always reject a manuscript BEFORE [caps in the original] sending it to reviewers/review editors”.
Yet just in the previous sentence, the journal manager also explained:
“Regarding rejecting before interactive review: the reason we strongly discourage this is because Frontiers wishes to overcome one of the common concerns that authors have – that the editors have overruled their chance to discuss their paper with the reviewers”.
This sounds somewhat like a Catch-22 situation, in which the very act of sending out a paper for peer review precludes the ability to reject this paper on the basis of the review, should it turn out negative.
The resulting high acceptance rate at Frontiers goes hand-in-hand with the fact that the publisher has offered its chief editors a reward of €5,000“for each batch of 120 papers submitted to your section in 2015”.
Yet under certain conditions, Frontiers has no problems with rejections at all, even of positively reviewed manuscripts. Lydia Maniatis, formerly adjunct psychologist at the American University in Washington DC, had such an experience. She submitted a rather critical Commentary (a publication type generally published by Frontiers free of charge) on a certain Frontiers in Human Neuroscience article which dealt with visual shape perception. Her manuscript was assigned an associate editor, but soon rejected. The reason was: despite one endorsing review, another reviewer chose to wordlessly withdraw. No specific criticisms from this reluctant reviewer were forwarded to Maniatis. No replacement reviewer was appointed, despite Maniatis’ many requests. Instead, the associate editor reviewed the manuscript himself, despite being a child psychologist and autism specialist rather outside the field. He decreed that Maniatis’ revised manuscript was “not adequate and lacked clarity and focus”, without providing any further explanations. With the support of the journal’s Chief Editor, the rejection was final. Maniatis later published her criticisms on PubPeer and PubMed Commons and was finally able to engage with the authors of the paper.
After Frontiers was listed as a potential predatory publisher, Nature News has reported on the scientists’ protests about this addition to the “controversial ‘Beall’s List’”. The Nature Publishing Group (NPG) is owned by the German publishing house Holtzbrinck Publishing Group, which is also the partial owner of Frontiers. Indeed, as I reported for Laborjournal and Lab Times, NPG became a major stakeholder in Frontiers, publicly much celebrated by both publishers. Then, at the beginning of 2015, a break came. NPG representatives have left the Frontiers board, with Henry Markram taking over their duties. The current administrative board lists the Markrams, some Frontiers employees, the reviewing board member PricewaterhouseCoopers (USA), a representative from the private equity firm CVC Capital Partners (Luxembourg), and Michael Brockhaus, Head of Group Strategy at the Holtzbrinck Publishing Group. I have reached out to Brockhaus, through his personal assistant, for a comment on the nature of Holtzbrinck’s financial involvement with Frontiers, yet received no reply.
One could assume that NPG has sold or withdrawn their investment in Frontiers, however one fact suggests that there has not been a total financial divorce: Nature journals keep advertising for the Frontiers-owned academic social network, Loop, by posting links to authors’ Loop profiles (which are created automatically for all Frontiers authors) on their article websites. Certain editors told me that they did not succeed in having their Loop account fully deleted.
Loop may help Frontiers and NPG scientists to connect, but not every account belongs to a bona fide user. The network contains a number of obviously inappropriate or bogus accounts, and Frontiers has been informed by then-EiC Barton about certain questionable Loop profiles. Some, such as the profile “Isha FB1 TEST Jan” (whose only content was a photo of a pornographic film actress) were removed, but others remain active: an Indian “Genius Mind”, a US professor by the name of “Alpha Shred”, a teenage professor from Macedonia, a Chinese senior researcher “Eagle Eagle Jg”, a student of a geographically bizarre “Amedeo Avogadro University of Eastern Piedmont” in Lebanon, and finally a US based CEO called “mis souri” whose speciality is the “wonderful sport of duck hunting”. Frontiers thanked Barton in January 2015 for sharing the information on these strange researcher profiles, but has yet to remove them.
Regardless their publishing and editorial policies, Frontiers journals have recently joined the Committee on Publication Ethics (COPE) en masse. Coincidently or not, prior to this the Frontiers journal manager Mirjam Curno joined the committee as council member. While most other journals list their editors-in-chief as their COPE contact, none of the listedFrontiers journals does. Instead, theirCOPE contacts are exclusively theemployees of the publisher, working in managerial capacities – and not involved in the editorial process of the journals. Some of these employees have little experience in the research fields they are now supervising. One is a former earth scientist, now in charge of veterinary science, neurology and psychiatry. Another studied English and Croatian at university but is now an oncology, endocrinology and public health specialist. Yet another, who supervises several Frontiers life science journals despite having studied earth sciences, has no PhD. In fact, a number of Frontiers journal managers carry no academic credentials beyond a bachelor’s degree, in a field unrelated to their Frontiers duties. All of this would not necessarily be a problem if these managers were assisting and answering to the senior academic editors of their respective journals. Instead, as the sacked medical chief editors have experienced, these journal managers interfered with the editorial process, by occasionally advising these editors to keep recruiting further reviewers or dissuading them from rejecting a manuscript.
Editorial independence, free from the meddling of the owner and publisher is a key principle of good editorial practice in science publishing, as stipulated by highly respected organizations such as ICMJE and COPE. Shortly after sacking its editors, Frontiers listed its medical and other journals as “Following the ICMJE Recommendations” and, as mentioned, became member of COPE. These events however do not mean that Frontiers is bound to change its internal policies. Why? Simply because both organizations seem not to mind when those who publicly subscribe to their rules don’t actually consider adhering to them.
The author wishes to thank NS, RP, PSB, SC and JB for their critical comments on this text.
28.10.2015: The institutional affiliation of Lydia Maniatis has been corrected -LS
06.11.2015: Two journals, which list their EiCs as COPE contacts, were erroneouslyattributedto Frontiers Media. The reader “MH” has pointed out the mistake in a comment below. This text correction means that not a single Frontiers journal lists its chief editoras COPE contact. -LS
Frederick Fenter of Frontiers about this article (source: his rebuttal letter to Jeffrey Beall):
If you are interested to support my work, you can leave here a small tip of $5. Or several of small tips, just increase the amount as you like (2x=€10; 5x=€25). Your generous patronage of my journalism will be most appreciated!
In 2015, Frontiers Media was classified as a possible predatory publisher by Jeffrey Beall. COPE and OASPA have retained Frontiers as a member after concerns were raised.How do you spot a predatory publisher? ›
- The journal's scope of interest includes unrelated subjects alongside legitimate topics.
- Website contains spelling and grammar errors.
- Images or logos are distorted/fuzzy or misrepresented/unauthorized.
- Website targets authors, not readers (i.e. publisher prioritizes making money over product).
Frontiers journals lead in citations & rank in the top Impact Factor and CiteScore percentiles. Frontiers journals rank among the world's most-cited in their fields — including top most-cited in neurosciences, microbiology, plant science and psychology.How do you know if a journal is predatory or not? ›
- Always check the website thoroughly. ...
- Check if the journal is a member of DOAJ, COPE, OASPA or STM. ...
- Check the journal's contact information. ...
- Research the editorial board. ...
- Take a look at their peer review process and publication timelines. ...
- Read through past issues of the journal.
The people behind Frontiers
Frontiers is launched as a not-for-profit foundation, the relying on philanthropic donations to operate.
All Frontiers journals are published under a Creative Commons Attribution License. In 2015, Frontiers Media was classified as a possible predatory publisher by Jeffrey Beall. COPE and OASPA have retained Frontiers as a member after concerns were raised.What happens if you publish in predatory journal? ›
The papers you publish in predatory journals are unlikely to be cited, which will affect the impact of your research and, if you care about such things, it will stop metrics such as your h-index growing as fast as it could. Perhaps the most worrying aspect is the lack of peer review, with all that entails.Is Frontiers a Q1 journal? ›
Frontiers in Medicine is a journal covering the technologies/fields/categories related to Medicine (miscellaneous) (Q1). It is published by Frontiers Media S.A.. The overall rank of Frontiers in Medicine is 3142. According to SCImago Journal Rank (SJR), this journal is ranked 1.179.How much does it cost to publish in Frontiers? ›
|Journal||A Type Articles||C Type Articles|
|Frontiers in Materials||US$ 3,225||US$ 490|
In most fields, the impact factor of 10 or greater is considered an excellent score while 3 is flagged as good and the average score is less than 1.
MDPI was included on Jeffrey Beall's list of predatory open access publishing companies in February 2014.Is Elsevier a predatory journal? ›
Elsevier consistently prioritizes mega-profits over scholarship. Too many examples to list, would need new server, so here is some more. Elsevier published nine fake journals.What are examples of predatory journals? ›
- ABC Journals.
- A M Publishers.
- Academe Research Journals.
- Academia Publishing.
- Academia Research.
- Academia Scholarly Journals (ASJ)
- Academic and Business Research Institute.
Predatory journals—also called fraudulent, deceptive, or pseudo-journals—are publications that claim to be legitimate scholarly journals, but misrepresent their publishing practices.Is Frontiers a hybrid journal? ›
Frontiers of Medicine is a hybrid open access journal.
Frontiers (and it's various associated journals) has had controversy as a predatory journal. When they were added to Beall's list, they attempted legal action claiming defamation and had the list removed. Today many Beall list clones list either specific or all Frontiers journals.Is PLOS ONE a predatory journal? ›
In some Chinese tertiary teaching hospitals, PLOS ONE is considered as a predatory journal.WHO publishes Frontier journals? ›
Frontiers is a Lausanne, Switzerland-based scholarly open-access publisher. Owned by Nature Publishing Group, the firm publishes 38 journals, chiefly in the life sciences.How can you avoid predatory publishers? ›
Be sure to search for the title of the journal exactly as it is provided in the email. Predatory publishers often choose a journal title that sounds similar to an established journal in the field. Look for the publisher in coverage lists.Why do authors publish in predatory journals? ›
Their reasons for publishing in these predatory OA journals emerged as four themes: social identity threat, unawareness, high pressure, and lack of research proficiency.
“Cabells' Predatory Reports database reached a total of 15,000 journals, 15,059 at the time of this post [1 September 2021] to be precise, pushed to that level by a recent surge in positive identifications of predatory journals. “ That is now of best estimate of the number of predatory journals, 15,059.Is frontiers A Scopus journal? ›
Information Systems Frontiers is indexed by Scopus and has a CiteScore of 10.3 for 2021.Is an impact factor of 4.8 good? ›
In most fields, the impact factor of 10 or greater is considered an excellent score while 3 is flagged as good and the average score is less than 1. This is a rule of thumb.What is the impact factor of frontiers? ›
Journal Impact Factor and CiteScore.
|Journal||2021 Impact Factor||2021 CiteScore|
|Frontiers in Neurorobotics||3.493||4.8|
|Frontiers in Neuroscience||5.152||6.6|
Open access provides free and immediate online access to scholarly literature for anyone in the world to read, distribute, and reuse. Frontiers, as a gold open access publisher, offsets all the costs associated with our high-quality publishing service through article processing charges (APCs).Is Frontier a paid journal? ›
Official Publication Fees
Based on the Official Journal Homepage, the publication fee of Frontiers in Psychology are around 2950 USD. To publish in Frontiers in Psychology with Open Access Lincense, authors are required to pay an overall article publishing charges (APC) : $2950 USD.
Type D articles are published free of charge. These include Focused Reviews, Grand Challenges, Frontiers Commentaries, Book Reviews and Editorials. Young Minds articles, our scientific outreach journal for kids, are also free of charge.What are the warning signs that a journal or publisher is predatory? ›
- The journal is difficult to locate in library catalogs, i.e. few major libraries subscribe to it.
- The scope is overly broad and/or does it fit well with your research.
- Publication frequency is irregular or not stated.
- May have the same or similar name to a legitimate journal.
- The scope of interest includes non-biomedical subjects alongside biomedical topics.
- The website contains spelling and grammar errors.
- Images are distorted/fuzzy, intended to look like something they are not, or which are unauthorized.
- The homepage language targets authors.
2. Editor and editorial board members: Look at the editor and editorial board of the journal. In case of predatory journal, the editor is neither an academician nor a researcher and details regarding editorial board members are not available if searched on-line, based on the affiliation provided. 3.
Some common forms of predatory publishing practices include falsely claiming to provide peer review, hiding information about Article Processing Charges (APCs), misrepresenting members of the journal's editorial board, and other violations of copyright or scholarly ethics.