SPOTLIGHT: Frontiers responds to 'Beall's list' post

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Open-access publisher Frontiers was recently the subject of a post in ‘Beall’s list’. Sian Harris asks the company’s CEO for her perspective 

Last month librarian Jeffrey Beall wrote a post on his Scholarly Open Access blog raising questions about the Swiss open-access (OA) publisher Frontiers. In Beall’s post he wrote, ‘Frontiers does not meet the criteria for inclusion as a predatory publisher, but I regularly receive complaints about its spamming and editorial practices. I realise that there are probably many people that are satisfied with Frontiers, and that it is likely publishing good science. Still, there is value in sharing others’ experiences with this publisher.’ 

To back this up he shared three emails he has received about the publisher. The emails – and some of the comments below the post – criticise the volume of emails from Frontiers inviting people to review articles. They also note that review invitations are often not relevant to the recipients’ specialities, which leads some commenters to speculate on the quality of the review process. 

Beall summed up his blog post with: ‘When a scholarly publisher doesn’t have to worry about losing subscriptions, the entire publishing dynamic changes. There’s less accountability. We hope that Frontiers can take these criticisms into account and make improvements in its operations.’ 

Kamila Markram, CEO and co-founder of Frontiers, told Research Information that she was disappointed by the post and particularly the concerns raised about the publisher’s peer-review process.

She readily admits that the publisher is contacting many researchers. However she says that this is a normal part of publishing and new journal launches. ‘What we are experiencing are the growing pains of success,’ she said. She explained that the recent significant investment that Frontiers received from Nature Publishing Group has given the company the opportunity to grow. This, of course, has benefits for the publisher but has, she said, had unforeseen impacts on the publishing process. 

The company has used some of this investment to launch new journals away from the company’s original focus of life sciences. ‘We are expanding at a quick pace so are contacting thousands of people informing them of new journals,’ she said. ‘I’m a scientist myself and I hear from publishers every day and not just OA publishers. You can buy lists of researchers’ contact details and that’s a normal practice for publishers when they are marketing journals.’ 

Many of the comments and complaints raised in Beall’s post and the emails that he included were about the company’s approach to peer review, in particular that researchers are asked to review papers that are not in their field. However, Markram denies that the experiences shared in Beall’s post show a lack of quality in the peer-review process.

‘It’s complete nonsense to say that we don’t have a proper review system in place. Peer review from our point of view is really at the heart of science. We have put in place a standardised review template that asks very detailed questions. We also publish the names of reviewers to make it transparent,’ she said. 

So what about the experiences people have had of being asked to review papers in subjects that they know little about? These experiences come down to the different approach that the publisher has taken to organising peer review, according to Markram. 

‘When we started Frontiers we did it in the conventional way, with associate editors assigning reviewers but we found that it was a very lengthy process. It can easily take two months to invite reviewers because it is an iterative process and then we have to chase up to get the reports,’ she said. 

She recounted how her husband and Frontiers co-founder Henry Markram, was an editor on the board of another journal where every time an article was submitted to that journal all of the board was informed and given the opportunity to review the paper. The board found this useful as a way to keep track of current research even if they were not interested in a particular paper, she noted. 

Frontiers decided to adapt a similar approach to its review process. Each journal therefore has a significantly larger than usual board - ‘we really want to ensure that all the expertise is covered,’ she said – and everybody on the board is what the publisher calls a ‘review editor’. This means that they are all informed of all papers submitted. 

‘Everybody on the board has been invited. They are all signed up and so they should know about our approach and we are doing a lot of educate about the Frontiers process,’ Markram said, adding that this move was initially very popular with authors because, instead of up to two months to assign a reviewer, this process could be done within a few minutes. 

And this worked fine, she said, when the publisher was small. What has happened over the past two to three years, according to Markram, is that, as the publisher has grown so have the number of submissions, and therefore the number of emails to review editors. 

‘It worked fantastically well for a while and then our journals grew. We became victims of our own success; the people who complained were those on our most successful journals,’ she said. For example, she noted that the journal Frontiers in Human Neuroscience now receives around a thousand submissions a year, which equates to a large number of emails. 

The company therefore developed an algorithm to filter out relevant reviewers. This sends review invitations to 10 people and then to 10 more if none of the first 10 are interested. ‘The algorithm is intended to accelerate the process and was built with authors and publication timing in mind,’ she said, although she admits that it is not perfect.

‘We have put in place a system that matches reviewers with articles. We have a review system software but the algorithm is only as good as the keywords that people put in,’ she explained. ‘When editors and reviewers sign up with us it’s very important that they fill in what they are interested in. This is important for when editors assign reviewers manually to, which they can also do.’ 

However, she added that the publisher takes criticism seriously and is refining the algorithm regularly in response to feedback. ‘Sometimes we get a bit of negative feedback. Always the burning feedback is from people who are angry. We are listening to what people are saying and modifying our algorithms on a weekly basis.’ 

Markram also feels that some of the criticisms in the blog post are about OA more widely and believes these criticisms are often unfair. ‘There is so much discussion now about the quality of OA. We recently compared the eight journals of ours that already have impact factors and they are above average in their fields,’ she said. ‘With OA there is a lot of misunderstanding. We need to educate people and do a lot of advocacy work,’ she continued. ‘There is a proper process in big OA publishers and we are members of COASP.’ 

And on the concern raised in the blog post and elsewhere about gold OA being about publishers making money she noted, ‘subscription publishers are making huge margins. We [at Frontiers] are for profit and have to run a responsible business and pay our staff but making money is not our primary goal. I consider that this is human heritage so we can’t do it in a sloppy way.’ Indeed she noted that Frontiers was founded with the aspiration that at some stage the process of publishing OA could be made free by replacing the current system with a freemium business model. 'We are not there yet so have APCs,’ she concluded.