Publisher Problems at Frontiers (Part 1)
(August 9th, 2015) Frontiers, the publishing house, dismisses 31 of its editors, based on escalated opposition to the publisher’s unique publication model.
The Swiss neuroscientist, Henry Markram, is in the headlines again. This time, it is not about the EU wanting to spend a billion euros on his Human Brain Project. Instead, the focal point of this new dispute is the Open Access Publisher Frontiers, which was founded by Markram and his wife Kamila in 2007 and which they run together. Kamila Markram is officially registered as MD, whilst Henry Markram used to be the “Executive Publisher” and apparently still has a hand in steering the Frontiers titles and activities. And this appears to be the root of the problem.
Unlike serious academic publishing companies, where there is a strict separation between publishing management and editorial team, this doesn’t appear to be the case at Frontiers. At least that is the impression gleamed by a group of editors, who in a manifesto have accused the publishing house of an improper interference in editorial freedom.
The publisher refuted the manifesto. Frontiers claims to observe a clear division between editorial decisions made by external academic editors and the business department of the publishing house. The rebellious editors disagreed with the opposition! An agreement was most unlikely to be reached. Science then reported that Frontiers had promptly fired all 31 signatories on the manifesto; all editors were employed with their specialist journals Frontiers in Medicine and Frontiers in Cardiovascular Medicine. This was a clever move as the frustrated chief editors were already planning to resign, as Laborjournal had been informed. Since that incident on 7th May, a further 44 editors with Frontiers in Medicine and Frontiers in Cardiovascular Medicine allegedly quit their posts.
As Matthias Barton, cardiology professor at the University of Zurich and now dismissed chief editor of both journals, explained: for Frontiers it is financially worthwhile to publish as many manuscripts as possible for a fee. But patients’ health could be put at risk if clinical studies are insufficiently reviewed. And the peer review system at Frontiers is quite unique.
Unconventional Publication System
The predominantly automated publication system, which Markram has had patented, works as follows: the authors send in their manuscripts to a Frontiers journal and select an editor of their choice from a list of Associate Editors. This editor alone is then responsible for the manuscript from peer review to publication (or rejection). Of course, conflicts of interest may arise. Or maybe the chosen associate editor could turn out to be unsuitable for the expert evaluation of a given topic. But surely that’s why there is an editor-in-chief? His task is to monitor the entire process and introduce corrective changes to ensure objectivity and quality of review, right? Theoretically, this must also be possible at Frontiers. Unfortunately, unlike other publishing companies, the chief editors here do not often notice, which manuscripts have been received and how the review is progressing. It would appear that the editors-in chief have no direct access to the editorial information of their own journals!
Jos van der Meer, head of Internal Medicine at the Radboud University of Nijmegen (Netherlands) reported in Science that Frontiers disregarded his objections with respect to manuscripts, which, in his opinion, should never have been accepted. As editor-in-chief of Frontiers Medicine he even had to justify in several instances, why he rejected certain manuscripts. Christian Gleißner, cardiologist at the University Hospital in Heidelberg and chief editor for Molecular Cardiology for a few months, reports similar instances: although during his time, only two manuscripts were submitted, one of these was reviewed and accepted entirely without his knowledge. As with van der Meer, he was only informed retrospectively. Several former chief editors (all professors and senior physicians) confirm, their only duty was to lend their name to the journal. They obviously had no real influence on the editorial decisions.
Editorial Independence – an Unknown Expression at Frontiers?
The editors’ manifesto strongly urges Frontiers to follow the recommendations of the International Committee of Medical Journal Editors (ICMJE). The ICMJE, in turn, complies with the clear guidelines on editorial independence advocated by the World Association of Medical Editors (WAME). These guidelines underline the editorial authority assumed by the editor-in-chief for the entire content of his journal. The journal owner, i.e. the publishing house, is expected to withhold from influencing the editorial processes, in any way. The Committee on Publication Ethics (COPE), which Frontiers wants to join, also expects the publisher to respect the editorial independence.
Frontiers, however, considers its own system to be the better. Out of principle, the publishing house refuses to entrust the editors-in-chief with any responsibility or allow them to supervise the associate editors.
When all is said and done, the publishing manager monitors everything and has the final say, i.e., the Markram couple, together with a certain Frederick Fenter, executive editor. As Fenter dismissed the chief editors, he justified his actions by pointing out that the Frontiers model may not suit everyone and emphasising that they continue to believe in their principles. Even if this should threaten the journal’s existence.
But why did the editors apply to Frontiers in the first place, if they weren’t fans of the Markram Model? Watch this space for our next installment!
This article first appeared in German at laborjournal.de.