Publisher Problems at Frontiers (Part 2)

(August 25th, 2015) The failed alliance with the Nature Publishing Group also plays a role in the conflict between the Frontiers publishing company and a group of its editors.

Frontiers publishing, founded by Henry and Kamila Markram, has severed ties with 31 critical editors in the Frontiers in Medicine and Frontiers in Cardiovascular Medicine journals because in a manifesto they publicly insisted upon editorial independence from the publishing management. In its defence, Frontiers argues: these are our principles and we shall not give in (see Part 1 of this Article). Why did the editors apply to Frontiers in the first place, if they didn't agree with the Markrams' model? Why the sudden public protest, which has led to a mass dismissal?

History explains this inconsistency. Basically, many of these clinical scientists agreed to the (usually unpaid) job as a Frontiers editor because they believed they would be working for the Nature Publishing Group (NPG). In February 2013, NPG and Frontiers announced a “strategic alliance”; NPG became a majority shareholder of Frontiers.

Part of the NPG family

Lab Times has an email dated March 2014, in which NPG invited publications to be submitted to Frontiers. Frontiers articles were also to be made viewable on the Nature website. Nature even issued their own press release promoting the then new journal, Frontiers in Cardiovascular Medicine. The message was clear: Frontiers is now part of the NPG family.

Little wonder then that many doctors and professors started lining up to enthusiastically volunteer their services as editors. In the science world, the name Nature and NPG stands for high quality, which it was probably hoped would benefit the Frontiers group.

According to some of the editors, they could even apply direct via a special link on the NPG website, as did Ole Nielsen, professor in gastroenterology at the Herlev Hospital in Denmark. Curiously, Frontiers' executive editor, Frederick Fenter, vehemently denies that any scientists were ever able to apply for the editorial positions at any of the Frontiers journals via the NPG website. ("We can fully exclude this strange supposition" was his clear response to this particular Lab Times question).

Whatever! NPG director, Steven Inchcoombe, nevertheless, personally welcomed the Frontiers editors into the “NPG family”. Public information from the Swiss business portal, Moneyhouse, also reveals that, until January 2015, Inchcoombe was a director on the administrative board (“administrateurs avec signature collective à deux, toutefois avec Kamila Markram”) at Frontiers, whilst his colleague Christoph Hesselmann (Finance Director at NPG) was also a Frontiers board member; parallel to their respective NPG positions. Thereafter, according to Moneyhouse, Henry Markram is registered as CEO.

A surreptitious end to the alliance
One could be forgiven for assuming that Frontiers was actually now part of the NPG family. But for whatever reasons, things just went quiet. At the beginning of April, NPG (rather its publishing company Macmillan, who in turn is part of the Holtzbrinck Publishing Group) joined forces with Springer Science and Business Media. Springer brought a large share of the open access market into the partnership, as owner of BioMed Central and SpringerOpen. Perhaps the Markrams' open access business was, subsequently, no longer as interesting for NPG.

Talk of Frontiers in the NPG family appears to have become a moot point and is no longer acknowledged, not even by executive editor, Fenter. At the Frankfurt Book Fair he said that Frontiers and NPG were only common shareholders and would work together, if the opportunity arose. One is then compelled to ask: Is NPG actually still a majority shareholder at Frontiers or have they disposed of their shares, on the quiet?

NPG seeks distance
It would appear that Frontiers has “forgotten” to inform their own chief editors about the end of the “strategic alliance” with NPG. Jos van der Meer, former editor-in-chief of Frontiers in Medicine and head of internal medicine at the Radboud University Nijmegen (Netherlands), explained to Lab Times that the Markrams kept the separation quiet and let the editors continue to believe, Frontiers was still part of the NPG family.

Other editors gave similar accounts. For instance, the NPG logo wasn't allowed, for whatever reasons, to be used on letter paper but the publisher reassured that this was supposedly of no significance.

The fact that NPG has distanced itself from the Markrams's business is perhaps also due to other reasons. It would appear that in dismissing the medical editors, Frontiers is attempting to straighten things out in the wrong way. Hence, despite protests from editors, the publishing company has, for example, retracted a paper criticising sceptics of climate change. Recently, the convicted fraudster, Marc Hauser, was also allowed to publish work in Frontiers. And even a paper denying the connection between HIV and AIDS was allowed.

Frontiers in Medicine also continues to promote the Neapolitan, Alfredo Fusco, on their home page, and who, as far as we know, hasn't been sacked from his position as associate editor. Fusco has had to retract eight publications due to data manipulation and is under investigation by the Italian authorities for suspected fraud.

Perhaps all this excitement was just a little too much for NPG.

Leonid Schneider

This editorial first appeared at

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