In which a favour for a colleague leads to being associated with un-scholarly peer review practices, un-collegiate behaviour, and predatory open access publishing mechanisms. My advice? Stay away from Frontiers.
1. Poor Peer Review Practices
In October 2014 I was approached by a colleague of mine, Frederic Kaplan, from EPFL, for a favour. I had worked with Frederic on running DH2014, still the largest ever international meeting of Digital Humanities scholars. Frederic was setting up a new, online, open access, peer reviewed journal in Digital Humanities. Would I help him out in being a reviewer? Of course, I said. Our community needs more venues to publish in, Digital Humanities has a commitment to open access, and having helped set up an online, peer reviewed, open access, Digital Humanities journal myself, I know how difficult it is to get any established scholars to support you in the early days. I was happy to help: I do try to be helpful. But now I have to be helpful to the wider online community to discuss what happens when you lend your name to a Frontiers publication.
I dealt with the Frontiers editorial team, not Frederic, for the new journal: Frontiers in Digital Humanities. I was surprised when they sent me the journal article to review – given it was written by Frederic alone. I probably should have said “conflict of interest” there, but the Digital Humanities community is so small, we often are asked to review things by people we know, and I think I can take an objective stance, so I undertook a careful review. On the 12th November 2014 I returned the article with my detailed peer review (which I would be happy to share if anyone is interested – it is very constructive). I believe I rejected the article, stating that it needed a complete rewrite before resubmission, and provided guidance in order for that to happen, including the need for adequate referencing and examples, and pointing out where I just plain disagreed with the paper. In March 2015 the resubmitted paper was returned to me, and I pointed out a whole list of minor typographical corrections which still needed to be made before it could be accepted, but agreed that the “Journal Coordinator” Yaelle Bochatay could check these typos before publication.
I remember feeling they had me over a barrel at that point, given they kept asking if the changes had been made – I had asked for certain corrections to be made, they were now made, which should now make it publishable, right? See how this is a professional development opportunity I wasn’t expecting: in retrospect, I now realise that if I’ve rejected a paper for complete rewrite, it should really go to others for peer review afterwards to get another opinion, but I didn’t make that stance at the time and felt pressurised by Frontiers in DH with their many emails. I agreed that the changes I had asked for had been made, and up my name goes on the website saying I’ve reviewed the article, which technically, I did.
There’s a few things to say about this. Firstly, why is it ok to only have one peer reviewer on an article? Now, the history of peer review is complex, and its difficult to know what is enough, but one peer reviewer? One? I had assumed, naively, there would be more than one – I didn’t think to check, given I’ve never been in a peer review situation before where I would be the only reviewer, without that being made explicitly clear to me. Frontiers had not mentioned that I was the only peer reviewer (it was made clear to me that my name was going to be online, and at the time, I was happy with that: I stand by my work). But one? Uh-oh. They werent asking me for a peer review. They were asking me to associate my name with the journal, so they could point to me.
But the other problem is, this isn’t transparent. It doesn’t list the fact that I rejected the paper for full rewrite given its poor quality, nor when it was resubmitted after rewrite. Congratulations, you are now the peer reviewer in a substandard peer review process which isn’t all as it seems, with its claims for transparency and claims for revolutionising publishing – the whole thing seemed like a predatory rush job. I hadn’t been able to check out the journal before getting involved in the peer review process – there was nothing to check out, given there was nothing online, and I had trusted Frederic. I felt duped: the whole thing feels icky. But I was prepared to let the whole thing go, and chalk it up to experience (given I had indeed undertaken the peer review for them, and I did accept that the changes had been made to the journal article making it a much stronger paper than originally submitted), although I was decided I would not review for them ever again. However, that was until the opening scenes of the DH2015 conference…
2. Why are all the Senior Editors in Frontiers in DH male?
Over to DH2015, and the international meeting of Digital Humanities scholars in Sydney, Australia. Sitting in the audience, waiting for the first plenary speaker in the opening ceremony, I open the conference bag, and lo! there’s the launch material for Frontiers in DH. I’ll pass this over to a fantastic tweet by Matthew Lincoln, also sitting in the audience, which summed up the shock a lot of us felt. (Screenshot included here in case the tweet disappears, but seriously, thanks Matthew for sending this tweet out).
Wait, you dont understand why this is problematic? When 46% of the 500+ attendees to DH2015 audience were women? When DH is has plenty of knowledgeable women around, when four out of the last 5 program chairs of the DH conferences have been women (myself included), when… I could go on and on, but Women In Digital Humanities Are Not Hard To Find, Okay? When there are lots of women around being very helpful, and here, in 2015, we have a new journal launched that can only find men to put in senior positions. Right-oh. Let’s just pause for a minute and congratulate them on that, shall we?
So what do I do? First, of course, I take to the twitter (as do others):
Then I email Frederic and ask him to remove my name from the journal, as I can no longer give it my support. And in the break I find him, and talk to him in person. He said “it wasn’t deliberate” – I explain that systemic misogyny rarely is. He asks for my help to sort it out: I explain that I have my own journals to look after, and my own work to do, and he has to own this and he has to sort it out himself. I explain I’m not going to be the mummy that comes in and rescues him: its part of being an adult, an academic leader, to recognise that this is an issue, and that you need to put in the work yourself to remedy things when you mess up. We chat, and he agrees that he understands why I should remove my name from supporting the journal. I stress that when his senior editorial board reaches gender parity, we can revisit this, and I would be happy to support him and his work on this, if he can find women for his senior editorial board. I stress that sexism in academia is an important issue for me, and I have to take a stand against such blatant exclusion of women from the academic commons. He agrees.
And then, in later email conversations, which involve higher and higher members of staff from the Frontiers journal office, he denies I ever rejected his paper with major corrections, and my name does not come down from Frontiers in DH, despite many polite requests from me. He asks me again and again and again to find women for him. But he does nothing to support my escalating requests to remove my name from his journal until the gender balance issue is addressed by him. Nothing.
In case there is any doubt, I no longer support Frontiers in Digital Humanities in protest at the fact that they only have men on their senior editorial board. And Frontiers in Digital Humanities are refusing to take my name off their website. I had trusted Frederic. I had felt that the peer review process was less than satisfactory: but the whole thing feels more than icky now. It feels predatory.
3. Why wont Frontiers remove my name when I ask?
Shall I show you some of the responses I got from the Frontier Journals editorial team? Oh go on let me show you some of them. Explaining why they wont remove my name from Frontiers in Digital Humanities, Frederick Fenter, Executive Editor of Frontiers, said: “To remove it would… cause damage to the author of that article. We look forward to hearing from your lawyers.” Responding to criticism regarding the gender issue of the Frontiers in DH board, Fenter said “Our CEO is a woman, 80% of our editorial office employees are women”. You’ve heard it here first – the lowly editorial assistants are women, the senior editors are men. BINDERS FULL OF WOMEN, I tell you. They maintain I signed an agreement with Frontiers to have my name associated with them forever: I never signed any agreement. I asked them for a copy of the agreement they claim to have: they do not respond. It goes on and on. They will not remove my name.
I get an email from Dr Kamila Markram, CEO & Co-Founder on Frontiers, on the 16th July 2015, trying to persuade me that Frontiers “are of course extremely sensitive about the representation on our external editorial boards” stating:
we work hard to be demographically representative. We find that women, for whatever reason, are many times less likely to accept an editorial appointment, given comparable career advancement – much to my personal disappointment… because we are sensitive to the gender bias within academia and publishing, we do make an extra effort to seek out and approach women who will become part of the solution, become active editors in our journals and help change the field. I always felt the best way to shift the balance is to be a part of the change by setting a positive example of achievement.The Digital Humanities journal is only a few months old with only a handful of articles published, but I was excited to launch this journal as it has so much potential to showcase the incredible research the scientists in digital humanities are accomplishing. A number of women have been approached for positions at all levels from Specialty Chief Editors to Associate Editors to Reviewers, and we are waiting for responses. Already we have a number of female Associate Editors on board including Nadia Bianchi-Berhouze, Jeannette Franziska Frey, and Eleanor Selfridge-Field. Eleanor was recently chosen as one of our Science Heroes. She was interviewed by our team in June to showcase her amazing work and her pioneering spirit. We have also interviewed female scientists in other fields such as Molecular Bioscientist Annalisa Pastore and have a number of others in the works. We are hoping that our Science Hero profiles will help inspire others to join the field and inform the general public and media of the great research that is being done.Everything I’ve been doing at Frontiers to help improve gender equality which might seem tiny to you, but believe me, the awareness is there and so is the effort. I’d be very happy to hearing your ideas on how we can reach the desired gender balance with more of the top female scientists in the world and get them to become active editors. A fresh and constructive perspective is always most welcome.
She also states
Frontiers is all about fixing the many problems in scientific publishing. We have improved peer review by making it impact-neutral, collaborative and transparent.
I respond by asking many questions:
1). Please can you tell me why you think having one peer reviewer per article is adequate?
2). Please can you tell me if Frederic Kaplan (or any other senior editor) is paid a fee for editing one of your journals?
3). Please can you tell me why you don’t state if an article has been rejected and requires full revision, given your publishing model is supposed to be more transparent?
4). Please can you tell me why you wont respect an academic’s wishes in having their association removed from your journals, and website, when they make that polite request?
5). Please can you tell me what checks on make up of an editorial board regarding gender (and racial diversity) you make prior to launching a new journal? Who in the Frontiers family checks off a new journal, and double checks that any concerns about gender equality and diversity have been adequately addressed?
And I make constructive points:
Do you realise that only appointing men to senior editorial positions (which is categorically what you have done with Frontiers in DH), and women to more junior positions (I hear 80% of your copy-editors are women! well done!) represents the inherently sexist models in the publishing industry? You, personally, allowed this to happen.
If I were you, I’d be refusing to launch new journals in any field unless there were at least 30% female senior editors already appointed. (50% in an ideal world, but lets go for realistic). I would be setting up a checking stage for gender equality before launch, and rigorously policing it. (There are other issues regarding diversity, such as race and disability, which you should also be looking out for, btw – but gender is the one I feel I can most constructively tackle).
I’d also be having Frederic apologise to me, and removing my name and institutional association from any Frontiers in DH web pages, immediately. As I stated to him in person, I’d be happy to revisit this when you have actioned gender parity, but not before. As it stands, you are trading on my name and my institution’s name, when I have politely, and publicly removed support for your publication in protest for the problematic gender representation on the board of Frontiers in DH.
I’d then be finding the women in DH who are so visible, and often excluded: excluded because men like Frederic can’t or don’t look past their own old boys’ networks, and excluded from journal boards – even by companies run by a woman – because those companies don’t actively encourage or check that there is gender equality in a way which is constructive and practical (refusal to launch a journal if there is not apposite gender representation) rather than fluffy and patronising (Science Heroes! Bless, how lovely).
The CEO does not respond. I leave these emails to speak for themselves.
4. Advice for others considering publishing in Frontiers in Digital Humanities
I dont mean this to come across as an attack on one particular person. I’m frustrated – sure I’m frustrated – but I think, really, this is about the Frontiers model of publishing. Frederic hasn’t said to me himself, but I’m presuming his silence means that he has tried to have dialogue with Frontiers – but it is them who are stopping my name coming off the website, given all emails refusing my request are coming from them (although, Hi Frederic! let me know if that is the case! Really would be lovely to hear from you!) In case you think this is a hatchet job, I’ve been telling Frederic and the journal editors for two weeks now that I intend to talk about it publicly if we cannot get it sorted out: they have had every opportunity to act in a collegiate manner, but I dont believe they have. So let’s now look at the Frontiers mode of publishing.
Its expensive to publish with them. This is a profit making venture (which isn’t bad within itself). But there are other open access journals around in Digital Humanities which are more established, that don’t charge these fees, and have the scholarly support of the community (disclaimer: I’m on the editorial board of one, but there are others). One has to wonder why you would publish in Frontiers in Digital Humanities, really, given the costs, never mind the problematic peer review and gender issues. But hey! don’t worry! If you are lucky you can win the cost of publishing a journal article with them! That’s right! you can WIN THE COST OF PUBLISHING AN ARTICLE WITH THEM. If that doesn’t set alarm bells ringing, I don’t know what will.
The full editorial board (not just the senior editorial board) has 496 people on it. Wait. 496 people? (I haven’t done an exact count but it looks to me that the majority of them are men, btw). But at time of writing there are only 3 papers in the journal? Uh-oh. Something isn’t right here. I ask around. A colleague tells me she has had more than 14 emails in the past few months asking her to be listed on the (low level, not the senior) editorial board. That she feels pressured into getting involved. Uh-oh.
I’ve already detailed, above, how the peer review process left me feeling it was inadequate. I wouldn’t publish in this journal, as it stands, as the peer review process is so lax and untrustworthy (and I state that as a peer reviewer!), never mind this additional stuff about refusing to remove someone’s name from a webpage.
A journal called Frontiers in Bioscience is listed over at Beall’s list of Potential, possible, or probable predatory scholarly open-access publishers [however – paragraph updated 26/07/2015 – a comment left below states that this has nothing to do with the Frontiers family of journals we are talking about here – instead of deleting this sentence I’m keeping it in with an explanation as I think its important that the distinction is made for others looking at Beall’s list: None of the Frontiers journals from Frontiers Media occur, or have ever occurred, on Mr Beall’s list. I’m happy to make the correction here].
Let’s take a look at the criteria for determining predatory publishers which puts journals on Beall’s list, shall we? Its a long list, available in a PDF, but there are things on that list which Frontiers in Digital Humanities is definitely coming up trumphs with (I quote here from Criteria for Determining Predatory Open-Access Publishers, but the highlighting is all my own):
- The journals have an insufficient number of board members , (e.g., 2 or 3 members), have concocted editorial boards (made up names), name scholars on their editorial board without their knowledge or permission or have board members who are prominent researchers but exempt them from any contributions to the journal except the use of their names and/or photographs.
- The editorial board engages in gender bias (i.e., exclusion of any female members).
- The publisher begins operations with a large fleet of journals, often using a common template to quickly create each journal’s home page.
- The publisher engages in excessive use of spam email to solicit manuscripts or editorial board memberships.
- Evidence exists showing that the publisher does not really conduct a bona fide peer review.
etc etc etc. Uh-oh.
All this to say: I wouldn’t like anyone to think that just because my name is on the Frontiers in Digital Humanities website that I support this effort or this publishing house. I did undertake a peer review for them once, in good faith. I have asked for my name to be removed in protest for gender balance issues in their senior editorial board appointments, but “To remove it would… cause damage to the author of that article”. As a result I’m left recommending that others in Digital Humanities do not go anywhere near Frontiers in Digital Humanities, to prevent any damage to themselves, or their own scholarly reputation.
But then again, I’m always happy to be transparent when it comes to academic publishing.
Update: 28th July 2015
A week has gone by since my original post, and I haven’t had any official contact from Frontiers. I’ve been contacted by many in the Digital Humanities who confirm the spamming emails they’ve had from Frontiers, and many of you have turned Secret Squirrel, sharing what you know.
Turns out I’m not the first to draw attention to the problematic peer review and publishing model of Frontiers. You can read into other such public postings, especially this post from @deevybee on “My collapse of confidence in Frontiers journals”, posted just a few weeks ago. Professor Bishop covers more about the history of the platform and other recent public statements made by academics over how they view it – it’s worth a read, so I won’t cover this ground again here, but it shows that this isn’t just a paranoid rant from me: those considering publishing in this venue should be very careful.
Regarding their publishing model – I was right in surmising that “Frontiers awards annual honoraria to chief editors at threshold levels of success of their journals” … what would success look like? Well, it turns out there’s a set of public facing guidelines for Speciality Chief Editors, hilariously titled “Equal Opportunity Research Publishing” (given the fact that Equal Ops regarding gender doesn’t come into the equation). It’s clearly a franchise model, fair enough. Now, these guidelines makes for very interesting reading, and there are numerous stages where Frontiers in DH didn’t follow the rules – only one peer review, instead of two (despite the hundreds of editors!), the peer review wasn’t blind – Frederic specifically asked for me to review his paper. I didn’t undertake the review as part of the interactive system – it was all done over email, etc etc. So here we have a franchise that just didn’t follow the rules, which is probably the source of my ill-feeling about the Frontiers in DH peer review process. I therefore suggest that anyone considering publishing with Frontiers or being asked to join the review board looks at these guidelines, and people should double check that they are happy with this approach, and that when they are involved, the rules are followed.
I will repeat my call regarding gender and the make up of editorial boards: these Equal Opportunity Research Publishing guidelines should have some consideration for the constituency of the boards, including gender representation, and it wouldn’t be hard for them to insert a clause about this on page 9 if they truly were invested in supporting women in academia. Just check that you haven’t excluded women – it would go a long way to making sure that people don’t “forget” about this, given the issues of systemic misogyny within the academy.
I think I’ve said all I have to say, for now, on this – I’m still disappointed in how all this unfolded, but I have work to do. Next time I’m approached to review for a new journal, I’ll be a tonne more skeptical, and, sadly, less trusting. Be careful out there, folks.