Most board members of journal resign to protest new editor, layoffs

Detlev Ganten

Nearly all of the editorial board members of a 150-year-old journal about the molecular underpinnings of medicine and disease have resigned their posts, protesting changes by publisher SpringerNature that they say “jeopardized the future and scholarly legacy of the Journal.”

In a December 1 letter, led by the three former editors in chief of the Journal of Molecular MedicineDetlev Ganten, Gregg Semenza and Thomas Sommer — more than 70 then-editorial board members raised two objections: closing a small editorial office and laying off staff, and unilaterally appointing a new editor.

Regarding the decision to close the office at the Max Delbrück Center for Molecular Medicine (MDC) Berlin Buch, where it has been since 1995,  the editors and board members wrote:

The success of the journal is in large part due to the tireless efforts of the editorial staff members who have worked hard far beyond the call of duty to ensure rigorous peer review and timely assembly of the journal’s issues. Your decision to close the MDC office without consulting the editors comes as a shock to the editorial staff who will now have to seek new employment at a very short notice and also see this lack of consideration on behalf of SpringerNature as a sign that the editorial staff’s loyalty and dedication to the Journal have not been valued.

The letter writers also raised objections to Springer’s choice of new editor to take over from Ganten — Ari Waisman, of the Mainz University Medical Center — instead of the editors’ pick:

The editors identified Prof. Dr. Martin Lohse at the Max Delbrück Center for Molecular Medicine as a new editor-in-chief who would succeed Prof. Dr. Detlev Ganten upon his retirement. This choice was a consensus decision reached by the current editors because it was felt that the new editor-in-chief would continue the strong legacy of interdisciplinary scholarship at the Journal and the experience of the editorial staff. However, the unilateral decision of SpringerNature to disregard the recommendations of the editorial board without engaging in any dialogue or discussion with the editorial board has jeopardized the future and scholarly legacy of the Journal. All of us came to the decision that we can no longer, in good conscience, continue to serve as editors or editorial board members of the Journal of Molecular Medicine and we hereby resign.

Springer told Retraction Watch that

In reviewing the overall needs and future outlook for this journal, Springer considered [Ganten’s] suggestion, but took into account also other potential candidates.

Waisman, who took over as editor on January 1, is an “independent well-esteemed researcher” who “has made major contributions to the understanding of the mechanisms of autoimmune diseases,” Springer said. Waisman, according to Springer,

will build on the work of Dr. Ganten over nearly 25 years. As a logical step to this new direction for the journal, Springer decided to reorganise the editorial office in close collaboration with the newly appointed editor-in-chief to provide him with the best support we can.

It’s unclear exactly how many editorial board members have actually resigned, although Ganten said that it was most of them. Springer said it is still working to

confirm with those members listed on the open letter whether they want to continue their role as members of the editorial board. The website of the journal is therefore being updated, in this respect, on a regular basis.

Lohse, the former editor-in-chiefs’ choice to lead the journal, told Retraction Watch:

[G]iven the way Springer has never in any way communicated with us, the MDC where the journal had had its home for many years and the editors, I see no point in remaining on the editorial board. The decision by Springer to select a new editor at a new location, communicated in a few email lines a few weeks before the actual transfer and never discussed with anybody, made the large majority of the editorial board resign.

As in other difficult discussions between the science community and publishers, the question behind all this is whether journals belong to publishers or to scientists who make them work and, hopefully, flourish.

One of the editorial board members who resigned told Retraction Watch that at stake “is what constitutes an academic journal.” Jalees Rehman, of the University of Illinois-Chicago, wrote:

The decision by SpringerNature to ignore all of us when making their decision about the future of the editorship and avoid vetting or voting by the past authors, reviewers and editors clearly indicates that they do not see us as having any say even though we represent its intellectual tradition and put in so much effort to maintain its quality without any material compensation. As editors/reviewers, we always think of the professional satisfaction in maintaining the scholarly standards of a journal as our biggest reward and this should also include involvement in key decisions regarding a journal’s editorial future.

We’ve seen editorial boards resign en masse for various reasons: Another journal published by SpringerNature lost more than a dozen members recently when the journal refused to retract a paper accused of plagiarism, and a public health journal lost its entire board when the publisher (Taylor & Francis) hired a new editor with industry ties.

Update, 2100 UTC, 2/16/17: Springer Nature tells Retraction Watch (this comment was sent to us on February 7, but technical problems with our site prevented us from posting it until now):

Springer provided financial support to the Max Delbrück Center (MDC) on an annual basis in order to manage the Journal of Molecular Medicine. Professor Ganten used this funding to employ two part-time editorial staff.

Professor Ganten announced his retirement to Springer in June 2017 and he was fully aware that Springer was exploring all options regarding his successor. We were therefore very surprised to read in his open letter that the editorial staff at MDC were only given short notice. The MDC knew well before the end of 2017 that support for the editorial office was likely to cease at the end of that year.

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One thought on “Most board members of journal resign to protest new editor, layoffs”

  1. What happens to journals when some or all of their editorial board members resign in protest? Does it have any measurable short- or long-impact in terms of submissions, citations, subscription revenues, or other metrics? There have probably been quite a few examples by now – has anyone looked systematically? How much of the journal’s reputation and value depends on title and publisher and accumulated history, versus the current editorial board?

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