When a journal is delisted, authors pay a price

Shocked, confused, disappointed — these are the reactions of authors who recently published in a cancer journal that was delisted by a company that indexes journals.

Recently, Clarivate Analytics announced it would discontinue indexing Oncotarget after the first few issues of 2018 — as a result, the journal would not receive a current impact factor. The company did not tell us a specific reason why, simply saying it “no longer meets the standards necessary for continued coverage.” Last year, the journal was also removed from the U.S. government biomedical research database MEDLINE, also with no explanation. (At the time, the National Library of Medicine’s Associate Director for Library Operations told us readers who are familiar with the guidelines MEDLINE follows when deselecting journals “can draw their own conclusions” as to why Oncotarget was removed.)

After we covered Clarivate’s decision to delist Oncotarget, many posted comments on the story, including suggestions the move could hurt authors who submitted papers before the announcement. (Some comments also appeared to be versions of the same request that the journal be indexed through January 15.)

We reached out to many of the corresponding authors on papers in the January 26 issue, the seventh issue published in 2018. Many are based at leading institutions around the world; all had submitted their manuscripts months ago. Some noted that they were surprised by the decision, as the review process appeared quite rigorous; some told us that if they’d known the journal was going to be delisted, they would not have submitted their papers there.

Their dismay stems, at least in part, from the loss of the journal’s impact factor, which may affect quantitative calculations of researchers’ output. But not everyone agrees with this type of system. Kelly Cobey, part of the Knowledge Synthesis Group at the Ottawa Hospital Research Institute, told Retraction Watch:

The impact factor is not a responsible metric to use to evaluate research. It fails altogether to consider research quality, reproducibility, or transparency. Reliance on the impact factor may lead researchers to consciously or non-consciously de-value these aspects of research and prioritize arbitrary indicators that don’t help to advance scientific knowledge. We need to create, implement, and evaluate responsible metrics for research evaluation.

I would not submit again

David Ziegler of the University of New South Wales in Australia told Retraction Watch he submitted his paper approximately five months ago, and just learned the journal had been delisted by Clarivate:

My understanding was that Oncotarget was a reputable open access journal with a rising impact factor. I have reviewed articles previously for them and the review process was thorough and routine. For the article that we have just published we received three reviews which were thorough and raised helpful and legitimate criticisms which we responded to by performing further experiments and updating the manuscript. There was nothing to suggest any predatory behaviour.

Ziegler said:

The decision by Clarivate Analytics and Medline is puzzling and disappointing and my concern is the suggestion of disrepute that potentially can be associated with contributors to the journal, without any explanation as to the underlying issues or concerns.

Herta Chao at Yale University, who submitted her paper in September, told us:

This is shocking news to me and my collaborators. We would have never considered Oncotarget if we had known that there would issues like.

Marco Demaria of the University Medical Center Groningen in The Netherlands, whose gene therapy paper was submitted in the beginning of November, said he was “definitely” concerned that his paper wouldn’t be indexed by Clarivate:

Knowing this I would have not submitted to Oncotarget…I would not submit again.

He said he didn’t know the journal had been removed from MEDLINE when he submitted, either:

I know both editors-in-chief and I was trusting their interest in the publishing world.

Scott Ness of the University of New Mexico echoed many of the same sentiments to Retraction Watch regarding the publication of his paper, which he submitted in early October:

I must say I was surprised to learn this news about Oncotarget. Our paper was submitted months ago, and went through a rigorous review process with four reviewers. We went to great lengths to revise the manuscript to accommodate the reviewers and address their critiques. So I am surprised to learn that Oncotarget was listed as a “predatory” journal.

Also, Clarivate has apparently not released information about why it delisted Oncotarget, which seems very unfair.

Gianfranco Mattia of the Oncology Unit-Istituto Superiore di Sanita’ in Italy told us:

Of course I did not know the problems of Oncotarget! Being aware of this in advance, I would have certainly avoided this submission.

Actually this is the first time that I publish on Oncotarget that I believe an interesting journal in the area of cancer research. Our paper has been submitted in August 2017 and, after a review I would say very demanding and serious, it was accepted for publication on January 2-2018.

He agreed the lack of indexing could most penalize young researchers:

Web of Science should consider time and money the authors spent!  I really hope that the situation will be soon clarified (why we could not know the underlying reasons?), and Oncotarget indexing restored, especially for the authors who, like me, have their papers published in the January volume of Oncotarget.

The journal reacts

After we covered Clarivate’s decision, we also received an email from a public relations expert at Status Labs, a company that specializes in reputation management, asking if we wanted to connect with editor Mikhail Blagosklonny; we sent questions Jan. 23. On Jan. 29 we received an email from the general publisher email for the journal:

Please explain to us why Retraction Watch circulates offensive information about Oncotarget?

Does Retraction Watch act on behalf of J.Beall?

We responded asking what the questions were in reference to — including the mention of Jeffrey Beall, a librarian who curated a controversial (and now-defunct) list of potentially predatory journals (which included Oncotarget and its publisher, Impact). One of our questions also asked for comment about evidence we’ve seen showing that, after Beall added Oncotarget’s publisher to his list of potential predatory publishers, Blagosklonny contacted multiple researchers affiliated with Beall’s institution (University of Colorado, Denver) and threatened to retract their papers. We have not yet received a response to our specific questions.

A representative of Roswell Park Cancer Institute, where Blagosklonny was based, told us he hasn’t held a full-time position there for more than one year. She did not provide any details of his departure.

Oncotarget recently announced on its site that the journal will be indexed in Meta, “a world-renowned database of scientific literature.”

Oncoscience, another Impact publication, was recently discontinued from Scopus.

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13 thoughts on “When a journal is delisted, authors pay a price”

  1. Well, when we analyze Oncotarget for data duplications they score very high. Furthermore the self citation rate for Oncotarget is extremely high (around 24% last year, vs the normal 1-2% for other journals).

    At our institute a quarter of the >5 IP publications from 2016 were published in Oncotarget. It was very interesting to know that all of the submitted manuscript were accepted… After a discussion at our institute, I don’t think any of my colleagues will submit again.

    I am glad that they seem to be more strict when indexing journals at Medline and I hope PubMed will follow. There is far too many unserious journals flooding the science with invalid data which will only contribute to more confusion.

    1. Dear Mr. Al-Khatib, could you please share a sharable link to your paper as it is behind a paywall. (On the right hand-side you clink on “Share article”, then you copy the short link you are given and paste it here).

      Thank you and best regards,
      M. Ilic

      1. Dear Mia,
        Apologies, I have just seen your comment. If you are still interested, please email me (aceil@hotmail.com) and I will send you the full text. Thank you.

  2. I think WOS should give IF for 2017. As it can be calculatedOthrwise,all The articls published in 2017 will not have IF.IT is unfair to authors. .

  3. I would like to add that I was also taken aback by the decision to de-list Oncotarget particularly without reason given. Like some others, our paper was submitted several months ago, and went through a stringent review process so I’m curious as to why it was listed as a “predatory” journal in the first place, it would be helpful if reasons were given.
    We’ve been told by Oncotarget that although there is a delay in the paper appearing in Pubmed they are working with the National Library of Medicine to accelerate indexing in pubmed. So I hope this will be sorted out soon.

  4. I have no affiliation with Oncotarget, but as a small publisher who is chronically frustrated by the lack of accountability and intransparency and inconsistencies in decision-making on the part of Clarivate when it comes to admitting new journals to SCIE/JCR, I really hope that this publisher is suing the crap out of Clarivate. Clarivate has the power to single-handedly make or break journals and publishers, with zero accountability. This is anticompetitive behavior, with TR/Clarivate favoring large publishing companies, while giving newer and smaller publishers a hard time to even get their journals listed in ESCI or SCIE – sometimes taking 5,6, or 10 years to be included, with no clear answers if the publisher asks why a journal is still not even formally evaluated). Dropping a journal from SCIE without clear justification amounts to defamation and I hope Oncotarget has some good lawyers to sue Clarivate, as this unilateral anticompetitive intransparent behavior is bad for science and has the potential to destroy the lives of young scientists. Sadly, funders and universities remain addicted to the impact factor, despite the JIF being a proprietary metric with no reliable criteria which are applied in a consistent and transparent manner to new journals. Oncotarget published over 10,000 articles in 2017 at a Article Processing Charge of $3500, so that’s a 35 Mio $ war chest for the publisher. Retractionwatch, please update us, as I am dying to see some disclosures by Clarivate on their processes, if there are any.

    1. I get your point and it is very valid, but maybe Oncotarget is not the right journal to fight back – even though they surely have a bigger war chest than many smaller publishers.

      In my opinion, the quality at Oncotarget has been going down and, as indicated above, the editorial process might not be optimal (peer-review, self-citations).

      So maybe Clarivate Analytics is correct on this one, despite their usual lack of accountability and consistency (which are problematic).

  5. I published two papers in Oncotargets in 2014 and 2017 and in both cases we had carefull, thorough and extensive reviews that costed us several months of work to get the required new data and revise the paper accordingly.
    I also acted as Reviewer in three occasions and I was as serious as I used for any other journal.
    We feel unduly punished by the Clarivate’s decision to delist Oncotarget, as are many Authors who published good, correct, sound and significant work in this journal.

    1. Well, there likely is plenty of good, correct, sound and significant work in many journals not listed by Clarivate.

      Why must it all be about the IF?

    2. I also have published work on Oncotarget and we received a thorough review. I also have acted as a reviewer several times and have done my best as if it were for a larger publisher or bigger journal. As an author, this decision to delist is very disappointing and more information on this subject would be greatly appreciated as the story unfolds.

  6. We published in Oncotarget several times and in each case the reviews were thorough and demanded additional work. Arbitrary and sudden IF withdrawal is draconian and unfair.

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