Failure fails as publisher privileges the privileged

Is too much irony even a thing? Let’s test the principle. 

The guest editor of a special issue on failures in public health and related projects has quit the effort because she and her colleagues couldn’t convince the journal to include more researchers from developing countries in the initiative.

In a blog post about the ill-fated venture, the “WASH Failures Team” — Dani Barrington, Esther Shaylor and Rebecca Sindall — describe their initial excitement, and subsequent dismay, as the International Journal of Environmental Research and Health, an MDPI title, first agreed to publish the special issue but then informed the team that it wanted to focus on first-world problems. 

Initially, all three women believed they would be responsible for the project, but the journal approved only Barrington for the guest editor post: 

we were unimpressed with the lack of foresight to recognise the value of practical experience, even if they had shorter publishing records than Dani. However, we decided to go ahead with just Dani as Guest Editor, as in the grand scheme of things this was a step forward in getting failures into the limelight, and we still intended to work as a team, whatever the inside cover of the Special Issue said!

Then the real problems began. A particularly offensive issue, the group discovered, was that the journal was trying to lure authors from the developed world using the promise of free publications: 

According to the trio:

Our backs went up immediately – ANOTHER way of privileging researchers from high income countries over those in low/middle income countries? No way could this be happening in 2020. We tried appealing to their better nature, suggesting they make an exception in the case of this Special Issue, at least. … We failed.

In the end, the WASH Failures Team bailed out of the project: 

we cannot ethically undertake this Special Issue under these conditions: it goes against everything The Nakuru Accord stands for. We failed to understand the process of allocating open access funding before we proposed and announced a Special Issue. We hold ourselves fully accountable for this.

We realise that there were people who had been planning to submit to this Special Issue, and we’re really sorry that we have had to withdraw our involvement in its current format. However, we are still SUPER KEEN to publish a special issue on failures if we can find a journal that will work with us ethically with the aim of getting rigorous, peer-reviewed failure papers out into the world, rather than as a marketing exercise to improve their brand recognition.

MDPI has not responded to a request for comment from Retraction Watch.

Update, 1445 UTC, 6/16/20: MDPI posted these tweets:

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16 thoughts on “Failure fails as publisher privileges the privileged”

  1. MDPI has questionable practices when it comes to special issues. Many of their journals have more special issues than regular issues and sometimes those special issues only have one or two papers in them! For example, Marine Drugs currently has more than 70 special issues open for submission. How many special issues do reputable natural products/drug discovery journals have in any given year? Way less than 70!

    The special issue problem at MDPI is especially egregious when you look at special issues such as this one (https://www.mdpi.com/journal/marinedrugs/special_issues/MNPCP), where the only articles (so far) are both papers by a student of the editor of the special issue, who is also corresponding author. Somebody correct me if I’m wrong, but that feels morally dubious to me.

  2. A truly inexplicable situation — the journal was offering to publish Americans for free but make Indians pay to publish, against the expressed desires of its own guest editors. On Twitter the journal has promised an internal investigation.

  3. To be honest, I have always had my doubts about the quality and publishing ethics of MDPI. I have published three papers with them and the reviews I have received have been mostly brief. It is good that the MDPI journals have relatively fast turnaround times for reviews and the review system is rather seamless. However, the sheer volume of low-quality papers they’re churning out is appalling. I have personally reviewed more than 10 papers for the journal in question, and all of the papers I’ve reviewed have since been accepted and published online even though I (and sometimes another reviewer) outrightly recommended rejection or transfer to a more suitable journal (under the same publisher) for a couple of them… There appears to be barely any cut beyond paying the APC for said journal.

    1. Reviewing for MDPI always leaves me with a dirty feeling. They try to get you to review papers within a week. If you ask for more time, they offer an extra 4 days. They offer a discount on their publishing fee in Swiss Francs despite the fact they are clearly based in mainland China. While I have submitted multi-page reviews, the other referee often just leaves a single sentence. And, as you mentioned, it seems like the papers just get published whether the authors take the reviews into account or not.

    2. same here, i have published one paper in one of the special issues edited by a friend and they asked me to edit one…i realised their dubious nature and stopped interacting with them completely. No for review and No for special issues. i am very skeptic….

  4. From the Wikipedia entry on MDPI (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/MDPI):

    ‘MDPI was removed from Beall’s list in 2015.[5] Beall’s list was shut down in 2017; Beall later wrote that he had been pressured to shut down the list by his employer University of Colorado Denver and various publishers, specifically mentioning MDPI.[34] In a 2017 article in Biochemia Medica, Beall wrote that he had been pressured to remove his list due to harassment from predatory publishers, and mentioned MDPI specifically as a publisher that had “tried to be as annoying as possible to the university so that the officials would get so tired of the emails that they would silence me just to make them stop”.[34]’

    I wouldn’t review, let alone publish, in any of its journals.

  5. Based on all this, I’ll start going through their papers after I finish my current obsession with Bioscience Reports.

  6. I hope this story will end like for Oncotarget !
    They like money more than peer-review. I don’t understand why don’t waive the fees automatically from low-income authors like other respectable publishers
    Shame on MDPI !
    They publish too many papers with low quality just to collect money

  7. In Condensed Matter Physics / Materials, I do not consider MDPI as a serious publisher. In my opinion they are not selective and I doubt the seriousness of their peer review. They keep asking me to submit papers, which is reminiscent of spammy journals.

    In my opinion, in these fields they are a for-profit publisher and not for-science. I know nothing of their many journals in other fields.

    I don’t read papers there even if the title is relevant, and I haven’t seen a single paper by a known researcher in my field being published there.

  8. In the past, I have reviewed dozens of papers for MDPI’s journals and never thought something was fishy – I mean, several renowned colleagues acted as Editors for them, so they were legit, right?
    Then librarians in my institution issued a note saying that MDPI should be viewed as a predatory editor and that we were to avoid working for them or submitting to their journals at any cost – but no specifics were provided as to why they were deemed “predatory”. So I really wondered what to make of this.
    A short while after that, I was reviewing a manuscript for one of MDPI’s titles (IJMS), and the authors dismissed *all* my comments in their revised version. Annoyed that they had not bothered making the required alterations without so much as a valid argument in their rebuttal letter (not to mention a rather obvious cherry-picking of their references), and this through *two* successive rounds of revision, I decided to reject their manuscript – and wrote a confidential comment to the Editor explaining my position further.
    The Editor not only left my message unanswered, but went on to accept the manuscript for publication, although it was scientifically unsound and misrepresented results and hypotheses (the only blessing: it was “only” a review).
    Since then, have been invited many times by MDPI to act as a Guest Editor, as a Reviewer or to submit manuscripts to more or less special issues, and I have either ignored these invitations or replied that I would not associate any further with a predatory editor. Because this time, I had evidence that their processing of manuscripts was not up to par.

  9. Evidently after all that evolution, the highest ethic is still “Baby needs a new pair of shoes.”

  10. I guest edited 2 special issues for 2 different MDPI journals, and also reviewed tens of papers for them. As usual, some papers were really crap straight to reject, others quite interesting.
    I personally have never had issues in the revision process, usually my comments are well received by authors and editors. Probably some journals are more efficient than others, but I do not think it is only a MDPI problem.
    I wish in the future the strict enforcment of an exclusively double-blind peer-review, because I have witnessed so many times reviewers blocking or delaying revisions of competitors (thus not disclosing a blatant conflict of interest).

    I want to clarify a couple of things which seems to be not well understood (I do not want to defend MDPI, I just report my view):

    1) MDPI open access model has nothing strange or different from other journals. Asking authors to pay is common in the OA system and generally those fees are waived by their institution (my university does it), thus the authors do not actually spend own money, or grant money, unless in some specific circumstances (university has no budget, authors are not academic, etc). By they way, their fees are reasonable considering that Nat Commun, Sci Rep, and some ACS journals ask much more money (I do not rememeber the figures but I think at least twice the MDPI ones).

    2) Somebody says it is questionable MDPI asks reviewers one week for submitting their remarks, but that is not true. Submitting within one week grants a 2-year duration voucher to spend for OA fees (and these vouchers can be summed up, so if one does not have budget for articles, it is possible to use as many voucher as one wishes to lower or even zero the fee), otherwise it is possible to just tell the editor the review will take more than one week, everybody is happy then.

    Stated that, it is true that MDPI has an outrageous amount of special issues, but I think it is because MDPI is not mainstream, and not many would publish there as first choice, so it needs to advertise as much as possible, and special issues are just a marketing strategy. Remember that MDPI (as well as others) is a publisher, and publishers must make profits, so the more the papers the more the income. But it is valid for MDPI as well as Nature, Science, etc., with the difference that the paywall is on the final user.
    Also, special issues’ editors have the possibility to waive the fees for up to 5 articles to entice targeted authors, and publish also one article of their own for free. I have seen very respectable authors in my field, who are regulars of Nature and Science, publishing on MDPI without problems.

    1. True. I have published in there and we received excellent reviews that we spent a lot of time considering them. They were high-quality comments. I have also reviewed for them and the authors considered my full comments. I have nothing against MDPI!

  11. I’ve been a co-author on an MDPI paper and a reviewer of several submissions to MDPI.

    When I was a co-author, my collaborators submitted our paper to an MDPI journal. I was aware of Beall’s List and was not happy with this choice, but as a ‘middle author’ I didn’t feel it appropriate to veto the group’s decision to submit to this journal. The review process was extremely questionable. The reviewers’ comments were brief and superficial, and the editor happily brushed aside the reviews so that the paper would get into the ‘next issue’ of the journal.

    As a reviewer, I have had my comments ignored and the papers have been published without the authors making any real effort to address them. In one instance I recommended rejection after spotting serious flaws in the study. The authors also repeatedly refused to make their data available. The editor went ahead with accepting the paper anyway.

    After these experiences, I now refuse to have any involvement with this publisher.

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