Board members decry their own journal’s retraction of paper on predatory publishers

Academics affiliated with a journal that retracted a paper on predatory publishing last year — after one of the publishers mentioned in the analysis complained — have put out a letter critiquing the decision, saying the retraction “lacks justification.” 

The authors of the retracted article appealed the decision to the Committee on Publication Ethics (COPE), but lost. They republished their work in another journal last month.

As we reported last September, the Springer Nature journal Scientometrics retracted “Predatory publishing in Scopus: evidence on cross-country differences,” after receiving a letter from Fred Fenter, chief executive editor of Frontiers, one of the publishers included in the analysis, demanding the paper’s “swift retraction.” His key complaint: the article’s reliance on librarian Jeffrey Beall’s now-defunct list of allegedly predatory publishers. 

The article’s authors, Vít Macháček and Martin Srholec of Charles University and the Economics Institute of the Czech Academy of Sciences, objected to the retraction, as well as the post-publication peer reviews that Wolfgang Glänzel, the journal’s editor-in-chief, solicited before making the decision. 

Many members of the journal’s Distinguished Reviewers Board agreed with Srholec and Macháček’s objections, and criticized the retraction in a letter recently published in Scientometrics. They cited our coverage of the retraction as disclosing “important information about the context of the retraction… including the pressure exerted by the publisher Frontiers on Scientometrics.” 

They continued: 

The retraction note does not demonstrate the alleged unreliability of the paper by Macháček and Srholec and therefore does not provide a sound justification for the retraction. The pressure exerted by Frontiers on Scientometrics is deeply disturbing, and the process followed by Scientometrics to reach its decision to retract the paper lacks transparency. Questions raised by many of us have not been answered in a satisfactory manner, and the original material resulting from the post-publication peer review has never been shared, neither with the authors nor with us, making it difficult to understand the process that has led to the retraction.

We would like to express our support to Macháček and Srholec. We have no reason to doubt their integrity as researchers, and we feel uncomfortable about the way in which Scientometrics handled their work. Their paper should be part of the archive of scholarly knowledge, so that its merits can be openly debated. This should also offer room for critique, for instance from publishers such as Frontiers. Closing the debate by retracting the paper is highly problematic and poses a serious threat to academic freedom.

Finally, we acknowledge that editorial decision making can be challenging, and occasional mistakes are inevitable. To strengthen the journal, we hope the editorial team and the editorial board more broadly will have the opportunity to reflect on lessons that can be learned from the way in which the paper by Macháček and Srholec was handled.

Glänzel did not respond to our request for comment on the letter. 

We reached out to Fenter, and received this comment from a Frontiers spokesperson: 

We stand by our position from May 2021. Jeffrey Beall’s list is not a legitimate data source for scientific study. It is biased, unreliable, unvalidated, and unavailable. Our position is clear and available in this letter, which we encourage interested parties from the academic community to read. 

Srholec and Macháček republished their article with the same title this November in Quantitative Science Studies. The journal’s editors explained the “special history” of the paper in an editorial, and wrote: 

Although the article published in Quantitative Science Studies is different from the article originally published in Scientometrics, we emphasize that the changes made do not relate to the reasons provided for retracting the article.

Srholec has blogged about the experience, including his frustration that appealing the retraction to COPE did not overturn the journal’s decision. 

In regards to the Scientometrics letter, he told us: 

However, the letter does not call for any action to correct the mistake or to prevent it from happening again – the journal, publisher as well as COPE continue to maintain that everything went fine and fully in line with their guidelines – so there is no real resolution yet.

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11 thoughts on “Board members decry their own journal’s retraction of paper on predatory publishers”

  1. 27 members of the Distinguished Reviewers Board of Scientometrics and/or recipients of its Derek de Solla Price Medal concluded that the retraction (note) is baseless, the process to reach the decision to retract lacks transparency and key questions surrounding the retraction are still waiting to be answered; essentially that the journal is hiding something.
    I therefore call on the research community around the journal – in order to restore its credibility – to run a review of the process that led to the retraction. The review should be handled by a committee composed among others from senior scholars that signed the aforementioned letter. In particular, the committee should dispel any doubts that the post-publication peer review has been biased, its reviewers selected on purpose to arrive to a preconceived conclusion and that the arguments to justify the retraction have been made up out of thin air.
    I honestly hope that this will not turn out to be the case, but given the piecemeal information has surfaced so far, it cannot be ruled out that the Editor-in-Chief of Scientometrics failed to deliver the most sacred duty of a scientific journal editor to provide fair and impartial assessment here. Such doubts are damaging to both him and the journal and need to be eliminated.
    Results of the review should be published, ideally along with an unabridged version of the material that underlies the post-publication peer review. It is in the best interest of everybody to get to the bottom of what has exactly happened here and most importantly to act on the findings accordingly, not only to clear the air around the journal, but also to make sure that this will never happen to anybody again.
    The authors as well as the research community deserves clear answers!

  2. Just for the record, if Scientometrics retracted the paper for using Beall’s lists – which it didn’t – the journal would have to retract also at least these other papers that did just the same:

    Frandsen, T. F. (2017) Are predatory journals undermining the credibility of science? A bibliometric analysis of citers. Scientometrics, 113, 1513-1528.

    Perlin, M. S., Imasato, T., & Borenstein, D. (2018). Is predatory publishing a real threat? Evidence from a large database study. Scientometrics, 116(1), 255-273.

    Wallace, F. H., Perri, T. J. (2018) Economists behaving badly: publications in predatory journals. Scientometrics. 115, 749-766.

    Marina, T., Sterligov, I. (2021) Prevalence of potentially predatory publishing in Scopus on the country level. Scientometrics, 126, 5019–507.

    In addition, there are probably dozens of other empirical papers that used Beall’s list that have been published in other journals, including Science, Research Policy, Journal of Informetrics, Learned Publishing, Journal of Librarianship and Information Science, Library Review, etc. Surely, all these papers are not becoming retracted now too. Science does not advance one retraction at a time, does it?

  3. I totally agree with Martin. While welcome, a “strongly worded letter” by about 1/3 of the editorial board 15 months after the fact is too little, too late. The editorial board should have exerted more pressure on Glänzel to come clean about what actually happened, and resign. It is scandalous that Glänzel was able to continue as editor-in-chief at Scientometrics after spearheading this wrongful retraction, then completely evading accountability afterwards.

    It is disconcerting that only 1/3 of the editorial board of Scientometrics signed that letter. Even among those who signed that letter, it appears that none were willing to take stronger steps to force accountability at the journal. Talk is cheap, and actions speak louder than words.

    It is important to enforce strong scholarly norms that this kind of capitulation to third-parties (in this case, Frontiers) in editorial decision-making is absolutely unacceptable, both at Scientometrics specifically, and in academia more broadly.

    The Scientometrics board, Springer and/or KU Leuven needs to start seriously investigating Glänzel. Glänzel and his allies on the Scientometrics board should not be allowed to get away with evading accountability for what appears to be a serious breach of editorial integrity.

  4. I find the entire discussion baseless. Untill the peer review system is not transparent, all peer reviews are not put in the public domain, there is no way to know which journals follow a genuine peer review system and which ones do not. In other words there is no definition for predatory journals. The only possible remedy is that all mainstream journals should make all peer reviews public. This single act will end the predatory journals problem once for all. If this is not done, there is no use of any other debates, thousands of articles and retractions.

  5. I think that it is also worth reflecting on why an allegedly “biased, unreliable, unvalidated, and unavailable” list strikes mortal fear in the heart of a well-heeled publisher, whom I won’t name in my post so I don’t get sued. Could it be that the list is actually informative, unbiased (in the sense that it was not directly funded by well-heeled publishers), validated by numerous examples, and available (as nothing on the internet ever goes away)? The reader can draw their conclusions.

  6. I’m impressed that, all these years later, Beall’s list is still relevant enough to be mentioned despite its decommission. Frontiers stating it’s “unavailable” is an understatement. The foundations of the list’s inclusion criteria still have lessons to be used today, IMO though. A large # of the journals included were copycat journals, journals with fake editorial boards, journals that would accept anything for a fee (based off multiple “stings,”) journals claiming to be based in NA using virtual mailboxes yet routed money over seas, etc. To say that these are “biased” criteria that need validation…. Yeesh.

  7. I take no position on whether this article should have been retracted, but nobody should be uncritically using Beall’s List as a collection of “predatory” journals and publishers nowadays, since it gave no justification for the inclusion of the majority of its entries and was produced by somebody who has explicitly claimed (pdf link, this is NOT an exaggerated straw man argument) that the entire OA movement was created by malevolent European socialists and “Soros-funded autocrats”.

    1. This is true. There are also many racist overtones in Beall’s work, including his categorisations of the Latin American Scielo aggregator as a ‘publication favela’ and his penchant for highlighting when journals use staff in China or India (as if, somehow, this was disqualifying). His list also caught numerous potentially reputable publisher from the developing world in its net.
      Whether this retraction was justified or not, I think it is fair to ask serious questions about basing a scientific article on a less-than-transparent, discriminatory and no longer updated list.

      1. The paper was not retracted, because of using Beall’s lists, as emphasized above, but because of other reasons that have been made up out of thin air and that are baseless. Regardless of what one thinks about the problem of predatory publishing or Beall’s lists in particular, this retraction represents a dangerous precedent of censoring scientific literature to appease pressure from third parties that ought not to become a new rule of scientific publishing.

  8. Whatever you think of Beall and his list, to state that the list is “unavailable” is certainly not correct: That site says: “This is an archived version of the Beall’s list – a list of potential predatory publishers created by a librarian Jeffrey Beall. We will only update links and add notes to this list.”. The site is run by “a postdoctoral researcher in one of the European universities and have hands-on experience with predatory journals.”

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