31 Editors and an OA publishing company at loggerheads over editorial independence

31 Editors and an OA publishing company at loggerheads over editorial independence

Scientific editors, also referred to as ‘gatekeepers of science,’ aspire to ensure unbiased and accurate reporting of science. Editorial independence, which entails bestowing accomplish responsibility for the content a journal publishes without the interference of the publishing company, is therefore one of the cornerstones of academic publishing. Journals with a good reputation believe in practising editorial freedom of judgment.

However, a successful open access publishing company Frontiers that possesses over 50 journals and employs over 50,000 academic editors has stirred a controversy over editorial independence. 31 editors of two of its journals have accused the company of denying them editorial independence and running the company for financial gains. They raised this issue formally in a 13-page Manifesto of Editorial Independence. In turn, the company has sacked all of these editors for putting “the publication of papers on hold and cut off communication with the publisher until their requests were met.”

Frontiers is based in Lausanne, Switzerland, and is possessed by husband-and-wife duo Henry and Kamila Markram, who are both neuroscientists at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology, Lausanne. The company launched the journals Frontiers in Medicine and Frontiers in Cardiovascular Medicine a year ago. Soon after the launch, the editors of these journals allegedly faced interference from the company staff. A former editor-in-chief of Frontiers in Medicine and chief editor of its Infectious Diseases section, Jos van der Meer, remarked that the company would override editorial decisions or switch editors on manuscripts to escalate the tempo of review.

One of the primary concerns in the manifesto submitted by the former editors is the role of “associate editors” who have the power of overruling the decisions of editors-in-chief. They also find it disconcerting that authors are permitted to choose an associate editor. According to them, this violates the standards observed by journals internationally. Moreover, the editors add that they do not agree with some of the journal’s practices such as inviting authors to write a commentary without the skill of editors and the publishing of a series of special issues called Frontiers Research Topics that was compiled by “guest” editors. Matthias Barton of the University of Zurich in Switzerland, the former editor-in-chief of both journals, says, “The entire system is designed to publish as many papers as possible.”                      

On May 7, Frontiers published a post on their blog defending the company’s editorial standards and the decision of sacking the editors. The post states “Frontiers has perhaps the cleanest division inbetween the decision makers of the content (the outer academic editors) and the drivers of the publishing business (Frontiers staff) among modern medical journals” and justifies the role of associate editors citing the necessity to “distribute editorial decision-making authority across the entire editorial board.” The post mentions that the company will report this incident to the three organizations that publish ethical guidelines: ICMJE, WAME, and COPE.

This issue is likely to attract more attention from media and academia, and generate more discussions about the importance and ethics of practising editorial independence.   

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