Publish or Perish

Arthur VerganiOpen-access scientific journal Nutrients recently lost all ten of its senior editors, who stepped down in protest against the pressure they faced to publish articles they considered to be of poor quality. The journal was created in 2009 by the Multidisciplinary Digital Publishing Institute (MDPI), a Swiss company with a portfolio of 237 technical and scientific publications. The mass resignation was the result of a dispute between the company and the editor in chief of the journal, Jonathan Buckley, a researcher in nutrition and exercise physiology at the University of South Australia, Adelaide. In August, he received an email from the MDPI announcing his replacement as head of the journal at the beginning of 2019 by someone who would “bring new ideas” to the publication. For Buckley, who promptly resigned, the episode was the end result of a disagreement about editorial policy and how many articles to accept: under his management, the journal’s manuscript rejection rate rose from 55% to 70%, which helped to raise its impact factor from below 1 in 2011 to the current 4.7.

MDPI president Franck Vasquez called Buckley’s strategy “artificial” and overly focused on increasing the impact factor. “When an article is sound and useful for researchers, it should be published, even when it is not very novel,” he told the journal Science.

Although Buckley’s restrictive strategy earns the publication more prestige, it does not contribute to the company’s financial performance. The authors of each selected paper pay the MDPI a fee of US$1,800—the more articles published, the more money the company makes. Lynda Williams, a researcher at the University of Aberdeen, UK, and one of the editors that resigned, believes the company’s approach could jeopardize efforts to increase the journal’s prestige and attract good scientific articles. Vasquez rejects this assessment, pointing out that other MDPI publications have been able to boost their impact factor while increasing the number of articles published.

In 2014, MDPI journals were included in a list of predatory publications—those that publish low-quality papers in return for a fee. The company appealed to the creator of the list, librarian Jeffrey Beall, from the University of Colorado, USA, and did not appear on it the following year. The market for commercial, open-access publications is growing. Last month, 11 European countries announced that from 2020, they will only fund projects by researchers who agree to publish their work in open-access journals. The initiative was coordinated by Science Europe, an organization comprising funding agencies such as the French National Research Agency (ANR) and the newly established UK Research and Innovation (UKRI). The group says it will not even allow papers to be published in hybrid journals, which are subscription-based but charge an extra fee to make articles available online.