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Our Experience with the Predatory Practices of Frontiers in Psychology

As I’m sure many of you know, a new open-access peer-reviewed journal came onto the scene in 2010, meant to cover almost every aspect of psychology, called Frontiers. While having another open-access journal might seem like a boon to conducting open and accessible science, Frontiers has not been without controversy. Namely, almost immediately after the journal emerged, it was placed on Jeffrey Beall’s list of “potential, possible, or probable predatory scholarly open access publishers.” Generally speaking, the criticisms lobbed at Frontiers were mainly centered around their willingness to publish bad science and the extremely low quality of their peer reviews coupled with the fact that their publication fee is $2,950 USD (about $3,900 CAD). Given that these issues have been covered in great detail in the linked posts, among others, I won’t go into too much detail here.

Instead, I want to focus on why we decided that Frontiers was a good possible outlet for our paper, despite these concerns, and why this was ultimately proven to be the absolute incorrect decision precisely because of the above concerns–namely, the very poor (read: non-existent) peer-review.

Why we decided to submit to Frontiers in Psychology

We were having difficulty finding a good outlet for the paper. It is a scale development paper and given it isn’t clinical in focus, many assessment and measurement journals were uninterested. It’s a social psych measure, but many social journals did not seem interested in a scale development paper that wasn’t coupled with a novel psychological construct. We aren’t trying to re-invent the construct wheel–we just have an interesting attitude for which there currently exists no thoroughly vetted scale. Thus, we landed on Frontiers.

I say ‘we’ but it was predominantly my idea to submit here–my co-authors simply signed off on it. I had read about the issues at Frontiers but there were two pieces of evidence that convinced me that it was a safe bet. For one, there are people whom I respect who have published great work in Frontiers. For instance, both Michael Kraus and Daniel Lakens. These are only two examples–there is plenty of good work published in Frontiers.

The second, and related, piece of evidence that conviced me Frontiers was viable was that people I respect defended the Journal’s integrity. I will note that in these cases I did also read that people’s experience at Frontiers seemed to vary heavily depending heavily on the section you submit to and the editor you are assigned.

Here, I will unpack what happened when we submitted our paper to Frontiers which, in my eyes, borders heavily on predatory behaviour from the Journal.

What happened

This is sort of a tale in two parts. The first part is not entirely problematic, but in hindsight seems a little bit weird. I originally submitted the paper to Frontiers in Psychology’s section on Quantitative Psychology and Measurement on June 29th, 2018 (Note: To Frontier’s credit, they did grant me a partial waiver for the open access fee, cutting it by 25%). It’s not entirely atypical, but after nearly a month the paper still had not been assigned an Editor. So, on July 23rd, 2018 I sent an e-mail asking about the paper to ensure it hadn’t been lost in the shuffle. A couple days later I was told that they could not find an editor for the paper, and that I should submit it to the Social and Personality section instead.

I didn’t really think anything of it at the time, I just opted to swap it over to the Personality and Social Psychology section. In hindsight, however, this is extremely odd given that Frontiers claims to have in excess of 30,000 Editors, 262 of which are specifically in Frontiers in Psychology: Quantitative Psychology and Measurement.

Regardless, on the same day I went back and forth with Frontiers and got the paper switched over to the “more relevant” section. It was now re-submitted for review on July 31st, 2018. One month has passed since my initial submission. However, not one week later, on August 7th, the paper was rejected, with the editor stating that the social and personality section “no longer considers work with an exclusive focus on scale development” and that it “would be more suitable for the [Quantitative Psych and Measurement section].” So, maybe unwisely, I sent it back to the measurement section.

Two months later, on October 9th, is where the second part of this endeavour begins. I finally got an email from Frontiers, saying that the reviews were in and I have 6 days (!!!) to respond to the Editor. I’ll note here that this is (already) a violation of Frontier’s policy which explicitly states:

Once the Associate Editor activates the Interactive Review Forum, authors are immediately notified of this and granted access to the forum, where they are able to view the reviewers’ comments. Authors are asked to respond and/or submit a revised manuscript within 15, 25 or 35 days, depending on the level of revisions requested by the Associate Editor. If the authors are unresponsive to multiple communication attempts, the editorial office will send a final email to the authors with a 7-day deadline to respond. Following this, the editorial office reserves the right to withdraw the manuscript from the review process.

This six-day turnaround was not after us being “unresponsive to multiple communication attempts.” This was the first communication we ever got from Frontiers on the review status of this manuscript. Regardless, I was happy to finally have something to work with–time to go find out what the reviewers say! I logged into the Frontiers system and went to the review forum.

It looked good at first blush - It appeared to be some degree of Revise and Resubmit, it wasn’t the outright rejection that the paper got from the Social and Personality Secton:

I was pretty shocked regarding what I found when I actually tried to look at the reviews. First of all, there was only one peer-reviewer and, as it turns out, they actually didn’t even review the paper! Instead, this is what I found:

Reviewer 1 simply withdrew from reviewing the paper. Okay - weird. I figured there must be some reason for this, and clicked the Editor tab to see what they wrote about the paper. There was one sentence of feedback. Eight words of “review” after the paper had been at Frontiers (this time) for two whole months:

The entire review we got back was “I think convergent validity goes with discriminant validity” (typo fix my own). Not only is this level of feedback from an editor indefensible in and of itself, the feedback is meaningless. I report both convergent and divergent validity in the manuscript; it appears the Editor did not know that divergent validity is discriminant validity.

The mose egregious part about this (so far) is that Frontiers in Psychology seemed perfectly willing to publish our manuscript despite the fact that they did not secure any semblance of peer review. This is, in my opinion, what qualifies this whole mess as predatory behaviour. Frontiers was willing to publish our paper, as peer reviewed, despite it not being peer reviewed, for the low, low, one-time fee of $2,950. I of course cannot confirm this, because I did not move forward attempting to see if they would indeed publish our paper after (somehow) addressing 8 words of feedback. However, what was returned to me appeared clearly to be a simple R&R from the Editor.

Directly on their website Frontiers proudly proclaims it does not engage in this sort of behaviour–that they only uphold the most rigorous peer review standards, stating (under the Quality section of their about page; Emphasis my own):

Each Frontiers article strives for the highest quality, thanks to genuinely collaborative interactions between authors, editors and reviewers, who include many of the world’s best scientists and scholars.

Frontiers is well aware of the potential impact of published research both on future research and on society and, hence, does not support superficial review, light review or no-review publishing models. Research must be certified by peers before entering a stream of knowledge that may eventually reach the public - and shape society.

There were many other instances here where Frontiers seems to have breached their own Editorial policy, but for the sake of brevity I am going to stick to the most relevant pieces. For instance, how reviewers can withdraw but that “the withdrawal of a reviewer requires the recruitment of a new one, which slows down the process.” This obviously did not happen in our case.

It is entirely possible that the editor sent us this feedback too early, by mistake–perhaps we weren’t meant to get this yet. My co-authors and I decided it did not matter, we were going to instead formally withdraw the paper from Frontiers due to, what we percieved as predatory (or at the very least extremely negligent) behaviour on the part of the journal. So, on October 10th I sent an e-mail to the Editor stating our concerns and formally withdrawing the paper from consideration at Frontiers:

Thank you for taking the time to review our manuscript (ID 418389). I am writing to respectfully ask that we withdraw this manuscript from consideration for publication in Frontiers in Psychology. My co-authors and I have serious grievances about how our manuscript was handled and peer-reviewed. For these reasons, which we detail below, we no longer feel that Frontiers in Psychology is an appropriate outlet for our work.

We are deeply troubled by the fact that the manuscript does not seem to have undergone peer review, and yet the paper was returned to us with what appears to be a revise and resubmit containing only one comment from yourself. The paper apparently went out for review on August 29, 2018. Only one reviewer was selected, and they appear to have withdrawn from reviewing our paper. Our paper was then returned to us accompanied by eight words of feedback from the editor alone, instead of a new reviewer being recruited (as per Frontiers guidelines) and our paper undergoing proper peer review. There are myriad ways in which this process has not followed Frontiers publishing guidelines, but the above mentioned is by far the most serious, as it violates the journal’s explicit policy of peer review. Primarily for this reason, we would like to withdraw our paper from consideration.

I sent this e-mail, and heard nothing back. My co-authors and I promptly moved on, prepping the manuscript for submission elsewhere. When out of the blue a few days later, on October 19th, I recieved an e-mail from a Chief Editor at Frontiers (one with whom I have never interacted) rejecting our paper from Frontiers! That’s right–we can’t fire frontiers because they quit!

The e-mail itself was bizarre:

Unfortunately, I have to inform you that your manuscript … cannot be accepted for publication in Frontiers in Psychology, section Quantitative Psychology and Measurement.

The reason for this decision is: Objective errors in the methods, applications, or interpretations were identified in this manuscript that prevent further consideration.

Dear Authors,

Unfortunately, independent reviews of the manuscript, including myself, have reached the decision to reject the manuscript from publication in Frontiers journal. The reviewers have noted methodological shortcomings of the manuscript that do not meet the journal’s expectations. In particular, it was noted, “Although the paper studied an interesting topic on development and validation of a scale for economic inequality, it has several methodological shortcomings including improper treatment of ordinal scales and inappropriate usage of correlation types. A reviewer withdrew, suggesting fundamental revision of the paper.”

We encourage you to review the reviewer comments and use to further develop the paper if you seek publication elsewhere.

So now, apparently there are egregious errors in are manuscript, which is what prevented it from being accepted. Not the fact that the first Editor provided 8 nonsensical words of feedback and there was no peer-review. I will note that again, the feedback does not makes sense. In particular, “the improper treatment of orginal scales and innapropriate usage of correlation types” is completely incorrect for what we have done in the paper.

I believe this was purely an attempt by a Chief Editor at Frontiers to save face and offer some explanation for the bumbling nature of how they (mis)handled this manuscript. I immediately e-mailed this Chief Editor who “rejected” our paper–a full week after we withdrew it–saying:

Thank you for looking at our Manuscript. Fortunately, it is okay that you rejected it from Frontiers as I emailed the original associate editor to formally withdraw the manuscript from publication at Frontiers over a week ago.

Is it typical that Frontiers does not provide peer review? In your rejection you quote a reviewer - but their reviews were not provided to us in any form whatsoever. I find it extremely hard to believe that a reviewer would find a paper so bad that they simply withdraw from review.

Additionally, the original editor, Dr. Jin Eun Yoo, did not provide any feedback in line with what you have suggested, instead offering an R&R with one comment “I think convegent validity goes with discriminant validity” (typo original) - a comment that does not make any sense, as divergent validity (which is what is reported in the paper) IS discriminant validity.

I have no interest in publishing with Frontiers. I am simply looking for more insight regarding how this manuscript was handled, because it appears to have been handled extremely poorly, and how it even makes sense the manuscript is being rejected after it was withdrawn from consideration. I formally withdrew the manuscript over a week ago, and clearly did not submit any revisions in the given 7 day (against Frontiers policy) timeline.

Of course, I did not hear back from this Chief Editor and that was the end of it.

Conclusion

From our perspective, Frontiers grossly mishandled our paper. They did not secure peer reviews yet appeared perfectly willing to publish the paper. While I can’t say this for certain as I did not attempt to push it and see if they would publish the paper after revisions, everything so far points to their willingness to publish the paper and charge us nearly $3,000 CAD to do so.

There were myriad instances in this process where Frontiers failed to follow their own guidelines and policies. While anecdotal, this ridiculous personal experience, coupled with what has previously been written about Frontiers (and linked earlier in this post) has forever in my mind confirmed that Frontiers is indeed a predatory journal that should be avoided at all costs.

If you’re only choice is Frontiers, you’ll be infinitely better off just sticking with PsyArXiv.