25 December 2016

Leaving the Frontiers

On 14 August 2014 I was invited to become an associate editor (AE) of the Open-Access Frontiers in Human-Computer Interaction journal (part of the 'Nature' publishing group)

I support Open Access, and while I was curious what this collaboration with Nature could do for it, I have become increasingly uneasy being associated with Frontiers. Nature itself documented how the journal is now added to Beal's List of questionable publishers. There were significant issues with the editorial independence of Frontier's medical section, written up well by Leonid Scheider. The same author also penned a piece describing the problems with interns at Frontiers.

But in particular, I feel the peer review process is toothless and that it is entirely setup to effectively act as a pay-to-publish model. That some of Frontier's sections also publish good papers is a matter of luck, in my opinion. I only supported the review process of a couple of papers, mostly because almost none of the papers submitted to this journal were close to my area of expertise. But in both cases I felt there was no way in which the reviewers' comments could ever lead to the paper not being accepted. In fact, the entire peer review process, including its web-interface, seems geared towards slowly but surely progressing a manuscript to publication. The official Associate Editor guidelines issued by Frontiers say as much: reviewers should not gauge a paper on the basis of 'novelty', but on 'correctness'. The idea is that posterity will signify a paper's significance, presumably measured by e.g. citation counts. This basically means that anything can get published, as long as you correct your errors and persevere. The insistence that reviewers respond to each new comment of authors turns it into a match of who gives up first. Persistent authors will always be able to publish. Provided they pay Frontiers, of course.

While there are many things wrong with the standard peer review process, like Democracy, I think it's the least bad system we have. Yes, it's based on a limited number of experts. And yes, the process is unduly lenghty, un-interactive and the comments and demands of reviewers (and AEs) can sometimes be downright petty. But, in the end, I believe that it provides readers iwth a solid form of trust that a paper is correct, and worthwhile to read. Good journals will be able to call upon better reviewers and AEs, and as such the whole process is more solid for the more elite journals as well, which is also good.

In this new era of populism and fake news stories circulating on social media, I believe going down the Frontiers route that basically says 'if it's mentioned/cited/liked by people, it must be good' is simply the wrong way to go. I believe in the value of expert reviews, and I believe in the power of a trust-based society. Therefore I am today standing down as an Associate Editor for Frontiers.