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How predatory is MDPI? Or: The 50 shades of scientific grey

There's an ever-growing grey zone between clearly predatory and legit publishers/ journals. The still exploding number of MDPI journals belong to the shady bunch. Why else would they ask a science drop-out to join the editorial board of Life – the life science journal?

The former scientist known as Guido Grimm

For Austrian administrational reasons, I still could be reached via my old email account with Vienna University, where I had spent my last two years as a professional scientist (2015–2016). This last contract (my Ehrenrunde as a scientist, funded by a personal mobility grant by the FWF) ended 2060 days ago, as the counter on my homepage can tell everyone interested.

There are a few other subtle clues that I'm a dropout. The dagger next to "Research" in the navigation bar, and that it says "former tax-paid researcher". Also, if you search for my name on the people pages of the University of Vienna (Mitarbeiterverzeichnis), you'll get the following:

For those who cannot read German, you can change the language to English by a simple click.

As managing editor of a journal scouting for new editors to join the board, I can quickly find out, whoever that highly merited scientist Guido Grimm has been, he's no more, and I maybe should go ahead finding somebody more active.

But MDPI is not that prejudiced, at least not “Ms. Truda Huang Special Issue Editor, Email: truda.huang@mdpi.com”. And they are insistent.

Dear Professor Grimm [sorry, must be somebody else, even when there still was a Grimm at Uni Vienna, he was only a visiting Dr. rer. nat. and listed as such],
Hope this email finds you well [yes, since I dropped out of professional science, I'm much better generally].
Life received its latest Impact Factor 3.817 recently [grattis for the increase, see below]. I am writing to confirm whether you are interested in joining the Editorial Board of Life (https://www.mdpi.com/journal/life/editors). [No, I'm not, neither should anyone] We think that, with your expertise and our rigorous editorial policies [q.e.d.], we could build a reputable journal specifically dedicated to life science [that's not very specific, is it?]. Details can be found in the appended email [the one they send a month or so before ending up in my junk folder].
Please contact us if you need any further information.
We look forward to hearing from you. [Instead of emailing back, I just post, hope that's fine with you]
Best, Truda

Reminder on April, 12th 2021:

Dear Professor Grimm,
Hope you are doing well. We contacted you a couple of days ago to invite you to join our Editorial Board. Have you had a chance to take a look yet? Since we have not heard back from you, may we expect to know your decision on our invitation? [I didn't reply, so, make a guess?]
Look forward to hearing from you. Have a lovely day!:)
Sincerely, Truda
A month later, May, 17th, this time from “Life Editorial Office”:
Dear Professor Grimm,
Given your impressive expertise in the field [It's circumstantially impressive, alright, see The stag cracked the 30. But noting the outcome, career-wise, being out-of-business for over five years, wouldn't one wonder why such an impressive expert has no job in science and never became a professor?], we would like to invite you to join the Editorial Board of Life (https://www.mdpi.com/journal/life).
Life is an international, peer-reviewed [hmhm], open-access [true] journal of scientific studies related to fundamental themes [the answer is still 42] in life sciences, published monthly online by MDPI. It has been covered by leading indexing services, including the SCI-E (Web of Science), Scopus, PubMed, etc. The 2019 Impact Factor is 2.991 (Q2). [Science-trivia: If I'd still be in the publish-or-perish business, an article in MDPI's Life wouldn't count, we need Q1's to get grants] More information about our journal can be found at: https://www.mdpi.com/journal/life.
...

[PS Interesting temporal distortion, that in April the “latest Impact Factor” was 0.8 point higher that the one quoted in May. Maybe 2019 ranking wasn't out yet. A volatility of 20% is never a good for a journal; it indicates a good chance for being more inflated than they usually are.]

I have no time to waste to go through Life's articles (or Forests', see A year later), hence, I cannot assess its predatory level and the scrutiny of its peer review. But a legit journal claiming “rigorous editorial policies” and an impact factor of 3+ (we published mostly in <2 journals) shouldn't recruit editors using much outdated work e-mails and without bothering to browse a bit the background of a candidate. If you duckduck (or google, in case you fancy being traced with every step you take) “Guido Grimm”, my homepage will pop-up on the first page. If you check GoogleScholar, you may wonder about my affiliation.

Why contacting a drop-out again and again for months even though you never got an answer (MDPI mails come with phishing warnings, and you can't opt out cookies on their journals' homepages)? Unless: maybe the journal aspires to be shady, it cannot be picky, it needs to grow even bigger, more articles, more profit. And shady are all MDPI journals, I crossed so far having been pointed to articles there.


A year later

At some point, Truda gave up. But MDPI is still running low on editorial fuel it seems (their number of journals increases exponentially). This time it's Rivina Jiang from Forests via my gmail address (the one use for my post-dropout Altasten, nearly all open access and linked there—#1 phishing ground for minimum-effort, maximum-profit open access publishers, predatory or others, July, 28th, 2022.

Dear Dr. Grimm, [What, I got demoted?]
We are setting up a new Special Issue [How to ensure pal-review? Organise a special issue or “edited paper collection”] with a tentative title of ‘Plant Evolutionary Biology and Systematics’ [one has to love those specific, non-generic titles…] for the open access journal Forests (ISSN 1999-4907, https://www.mdpi.com/journal/forests).
On behalf of the Editor-in-Chief Prof. Dr. Timothy A. Martin, we are contacting you to determine whether you are interested in serving as the Guest Editor of the aforementioned Special Issue [never, and why? I'm out-of-business now since 2060 days]. You may *modify the title* to suit your interests [isn't that nice?] and set the submission deadline according to your time schedule. You do not need to do any editorial work at this moment—just defining the aim and scope of the Special Issue is OK at this stage [this is simply not how scientific publishing should operate].
After the Special Issue is online, you will assist in inviting contributions, be the final decision-maker for articles after peer-review [editor-driven peer-review 2.0 = randomly selected editor-driven peer-review], and collaborate with our editorial team at MDPI [I heard very nice stories how that works, see below]. You would also be welcome to invite suitable colleagues to serve as Co-Guest Editors and share these responsibilities. [go pal-review!]
The *benefits* of being a Guest Editor, aside from the opportunity to direct the focus of research in a field that you are passionate about, are as follows:
1. You may publish one paper free of charge in your Special Issue (subject to peer review and independent [by an MDPI staff member?] editorial approval).
2. The feature papers invited by you will receive a discount [negotiable or fixed? No details on the homepage…] on the article processing charges.
3. If ten or more papers are published in this Special Issue, we can make a Special Issue book and send a [single?] hard copy to you [to dust my non-existing shelves in my non-existing doctor-office to impress non-existing colleagues].
4. We will gladly provide some grant to you for promoting the Special Issue during relevant conferences [like vouching/discounting the fee for the one advertised at the end of the mail, organised and cashed by MDPI?].
Please feel free to contact us if you are interested and would like further details, or have any questions.[No, but thanks for providing Res.I.P post material]
Kind regards, Ms. Rivina Jiang Assistant Editor
E-Mail: rivina.jiang@mdpi.com
Forests Statistics
IF (2021): 3.282, Rank Q1(Forestry) [This one would count, if I'd be a forest scientist, hardly scratched that field down in my cross-disciplinary roma]
CiteScore (2021): 4.0, Rank Q1(Forestry)

How to recognise a profit-first, quality-second publisher? Nice range of APCs (or gold open access charges), increasing with a journals impact factor. MDPI's pricelist (extract): not listed yet = 1000 CHF; Q1–IF 3.2 = 2200 CHF.

As usual, didn't answer, so a kindly reminder a month later. Guest editors for MDPI “Special Issue” cashcows (according to their own information, 13% of a Forests article's APC is profit) running as low as the water in the Loire.

Dear Dr. Grimm,
We recently invited you to serve as Guest Editor in Forests for the Special Issue "lant Evolutionary Biology and Systematics" [not only running low on editors but also uppercase Ps, are we?]. We hope that you share our enthusiasm [you mean desperation in finding a figure-head?] for this project and are able to contribute toward making this Special Issue a success [financially speaking, 10 articles = 20kCHF, 10k more profit than for their unranked and cheapest]. For your convenience, we have quoted the previous email with all of the information below.
Please feel free to contact us in case of any questions. [No need; I rather post it for the larger public to tweak the MDPI's grey-tone.]
We look forward to hearing from you soon [you're welcome] and to possible [never give up the hope] collaboration on this project [and, I guess, another one in a year?].
Kind regards, Rivina Jiang
E-Mail: rivina.jiang@mdpi.com
Forests Statistics
JCR (2021):IF 3.282, Q1(Forestry) [impact factor stayed the same and didn't rise within a month, like in Life's case in 2020, but now's JCR's—it might be, I have no access to their full list]
CiteScore (2021): 4.0, Q1(Forestry)

How grey are thou?

What I have to grant MDPI is that they have become much more professional in the recent years. The first invitation-spamming I experienced years ago was not even my area(s) of research. “(P)lant Evolutionary Biology and Systematics” would have been my job description back in the paid days. However, chasing down a science dropout (again) to act as a WEIRD name-sake for some all-in journal or whatever-you-want “special issue” – bit outfashioned, other pay-me-to-publish outlets from (so-to-say) legit to (blatantly) predatory publishers call it now “edited paper collections” (Frontiers in… offers me to those to me on a pretty regular basis) – directly put you in the rather dark grey area between legit and predatory publishing. Some links:

  • Wikipedia#Controversies
  • Forums Quora, Reddit, check out the profiles of those who endorse it on ResearchGate [pretty interesting geographic/topical/position-wise split]
  • See also this The Scholary Kitchen 2020 guest blogpost by Christos Petrou.
  • Also interesting: their very shiny (sort-of-)business reports [2021's PDF]. While PeerJ (a non-profit publisher) gets along with a bit over 1000$ as APC, MDPI claims to make a 50% loss in case of a 1000 CHF journal article (right know, the Swiss Franc and the US Dollar are converging to parity). Still launching one after the other.

 

Given the number of new MDPI 500/1000CHF journals popping up every year, we can only hope there are enough 2000+CHF articles to refinance them (Ponzi läßt grüßen). Source: MDPI's open access business report 2021, p.15. Anm. d. Red.: Does not include any actual business information such as how profitable the company is, being the most-proliferate open-access publisher of the world…do you know a case where quantity agreed with quality?

The impermeable grey zone of scientific publishing

Let's say, I have a fraudulent scientific agenda (examples in my #FightTheFog category). Then I take up such an invitation willingly. I would be stupid not to. I invite my buddies to enrich MDPI while ensuring their studies, lacking any scientific standard and impossible to publish in a legit journal, get through. Win-win-win situation. It doesn't cost me anything, I even get benefits from it, maybe even a paid trip to one of MDPI's conferences at a nice location but no reputation ('cause not being organised by an actual scientific organisation). It's very tempting, especially for retirees.

I could also make use of the system to push through undervalued science that has no chance in classic journals because of editor-bias and peer-review confidentiality (The review process should be transparent not confidential). For instance, promoting non-WEIRD, non-P.R.C. science having little chance to get published there because “the English is not good enough” (classic U.S.-bias) or the lack of willing editors and reviewers of the fitting nationality (novel P.R.C.-bias; India's common mutual backscratching; Peer review transparency reveals scientific provincialism).

A cash-in-as-much-as-possible-no-questions-asked-must-grow-no-matter-what publisher agenda also doesn't mean all papers published in their journals must be rubbish, or that their quality is – on average – worse than classic, in-print publishers. I, too, know of papers published in MDPI journals that were properly peer-reviewed (even scrutinised). Only, the (managing) editorial doesn't seem to give a shit whether authors change anything after review or not. MDPI's objective is clearly not “build[ing] reputable journal[s]” but to make a quick buck, preying on the less fortunate, as illustrated by their very fast acception time after sending in a revised manuscript (typically less than 24 hours). Also, how good can editorial processes be when the head-hunt goes via spamming?

That's why it's called a grey zone (The growing Grey Zone of scientific publishing). All publishers have black and white sides, and journals of the same publisher can come in various shades of grey. Nearly all publishers are to some degree predatory. Some are as white as possible (PeerJ, for example), some have rather white or pretty black journals in their portfolio (Frontiers in... for instance; Frontiers in Plant Science, currently run by the GMO rice agroindustry, is a beaut' of a black sheep already, to the benefit of citizens of the most proliferate science nation fueling its exploding impact factor), some maintain explicit trash bins (Springer-Nature's Science Reports; PLoS' ONE, pending on the topic) or maintain total review obscurity (Elsevier). And others like Bentham (Bentham wants me a reviewer…for medicinal chemistry), Hindawi and MDPI, definitely the most professional and legit-ish of the three, just add enough whitener (when needed) to not end up on the science agencies' predatory journal blacklists.


Should you make the deal with the grey devil?

I will never ever become an editor of an MDPI journal, special issue, book project or anything else (or SpringerNature's Science Reports; they tried to recruit me just after my contract in Sweden ran out and I got my monthly doe from the Försäkeringskassa). But, should you submit your papers to them or jump on a similar opportunity?

Don't, if there's another option.

But if you run out of options, go dark grey!

I'm not only a drop-out but also a realist. I can afford to be blunt, where career-scientists have to be diplomatic to not burn bridges: there are good reasons (under certain circumstances) why one may have to publish in rip-off, pretty dark grey journals. To take the easy way rather than trying the next solid brick wall until nothing is left of your paper. And shady ones like MDPI's portfolio fill the gap between the much-honoured, hard-to-get in journals (especially when not WEIRD or P.R.C.-shielded) and the utterly unprofessional, openly predatory ones.

A warning though: in countries keeping a predatory journal blacklist, make sure it's not already listed there and be aware that it may get listed at some point. For instance, in Norway and South Africa, you won't get any credits for publishing in certain MDPI journals, while paper dumps of established publishers like Scientific Reports provide a more costly but safe alternative. Holtzbrinck has a long tradition milking the public hand, they would just lobby it into making it legit again. Newly launched MDPI journals, the cheap-affordable ones, can be risky (possibly the reason, MDPI's APC's are impact-based). 

And, to conclude this post, a bit more trivia: When launched, Springer-Nature's Scientific Reports granted future editors as benefit the right to pass papers without external review. Pretty shady, no? The same probably applies to MDPI journals (adhering to good ole' review confidentiality, we'll never know), but at least they don't write it explicitly into the recruiting mail.

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