Among various highlights of this year’s SSP Annual Meeting, I unearthed a few well-kept mysteries about MDPI, Swiss-based open-access (OA) journal publisher. Launched 21 years ago by Dr. Shu-Kun Lin, a chemist who graduated from ETH Zurich, MDPI started off as something very different than a publishing house. Despite cycles of controversy, MDPI continues to grow, now employing more than 900 people across seven offices. Their CEO, Dr. Franck Vazquez, joined MDPI just three years ago, after an academic career in life and health sciences. Vazquez, recently appointed to the OASPA board, met with me between SSP sessions to share their story.
Tell me about your journals, what disciplines do they address? Am I correct in my understanding that they are all gold OA titles?
MDPI launched as a repository for rare chemical samples and, from the start, sustainability was a main consideration. Many of our journals remain close to these roots, including Molecules (our first journal, launched in 1996), Sustainability, Molbank, the International Journal of Molecular Sciences, Water, and Energies.
We currently publish 177 journals across all major research disciplines. Our journals are fully open access and articles distributed under a CC BY license with only a few exceptions. Apart from our most recent titles, which are not yet eligible, all of our journals (152) have been accepted by DOAJ and more than 80% of the 110,000 articles published so far are available in Web of Science (SCIE, SSCI, AHCI, and ESCI). To date, 92 MDPI journals are covered by Web of Science, 73 by Scopus and 41 by PubMed. Further information is available in our 2016 annual report.
How have the business models for MDPI evolved over the years?
MDPI has always aimed to make papers available for free. We did this before the term “open access” was introduced, although the values we have held from the start match well with the aspirations of open access. The chemical samples project was started by Dr. Lin and is still running. It collects and stores rare chemicals that are often difficult to synthesize, and makes them available to researchers and industry users. It covers costs by charging a fee to send out samples, and this income was initially used to cover publication costs. The first journal Molecules was launched as a free-to-read electronic journal, encouraging authors to deposit chemical samples, instead of charging publishing fees. Additional funding came from conferences and donor organizations, along with a few authors who voluntarily paid APCs. MDPI briefly experimented with a subscription model in 2005 before switching to an APC-based model in 2006, which allowed us to separate the publishing arm from the sample preservation activities. This meant we could further expand and professionalize the publishing service.
For a short-lived period, I understand MDPI moved to a subscription model?
This was indeed a short-lived model put in place while MDPI sought ways to be financially sustainable. The model was quickly abandoned and an APC model was put in place for all journals. The editorials by Dr. Lin in 2005 and with colleagues in 2006 provide an historical perspective on this experience.
MDPI was briefly included on Jeffrey Beall’s list of predatory publishers, and then later removed. What lessons were learned from that experience?
In 2014, we responded point-by-point to Jeffrey Beall’s criticism and made formal appeals, after which MDPI was removed from the list in 2015. I believe we successfully demonstrated that MDPI does not breach any of the criteria set by Jeffrey Beall for so-called “potential, possible or probable predatory scholarly open-access publishers”. While we understand the motivation behind maintaining a blacklist, we believe that whitelists such as Web of Science, PubMed, Ei Compendex, Scopus, and DOAJ, which transparently evaluate journals and publishers based on a set of specific standards, are more helpful to scholars. Following the criticism by Jeffrey Beall, we received many messages of support from authors, editorial board members, and reviewers, confirming their trust in our work. This has strengthened our confidence that we provide a valuable service. Our editorial procedures were checked and validated by OASPA. One change we made during this period was to highlight our procedures and standards more prominently on our website.
So, it sounds like you took a more grassroots approach in your response, rather than launching a big marketing campaign.
We provided public statements whenever we were directly criticized, but we chose to focus our attention and energy on developing our journals and serving the scientific community, rather than engaging in large amounts of corporate communication. We received a great deal of support in direct communication with authors, reviewers and editorial board members. For those who had read Jeffrey Beall’s comments, we were able to persuade them of our integrity when presented with the facts. We launched an institutional open access program in 2013 and since then established agreements with over 240 university libraries. We regularly conduct surveys to receive direct feedback from authors, reviewers and external editors, and listen closely to feedback from the community.
Tell me about your approach to peer review and the various models you employ.
Peer review is central to scholarly publishing. Most of our journals operate single blind peer review and 13 of them offer optional open peer review (reviews are published with the paper and the reviewers can optionally sign their review reports). We operate double-blind peer review in fields where it is the norm. We leave the decision on the peer review model, including open peer review, to our Editors-in-Chief.
When MDPI launched 20 years ago, where did Dr. Lin see OA publishing headed?
In 1996, the term “open access” had not yet been introduced, and this mode of publishing was called “free to read electronic publication.” MDPI’s model for online publishing in the chemistry field was self-sustainable, but larger operations required an APC based model. Dr. Lin took part in major initiatives related to open access and was convinced by its long-term viability. Most of the journals listed on the Budapest Open Access Initiative website at that time were MDPI journals.
I’m told MDPI has demonstrated year-on-year growth for each of the past five years. To what do you attribute this healthy progress? Is this rate of growth sustainable?
Yes, this is correct, the exact figures are available in our 2016 annual report. This year we will likely grow 40% and publish around 32,000 peer reviewed articles, even though our rejection rates have increased from 52% to over 58% in the past two years. We are dedicated to our mission of providing an excellent service and according to our survey results over 98% of authors are satisfied with the work we do and would publish with us again. Indeed, we see a high number of returning authors. Our editors strive to ensure that the development of MDPI is sustainable. If we keep our focus and remain flexible to meet the rapidly-changing needs of the scholarly community at large, I am confident that MDPI will continue to expand.
What would be your advice for new OA publishers? What about policymakers and/or funders?
The only advice we have, which we also apply to ourselves, is to focus on the best interests of scientists, science in general, and society at large. Our world is changing quickly — much faster than scholarly publishing. We have a responsibility to contribute by ensuring fairness, openness and sustainability in academic research and academic publishing.
MDPI evolved from a chemical sample repository to a large-scale publishing house. Where do you see MDPI evolving in the future?
Dr. Lin and myself started our careers in science and we know that the publishing process can sometimes be burdensome. Our objective for the future is to reduce the time spent by authors on administrative tasks (reformatting references, making layout corrections, etc.) and aspects of scientific communication that can easily be handled by publishers. We want to provide convenience to our editorial board members, reviewers and authors when they interact with us and our systems. This will allow us to make efficiencies in the editorial process, in turn allowing more time for scholars to pursue their research, participate in discussions and exchanges, and build collaborations.
Open access is all about fairness and sustainability. We believe that MDPI can contribute further by maintaining a healthy competition between publishers and ensure that publishing costs are fair. Research funds should be used for research, not to cover expensive subscription costs.
In the long run, we aim to anchor MDPI in research communities. We recently developed and launched the preprint platform Preprints, revamped our free-to-use conference hosting platform Sciforum, and are working on other projects, such as Scilit, our bibliographic database, which contains 96 million scientific article records and is updated daily from Crossref and other sources. Our projects provide pre- and post-publication services, in addition to our standard publishing service. The overall aim is to help researchers disseminate their results effectively and provide new tools that facilitate their research activities and communication.