Editor’s Note: Today’s post is by Christos Petrou, founder and Chief Analyst at Scholarly Intelligence. Christos is a former analyst of the Web of Science Group at Clarivate Analytics and the Open Access portfolio at Springer Nature. A geneticist by training, he previously worked in agriculture and as a consultant for A.T. Kearney, and he holds an MBA from INSEAD.
Standing for Multidisciplinary Digital Publishing Institute, MDPI is no stranger to controversy. In 2014, the company was named to Jeffrey Beall’s infamous list of predatory publishers. After a concerted rehabilitation effort, they were removed from Beall’s list. Since then, incidents include editors at one MDPI journal resigning in protest over editorial policies and more recently, questions raised over waiver policies that favor wealthier, established researchers over those with financial need. Just last week, a leader in the scholarly communications community felt compelled to publicly ask, “Is MDPI considered a predatory publisher?
Despite these ongoing questions, MDPI has flourished as a publisher, and authors have flocked to their journals. Based on SCImago data, at least 16 publishers were larger than MDPI in 2015 in terms of journal paper output. As of 2019, 71 of MDPI’s 250 journals have an Impact Factor (Clarivate’s JIF), an indication of rigorous peer review and impact (measured in citations), and MDPI has become the 5th largest publisher, publishing 110k papers per annum, including 103k research articles and reviews. They are firmly positioned ahead of Sage, ACS, and IEEE. Growing at ~50% YTD (despite COVID-19), MDPI may soon overtake Taylor & Francis for the spot of the 4th largest publisher in the world.
In 2019, they also became the largest Open Access (OA) publisher, moving ahead of Springer Nature, which published 102k Open Access papers (93k research articles) in fully OA and hybrid journals.
I originally studied the MDPI portfolio expecting to find something nefarious behind their success, and I intended to contrast them to other “healthier” OA portfolios. Upon further study, I concluded that my expectations were misplaced, and that MDPI is simply a company that has focused on growth and speed while optimizing business practices around the author-pays APC (article processing charge) business model. As I discovered later, I was not the first skeptic to make a U-turn (see Dan Brockington’s analysis and subsequent follow-up). What follows is an analysis of MDPI’s remarkable growth.
Corporate structure, organizational structure, and profitability
MDPI is registered as a corporation (Aktiengesellschaft) in Basel, Switzerland. Its management team and its board of directors are a mix of (a) business and academia veterans and (b) young professionals that have gained most of their experience within MDPI. The company is spearheaded by Dr. Shu-Kun Lin (Founder and Chairman of the Board), Delia Mihaila (Chief Executive Officer), and Franck Vazquez (Chief Scientific Officer and former CEO).
Per MDPI, they had more than 2,100 full-time employees by end of 2019. As of July 2020 about half of their 1,650 employees that can be found on LinkedIn were based in China, and a third were scattered across six European locations (Switzerland, Serbia, the UK, Romania, Spain, and Italy). The US and Canada were home to 6% of their employees.
Using the numbers provided by MDPI for Coalition S’s pricing exercise and assuming those are accurate, I estimated MDPI’s average discounted APC at about $1,500, and forecasted their APC revenue between $190m and $230m for 2020, assuming a discount of 19%, 2020 content volumes as projected in Figure 1, and the latest APC prices of July 2020 for some paper types (APCs might have varied throughout the year). MDPI reports a cost per article of about $1,400, implying a rather slim margin of 1% to 6% per article, depending on whether the reported costs apply to all paper types or only some types, which translates to a projected 2020 APC profit between $2m and $13m.
It is noted that MDPI is debt-free, and the reported costs include taxes. In addition, while OA APC is their core business, they also have a broad range of other revenue-generating offerings for authors, publishers, and societies.
From rags to riches
Some of the factors that affect the journal choice of researchers are its citability, reputation/brand, publishing speed, and odds of acceptance. Not all factors matter the same to all researchers at all times. For example, depending on the circumstances, some researchers may opt for speed instead of reputation and vice versa.
Fast publishing and a high acceptance rate have been constants for MDPI: its journals published about 40% of the submitted papers from 2016 to 2019, and they did so at an extraordinarily fast 68 days in 2016 that accelerated to 39 days in 2019 (median value). High odds of acceptance is a common feature of “sound science” journals, but fast publishing is not (more on that below).
Citability has not been a constant for MDPI, but it has improved year after year. In 2016, only 27 of its 169 titles were indexed on SCIE (Science Citation Index of Web of Science) and were on track to get an Impact Factor. By 2019, its leading journals were generally as citable as the average articles in the fields where they compete (more on that below). In summer 2020, 71 of MDPI’s 250 titles had an Impact Factor.
A potential explanation, summarized in Figure 2, for the continuing, phenomenal growth of MDPI that is demonstrable in Figure 1 is as follows:
- The constants (rapid and likely acceptance) combined with the improved citability have attracted increasingly more content to MDPI
- The increase in citability combined with the increase in content have led to improved brand/reputation: more researchers get to know MDPI and its journals (67k editors and 452k review reports in 2019), and a higher proportion of them form a favorable view about them
- A virtuous circle commences, where in turn, the improved brand/reputation help attract even more content
- In parallel, an increasing number of funders mandate that content is published OA driving researchers to publishers such as MDPI
When does this rapid growth stop? More on that below, but in principle, growth will slow down when the citability and reputation of MDPI stabilize. While these improve, MDPI is likely to continue growing at a fast pace. MDPI may also continue to drive growth through launching new titles.
Citability improving for 2019 content
The increasing proportion of MDPI journals that have an Impact Factor is an indication of improving citability across the portfolio. As mentioned above, 27 journals were on track to have an Impact Factor in summer 2016 and 71 journals had an Impact Factor in summer 2020.
But what happens to the citability of journals after they get an Impact Factor? Are they flooded with content of poorer citability as is the case with successful megajournals? And what is the citability for content published in 2018 and 2019? The latest Impact Factors reveal nothing about the citability of 2019 content and are only partly informative for 2018 content.
In order to answer these questions, I looked into the Immediacy Index of MDPI’s largest ten titles in 2019 (Table 1). The Immediacy Index is the ratio of citations achieved in a year for content published in that same year. It allows for the assessment of recent content but is less reliable than indicators such as Clarivate’s JIF or Elsevier’s CiteScore that are based on citations over a longer period of time.
According to Dimensions data, MDPI’s leading journals have been improving their citability, and their content is as citable as that of the “average” article in their respective fields. All ten titles improved their citability for content published in the same year (Immediacy Index) from 2015-19, and eight of them improved their citability from 2018 to 2019. Six of the titles had a better Immediacy Index in 2019 in their leading research category than articles of other journals, and two of them had a better Immediacy Index than articles of the selective ERA 2018 journals (25,017 journals in the Excellence in Research for Australia 2018 journal list).
Phenomenal speed, but at what cost
MDPI excels when it comes to processing speed. Despite high growth that typically leads to operational challenges, MDPI has achieved remarkably fast processing time from submission to publication. According to MDPI, the median time from submission to publication was 39 days for articles published in 2019.
In order to test MDPI’s stated performance, I sampled 240 manuscripts that were published in Q3/4 2019 in four of MDPI’s journals (Sensors, Sustainability, Molecules, and JCM). Molecules, the fastest of the four journals, took on average 38 days to publish (median of 34 days). Sustainability, the slowest (but not slow) journal, took 50 days (median of 45 days) (Figure 3).
MDPI’s performance is possibly the fastest among top publishers. Earlier this year, I looked at the processing time of three megajournals and a prominent OA portfolio, sampling ~300 papers for each of them. Two of the megajournals took more than 200 days on average from submission to publication. The OA portfolio was faster, but still took 144 days to publish, three months longer than the slowest journal of MDPI.
The math is ruthless. Of the 1,090 papers that were sampled across the three megajournals and the portfolio, 86% took longer than 100 days to get published. On the contrary, of the 240 papers that were sampled for MDPI, just 2% were published in longer than 100 days.
MDPI’s processing time advantage constitutes a competitive advantage that is not easily replicated by competitors, and it gives it a unique selling point to authors that wish to disseminate the output of their research rapidly.
But how is this performance achieved? At its most basic form, the time to publish an article is the product of (a) actions taken and (b) time per action. MDPI may be skipping actions and/or completing them faster. If MDPI is accelerating actions, how is this achieved? And if any steps are skipped, are they essential or secondary for the peer review and publishing process?
In order to find out more about MDPI’s rapid publishing process, I approached Delia Mihaila, MDPI’s CEO, who kindly agreed to have a conversation about it.
Delia explained that publishing research fast has been a core value of MDPI all along. She said that it started with MDPI’s founder, Dr. Shu-Kun Lin, who had been a researcher and editor himself, and realized the importance of making content freely available to everybody as fast as possible as a means to accelerate progress. She recalled him saying ‘don’t make the scientists wait and don’t waste their time by unnecessarily delaying a response to them; this is the difference that we want to make’.
Delia attributes MDPI’s fast performance to getting the headcount and task allocation right. She said that large, in-house teams (as many as 70-80 FTEs for one of the large journals) take over the tedious part of the work of the academic editors. The in-house team pushes and negotiates with the other stakeholders (editors, reviewers, authors) to meet strict deadlines as well as possible. Delia said that adhering to such deadlines may sometimes lead to complaints, but MDPI always shows flexibility. She added that ultimately there is common understanding that a rapid process serves everyone’s interests.
I asked Delia whether, in addition to working fast, MDPI takes any editorial risks. She said that given its ascent, MDPI is in the spotlight and as result “we are very, very careful in everything we do, and we must always have evidence of a rigorous peer review process. Open Access publishers are always under the suspicion of skipping the peer review just for the sake of making money. We cannot afford to not conduct the peer review properly or to act unethically”.
In a previous interview with Lettie Conrad in 2017, their then CEO Franck Vazquez made similar points. He explained that their “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”. He added that, “this will allow us to make efficiencies in the editorial process”.
No matter how MDPI achieves a speedy publication process, it is clear that the research community has not rejected their approach so far. MDPI’s content has been growing, it has become increasingly citable, and it is not retracted at an alarming rate.
The publisher reported 19 retractions in 2019, equivalent to 0.5 retractions per 1,000 papers (assuming that retractions refer to year t-2). As a point of contrast, I could locate 352 papers on Elsevier’s ScienceDirect that included the phrase ‘this article has been retracted’ in 2019, implying 0.5 retractions per 1,000 papers (again, assuming that retractions refer to year t-2).
What comes next for MDPI
MDPI’s speed and citability have been at the heart of its growth so far and are likely to drive its future growth. Speed is a competitive advantage that sets MDPI apart from other publishers. Citability has been improving and continued to improve in 2019 (which will be reflected in Impact Factors that will be released in 2021 and 2022).
The broad scope of MDPI’s journals is a third growth factor. While it does not drive growth directly, it sets a higher growth ceiling per successful title. There are only so many papers a niche title can compete for; there are many more for a broad-scoped journal.
Speed, citability, and broad-scoped journals set the basis for strong growth of MDPI in the mid-term. This looks more likely in light of the portfolio’s low exposure to risk: MDPI has no over-reliance on few countries, subject areas, or titles (Figures 6 and 7).
MDPI is also not overly reliant on any subject area. As shown on Table 1, its largest ten journals cover a wide spectrum of disciplines: Biological Sciences, Biomedicine, Physical Sciences, and Technology. In addition, the portfolio is not overly reliant on a few large journals, the same way that portfolios with megajournals are. For example, MDPI’s largest journal, Sustainability, accounts for just 7% of MDPI’s content (Figure 7).
The MDPI model: strategic design, market selection, and adoption
Did the MDPI executives anticipate that a series of very fast, broad-disciplined, OA journals would be the key to success? Or was the MPDI model designed out of necessity and, by virtue of market selection, happened to stand out among similar but slightly different models, such as OA portfolios that focus on one discipline, are built around megajournals, have multiple niche titles, or focus on prestige rather than volume?
In other words, is MDPI’s success the result of strategic design or the result of market selection? It could be either or both, and it matters little. Clearly though, the MDPI model has been successful, and other publishers may have taken notice.
For example, Springer Nature has just launched the Discover series that shares some characteristics with the MDPI model. The series is fully OA, aims to publish manuscripts fast (within 7-10 weeks from submission by utilizing AI and deep learning technologies), and will consist of 40 broad-discipline journals covering multiple disciplines.
The future of publishing
The emergence of COVID-19 and the necessity to disseminate research findings rapidly have brought preprints to the spotlight. Preprints allow for the distribution of findings half a year (or longer) ahead of publication, depending on the times that a paper gets rejected and the speed of the journal that eventually publishes it, and have been widely adopted by publishers.
Yet, while the early distribution of findings potentially accelerates discovery, the lack of peer review sets it back. No peer reviewed journal could survive with a retraction rate of 1%, yet akin to retractions, a much larger proportion of preprint papers do not make it to publication.
Could it be that the MDPI model of rapid peer review is better at accelerating discovery than preprints or traditional, slow peer review?
Preprints may accelerate dissemination by 200 days for papers that are published in journals such as Megajournal A & B in Figure 3 above, but their benefit is typically less than 50 days for papers that are published in MDPI journals. Is a time-saving of 50 days worth the risk of posting non-peer reviewed content?
Disclosure: MDPI was approached for comment on their rapid publication process, which resulted to a short interview with Delia Mihaila (CEO) on this topic. I have never communicated with any of their employees for any other purpose, and I have never worked for MDPI in any capacity.