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.
On the last day of 2020, the Chinese Academy of Sciences issued the first Early Warning List of International Journals. While it includes just 65 journals, the list disproportionately targets journals that are fully open access (OA) and attract a high volume of Chinese content in absolute or relative terms, notably IEEE Access, several titles published by MDPI, and four from Hindawi. It has been three full months since the Warning List’s release, and the impact is already visible on publication volumes. For example, IEEE Access has had its worst quarter since early 2019 and MDPI’s listed journals are getting less content from China.
As Europe doubles down on OA with initiatives such as Plan S, the Chinese administration, intentionally or not, seems to have chosen a different direction. The Warning List serves to remind that global cooperation among policy makers is just as likely as a policy rift. International publishers who try to accommodate conflicting regional policies may find themselves caught in the crossfire.
Few journals, many OA papers
The journals on the list account for a negligible 0.2% of the 26,000 journals that are indexed on Scimago (Scopus data). However, they are primarily fully-OA (43 of the 65 journals), large (40 published more than 1,000 papers in 2020), and they publish plenty of papers from China. As a result, based on 2020 volumes, they account for 51k Chinese papers and 43k fully-OA Chinese papers, which represent 6% of all Chinese papers and 22% of all fully-OA, Chinese papers respectively. At the stroke of a pen, almost a quarter of fully-OA, Chinese content is under warning.
Multiple criteria that come down to one
The list cites multiple criteria for the inclusion of a journal. Some criteria, such as the volume of retractions, can be linked to the editorial rigor and quality of a journal. Other criteria, such as a journal’s self-citations, are more relevant for the development of citation indicators than the development of warning lists. Then, some other criteria, such as the rejection rate and whether the journal charges an APC, are bizarre and cater to outdated notions about journal quality.
It all matters little, because in practice, as hinted in Figure 1, the list targets international journals that get a high volume of fully-OA Chinese content in absolute or relative terms. Surely it includes some unsavory titles that have frequented other warning lists such as the infamous Beall’s list, but the common denominator is not the predatory nature of the journals but that they attract considerable APC payments from China.
The listed journals are assigned to three warning levels: low, medium, or high. As shown in Table 1, journals with medium or high warning get about half of their content from Chinese researchers.
MDPI, IEEE, and Hindawi stand out
The Warning List includes a couple of journals from many major publishers. Yet it is MDPI, IEEE, and Hindawi that stand out, as the list includes 22 journals from MDPI, the megajournal IEEE Access, and four titles from Hindawi. All but one of MDPI’s titles are in the ‘low’ warning level, whereas IEEE Access and three of Hindawi’s titles were in the ‘medium’ warning level.
Given that MDPI published 166k papers in 2020, the list puts under threat about 11% of its content (19k papers from China). In absolute terms, less of Hindawi’s content is coming under threat (5k papers), but in relative terms almost 20% of its content will be threatened (per Dimensions, Hindawi published about 25k papers in 2020). The relative risk is even higher for IEEE Access, which in 2020 it got most of its content from China.
As shown on Figure 2 below, most of Hindawi’s titles, as well as those of Spandidos, have heavily relied on Chinese content, which accounted for more than 60% of their overall content in 2019. Many titles of other publishers also got a high proportion of their content from China. MDPI is the odd one out, as its titles received a relatively low share of content from China with most titles staying below 30%.
One possibility is that the Warning List is targeting MDPI’s journals collectively for the absolute volume of Chinese content that they received. Or it might be that other criteria came into play, unrelated to the quality of the journals and the volume of Chinese content that they publish. After all, 20 of the 22 listed MDPI titles rank in the top half (Q1 and Q2) of Clarivate’s JCR in their respective categories.
Impact so far
In a previous Scholarly Kitchen post, I suggested that megajournals are a risky business, and that the successful megajournals enter a period of turbulence and slow decline after their Impact Factor drops. The Impact Factor of IEEE Access peaked at 4.1 in summer 2019, and dropped to 3.7 in summer 2020, halting the journal’s spectacular growth. While publications did not outright decline, the last two quarters in 2020 were flat in comparison to the previous year.
Then came IEEE Access’ inclusion to the Warning List to show that one riskier product than a megajournal is a megajournal that is overly reliant on one region. In the first quarter of 2021, IEEE Access experienced its lowest quarterly publication output since mid-2019, marking an annual decline of 24%. March was down 34% on an annual basis.
The decline has been driven by an exodus of China-based authors. It started after the Impact Factor of IEEE Access dropped below 4.0 (China-based authors have been particularly responsive to Impact Factor fluctuations) and it accelerated after the publication of the Warning List. Interestingly, the journal has been growing in other locations (11% growth in March for papers without China-based authors vs 60% decline for papers with China-based authors), but the over-reliance and decline in China have dictated its course.
Similarly to IEEE Access, the Chinese content for MDPI’s listed journals has declined. Contrary to IEEE Access, MDPI’s portfolio is better positioned to absorb the impact. That’s because (a) MDPI’s listed journals have less Chinese content, (b) the journals that are not listed are still growing in China, and (c) all journals are growing tremendously in the rest of the world. In the first quarter of 2021, MDPI grew by 50% on an annual basis, despite its Chinese content shrinking by 8%. MDPI is on track to publish more than 200k fully-OA papers in 2020. Thanks to its portfolio approach and regional diversification, MDPI thrives while others falter.
The publication of the Warning List on the last day of 2020 should have affected journal submissions by January. Its impact on publications is getting observed with a lag, depending on the publishing speed of each journal and publisher. IEEE Access and MDPI publish very fast (IEEE Access typically publishes within 4-6 weeks from submission, and MDPI had a median time to publication of 35 days in 2020), and as a result the impact of the list is already visible in their Q1 performance. The impact should become increasingly visible by Q2 for other, slower journals and publishers.
A miscalculation or a cynical calculation
While the list clearly impacts international, fully-OA publishing, it is less clear whether this is the result of a miscalculation or a cynical calculation. The miscalculation would be about misinterpreting OA for poor quality. The cynical calculation would be about China benefitting from the increase of OA content from other countries while reducing the OA, APC payments by China. Chinese institutions get to pay less for subscriptions to read foreign content, and China-based authors get to publish for free. Heads I win, tails you lose.
It should probably be noted that the list does not include any Chinese, fully-OA titles that get most of their content from China-based authors, arguing against the ‘miscalculation’ above.
Adding to the perplexity of the matter, the heavily targeted MDPI hires thousands of employees in China (about half of their workforce) and runs at a very slim margin, which implies that China is a net beneficiary of the APC payments that are made to that publisher. Undermining MDPI is probably not in the country’s interest, but it may serve narrower interests.
Implications for foreign publishers and policymakers
The question that should occupy the minds of international publishers and policymakers is whether the targeting of OA, APC publishing by the Chinese administration is part of a trend. Last year’s policies introduced APC caps of 20,000 RMB (about 3,000 USD) and limits to the papers that can be paid for through the special fund of the National Science and Technology Plan. Does the warning list build on that policy, and will it lead to further anti-APC action?
Moreover, will China see the growth of international OA as an opportunity to curb its publishing costs? Or will it ease OA, APC restrictions once an increasing volume of international content becomes freely available thanks to global pro-OA policies?
In a worst-case scenario, is this the start of a regional policy rift whereby international publishers struggle to accommodate both European and Chinese policies? Would you rather ‘transform’ your journal in order to accommodate European funders or would you maintain its subscription status to avoid drawing the ire of Chinese funders?
In any event, the warning list shows that the Chinese market can be risky. Seemingly healthy revenue streams can come under threat with little warning and unclear justification. Over-reliance on the Chinese market is not a healthy long-term strategy, and scholarly publishers and information providers that are overly exposed to the Chinese market should plan to diversify their revenue streams.