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 and the Open Access portfolio at Springer Nature. A geneticist by training, he previously worked in agriculture and as a consultant for Kearney, and he holds an MBA from INSEAD.
Some call them Special Issues (MDPI & Hindawi), others call them Research Topics (Frontiers), and others Collections (Springer Nature). In this post, I will refer to them as articles published via the Guest Editor model, whereby a journal invites a scholar or a group of scholars to serve as guest editors for a set of thematically linked papers. The Guest Editor model fueled MDPI’s rise, yet it pushed Hindawi off a cliff. It has contributed to MDPI’s questionable reputation, yet it is becoming a permanent fixture in the industry.
Turbo-charging MDPI and Frontiers
Back in 2020, I wrote about MDPI’s remarkable growth. My analysis was optimistic about their growth, and has been partly proven accurate, given that MDPI almost tripled in size from 2019 (110k papers) to 2022 (303k papers).
The analysis missed a trick, namely the importance of the Guest Editor model for MDPI. Papers via this model have been a staple for MDPI. In recent years, they have accounted for 60% or more of MDPI’s papers.
Frontiers is another emerging Swiss publisher that heavily relies on the Guest Editor model. Taking another leaf from MDPI’s playbook, they have grown their Guest Editor operations, currently publishing 70% of their papers via this model vs 49% in 2016.
A latecomer to the Guest Editor model was Hindawi. Their adoption of the model took off at the time that four of their largest journals were added to the CAS Warning List. At that time, a Hindawi executive reached out to me to express their dissatisfaction for questioning the impact of the listing to their performance. Indeed, Hindawi’s 2021 performance was salvaged (contrary to that of other journals such as IEEE Access), likely thanks to the wholesale adoption of the Guest Editor model. But there was a price to pay, and the bill has now arrived.
As explained in detail by Retraction Watch, Hindawi’ Guest Editor model was exploited by paper mills, leading to more than 500 retractions from November 2022 to March 2023. In a random sample of 20 retracted articles, half of them were submitted in 2021, meaning that the paper mills were at work as soon as Hindawi ventured into the Guest Editor model.
The timing was most unfortunate for Wiley, which acquired Hindawi in January 2021 for the hefty price of $298m. In response to the paper mills, Wiley not only retracted the articles of concern, but also paused Hindawi’s Guest Editor program, resulting in a $9m decline in quarterly revenue, which is expected to reach $30m for the full year. As soon as the results were announced, Wiley’s stock value dropped by 17% to its lowest level since 2009 (except for a year-long slump during COVID). The decline translates to a $420m reduction in market capitalization.
But as things gets worse for Wiley and Hindawi’s financial performance, they get better for research integrity.
WoS giveth, and WoS taketh away
Getting indexed on the Web of Science (WoS) is an existential issue for journals. There are very few journals that could be commercially successful without an Impact Factor. Case in point, when Oncotarget got delisted, its output dropped from about 9k papers to under 1k papers.
Last week, Clarivate announced the removal of more than 50 journals from the Web of Science, including 19 journals from Hindawi. The delisting came after Wiley announced its Q3 results, and its repercussions may not have been fully appreciated by analysts, given that Wiley’s stock value did not drop any further.
Specifically, the 19 journals accounted for 50% of Hindawi’s papers in 2022. In combination with the halting of the Guest Editor model across the portfolio, it is possible that Hindawi will not exceed 20k papers in 2023. That’s a decline of about 60% which may be accompanied by an even bigger drop in revenue, assuming that the delisted journals had higher APCs than the rest of the journals.
This might be a good point to mention that five of the 19 journals reported no retractions in 2022 and in 2023 so far, while an additional four journals that remain in WoS reported from four to 25 retractions in the same period. This might not be the end of the story for Hindawi and Wiley.
MDPI’s unremarkable reputation
When I previously wrote about MDPI in 2020, their reputation was not good, but it was arguably improving. I did not anticipate that their reputation would face repeated challenges since then, such as the listing of 22 journals in the CAS Warning List, which resulted into an unimpressive performance for MDPI in China in 2021, and the inclusion of five journals in the newly created Level X category of the Norwegian Scientific Index in 2021. The list goes on, and it includes several exasperated researchers that have special issues with the Special Issues of MDPI.
The over-reliance on the Guest Editor model contributes to MDPI’s questionable reputation. One has to wonder whether MDPI has really found ways to combat paper-mills, whether it has avoided them by being less exposed to Chinese content than Hindawi, or whether it has been affected by paper-mills and none has noticed yet. Within that context, the perplexing delisting of MDPI’s largest journal, International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health (IJERPH), alongside the Hindawi journals, can make sense.
Guilty until proven innocent
WoS delisted IJERPH, a journal with an Impact Factor above 4.0 that ranked in the top or second quartile of its categories, on what may be viewed as a technicality. The journal failed the ‘content relevance’ criterion, meaning that the published content was not consistent with the title and/or stated scope of the journal. It is hard to believe that this criterion does not apply to hundreds of other journals. So, what might have prompted WoS to take this action?
My best and least conspiratorial guess is that WoS may have felt compelled to align with the public sentiment and go after MDPI. In the absence of a smoking gun of unequivocal editorial misconduct, it opted for a trivial criterion. Al Capone got convicted for tax evasion. MDPI got delisted for publishing papers out of scope. WoS sent a message by going after the largest journal of MDPI.
The delisting of IJERPH demonstrates that MDPI’s reputation is the biggest threat for the company’s longevity. MDPI is set to lose more than $30m annual revenue by the delisting of IJERPH, and researchers might grow reluctant to submit papers to its other journals, further compromising the publisher’s commercial performance. Ominously, MDPI’s business is one paper mill away from crumbling the same way as Hindawi’s.
Unless and until such a paper mill is discovered and acknowledged, MDPI will take comfort in more than tripling the volume of its journals that have an Impact Factor. Currently, 97 MDPI journals have an Impact Factor, and more than 200 are set to be awarded one this summer, thanks to the new policies of WoS. The reputational damage by the delisting of IJERPH may eventually be made up for by the awarding of the new Impact Factors.
Permanent fixtures, features, bugs, and transparency
Whether MDPI declines or maintains its position as the third largest publisher of journals, elements of the MDPI publishing model are here to stay. Its speed has created a paradigm shift, and other publishers are reviewing their operations in order to close the gap between their performance and that of MDPI. The Guest Editor model is slowly being adopted by large, traditional publishers and faster by the more dynamic OA publishers.
The implementation of the Guest Editor model by Hindawi was marked by dramatic failure, which begs the question: is the compromise of editorial integrity a feature or a bug of the model? Are paper mills about to be discovered operating across MDPI and Frontiers, or did they only exploit a particularly poor implementation of the model by Hindawi?
In any event, publishers pursuing the Guest Editor model at scale ought to be transparent about the safeguards that they have in place to uphold their journals’ editorial integrity. Do they prevent malicious behavior with technological solutions and rigorous processes? Do they seek anomalous patterns post-publication, in historical records? Are they challenging the effectiveness of their own systems the same way a bank might utilize ‘ethical hackers’?
Publishers such as MDPI and Frontiers owe this level of transparency to the millions of researchers that have trusted their journals to publish their work. Likewise, WoS needs to be more transparent about its journal de-selection criteria rather than leaving it to the community to identify the journals that have been purged and to then speculate about the drivers of the decisions of WoS.
Addendum: The article has been updated to reflect that, while there is strong indication that a paper mill has been acting at MDPI (see Abalkina’s work and Perron’s work), MDPI has not publicly addressed these concerns.