Ten Senior Editors Resign: Peer Review Process in Danger?

About a decade ago, a problem arose in the academic community. This problem is infamous as the “reproducibility crisis.” This crisis dealt with the fact that a large percentage of papers and studies submitted to academic journals were not reproducible. What does this mean? It means that the research, studies, and findings in a given paper were unable to be reproduced when performed in a lab. Therefore, there was a credibility issue with the information provided.

Questionable Quality of Research Papers

The reproducibility crisis recently made headlines with the dispute between a publisher and a journal. The publisher concerned here is Multidisciplinary Digital Publishing Institute (MDPI) and the open-access journal Nutrients. All ten senior editors of the journal resigned in August of this year. They accused the publisher of undue pressurizing to accept papers and studies of subpar quality and significance. The senior editors felt that the publisher was more focused on making money from increased submissions, rather than publishing work of high quality. In order to publish, the authors must pay a fee, and this above process will generate high revenue.

The Reputation of the Publishers

The Multidisciplinary Digital Publishing Institute (MDPI), founded in 1996, has 213 open-access journals. However, this is not the first time that MDPI has been the focus of the reproducibility crisis. In 2014, Jeffrey Beall, a librarian at University of Colorado Denver and a leader in exposing the reproducibility crisis, placed MDPI on his list of predatory journals (Beall’s List). Unfortunately, Mr. Beall was forced to shut down his site, due to pressure and threats from the scientific community itself. However, this doesn’t change the fact that his list included more than 1,200 publications and 1,000 publishers.

Reproducibility Crisis Goes Long Back

Beall’s List introduced many to this growing problem. Plagiarism is also becoming an issue in the academic publishing world. In 2016, Michael Beer, a researcher at Johns Hopkins University and member of the editorial board of Scientific Reports claimed that an article published in the journal plagiarized his work. In support of Mr. Beer, 19 of his fellow board members resigned. (The paper has since been retracted.) Like the protest at Nutrients, this was a significant step toward bringing attention to the reproducibility crisis in academia.

However, even with these situations at Nutrients and Scientific Reports, reproducibility is increasingly an issue as the number of published papers has been steadily rising. Over the past decade, over 5,000 papers have been published. This leads to an increase of low-quality manuscripts submitted to, and eventually published in academic journals. The increased number of submissions should lead to larger rejection rates. However, publishers are still pushing editors to accept more papers as this increases revenue.

The Response of the Publishers

There has been pushback against the severity of the reproducibility crisis. MDPI CEO Franck Vazquez sees the increasing number of submissions as normal: “When an article is sound and useful for researchers, it should be published, even when it is not very novel.” Also, he does not see the rising publishing fees as a problem, but as a necessity for journals to continue to disseminate important academic work. “If I would be killing the cash cow,” he said, “I would be stupid.”

The reproducibility crisis puts the world of academic publishing in serious trouble. The number of predatory journals has continued to increase. As a result, the publishers end up publishing low-quality research. In 2014 alone, publishers launched over 1,000 new journals. Such a large scale publishing increases the probability that researchers and scholars will encounter mediocre work. This is why bringing attention to this reproducibility crisis is important.

This incident brings up an important question: How can the publishers ensure reproducibility besides generating revenue? Please share your thoughts with us in the comments section below.

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