Last month, I was alerted to an outrageous act of a scientific journal caving in to pressure from delusionals demanding the science about their publicly displayed delusions be hidden from the world: the NPG-owned publisher Frontiers retracted a scientific article, with which they could not find anything wrong: The article

attracted a number of complaints which were investigated by the publisher. This investigation did not identify any issues with the academic and ethical aspects of the study. It did, however, determine that the legal context is insufficiently clear and therefore Frontiers wishes to retract the published article.

Essentially, this puts large sections of science at risk. Clearly, every geocentrist, flat earther, anti-vaxxer, creationist, homeopath, astrologer, diviner, and any other unpersuadable can now feel encouraged to challenge scientific papers in a court. No, actually, they don’t even have to do that, they only have to threaten court action and publishers will cave in and retract your paper.

As if we needed any more evidence that publishers are bad for science.

Now even the supposedly “good guys” show that the are not really on the side of science. Instead of at least waiting for a law suit to be filed and perhaps at least attempting to stand their ground (as Simon Singh did), they just took the article down in what can only be called anticipatory obedience. This is no way to serve science.

A week or two ago, I talked with a Frontiers representative on the phone and she explained a few things to me which prompted me to read the paper in question, so I could make up my own mind. After reading the paper, any of the attempted explanations on the phone rang hollow: I’m certainly not a lawyer, but if taking publicly posted comments and citing them in a scientific paper, discussing them under a given hypothesis which has a scientific track record and plenty of precedence constitutes a cause for libel or defamation lawsuits, it is certainly the law and not the paper which is at fault. It is quite clear, why the content of the paper may feel painful to those cited in it, but as long as “conspiracist ideation” is not an official mental disorder, I cannot see any defamation. If you don’t want to be labeled a conspiracy theorist, don’t behave like one publicly on the internet. Therefore, after reading the paper, in my opinion, Frontiers ought to have supported their authors just as their home institution (UWA) is supporting them as their employees.

As the Frontiers representative did not disclose any details and what she was able to disclose was both very general, hence not very convincing, and I promised not to disclose even that, one can only speculate what the motivations and considerat1ions might have been at Frontiers as to why they decided to throw their authors under the bus.

Clearly, if legal problems are cited, it’s always money that’s at stake, I’d be surprised if this were controversial. I have heard through the grapevine that Frontiers apparently may have felt some pressure recently, to make more money, to publish more papers. I was told that they have sent out literally millions of spam emails to addresses harvested from, e.g. PubMed, soliciting manuscript submissions. Obviously, a costly libel or defamation suit in the UK would not have been a positive on the balance sheets.

Alas, as much fun all of this speculation may be, it is not really relevant to my conclusion: Frontiers retracted a perfectly fine (according to their own investigation) psychology paper due to financial risks for themselves. It can only be seen as at best a rather lame excuse or at worst rather patronizing, if Frontiers were to claim to be protecting their authors from lawsuits by removing the ‘offending’ article. This is absolutely no way to “empower researchers in their daily work“. In the coming days I will send resignation letters to the Frontiers journals to which I have donated my free time for a range of editorial duties. Obviously, I will complete the tasks I have already started, but I will not accept any new tasks at Frontiers – at least not until they show more support of their authors.

P.S.: I should perhaps add that the reason I supported Frontiers almost since its inception was that they were and in many respects still are among the most innovative publishers out there and that they drive our communication system away from the entirely antiquated status quo. Of course, Frontiers still serves this particular function very well. My criticism very specifically targets this particular paper and leaves all the other positive contributions of Frontiers to our publishing ecosystem intact. I guess that much of my personal disappointment comes from the feeling of betrayal, when I felt Frontiers was on the side of researchers for so many years. I would have expected such behavior from legacy publishers, but not from Frontiers. This incident, together with several other events over the past month or two have prompted me to think more generally about my involvement with publishers and there will be another post on this topic at some point.

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Posted on  at 18:11