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  • Writer's pictureWilliam Matchin

Frontiers gets some things right

Updated: Jul 25, 2023

Frontiers has some problems but is not as bad as some people think it is, and actually does certain things well.

About a year and a half ago I was asked to be an Associate Editor of a new Frontiers journal, Frontiers in Language Sciences (formerly the Language Sciences section of Frontiers in Psychology). Manuel Carreiras is the editor in chief, and Greig de Zubicaray is the Neurobiology of Language section editor. I seriously debated whether to do it or not given the negative perception that many in the field of cognitive neuroscience have about the journal, including myself. However, I accepted the offer, in part because both Manuel and Greig have published exceptional work and I assumed their judgment to be good, and I also received assurances from them that addressed my concerns. I thought others might now benefit from some of my thoughts on what it’s like from the inside, hence this blogpost.

Frontiers is a for-profit organization. At the end of the day I believe that for-profit publishing groups are leeches on the academic world. The spate of conversions of leading journals that were formerly part of for-profit publishing groups, such as Lingua --> Glossa and NeuroImage --> Imaging Neuroscience, and the creation of open-access journals in non-profit academic publishers such as Open Mind and Neurobiology of Language, are in my view extremely positive developments that should be duplicated as much as possible. In fact, I am personally approaching a working boycott of submitting or reviewing for journals owned by Elsevier – perhaps the most evil of the for-profit publishers, one which has routinely exercised an iron grip on its leading publications in order to prevent moves towards open science and a reduction of its profit. In this light, the reason that many researchers in cognitive neuroscience have a negative perception of Frontiers stems from its for-profit status and its reputation as a practitioner of predatory publishing. This stemmed in particular from some biomedical Frontiers journals that reportedly overrode editors’ and reviewers’ desires to reject papers, accepting substandard science to be published, apparently in the name of increased profits.

As for myself, the empirical papers I have seen published in Frontiers journals in recent years (i.e., Frontiers in Human Neuroscience, Frontiers in Psychology) didn’t seem to be bad or problematic compared to others in lower-tier journals (e.g., Journal of Neurolinguistics, PLOS One). In fact, I am not aware at all of any controversies in my area of research, the neurobiology of language, of the kind described above, which have mostly been associated with biomedical journals (and these kinds of problems are certainly not unique to Frontiers). Some of my colleagues working in related fields and publishing in Frontiers in Psychology or Frontiers in Psychiatry didn’t seem to be aware of any controversies at all, and readily published in such journals without hesitation than any other.

What bothered me about Frontiers wasn’t concerns over it being a predatory publication, but rather a rash of poorly written and seemingly quite unconvincing theoretical and opinion articles published in the former language sciences section of Frontiers in Psychology. Frontiers is known for adopting the standard of publication that PLOS One uses: strict criteria for technical soundness, but no rejection based on perceived impact or importance of the published work. It seemed to me that this left a bit of a loophole for theoretical work – basically, they seemed to publish anything, no matter how half-baked or poorly articulated the work was, so long as it didn’t have any issues with potentially fraudulent or incorrectly performed empirical research. So I often thought that Frontiers was being used as a dumping ground for rapid publication of half-assed work. I personally had not submitted anything to Frontiers since about 2015.

So, when Greig invited me to join the new Frontiers in Language Sciences as Associate Editor. I agonized. I had actually just turned down an invitation to become a “Review Editor” from another colleague at a different Frontiers journal, because I didn’t want to get roped into reviewing frequently for a journal I didn’t particularly believe in. However, after assurances from Greig that we would have full editorial control of the journal rather than some distant and shadowy corporate managers, I decided to give it a try, reasoning that if I ran into issues or was dissatisfied I could always resign. Perhaps a more important reason impacting my decision was that nobody else had asked me to be an associate editor. This offer afforded me opportunities to impact the communication of science within the broader interdisciplinary field of language science that I had not yet had.

Also, Frontiers is open-access at (relatively) low cost. The open-access article processing fees (APC, also known as “author pays cost”) being offered at Frontiers in Language Sciences are modest - $2080 for full-length empirical work - compared to many other journals that are now offering open-access with fees well in excess of $10,000 dollars (*cough*, Nature Neuroscience, *cough*). They offer the standard options to apply for waivers for authors that do not have grant funding to cover these publication fees (I do not know how easy it is to obtain these waivers – does anyone know?! Tell me). I was pleased to see that at least authors would not be egregiously gouged for submitting their work to this new journal.

I also in general like the peer review system, which to me seems far more modern than most other journals, and with the potential to improve and allow for innovative publishing options that I have not seen at any other journal. First off, they publish the reviewers’ names if the paper has been accepted for publication. They don’t reveal the identities of the reviewers to the authors while the paper is in review, so the reviewing process is single blind. However, there are still certainly drawbacks to revealing the reviewers’ identities post publication – can a junior researcher really be direct about their honest negative opinions about a senior researcher’s work in such a scenario? But, with all due respect to Publions, I don’t think there is any other effective way to give people credit for their reviewing work than to put their names on the published paper. I think that our volunteer service to our field in the form of reviewing should be given much greater appreciation than it currently does – and if scientists ever decide to actually take this seriously, the Frontiers model might very well be part of the solutions.

In addition, the review process is interactive. I mean, it is absolutely crazy that other journals have not pursued this style of review in at least some form. I do appreciate being able to respond to specific points in real-time rather than having to wait long periods of time for all the reviewers to submit their comments, and then for the editor to compile and send the decision along. I have thoughts about utilizing this kind of technical novelty for other purposes, such as forum type articles which involve authors with different perspectives responding to each others’ points.

OK, so what has it actually like being an associate editor for a Frontiers journal? First off, I can confirm that we have not had problems with editorial control. In fact, I have rejected several submissions to the research topic on syntax and the brain that I am organizing along with Simona Mancini, Emiliano Zaccarella, and Jixing Li. Despite the fact that I hate rejecting an author’s work, it has been personally gratifying to be able to reject the kinds of papers that I don’t think met a certain level of expectation for clarity of organization and writing. The process for recommending rejection is fairly straightforward and I have not had any pushback on this. So far, at least.

The publication process is also remarkably swift. This is due to a variety of factors, but chiefly the automated systems that Frontiers has in place. This also leads to some problem, and in some ways I can see that the automated systems that can be quite helpful and positive have also in part led to some of the feelings about Frontiers among some researchers in our field. They have a huge database of registered reviewers (including so-called “Review Editors”, which I think is a terrible term – these are reviewers, no editors, and I think this is a misleading way to get people to sign on to being reviewers), and they have a system that identifies relevant reviewers and will automatically invite them on a schedule if you don’t intercede and select your own reviewers.

This automated system is a double-edged sword. It pushes the editorial process along potentially before the editor has fully managed the situation, and although the recommended reviewers are generally reasonable, it does seem to me that the best possible reviewers for a given paper are not always selected. However, it does push the process along. I have heard so many complaints from editors about not being able to find people to review, and I’ve also heard many complaints from authors that their papers have been returned to them without review because of this! I can tell you that this does not happen at Frontiers – the automated system will send reminder emails to the editor and it will forge ahead to find reviewers for a paper, ensuring that papers do not end up in purgatory, and easing editors’ lives by presenting them with a smorgasbord of possible reviewers to contact. So there is a tradeoff here – the automated system might recommend an unqualified reviewer, but it guarantees that a reviewer is invited unless the editor intervenes.

Speaking of automated emails, that’s another annoying aspect to the system. So many emails. I have had a couple authors that wanted to participate in my research topic, but were hesitant or declined because they didn’t’ want to be pinged all the time. Also, the default review timeline for Frontiers in Language Sciences is seven days. For the love of God, that’s egregiously short for unpaid service that reviewers are giving. However, they do make it easy to request extensions. On the flip side, those reminder emails do serve a purpose – they get the process moving along. Another way in which system ensures more rapid publication.

What else don’t I like? Well, I’m still not sure about research topics. It has been fun to organize the research topic on syntax and the brain, and there are some really great papers published so far. My personal favorite: Krauska and Lau critiquing lexicalization and showing us how to move forward with a much more plausible (psycho)-linguistic architecture for language production. (Seriously – you can’t tell me that this is a bad paper with a straight face). However, I do think the research topics feel a bit like a way to try and get more people to submit papers to the journal. Like – if you don’t submit, you’re being left out of something special and important. However, I can tell you that given the large number of research topics that they aren’t particularly special, even if they can contain good work.

All in all, the experience has been OK. The papers that we are publishing at Frontiers in Language Sciences are good – check out our research topic on syntax and the brain. I think these are some really good papers! And they were published fairly quickly – a rarity in this age. Because preprints have not yet achieved the same status as real publications, publishing quickly is still a virtue, especially for junior scientists who need to get work added to their CVs in a timely manner. Ultimately, we need to stop using for-profit publishers, and that includes Frontiers. However, I also know that that isn’t going to happen any time soon – many of the most ardent supporters of open-access and non-profit publishing submit their high-profile papers to Nature and Neuron. In the meantime, if the APCs are low enough, and if it’s plausible for researchers with minimal funding to get financial assistance, then Frontiers isn’t the worst in the world. Elsevier is.

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