Fear and Loathing at Frontiers (2023)

Many scientists have been receiving unsolicited emails from the Swiss publisher Frontiers, with invitations to submit papers or become peer review “editor” with this Open Access (OA) publisher. In fact, the Holtzbrick-owned Frontiers are occasionally criticized for these activities, which were compared to spamming. These “spam” emails however are not written by robots, but by actual human beings, usually interns. Many of them do not seem very happy about their jobs with Frontiers, as one can read at the employer-evaluation portal Glassdoor. Most of the criticism is directed against middle management, who, as I have previously shown, sometimes nonchalantly manage academic topics way outside of their professional competence.

Now, you can learn what goes on inside the Frontiers “spam” factory from a first-hand source. I was approached by a reader of my website, who turned out to be a former full-time employee at Frontiers. This person told me that the Frontiers interns (who are recruited for a 6 month period, as advertised here) were expected to write 200 emails a day, canvassing academics to submit papers to this for-profit OA publisher:

This threshold was recommended to all interns by the journal managers based on one “exemplary” staff employee, who could actually send these many emails. The messages included canned follow-up responses to potential authors clarifying what Frontiers is [see Q&A list below, -LS], a similar correspondence with editors, and reminders about the papers undergoing peer-review. Since we sent these emails from shared journal email accounts, everyone could see their quality. It was clear to me that the quantity over quality was an approach applied there. The journal managers asked us to use only template responses, word for word. It was more acting like a robot, without support from permanent staff members”.

As the source explained, Frontiers was using massive email campaigns to recruit potential authors. For this,

the email addresses were identified automatically using keywords from Loop [Frontiers’ own social network, where all authors, editors and reviewers are mandatorily recruited, -LS], articles, conferences, or suggestions, and as a result “the invitations” usually ended up with random people”.

Hardly surprisingly, many recipients of such “spam” emails complained. Frontiers employees were instructed how to reply to these annoyed academics (“we believe that your research provides an excellent fit for our journal Frontiers in XXXXXX”, or “you are free to submit an article on any subject for consideration by the Chief Editor of a section of your choice”), and how to counter criticism of Frontiers peculiar peer review model (“We appreciate your feedback […], unfortunately, it is not always possible to satisfy everyone”). The interns were also instructed to lie about the rejection rate at Frontiers, which is not 20% as officially claimed, but 10% (at least, this was what the interns were told). Finally, this is how one was supposed to reply if the email-guessing game led to an utterly unrelated person being pestered:

I am sorry to see that we have mixed up your contact details with that of another researcher. […] Nevertheless, I find your contributions to the area of {SEARCH ABOUT HIS RESEARCH} very impressive, and I would like to ask if you would be interested in collaborating with us?”

The reply templates can be read at the end of this article.

Fear and Loathing at Frontiers (1)

Sharing this information was a very brave act. First of all, my communications with current and former Frontiers editors suggested a certain culture of fear of publicly criticizing this publisher (unlike on the phone or in confidential emails). This whistleblower here revealed information despite Frontiers’ threat to punish any indiscretion with a fine of at least 100,000 Swiss Francs (CHF, roughly the same in US Dollars).

This is what Frontiers intimidate their interns with, in order to quell any attempt at treason:

For each case of breach of the Employee’s [Frontiers, -LS] obligations as set forth in this section on noncompetition and nonsolicitation, the Employee shall pay a contractual penalty of CHF 100’000. Payment of the contractual penalty shall not relieve the Employee from any of the obligations set out in this section 10. The Employer shall have the right to claim further amounts, in addition to the above contractual penalty, in order to recover its effective damages and/or that of third parties.

The Employer shall be entitled to seek judicial enforcement of such obligations including, but not limited to, specific enforcement by way of an injunction or other means of interim and/or permanent relief”.

Basically, Frontiers threatens the interns, whom they employed for mere 6 month with a salary of CHF 2,000/month (minus taxes and social insurance), to take away everything they have, and destroy their livelihoods and any hopes for a career, for even the most minor breach of their contract. Certainly for sharing this very information here. There is no time limit on secrecy, the interns are expected to take what they saw and experienced at Frontiers for half a year of their lives to their graves:

the Employee agrees, both during the term of the Employment and after its termination or expiry, not to discuss with any external party any aspect of Frontiers’ business, working methods, intentions, plans, strategies or the identity of Frontiers’ current and intended contractors and service providers”.

Also, after their brief internship period ends, the former employees are expected not to work or be otherwiseinvolved anywhere near science publishing, for at least one year. Same goes for academic social networking, because of Frontiers’ other key business Loop (for which they “recently partnered with the Nature Publishing Group”). Otherwise, yes, Frontiers will destroy you financially:

The Employee shall not […] for a period of one year following the termination of this Agreement, in any way, directly or indirectly, and whether alone or together with others, initiate, promote, participate in, be engaged in or provide any advice, support or assistance to any company, entity, business, association or undertaking of any kind, whether as employee, consultant, director, agent, distributor, editor, advisor, shareholder, owner or partowner or in any other capacity, whether fulltime or parttime, in any activities within the field of publication of academic articles and/or researcher networking”.

Generously, Frontiers does not issue a ban on all academia-related employment. The Swiss publisher still allows its former interns to work as postdocs or PhD students, despite that this may require publishing-related activities such as writing papers or peer reviewing. They are however NOT allowed to make decisions on where to submit their papers, or, yes, Frontiers lawyers will come for you:

The preceding sentence shall not prevent the Employee from engaging […] in purely editorial activities such as science writing or article review, provided such activities do not involve the Employee in any management or strategyrelated activities”.

Is this all? No, because Frontiers’ current and former interns are prohibited from discouraging anyone from publishing or working withFrontiers,even privately:

The Employee shall not, during the term of employment by the Employer and for a period of one year following the termination of such employment […]

  1. solicit any person who is or was a customer of the Employer or any of its Affiliates, or any author who had published or sought to publish any article in any Frontiers journal, with a view to diverting such customer away from Frontiers or its Affiliates or such author away from publishing articles in Frontiers journals; or

  2. induce, encourage or assist in inducing or encouraging any employee to leave employment with the Employer or any of its Affiliates or the Frontiers Research Foundation”.

The entire contract is available for download here.

It does sound tough and scary, except that it is a toothless threat, driven by paranoia and bullying arrogance. I forwarded this internship contract to a Swiss academic, who in turn showed it to a Swiss law specialist. The confidentiality agreement as it is written, including its threat of CHF 100,000 fine, is not applicable as such [though not actuallyillegal, as I previously wrote] under Swiss law and should not have been allowed into an internship contract. This was what I learned:

– A typical internship contract in Switzerland is no longer than 2 pages. The Frontiers one is 6 pages long, which is not appropriate

– The internship contract point 10 concerning confidentiality and non-competing interests seems to be a copy-paste of an Anglo-Saxon executive employee contract. The banking and industry executives however enjoy proper rights and work law protection, also their salaries are not really comparable with those of interns. Also in Switzerland, such a clause is indeed used only for executive employees and not for interns. A non-competing clause for executives must also carry a geographical region limitation, which Frontiers internship contract does not.

– Interns are actually not supposed to be made to observe confidentiality, simply because it is the responsibility of the employer not to expose them to confidential material.

– Otherwise, any confidential documents should be clearly and specifically named and identified in a contract. With Frontiers, nothing at all is specified in the internship contract. In any case, the internship contract I publish here is not a confidential document per definition.

– Even if Frontiers were able to drag their former interns to court: Frontiers would have to prove the exact monetary damage they suffered just because that former intern now works at a different publisher’s. However, Frontiers lawyers can spare themselves this difficult calculation, because their internship contract clauses are void anyway. The act of signing something does not make it legal, in fact Frontiers lawyers themselves wrote into the internship contract: “This agreement shall be exclusively governed by Swiss law”.

And indeed, this story here is the evidence that some people are quite unafraid of Frontiers and their legal bullying. Thus, enjoy below the Q&A templates which Frontiers employees were given to face the criticisms from the academia.

Frontiers mandatory templatesfor communicating with potentialcustomers and reviewers.

The questions (Q) are what scientists generally ask or complain about. The answers (A) are text blocks which Frontiers employees were instructed to use for their replies. Provided verbatim and in this order by a former Frontiers employee.

Q: [I do not agree with your peer-review policies]

A: We regret that you do not agree with Frontiers’ policies on the peer-review process. We feel that Frontiers offers more than just the open-access solution to the problem of hiding research results behind a pay wall. Frontiers also aims to solve some frequently cited problems in the peer-review process, by revising the principles to preserve and improve its efficiency and rigor. To do this, we take care of the rights of authors, referees and editors, generally aiming to return the responsibility for publishing from the publisher to authors. Novel features of the Frontiers peer-review process include an initial anonymous peer-review stage followed by an interactive online review stage where the identities of referees are automatically disclosed. We appreciate your feedback, and we strive to accommodate all suggestions by users; unfortunately, it is not always possible to satisfy everyone.

Q: (the email reaches a wrong person)

A: Please excuse me for the email confusion. I am sorry to see that we have mixed up your contact details with that of another researcher. I can assure you that this is not going to happen again, as I have corrected this error in your contact details. Nevertheless, I find your contributions to the area of {SEARCH ABOUT HIS RESEARCH} very impressive, and I would like to ask if you would be interested in collaborating with us? We have recently partnered with the Nature Publishing Group to expand our researcher-driven open-science platform Loop, and we would like for you to consider the opportunity to participate in developing a collection of the latest research and perspectives from your field in a Frontiers journal.

Q: (someone is not an expert in the area pasted in the primary email, but Frontiers is interested):

A: Thank you for your reply. Please note that our offer to submit an article for peer-review at Frontiers does not exclusively extend to the subject proposed in the original email, which was merely a suggestion that we considered timely. Naturally, you are better aware of the needs of your research field than us. You are free to submit an article on any subject for consideration by the Chief Editor of a section of your choice assuming that it fits within the scope of one of our journals. Moreover, we would be grateful for any suggestions about colleagues who might possibly be interested in doing so; or if you prefer, ask them to contact us.

Q: (someone is interested to publish with Frontiers, but Frontiers is not interested)

A: Thank you for your reply, and for your interest in Frontiers. Frontiers is a community oriented open-access scholarly publishing and social networking platform for researchers, established in 2007 by scientists in Switzerland. Frontiers’ vision is to empower all academic communities to steer the advancement of science communication into the 21st century. Our research network allows academics to communicate quickly, effectively, and freely with their colleagues from around the world. Thank you for registering with our research network, and we hope you will find it useful. We will re-contact you, should we have a subject in the future that fits your area of research. I wish you every success in your career.

Q: (rejection rate)

[Internal note: Try not to disclose this unless they specifically ask. At Frontiers the rejection rate is around 10%]

A: Our rejection is around 20%. This low number is explained by our rejection criteria. All articles are peer-reviewed based on quality of the research.

Q: [Stop spamming. I don’t want to publish with you]

A: Thank you for your message. Please allow me to clarify that we give researchers the opportunity to effectively organize an online discussion and to intensify collaborations by bringing together the academic community around their particular research area. Frontiers conceived this new concept and developed a special IT platform to help you manage it. We are opening a window for all researchers to work together bringing awareness and give significant input to each other’s research. We believe that your research provides an excellent fit for our journal Frontiers in XXXXXX. Because Frontiers uses the same email template to invite those scientists with whom we would like to collaborate, our email may come across as spam. However, we never send broadcast emails to mailing lists, but exclusively contact selected scientists like you. I hope this information was helpful and gives you a clear idea of what Frontiers is trying to bring to the scientific community.

Q: [Why do you charge fees?]

A: Thank you for your reply. While no one likes paying a fee to publish, it is an expensive process and unless authors are willing to cover the costs, then the reader has to as in the old model of subscriptions. The goal of Frontiers is to hand control of research publishing back to working researchers – not to make money from authors. Publishing fees are an essential part of the enormous transition underway in peer-reviewed academic publishing: as researchers move toward open-access, fees help offset the cost of the transition, the development of new tools like Frontiers’ editorial platform and the cost of support and typesetting, among other services. Traditional publishers derive most of their revenues by charging millions in subscription fees to university libraries (which is paid from overheads deducted from your grants), whereas open-access publishers rely only on article publishing fees for all of our operations. We are always open to working toward solutions that prevent fees from becoming a barrier to publication. The benefits of open-access, though, are enormous! Scientists from everywhere in the world can access the research at no charge and with no expensive subscription or download fee. Researchers and Medical doctors in developing countries can get the latest research anywhere there is an Internet connection. All medical doctors in the world can see the latest peer-reviewed evidence – not just those doctors with an academic affiliation and library access. For authors publishing in open-access, the benefits are equally important. You could publish in a traditional subscription journal, but then only other researchers and university-based physicians in the developed world will see your work; if you publish open-access, everyone can. You’ll get more citations. Frontiers also complies with all open-access and archiving mandates required for research grants by all major funding councils and institutions.

Q: (about Beall’s posts)

A: We are indeed aware of the negative press resulting from the post by Jeffrey Beall. If I may, I would like to point out that very positive responses were also posted as replies by users and editors of Frontiers. We feel certain that all the concerns pointed out in the post could have been resolved with some discussion with the editorial office. We truly strive to listen to the feedback from our users to improve our publishing platform. You may have also heard of the Science ‘Sting Operation’ in which a reporter submitted a fake manuscript to over 300 open access Journals? I am delighted to say that Frontiers in Pharmacology rejected the fake paper only a few hours after it was submitted, supporting the quality of our review model.

Update 23.04.2016. Frontiersapparently took notice of this article and replied with a blog post advertising Frontiers internship, with testimony of happy, yet unnamed interns:

Frontiers paid internships provide a stepping stone for career success in #scicomm jobshttps://t.co/1Se6Sl4ia2 pic.twitter.com/wKoUPWWjQ0

— Frontiers (@FrontiersIn) April 23, 2016

Fear and Loathing at Frontiers (2)

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