So-Called “Special” Issues of Journals: Big Money for Gold OA Publishers

journal special issues

Vicious cycle

Special issues of journals mean big money for gold (author-pays) OA publishers. It’s a type of affinity marketing. The special issue guest editor typically invites his contacts and colleagues to contribute papers for a special issue on a topic, and they all have to pay author fees to the publisher. 

In this way, the guest editor acts as an uncompensated agent for the publisher, and the publisher benefits financially from the guest editor’s professional and personal relationships.

Recently, many people have been forwarding me spam invitations they have received from publishers inviting them to serve as guest editors. Some graduate students have received these invitations. Many originate from Hindawi Publishing Corporation (based in Egypt) and MDPI (based in China and Switzerland).

Competition among gold (author pays) OA publishers is becoming more intense; special issues are an effective way to increase article submissions and therefore revenue. They also serve to reduce the revenue of a publisher’s competitors.

In the two cases below, I imagine the guest editor has supplied a bunch of names/email addresses to the publisher and they have handled the spam invitations for him.

Spam from MDPI's journal Symmetry.

Spam from MDPI’s journal Symmetry.

Special issue spam invitation [1]
Special issue spam invitation [2]

Is it ethical for publishers to exploit a researcher’s professional contacts this way?

Open Access Membership Schemes

Another trick that some open-access publishers use is the “free membership scheme.” Open-access memberships operate at the institution level, providing discounts on OA fees to all researchers demonstrating institutional affiliation.

Most OA publishers charge for their membership plans. Some tricky OA publishers have figured out a way to exploit the schemes however. They offer membership plans for free to respected universities, granting authors affiliated with the universities a small discount, generally 5-10%.

But then the publishers use the name of the university in their advertising, proclaiming that the university is a “member” and then using the university’s reputation to attract other paid memberships and paper submissions.

Here is an example of a  MDPI spam membership solicitation for a “free” membership scheme sent to an American university.

More spam from MDPI.

More spam from MDPI.

When companies like MDPI offer anything for “free,” I think universities need to be wary.

22 Responses to So-Called “Special” Issues of Journals: Big Money for Gold OA Publishers

  1. Frank Lu says:

    It is insidious since everyone’s then in bed together — win-win-win. Win for the OA in revenue. Win for the guest editor since it looks good on the resume. Win for the authors for increasing their publications count. It takes some astuteness from resume readers to detect this little technique. In a related approach, there are now a whole slew of monographs with the same technique of editor and authors. This is also difficult to detect since there are lots of good monographs. Due diligence has to be made in evaluating the works and not just “bean counting” as I’ve seen in many institutions.

  2. Well done. Some great points have been pinpointed.
    By the way, have you had a chance to look at the Procedia published by elsevier. The use the same ways as you mentioned and the articles have quite poor quality, although there is a guest editor for each issue. Papers are usually collected through spamming the researchers, students, and conferences. How would you explain this?

  3. J.j. says:

    They copied Frontiers’s business plan in every aspects. Frontiers does the exact same thing.

  4. I am not familiar with the experience of the author with publishing industry and in-house editorial methods to acquire more manuscripts. Having been working for several years at major academic publishing houses I wonder if this ‘concept’ of special issues (also sometime ‘topical issues’) is new or associated with open access: It has been frequently engaged for traditional, subscription-based journals, for example at the occasion of conferences or simply to attract more authors to fill (printed) issues. Ther is nothing new or evil in terms of publishing industry. It has been a sucessful business concept for decades at most publishers and was done in the way described above. So why is this procedure now associated with Open Access only?

    • Nils says:

      “So why is this procedure now associated with Open Access only?”
      Because in Open Access, the publisher’s revenue is directly proportional to the number of published papers.

    • Rui Vaz says:

      Simply because Open Access is NEW. There are authors whose papers only are accepted on account of their impressive Curriculum, and because they cite the convenient papers.
      Double blind refereeing would help.
      The problem is that market does not work. Many Universities are full of overpaid professors, that try to publish anything (one year ago I received a paper for refereeing and it would be the 3rd edition…) so that they satisfy their commitments to the employer

  5. David says:

    I guest edited a special issue for MDPI. The people I invited got to publish for free (yes we eventually accepted their papers after revision). The others who responded to the call for papers had to pay the APC. We rejected about 2/3 of papers. So, the publisher made money and increased the prestige of the journal. I got to invite some colleagues to publish open-access articles for free on topics I’m interested in. But this doesn’t mean there was no academic standard applied to what was published. Quite the contrary.

    • TF says:

      Well, the thing is, (at least some of) these companies spam so widely that a number of their “guest editors” are bound to be less than qualified. Several of the engineers and technicians in my (astronomy) lab have been solicited multiple times to coordinate special issues on various astronomical topics that they of course know nothing of, which just shows how indiscriminately those publishers cast their net…

  6. Evert Nijenhuizen says:

    Oh no, open access publishers are making money! That is unacceptable! If the guest-editor wants it, people want to publish their articles in it, and all the guidelines are followed regarding the peer-review process etc., then what is fundamentally wrong with this? This is really nitpicking if you ask me.

    • Keith Fraser says:

      “all the guidelines are followed regarding the peer-review process”

      This is the important bit. As discussed in many other entries on this blog, many open-access journals don’t use proper peer review. In the more egregious cases, this is blindingly obvious from the illiterately written papers and junk science they publish.

      • Evert Nijenhuizen says:

        Thank you for your reply. Nowhere in this particular blog-post can we find evidence for that.

    • J.J. says:

      What’s fundamentally wrong? A publishing scheme that caters for the need of authors to publish their stuff. There is an obvious conflict of interest when the journal has a monetary incentive to accept papers.

      • Evert Nijenhuizen says:

        Well, then you come to the fundamentals of whether open access publishing is ethical/right or not. That is off-topic in this particular blog post. This blog post was about special editions, and as far as I know, nothing “shocking” has been presented here. Please correct me if I’m wrong.

      • J.J. says:

        Evert, I agree that gold OA is ethically dubious per se. In this specific case, the editor, the authors and the publisher work in a closed loop from which the readership is excluded.

  7. Ken Lanfear says:

    Special issues also are popular with legitimate journals. In my experience, papers published in a collection are cited twice as often as ordinary papers. The topics of collections often follow the organization’s conference topics; the paper-conference combination is effective in helping an organization establish itself as a leader in a field.

    The key is peer review, which must hold collection papers to the same high standards applied to all papers.

    • Thanks, Ken. It is possible with gold open-access journals (the ones that make authors pay) that the guest editor or journal will select articles based on the author’s ability to pay rather than on the strength of the article.

      • Ken Lanfear says:

        Jeff, it actually could be the opposite case. I believe some of our collection organizers actually raised grant money to make the collection open access. (I say “believe” because as Editor I deliberately kept apart from the payment process to avoid bias.)

  8. Marcus O. Muench Ph.D. says:

    I agree in parts with both sides of the issue. The idea of special issues in itself has some merits. I’m reminded of the old practice of having presenters at a conference each submit a chapter on their presentation for collection in a book. I found such collections valuable to my work. Off course, the value of collections is very much dependent of the quality of its parts. A collections of poorly prepared manuscripts or disparate parts has no value.

    I agree with the article that OA publishers are over-using collections to drum up business. It is pretty clear that when a new journal has almost no publications, that requests for special editions is just purely a way of getting papers published. I’ve seen journals with one or two publications in a year (volume) and then a separate link to a special edition. I think it is stupid and just dilutes what little progress they have made to establish themselves as credible publishers. Other silly practices involve e-mails requesting we submit our papers within a month (as if we all have papers lying around to be submitted on demand). Fundamentally it is too much publishing capacity chasing too few papers (and dollars).

    Web based publication offers some new opportunities, such as creating collections of papers after they have been published by standard means. Publishers (I’m thinking PLOS One for instance) can go back into their published works and create collections around certain topics. Perhaps a guest editor could be charged with such a task of a certain topic and then provide a retrospective editorial or review on the works. This type of collection could add value to already published works and make the publisher look good in the process.

  9. Alex SL says:

    What a coincidence – just fifteen minutes ago I found such an e-mail from Hindawi in my inbox. Title: Invitation to guest edit a special issue for computational and mathematical methods in medicine. Apart from me knowing about Hindawi there is another little problem: I am a botanist.

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