Who Profits from Plan S?

Unusual incentives, unclear ownership, and strange interactions raise more questions than answers

Frontiers generates about US$25 million in annual revenues, based on their stated average APC price for 2017. In 2018, their average APC increased 16%.

Frontiers was the publisher who took the extraordinary step of having their Executive Editor (Frederick Fenter) fly from Switzerland to Colorado to pressure the University of Colorado to shut down Jeffrey Beall’s list of predatory publishers, according to reporting in the Chronicle of Higher Education.

According to Swiss records, Frontiers’ Executive Editor is also a shareholder at Frontiers. This places two key editorial roles — Fenter and Henry Markram, one of the two married founders and the Editor-in-Chief — as shareholders in a company that makes more money when it publishes more articles, and which has more revenue potential when more articles are subject to Gold OA mandates. This is arguably a fundamental conflict of interest when it comes to editorial work, which has traditionally been about disinterested evaluation of submitted articles to ensure they meet quality standards for the intended audience. It is certainly not typical to have incentives for editors that make them richer if they accept more papers.

In an interview with Richard Poynder, Kamila Markram (the other co-founder of Frontiers, and Henry’s spouse), described Henry’s role as Editor-in-Chief:

In his capacity as Frontiers Editor-in-Chief, he has no role in deciding over content and therefore cannot influence accept or reject decisions. In the case of retractions, he does the final check by ensuring the Community Retraction Protocol was followed, but is not involved in the actual decision to retract a paper. It is quite a different role compared to what most are used to in an Editor-in-Chief.

It is quite different. However, an Editor-in-Chief need not be involved in specific accept and reject decisions to influence how an editorial team behaves, what goals they pursue, and what incentives they respond to. And with an Executive Editor who is also a shareholder, the Editor-in-Chief may not need to be directly involved to achieve a result both would want.

Frontiers’ editorial practices appear designed to maximize profits. Under the Markrams, Frontiers has been known to fire editors and editorial boards who didn’t accept enough papers, and to have created a manuscript system that some claim makes it “almost impossible” to reject papers. The acceptance rate for their journals is stated to be 81%. However, journalists have found it to be closer to 90%.

But whose profits would be maximized? The exact ownership situation at Frontiers is difficult to untangle. According to Swiss records, shares of Frontiers Media SA are held by some staff, the founders, Price-Waterhouse-Coopers, and what look like a couple of individual investors. Records show Frontiers Media SA rolling up to the Frontiers Research Foundation (part of the reason Frontiers has a .org domain), which is managed by the two founders and what looks like an investment manager (Michael Kenyon of White Lighthouse Investment Management). Kamila Markram (also a shareholder) has stated before that the foundation is meant to allow them to run Frontiers as a non-profit, but why have a person who seems to be an investment manager in that organization? The answer may be simple — the structure (and the investment manager) may help the founders avoid paying taxes on the majority of their profits from Frontiers Media SA.

However, the ownership of Frontiers is murky — Wikipedia lists Frontiers as follows:

This may be simply because the Wikipedia entry is out of date or wrong. However, there was an announcement in 2013 stating that Holtzbrinck acquired Frontiers. There is also an overview of Holtzbrinck from 2015 on the BC Partners page listing Frontiers as a Holtzbrinck property, along with Digital Science. It reads in a way that could be interpreted as Frontiers belonging in the same basket as Digital Science. Rumors exist to the contrary, as well, and Holtzbrinck is not mentioned in the Swiss records I could locate. In a 2015 Science news story, Fenter is quoted describing business aspects of their relationship with Nature Publishing Group, but his wording would not preclude continued Holtzbrinck involvement.

The relationship between the main proponent of Plan S, Robert-Jan Smits, and the Markrams is almost as murky as the ownership of Frontiers. Smits claims to have only met the founders of Frontiers once, in 2018. Yet, according to sources in the EU, Smits and the two founders of Frontiers (Kamila Markram and Henry Markram) go back years, meeting at least as early as 2013 when the Human Brain Project was launched, and possibly becoming acquainted far earlier during the development of a precursor project, the Blue Brain Project (funded by IBM, hence the name).

Henry Markram, Kamila’s husband, was the founder of the Human Brain Project, which the European Commission funded in 2013 to the tune of $1.3 billion so he could build a simulation of the human brain. Smits was Director-General of Research and Innovation at the European Commission from July 2010 to February 2018, a span that covers the period when the Human Brain Project was funded and a subsequent scandal (explained below).

People I’ve spoken with speculate Smits and the Markrams became acquainted as early as 2006 or 2007, as the Human Brain Project was being conceptualized. Smits had authority or influence over a major slice of research funding in the EU during these years.

A number of researchers later associated with the Human Brain Project served as editors and authors at Frontiers in the initial years (Frontiers was founded in 2007). Some speculate that Frontiers’ editorial board members were among those who advised Smits to approve the Human Brain Project. Whether or not Smits was aware of the possible entanglement between the Markrams and the funded project, this would raise questions about either coordination or capability if true.

In 2015, just two years after the Human Brain Project was launched, the project’s Executive Committee, which consisted of Henry Markram and two others, was dissolved after a review found mismanagement and unrealistic goals. There are now numerous boards guiding the project. It’s hard to believe Smits was not involved in these matters. A scandal involving a project grant-funded to the tune of $1.3 billion is a lot to ignore.

But let’s return to the present day to see what kinds of entanglements exist between Smits and Frontiers around Plan S. Let’s remember that Frontiers is built to benefit financially — including its small number of shareholders, two of whom are in key editorial roles — the more research is required to go through Gold OA channels. Emails unearthed by Leonid Schneider show that not only did Smits and the Markrams recently have email exchanges about Plan S, but other people at Frontiers were routinely copied on the email exchanges about the policy’s discussions and progress, along with members of the European Commission.

In one instance, external participants on policy calls where Smits provided an overview of Plan S noted that at least one email’s timestamp showed Smits emailing Kamila Markram within 30 minutes of the call ending.

It also appears that Frontiers had a seat at an EC table alongside Smits. Frontiers met with unnamed EC officials on April 25, 2018 to talk about their “innovative business model.” It’s unclear from the minutes if Smits was there, but the separate email threads recovered by Schneider show an email sent at 5:19 PM on the same day with the subject, “Meeting Frontiers and Mr. R-J Smits - Thank you note and next steps.” That seems to indicate he was at the meeting, and perceived to be partnering with Frontiers.

Other emails indicate plans between Kamila Markram and Smits to meet in Vienna for a “catch-up discussion,” while others seem to indicate that Smits was previewing Plan S to Frontiers prior to its release, updating Frontiers on signatories, and seeking feedback from Frontiers prior to finalizing the policy statement.

This may all be emanating from a history of mutually beneficial collaboration, from the days of the Human Brain Project funding decisions onward.

Frontiers seems to have gained center stage in the Plan S world through their relationship with Smits. A meeting tomorrow in Brussels about open science — where it’s suspected the implementation details about Plan S are going to be spotlighted — has one and only one publisher on it, Kamila Markram, as I covered earlier.

Frontiers’ ability to get into meetings with the EC, be involved in the announcement of implementation plans, and to inform policies is exceptional.

Right now, we just don’t know if Smits has been acting in an above-board manner. We also have a closely held private company with editors and founders positioned to benefit strongly from any mandate that would tilt the market toward high-throughput Gold OA, especially in Europe, while crippling competition from hybrid or subscription publishers.

The commercial upside of Plan S for Frontiers, and their apparently intimate involvement with the development of the policy, a potentially long-standing and mutually reinforcing relationship with the main proponent, and a history of resorting to bare-knuckled tactics to maintain or grow their business all suggest a more basic set of motivations and interactions behind Plan S.

Is Smits acting out of pure policy goals? Is Frontiers to be trusted? Are the incentives for profit here driving behavior? Is Holtzbrinck a potential beneficiary?

How Plan S came to exist should be scrutinized so we know exactly why it has been developed, and to whose benefit.