Why Is Frontiers Fronting Plan S?

The whiff of coordination between Smits and one OA publisher gets stronger

Last week, I wrote about some of the entanglements and apparent coordination involving Robert-Jan Smits and Frontiers, the Swiss OA publisher. This came after months of people suggesting something was going on between Smits and Frontiers, reminiscent of the scandal involving eLife and PubMedCentral in 2013.

As you may recall, Frontiers was the publisher most responsible for the elimination of Jeffrey Beall’s list of predatory publishers, according to reporting in the Chronicle of Higher Education. When Frontiers was added to the list in 2015, it immediately began attacking Beall’s list, sending complaints to his university. When these didn’t have the desired effect:

[Frederick] Fenter [Executive Editor at Frontiers] traveled from Lausanne, Switzerland, to Denver in December 2015 to personally urge University of Colorado leaders to punish Mr. Beall. He accused the university of being "directly implicated in this absurd and slanderous action," and demanded an investigation of Mr. Beall.

Roughly a year later, after continued pressure, the university accepted Frontiers’ demand and opened a research-misconduct case against the librarian. Mr. Beall responded almost immediately by killing his list.

According to Swiss records, Fenter is a shareholder at Frontiers, as is the CFO and head of HR, among others. Ownership of Frontiers remains muddled, however, a topic for later this week.

It has struck some publishers in the US and Europe as inappropriate that at a meeting later this week in Brussels about open science — where it’s suspected the implementation details about Plan S are going to be announced — there is only one publisher on it, Kamila Markram, who is the CEO of Frontiers:

On top of this, Fenter is the closing speaker:

Additionally, Frontiers is the sponsoring organization behind the meeting and the main organizer, with a PR consultant listed as the contact with a Frontiers email address. This PR firm is the same one the moderator works for (Interel).

How did Frontiers become so involved in a meeting where the implementation of Plan S is supposedly being announced?

The entire story isn’t clear, but it may stretch back to 2006 or earlier. It seems that the two founders of Frontiers, Kamila Markram and her husband, Henry, have known Robert-Jan Smits, the main figure behind Plan S, for more than a decade. Years ago, Frontiers editorial boards may have influenced Smits’ funding decisions in ways that benefited one of the founders (Henry). You can read a more detailed overview of these aspects of their possible entanglements here.

More recently, emails unearthed by Leonid Schneider show that not only did Smits and the Markrams have email exchanges about Plan S, but many 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, people 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. It also seems to indicate the EC representatives did not raise questions about a commercial publisher partnering with a policymaker, an odd allowance.

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.

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

Before anything is implemented, these ties and their potential effect on what has been proposed, who is benefiting, and exactly what motivated Plan S to begin with need to be more closely examined. This all has the whiff of a scandal from 2013 involving another OA publisher (eLife) and the NCBI (which runs PMC) in the US. In the end, it turned out that one lie led to a larger story involving inappropriate assistance to a non-US company using US taxpayer dollars, violations of stated policy, purposeful evasion and deception, and illicit coordination.

I’ll be covering more of this in the coming days. You’re invited to subscribe to follow along.


(Today’s free post was adapted from a more detailed subscriber-only post published last week.)

Subscribe now