27 June 2021

The paradox of MDPI

One of the most puzzling trends in scientific publishing for the last couple of years has been the status of the open access publisher MDPI.

On the one hand, some people I know and respect have published their papers there. I’ve reviewed for some journals, and have seen that authors do make requested changes and there is some real peer review going on.

On the other hand, few other publishers today seem so actively engaged in pissing off the people they work with. Scientists complain about constant requests to review, particularly in areas far outside their domain expertise – an easily avoided and amateurish mistake. 

And MDPI’s boss seems like a dick.

A few people have been trying to make sense of this paradox. Dan Brockington wrote a couple of analyses over the last two years (here, here) that were broadly supportive of what MDPI has done.

Today, I stumbled across this post by Paolo Crosetto that takes a long view of MDPI’s record. It prompted another analysis by Brockington here.

Both are longish reads, but are informed by lots of data, and both are nuanced, avoiding simple “good or bad” narratives. I think one of the most interesting graphs is this one in Crosetto’s post on processing turnarounds:

Graph of time from submission to acceptance at MDPI journals.  2016 shows wide variation from journal to journal; 2020 data shows little variation.

There used to be variation in how long it took to get a paper accepted in am MDPI journal. Now there is almost no smear how long it takes to get a paper accepted in an MDPI journal. That sort of change seems highly unlikely to happen just by accident. It looks a lot like a top down directive coming from the publisher, putting a thumb on the decision making process, not a result of editors running their journals independently.

Both Crosetto and Brockington acknowledge that there is good research in some journals. 

The questions seems to be whether the good reputation is getting thrown away by the publisher’s pursuit of more articles, particularly in “Special Issues.” Crosetto suspects the MDPI is scared and wants to extract as much money (or “rent” as he calls it) from as many people as fast as possible. Brockington says that this may or may not be a problem. It all depends on something rather unpredictable: scientists’ reactions. 

Scientists may be super annoyed by the spammy emails, but they might be happier about fast turn around times (which people want to an unrealistic degree) with high chance of acceptance. 

If the last decade or so in academic publishing has taught us anything, it’s that there seems to be no upper limit for scientists’ desire for venues in which to publish their work.

PLOS ONE blew open the doors and quickly became the world’s biggest journal by a long ways. But even though it published tens of thousands of papers in a single year, PLOS ONE clones cropped up and even managed to surpass it in the number of papers published per year. 

MDPI is hardly alone in presenting bigger menus for researchers to choose where to publish. Practically every publisher is expanding its list of journals at a decent clip. I remember when Nature was one journal, not a brand that slapped across the titles of over 50 journals.

MDPI is becoming a case study in graylisting. As much as we crave clear categories for journals as “real” (whitelists) or “predatory” (blacklists), the reality can be complicated.

Update, 1 July 2021: A poll I ran on Twitter indicates deep skepticism of MDPI, with lots of people saying they would not publish there.

Would you submit an article to an MDPI journal?

I have done: 9.4%
I would do: 3.9%
I would not: 50%
Show results: 36.7%

Update, 21 August 2021: A new paper by Oviedo-García analyzes MDPI’s publishing practices. It makes note of many of the features in the blog posts above: the burgeoning number of special issues, the consistently short review times across all journals. Oviedo-García basically calls MDPI a predatory publisher.

This earned a response from MDPI, which unsurprisingly disagrees.

Update, 7 March 2022: Mark Hanson lays out more issues with MDPI in this Twitter thread. A few point that he brings forth that I have not seen before:

Articles in MDPI journals have unusually high numbers of self-citations.

His blog post is also worth checking out.

External links

An open letter to MDPI publishing

MDPI journals: 2015 to 2019

Is MDPI a predatory publisher?

MDPI journals: 2015 to 2020 

Oviedo-García MÁ. 2021. Journal citation reports and the definition of a predatory journal: The case of the Multidisciplinary Digital Publishing Institute (MDPI). Research Evaluation: in press. https://doi.org/10.1093/reseval/rvab020

Comment on: 'Journal citation reports and the definition of a predatory journal: The case of the Multidisciplinary Digital Publishing Institute (MDPI)' from Oviedo-García

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