Headquartered in Basel, Switzerland, the Multidisciplinary Digital Publishing Institute, or more usually MDPI, is an open access publisher that has had a challenging few years. It has been charged with excessively spamming researchers in order to maximise APC revenue, it has been accused of publishing pseudoscience, and it has been criticised for publishing papers of very poor quality. This has occasionally led to editorial board resignations e.g. here and here.
The criticism came to a head in February last year, when University of Colorado (Denver) librarian Jeffrey Beall added MDPI to his controversial list of “Potential, possible, or probable predatory scholarly open-access publishers”.
Today I am publishing a Q&A with MDPI. First however, in the way of background, I want to rehearse some key events (in date order). Please scroll down if you want to go direct to the interview.
From left to right: Alistair Freeland, Delia Costache, Dietrich Rordorf, Maria Schalnich, Martyn Rittman, Shu-Kun Lin, Franck Vazquez
A target for criticism, but favoured by some
MDPI AG was spun out of the MDPI Sustainability Foundation in 2010 by the owner of both organisations Shu-Kun Lin, along with the then CEO of MDPI Dietrich Rordorf. In the process a number of journals were relocated to MDPI, and since then MDPI’s portfolio of open access journals has grown to 137. Last year MDPI published over 12,000 papers.
MDPI’s difficulties appear to have started in December 2010, when one of its journals — Life — published a paper by Erik Andruliscalled Theory of the Origin, Evolution, and Nature of Life. Aiming to present a framework to explain life, the paper was greeted with scepticism and ridicule. The popular science and technology magazines Ars Technica and Popular Science, for instance, characterised the ideas in the paper as “crazy” and “hilarious”.
The publication of the paper led to a member of Life’s editorial board resigning, and Shu-Kin Lin published a respons to the criticism. In his response, Shu-Kin Lin conceded that he had taken over responsibility for the review process when the researcher assigned to the task (a Professor Bassez) has pulled out for personal reasons. But he insisted that the paper had been properly peer reviewed, and that it had been revised in response to the reports of two reviewers. His explanation, however, attracted further criticism.
In April 2011 a second controversy erupted when the MDPI journal Nutrients published a paper called The Australian Paradox: A Substantial Decline in Sugars Intake over the Same Timeframe that Overweight and Obesity Have Increased. This too attracted criticism, and an Australian economist created a website in order to launch a campaign to have the paper retracted. (There is also a Wikipedia page on the paper here).
The Australian Paradox paper has not been retracted, but it has twice been corrected by the authors (in 2011 and 2014), and in 2012 the Editor-in-Chief published an editorial about the paper, along with a response to the criticism from the authors. In addition, in July 2014 the University of Sydney (the institution where one of the authors is based) published an independent report concluding that of the seven criticisms that had been levelled at the authors the “only allegation substantiated concerned two ‘simple arithmetic’ errors, specifically an inconsistency and an incorrect calculation”.
Notwithstanding these controversies, MDPI has attracted many supporters, not least amongst OA advocates and cognoscenti of open access. When, on 31st October 2012, MDPI launched a new open access journal called Publications, for instance, it was able to recruit well-regarded scholars who specialise in research on open access to its editorial board. Currently, membership of the board includes Mikael Laakso and Bo-Christer Björk (Björk has also published in the journal), and at one time de facto leader of the open access movement Peter Suber also served on the board.
OA advocates have also proved more than willing to publish in the journal. Contributors include Heather Morrison (here and here), Martin Eve (here), John Wilbanks (here), and David Solomon (here). And in 2013 Björn Brembs agreed to edit a special issue for the journal.
Also of note, the Editor-in-Chief of Publications is John Regazzi, a former CEO of Ei Inc. (where he founded the first professional engineering online community — the Engineering Information Village). Regazzi is also a former CEO of Elsevier Inc. (I interviewed him for Information Today in 1998).
Likewise, a number of open access advocates serve on the editorial board of MDPI’s journal Data, including Peter Murray-Rust and Ross Mounce (although the journal does not appear to have published any papers).