Wednesday, April 23, 2008

The Open Access Interviews: Matthew Honan

Matthew Honan, Editorial Director, Bentham Science Publishers

No one, surely, would now dispute that the Internet is hugely disruptive, and poses a significant threat to many existing business models. For scholarly publishers the primary challenge comes from the so-called Open Access movement, which calls for research papers to be made freely available on the Web. As a result, publishers face an inevitable decline in their traditional journal subscription business.

How have publishers responded? Initially most ignored Open Access. Then they attacked it, arguing that it was unrealistic, anti-capitalist, or just plain dangerous. But eventually they began to embrace it, and today most scholarly publishers offer an Open Access option that allows researchers to pay publishers an "article processing charge" (APC) if they want their research to be made freely available on the Web. Alternatively, they can continue to publish without having to pay an APC, but then self-archive their papers on the Web, and around 91% of scholarly publishers now permit some form of self-archiving, although often only after an embargo period has passed.

Large publishers like Elsevier, Springer and Wiley were particularly reluctant to migrate to Open Access. As a result, a number of small publishers — e.g. Biomed Central (BMC) and Hindawi — saw in Open Access an opportunity to outmanoeuvre their larger competitors, and generally they have proved successful in this. Other smaller publishers, however, have adopted this strategy less successfully. Bentham Science Publishers would seem to be a case in point.

Last April Bentham announced its intention of launching 300 new Open Access journals by the end of the year. The audacity of this announcement should not be underestimated. After all, it has taken BMC eight years to build up a portfolio of 185 OA journals. And at the time of its announcement, Bentham itself was publishing less than 100 subscription journals. Unsurprisingly, therefore Bentham later reduced the number of new journals it planned to launch to 200.

Badly targeted

Even so, it was clear that an aggressive marketing campaign would be needed: For if Bentham was to achieve its goal it would need to recruit hundreds of researchers to act as chief editors, thousands to sit on the editorial boards of the new journals, and thousands more to submit papers to these journals. Consequently before long a constant stream of email invitations was flowing into the inboxes of researchers around the world.

At first the strategy appeared to be working. After all, being on the editorial board of a scholarly journal is a much-cherished ambition for researchers, and the kudos attached to being a chief editor an even more attractive goal; likewise, their constant hunger to be published means that researchers are always on the lookout for publishing opportunities. All in all, therefore, many of those receiving Bentham's invitations initially responded positively.

After the first flush of enthusiasm, however, researchers began to question Bentham's activities, not least because many of the invitations they were receiving seemed decidedly badly targeted. For instance, psychologists were being invited to contribute papers on ornithology, health policy researchers were being invited to submit papers on analytical chemistry and economists were being invited to submit papers on sleep research or, even more oddly, invited to join the editorial board of educational journals. This inevitably raised concerns about the likely quality of the new journals, particularly as researchers were being asked to pay from $600 to $900 a time for the privilege of being published in them.

To add insult to injury, some of the invitations researchers were receiving were addressed to a completely different person, or the name field was empty, and addressed simply to "Dear Dr.,". It was hard not to feel more insulted than flattered on receiving such letters.

Moreover, what was clearly an automated mass mailing exercise was proving a little profligate with its invitations, sending them out not just to researchers, but to any Tom, Dick or Harry. On at least one occasion, for instance, a journalist (who asked not to be named) was surprised to receive a letter from Bentham inviting him to submit a paper, "Based on your record of contributions in the field of information science." As he explains, "I was rather surprised by this, since — as a practicing science journalist — I wasn't aware that I had made any such contributions!"

At first the tide of increasingly inappropriate invitations was greeted with a mixture of good humour and head scratching. However, as the flood of email invitations continued unabated the recipients' response shifted from amusement to frustration, and then to anger — especially when they discovered that all requests to be removed from the mailing list were ignored.

Spam plague

By March of this year, senior health care research scientist at the University of Toronto Gunther Eysenbach had had enough. Publicly criticising Bentham's activities on his blog, Eysenbach complained, "In the past couple of months I have received no less than 11 emails from Bentham, all mostly identical in text and form, all signed by 'Matthew Honan, Editorial Director, Bentham Science Publishers' or 'Richard Scott, Editorial Director, Bentham Science Publishers', 'inviting' me to submit research articles, reviews and letters to various journals."

He added, "All pleas and begging from my side to stop the spamming, as well as clicking on any 'unsubcribe' links did not stop the spam plague from Bentham."

For others, the experience of being targeted by Bentham proved even more frustrating. When Professor John Furedy, Emeritus Professor of Psychology at the University of Toronto, received an invitation to be editor-in-chief of the Open Behavioral Science Journal he initially accepted. But after doing so he found himself being bombarded with further invitations. And when Bentham failed to reply to the questions he raised about the new role he had taken on he decided the best course of action was to withdraw his acceptance, reluctant to be associated with a company that behaved in this way. Even though he had resigned, however, Furedy was surprised to see that his name had been added to the list of editors on the journal's web site. And despite repeated requests to Bentham to remove it his name remains there to this day.

I too had by now begun receiving copies of Bentham's invitations — not because I was on its mailing list, but because frustrated researchers were forwarding them to me, and asking me to find out what the dickens was going on.

So I emailed various Bentham directors (including Richard Scott and Matthew Honan), all of whom — with the exception of publications director Mahmood Alam — completely ignored my messages. Moreover, while Alam replied, he proved decidedly unwilling to answer my questions, despite repeated promises that he would. He was equally unwilling to put me in contact with anyone else at the company.

I also tried calling the various telephone numbers on the Bentham web site, only to be greeted by voicemail messages. Personally I knew nothing whatsoever about Bentham, so for all I knew it might have been the front for some form of Internet scam.

In the hope of enlightening myself, therefore, I posted a message to a couple of mailing lists, and shortly afterwards Ted Bergstrom, a professor of economics at the University of California Santa Barbara posted a response — a response that confirmed everything I had been hearing from other researchers. I also began to receive private emails with information about Bentham, including the home phone number of Honan, which was sent to me by a publisher concerned that Bentham would bring the scholarly publishing industry into disrepute.

A few small errors

To his credit, when I called Honan he agreed to speak to me then and there and, with one notable exception, answered all my questions. He was, however, adamant that Bentham is not engaged in any kind of spamming. "The criticisms that you have levelled against the company for spamming are unjustified," he said, adding that by posting my message I had only served to "amplify" a few small errors that the company had made.

Honan also insisted that the company always honours requests to be removed from its mailing list, and added that it is doing no more than any other scholarly publisher. As he put it, "Like Bentham, for instance, other publishers periodically send unsolicited emails to mailing lists. The recipients are able to unsubscribe from these publishers' mailing lists if they want to, just as they can from our list." Those researchers who had continued to receive messages after opting had had multiple email addresses, he explained, saying, "We have had very few complaints, and we respond to the complaints that we receive — which are very few in comparison to the number of emails we send out." He did however apologise for any errors that had been made.

The recipients of Bentham's unwelcome invitations, however, remain critical of the company. One of those targeted was Professor Stevan Harnad, professor of cognitive science at Université du Québec à Montréal. He comments, "It is not possible to judge, from the data available, whether Bentham has been negligent or just naive in sending automatic mass form-letters soliciting editors and authors for their many new journal start-ups."

But what has most puzzled researchers is why Bentham would risk damaging its reputation in this way, and so the standing of its pre-existing subscription journals, some of which have over the years earned a respectable impact factor. "Bentham once enjoyed a reputation as a high-priced reputable scholarly publisher," comments Charles Oppenheim, professor of information science at UK-based Loughborough University, another researcher to be targeted by Bentham.

"In my view, it has damaged that reputation by the flood of emails it has sent inviting people to join the editorial board of, or contribute to, new OA journals it has launched. Not merely are the emails sometimes misaddressed, but when the publisher has been emailed by the recipient with queries, the publisher rarely replies." Oppenheim concludes, "Bentham has made a mistake by launching so many OA journals and by bombarding scholars with email invitations."


Eysenbach, meanwhile, is less forgiving. Indeed, he is so angry that he is considering suing Bentham under anti-spam laws. Arguing that it is illegal for businesses to send unsolicited emails to people that have not agreed to receive them, or where no previous contractual relationship exists, he comments, "The law is clear: I didn't have any other previous business relationship with Bentham [when it emailed me]. Unsolicited bulk email is spam, and illegal, and even offering to remove names is not an appropriate remedy." He adds, "I am not a litigious person, but this seems to be worth the effort to take one step further."

Were Eysenbach to take that step, however, it is not clear how successful he would be. As is now evident, Bentham is not a communicative company. And while it has a presence in four countries — the United Arab Emirates, the Netherlands, Pakistan, and Illinois, USA — in all four jurisdictions the contact point is either a PO Box, or c/o address. Moreover, Eysenbach is based in Canada, so even were he to be successful in the courts, enforcing a ruling in another jurisdiction could prove both difficult and expensive. Moreover, his task might be complicated by the fact that the one thing that Honan refused to tell me is who owns Bentham Science Publishers.

Clearly Bentham's activities raise a number of questions about Open Access. Perhaps the most important is this: "Does the incident paint a picture of the future, or was it a one-off event?" After all, in his blog post Eysenbach pointed the figure not just at Bentham, but at other publishers too, including BMC.

For Harnad there is a clear lesson to be learned. "Let it be an example to Bentham and other publishers that this is not the way to go about starting up journals. It merely gives the publisher, as well as online- and OA-journal publishing, a bad name."

Those wishing to read Honan's response to critics in detail are invited to read the interview by clicking on the link below. OA advocates may also be interested to hear details of Bentham's soon-to-be-announced self-archiving policy, and its "limited Open Access option". These too may prove controversial.


If you wish to read the interview please click on the link below. I am publishing it under a Creative Commons licence, so you are free to copy and distribute it as you wish, so long as you credit me as the author, do not alter or transform the text, and do not use it for any commercial purpose.

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To read the interview (as a PDF file) click here.

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