Tuesday, June 12, 2018

The OA Interviews: Taylor & Francis' Deborah Kahn discusses Dove Medical Press

Please note the postscript to this interview here

The open-access publisher Dove Medical Press has a controversial past and I have written about the company on a number of occasions (here, here, here and here).
Deborah Kahn

When Dove was acquired by Taylor & Francis last September it was assumed (by me at least) that controversy had become a thing of the past for the publisher.

Seven months after the purchase, however, a medical technology company called Minerva Surgical took the unusual step of publishing a press release alleging that a paper published in Dove’s International Journal of Womens Health makes “material misleading statements” about the nature of a study funded by a rival in “clear violation of the COPE guidelines.”

As a result, Minerva said, the paper should be retracted immediately.

To discuss this latest incident, Dove’s background, and some of the “historical issues” the publisher has faced, Taylor & Francis’ Director, Medicine and Open Access, agreed to do a Q&A with me, which I publish below.

Of the latest controversy Kahn says, “our investigations show that the peer review was carried out to high standards and that the journal behaved well, and the authors responses have satisfied us that the complaints are unfounded.”

On the historical issues, she adds, the naysayers were wrong to have doubted Dove’s probity. “We went through very detailed due diligence, carrying out an extremely thorough process, when we acquired Dove Medical Press. We were satisfied that, after some historical issues, improvements had been made to their peer review process working with the OASPA membership team … Eight months on from our acquisition, Dove are performing well in all areas, we remain confident that we got value for money, and are delighted that they are part of Taylor & Francis Group.”

There are one or two places in the Q&A where readers may feel there is a little repetition. If so, this is because the interview was done by email in a staged way. I have, however, not edited the text as I am keen to publish Kahn’s answers exactly as she emailed them to me.

The Q&A begins …

RP: I am wondering why Taylor & Francis (T&F) decided to buy Dove Medical Press? I have seen the short press release published at the time, which talks of Dove journals having Impact Factors (and of T&F wanting to expand in OA and medical journals) but I am also aware that the perception in the market is that (as this article puts it), titles from Dove “tend to rank poorly on impact factor”. Can you say more about why T&F chose to buy Dove?

DK: Open Access and Medical publishing are both strategically important areas of investment and growth for Taylor & Francis. So we were delighted when we were able to enter into discussions with Dove Medical Press, as they fit so well with our plans.

Dove Medical Press is a small and entrepreneurial company, with staff based in Auckland and Macclesfield, all of whom are committed to excellent service to authors, and high-quality peer review. They publish around 100 journals, of which 12 have impact factors ranging from 1.7 to 7 –  almost all of them placed within the top two quartiles of the Journal Citation Report.

Two more titles are set to receive Impact Factors in the next release of the JCR. The vast majority of the rest of the journals are indexed in the DOAJ, PubMed and the Emerging Sources Citation Index (ESCI). All of these indexes perform in-depth checks on the quality and integrity of the contents of journals before accepting them for indexing.

We chose to buy Dove because we were impressed by the quality of their content, the quality of their peer review, their focus on author experience, and their loyal author following, with a high percentage of repeat authors. We rated it a very good business in its own right and knew that we would learn from them as we continued to develop our own open access offerings.

RP: How much did T&F pay for Dove?

DK: This wasn’t disclosed at the time of acquisition. Please see the press statement released by Informa, our parent company.

RP: Yes, I saw that, but I was hoping you could tell me anyway? Frankly, I don’t understand why this information needs to be secret, although I suppose it fits with the secrecy that has always surrounded Dove. When I interviewed Dove’s Tim Hill in 2008 he refused to tell me who the owners of Dove were and denied that (despite what some believed) there was any connection between Libertas Academica (LA) and Dove, or with him (aside from the fact that the owner of LA was his son).

Then, when in 2010 I emailed him to point out that New Zealand Companies House records that he had one time been the sole director and shareholder of LA, and had in fact  been a director of LA when he told me in 2008 that there was no connection, he responded, “Henceforth I will not be providing you with any comment or information on any subject.” In 2016, I tried to make contact with Dove directors Graeme Peterson and Kevin Toale, neither of whom responded.

Can you tell me why there has always been this kind of secrecy surrounding Dove? OA advocates argue that scholarly publishing is primarily funded by the taxpayer and so should be transparent both in process and financing. There is now also a widespread belief that there should be even greater transparency with regard to medical research, and those who publish it, not least because it is felt that pay-to-publish OA has made it easier for pharmaceutical and medical device companies to use scholarly papers as marketing tools. Do you agree that there are dangers here and that greater transparency is essential?

DK: I do believe that there should be transparency in all scholarly publishing, both in traditional subscription and open access publishing. COPE, OASPA, WAME and the DOAJ have collaborated to identify Principles of Transparency and Best Practice in Scholarly Publishing, and these principles form part of the criteria on which membership applications to those organizations are evaluated. All Dove journals are included in the DOAJ and have “the tick”, which means they have met the high level of compliance to these criteria.

All Dove journals are also members of COPE and have met their membership criteria also.

I don’t think that there has been secrecy around Dove Medical Press. Information about the company has been available from Companies House since they came into existence in 2003. Nothing in our due diligence suggested anything to the contrary.

Tim Hill (from Dove) is Tom Hill’s father, and he may have helped his son establish Libertas Academica in the first instance. However, Tim Hill was not involved in the direction or any of the operations of Libertas Academica. No current Dove staff have ever worked with or as part of Libertas Academica, nor do the two companies share any operations.

RP: Dove is registered in the UK but, as I understand it, the company actually operates out of New Zealand. Did that present any particular issues during the negotiation process? Does it present any difficulties today?

DK: Dove has offices in both Macclesfield and Auckland with 1/3 of the staff in the UK and 2/3 in New Zealand. These two locations are actually a real advantage, as it means we can offer global coverage and 24-hour customer service.

Apart from a few late night and early morning meetings for people in both locations, there are few disadvantages, and as a bonus I have been very much enjoying getting to know Auckland, and reacquainting myself with Macclesfield which is close to where I grew up.

Founders and directors

RP: Dove had quite a number of directors. Who did T&F deal with when negotiating the purchase? Was Dove’s MD involved in the negotiations? Apart from the company’s directors (who I believe have all left), have most Dove staff remained with the company? Has the Dove Press Publisher remained?

DK: Dove had three founders all of whom were involved in the negotiations. They have left the business, but almost all of the staff have remained. Dove has a very loyal staff, and it seems has much lower staff turnover than other publishing companies I have worked in.

RP: Unfortunately, you didn’t answer my question about the Dove Press Publisher Tim Hill. Is he still with the company? You also did not say whether the Dove MD Graeme Peterson was involved in the negotiations. I would be grateful if you could address these questions?

DK: The founders of the company were Philip Smith, Kevin Toale and Tim Hill, all of whom have left the company, and with whom we negotiated. 

Philip Smith was Managing Director of Dove. Graeme Peterson has never been the Managing Director of Dove. When he became a Director of Dove, he was (and still is) Managing Director of Prime Global (previously Prime Medica). The Companies House listing clearly shows that he was Company Secretary and Director of Dove from 2004 to 2017. His listing shows his occupation as Managing Director, but this was of Prime Global not of Dove.

RP: You talk of three founders of Dove. When I spoke to Tim Hill in 2008, he told me the company was founded by “a group of former publishing executives, mostly from ADIS International” and that it was owned by “six private individuals”. Companies House records show there were four directors of the company – Graeme Peterson, Philip Smith, Kevin Toale and John Stolz. The shareholders included Peterson, Smith, Toale, William Dolben (CEO of ContentEd, which offers “a complete publishing service for the pharmaceutical industry”), a company called JSI Communications (a medical communications company owned by John Stolz, who appears also to have also acted as a Dove commissioning editor) and the T&A Hill Family Trust (which I assume is connected with Tim Hill). Who were the three founders you talked to?

DK: As I said above, the company was founded by Kevin Toale, Philip Smith and Tim Hill.

RP: Was T&F aware at the time it made a bid for Dove how controversial the company was? For instance, Dove was one of the first OA publishers to attract criticism for spamming authors (and was dubbed a “black sheep” by Gunther Eysenbach); it has featured on Retraction Watch fairly regularly; it was at one time on Jeffrey Beall’s list of “Potential, possible, or probable predatory scholarly open-access publishers”; it was caught in the Science open access sting (for which it had its membership of OASPA terminated); it got mixed up in the Dr Amy Bishop incident; and one of its peer reviewers roundly condemned its publishing platform, saying that it did not even allow reviewers to reject papers. 

Did any of this concern T&F during the negotiation process? If so, why did it go ahead with the purchase? What exactly does T&F do in terms of due diligence before it acquires another company? Did it go through this process in the case of Dove?

DK: We went through very detailed due diligence, carrying out an extremely thorough process, when we acquired Dove Medical Press. We were satisfied that, after some historical issues, improvements had been made to their peer review process working with the OASPA membership team. This led to their OASPA membership being reinstated, resulted in an extremely robust peer review process described in detail in their peer review schematic on this page.

In fact, some of the additional checks they have added since that schematic was published go way beyond what most publishers do in their peer review process.

These are in addition to the usual ethical checks which quality medical journals perform, and include: checking the affiliations of all authors and checking retractionwatch.com to identify whether any of the authors have been involved in unethical practices; manuscripts being checked for duplicate submission or publication and run through the SciDetect software; and IP address checks to make sure that there is no COI between author, reviewer and Editor.

Due diligence

RP: Publishing a schematic is surely a good idea. What is key, of course, is routinely following that process. But you didn’t answer my question: what exactly does T&F do in the way of due diligence before it acquires another company?

DK: All papers submitted to Dove go through the same rigorous process which, as I said, is more rigorous than that on the schematic and than many I have seen in other publishers. Any implication that this is not routinely followed is unfounded.

As far as due diligence is concerned, as part of Informa, all acquisitions by Taylor & Francis go through a very detailed and thorough due diligence. Cross-functional teams of experts from Finance, Legal, Tax, Treasury and Communications meet weekly with the business leads to analyse and assess the risks and considerations concerning any acquisition and follow a detailed process.

No acquisition is complete until all questions are answered in detail, and there has been a thorough review by Informa’s senior management. This process was followed with this acquisition.

RP: On Dove’s membership of OASPA: I think it would be fair to say that this has been more of an on-off affair than the above might imply. The timeline is this: Dove joined OASPA in late 2009; Dove withdrew from OASPA on 7th April 2010; Dove applied to join again in May 2012; Dove was re-accepted on 12th July 2012; Dove’s membership was terminated by OASPA on 5th November 2013. Dove reapplied in June 2015 and was accepted on 23rd September 2015.

What is not clear is why Dove withdrew from OASPA in 2010. What we do know is that it occurred in the wake of the Amy Bishop affair, in which publicity was given to a controversial paper authored by her and published by Dove’s International Journal of General Medicine. Controversially, Bishop added the names of her minor children as co-authors of the paper. At the time (February 2010) I wrote an article about the incident in which I raised the issue of ownership and transparency, and quoted Peter Suber saying, “I am deeply suspicious of publishers who are unwilling to disclose their owners. We need that kind of transparency to be able to investigate whether the owners have financial interests, e.g. with pharma companies, that might compromise the integrity of their journals.” When I asked OASPA for the reason Dove had withdrawn I was told, “We had a few exchanges by email following your article and they then withdrew their membership. I asked them if they could give me a reason but they gave none.”

Here it is worth noting that co-founder of OASPA Gunther Eysenbach has repeatedly alleged that Dove engages in “questionable publishing practices”. And at the time when OASPA terminated Dove’s membership in 2013 he referred back to the Amy Bishop paper and said that it had disappeared from its website without “any proper retraction notice/process”. (The paper appears to have been reposted later, again with no indication of its disappearance and reappearance). This will all be part and parcel of what you call Dove’s “historical issues”, but did none of this really give T&F any pause for thought?

DK: I have already discussed the very detailed due diligence we went through which satisfied us that there are no issues that should concern us with their operations. And in working closely with Dove in the eight months since the acquisition, I have been impressed by their high standards.

There is absolutely no evidence of any misconduct on Dove’s part, and despite persistent attempts to find some over the years, it doesn’t seem that you have evidence of any wrongdoing either.

It is clear that in the two cases you mention, Bishop and Bohannon, authors who set out to deceive the system managed to do so. This showed up some inadequacies in the peer review processes of those journals.

As a result of the Bohannon sting in 2013 and their OASPA membership being terminated, Dove worked closely with OASPA to improve their editorial processes and the OASPA Membership Committee were satisfied with those improvements. As I mentioned earlier, Dove also continue to enhance those processes.

RP: While we are on the historical issues, in 2011 I was contacted by a US-based publisher who said that Dove had on two occasions launched a journal “identical or nearly identical” to this publisher’s own journals. The publisher added that only after a great deal of pressure from them did Dove change the titles of the two copycat journals. The publisher also pointed out that nine of Dove’s journals had the same EiC, many of which journals were unrelated to that EiC’s specialism. I do not know if this is still the case, but can you confirm that Taylor & Francis would not sanction such things?

DK: None of the current Dove senior management know anything about this allegation. Dove do have Editors-in-Chief who edit more than one journal, but only in their own specialist area and never more than two or three. Taylor & Francis also have some Editors-in-Chief editing multiple journals, but again only in their specific subject field.


New controversy

RP: As you note, many of these things may be historical issues. However, it seems that the controversy over Dove continues after the acquisition. Seven months after T&F purchased Dove, for instance, its International Journal of Women's Health published a paper that has attracted some worrying criticism – as reported recently by STAT. The paper in question compared patient satisfaction with two competing devices for endometrial ablation, and concluded that the product developed by Minerva Surgical was inferior to the competing product developed by Hologic (which funded the study). On April 26th Minerva published a press release alleging that the Dove article makes “material misleading statements” about the nature of the study and that this is “a clear violation of the COPE guidelines”.

Writing in STAT, Adam Marcus and Ivan Oransky say, “We can’t judge the essence of Minerva’s claims, although some — particularly that paid personnel for a device maker biased the selection process for patients in the trial — are quite troubling and would constitute grounds for retraction.”

When I raised this on Twitter, T&F responded that it was “currently working with the editor-in-chief to look into the concerns surrounding this paper”. But in light of Dove’s history does it not cause you some concern that this has occurred not long after the acquisition?

DK: It is an unfortunate fact of life that all publishers are having to field more and more disputes between academics and researchers. It is keeping COPE very busy, and there are few journals or publishers who have avoided being featured on Retraction Watch’s pages.

In the case of the International Journal of Women’s Health paper our investigations show that the peer review was carried out to high standards and that the journal behaved well, and the authors responses have satisfied us that the complaints are unfounded.

As per ethical guidelines, we have offered the complainant the chance to write a Letter to the Editor with his concerns, which we would publish along with a response from the authors. However, he has not chosen to do so as yet.

RP: Can I just check what you are saying: you see nothing untoward or unusual in a publisher appearing fairly frequently on Retraction Watch? And are you implying that the cases COPE deals with are generally the result of disputes between academics and researchers, not of misconduct, faulty peer review or conflicts of interest?

DK: Actually, I don’t. The fact that publishers are amending the scholarly record when they find that there are errors in the literature is a healthy thing. I would be worried if a publisher never retracted anything.

In fact, this article in Nature shows that journals with higher impact factors have higher levels of retractions, and this one suggests that higher levels of retractions may in fact be a good thing. In fact, this second paper finds that the rising number of retractions is most likely to be caused by a growing propensity to retract flawed and fraudulent papers, and there is little evidence of an increase in the prevalence of misconduct.

And no, you are misinterpreting my previous comment. The cases COPE see fall into nine areas, as outlined in their core practices.

RP: On the issue of COIs: My understanding is that the MD of Dove was also the MD of a Medical Education and Communication Companies (MECC), and so presumably was engaged in publication planning. As I noted above, two of the other shareholders appear to have been running MECCs and/or providing publication services for pharmaceutical companies. Do you think that being a shareholder and/or MD of a medical publisher while also being the shareholder and MD or owner of a MECC might raise conflict of interest issues?

DK: This is a misunderstanding on your part. The MD of Dove was Philip Smith who did not run any other company. As for the shareholders, shareholders in any organization will have a number of interests. None of the shareholders you refer to played an active role in the organization or its operations.



RP: In March 2017 Dove announced that it was sponsoring The Nanomedicine Academy of Minority Serving Institutions at Northeastern University. The Director and co-founder of this Academy is listed as being on the editorial board of The International Journal of Nanomedicine, which is a Dove journal and has an impact factor of 4.300. Its website also says that it is indexed in PubMed and Medline. As such, it would seem to be one of the journals that attracted T&F to Dove (In fact, it was singled out for mention in the Informa press release you cited earlier). The EiC of the journal is the other co-founder of the Nanomedicine Academy, and appears to have published over 100 papers with Dove, almost exclusively (if not exclusively) in his own journal (two of the papers seem to have been co-authored with the Director of The Academy).

I must assume that T&F would have established this during the due diligence process it undertook, and so is comfortable with the arrangement. But I cannot help but think that some would feel it raises conflict of interest issues. What would you say to those who might be concerned about it? Or am I simply misunderstanding the situation and how these things work?

DK: Journals and Publishers often sponsor conferences and educational courses of various types. I think that if you look at the Academy, you will see that it is an academic partnership dedicated to providing education in nanomedicine to minority populations. This sounds like a great educational initiative, and I cannot see any COI from a Publisher donating to an initiative of this kind.

As far as the Editor publishing in his own journal is concerned, COPE guidelines do not preclude editors submitting to their own journals. They do expect journals to “have a procedure for handling submissions from editors or members of the editorial board that will ensure that the peer review is handled independently of the author/editor”.

Dove have clear guidance on Editors publishing in their own journals whereby “Editors-in-Chief must declare any financial and/or personal conflict of interest for each submitted manuscript, and decisions on manuscripts in which they have a conflict of interest will be made by another editor”.

No Dove Editor is involved in the peer review of a paper that they are author on, and this is the case with the papers published by this editor.

RP: After SAGE bought Dove’s sister company Libertas Academica it had to conclude that following “detailed review” it was unlikely that many of LA’s journals would be successful over the long-term. As a result, it shuttered over ¼ of those it had acquired. I wonder if Dove might have to do the same. 

On Twitter T&F said “When any list joins T&F we go through an integration phase where we check on all processes and standards and integrate / amalgamate the best of what both orgs do. This is a process that has happened with Dove and is on-going.” Do you anticipate having to close many Dove journals?

DK: As I said earlier, Libertas Academica had no connection with Dove and was not a sister company so there is no comparison between the two companies.

It is good publishing practice to regularly review the journals portfolio, and make changes accordingly. Dove had done this review prior to become part of Taylor & Francis and had decided to cease the publication of some journals which were not receiving enough quality submissions to sustain them.

We reviewed this list together and agreed with their plans. Some of these journals were closed prior to the acquisition but not all had gone through the process by that point, so some are currently being closed. At the end of this process 92 journals will remain.

Journal closures

RP: We may disagree over the definition of a sister company, but as noted earlier, the former MD of Libertas Academica is the son of Tim Hill. And according to New Zealand Companies House it was Tim Hill who registered LA, and he was listed as a shareholder until at least 2009. Does that not suggest to you that the companies were connected?

DK:  Please see my previous response on this. No Dove staff, now and previously, have ever been involved in the direction or operations of Libertas Academica.

RP: On the issue of journal closures, Wikipedia reports that in 2013 Dove published 131 journals. Unless I am miscounting, the Dove website currently lists 136 journals. This would seem to suggest that 44 (32%) of them are due to be closed – which is a higher percentage than were closed at LA. Is it normal for such a high percentage of journals to be closed after an acquisition? Is T&F still confident that it got value for money in buying Dove?

DK: Dove Press has launched 136 journals in the last 14 years. Some of these were not successful and were closed. It is not uncommon for this to be the case, and for publishers to close journals which are not thriving. When we acquired Dove they were publishing 109 journals, and we were aware of and agreed with their plans to close 17 of them.

Eight months on from our acquisition, Dove are performing well in all areas, we remain confident that we got value for money, and are delighted that they are part of Taylor & Francis Group.

RP: Thank you for answering my questions.


Leonid Schneider said...

Deborah Kahn said:
"All papers submitted to Dove go through the same rigorous process which, as I said, is more rigorous than that on the schematic and than many I have seen in other publishers. Any implication that this is not routinely followed is unfounded".

With all due respect, this is just silly, arrogant and childish. Something only a for-profit publisher executive would say. Which publishers is she comparing T&F anyway? OMICS? Ashutosh Tiwari's VBRI Press?

Btw, pity Richard didn't ask about T&F's pay-per-peer-review.
Richard tweeted to them a link they deleted, T&F replied with a current link, which is now also deleted. So here is again the archived version. How can anyone take a publisher seriously which hides such things? Especially if there are internet cached backups? Sigh.

Richard Poynder said...


Dove Medical Press: The mystery continues

The interview above with Taylor & Francis’ Deborah Kahn is the result of a tweet I received inviting me to do an interview with her about Dove Medical Press.

As anyone who reads the interview will see, Kahn is fulsome in her praise of Dove, and insists that, despite the controversies that have long surrounded it, “There is absolutely no evidence of any misconduct on Dove’s part, and despite persistent attempts to find some over the years, it doesn’t seem that you have evidence of any wrongdoing either.”

Be that as it may, there is still a degree of mystery surrounding the publisher, and Kahn appears unwilling to clear it up.

In the interview I point out that while he was a director of Dove, John Stolz owned and ran a company called JSI Communications. JSI describes itself as “a specialised medical communications company providing a focused range of services for pharmaceutical companies.” The services offered include helping pharmaceutical companies in their publication strategy and implementation, technical and medical writing, and product promotional communications.

I believe such companies are sometimes referred to as MECCs.

In one of my questions, I ask Kahn if she thinks being a shareholder of a medical publisher while also being the shareholder/owner of a MECC might raise conflict of interest issues. I also included in the interview a link to a 2005 email from Stolz to someone called Vicky. The email is headed, “International Journal of COPD”, a Dove journal.

In the email, Stolz invites Vicky to visit the Dove editorial office in New Zealand and adds, “I’m sure face to face discussions could yield any number of possibilities for us to help you meet the needs of your clients in this area.”

The email is signed, “Dr John Stolz, Commissioning Editor, Dove Press Ltd” and can be accessed here.

I was surprised, therefore, that Kahn says in the interview, “None of the [Dove] shareholders you refer to played an active role in the organization or its operations.”

Shortly after I published the Q&A I received an email from T&F’s Associate Communications Director (who had organised the interview) saying, “We aim to always be open to interviews like this and to generally answering questions around our publishing program.”

Since I was puzzled as to why Kahn had said that Stolz played no active role in the Dove operations, despite my providing a link to his 2005 email, I proposed she answer a follow-up question explaining why in that email Stolz had described himself as commissioning editor for Dove and what, in the context of a scholarly publisher, a commissioning editor is and does.

T&F’s Associate Communications Director replied that the link to the Stolz email in the text I had sent was corrupted, and so Kahn had not seen it. She added, however, that T&F were happy to address the matter as a follow-up question, “though I won’t have an answer for you before the latter end of next week.”

That was three weeks ago, on 13th June. On 29th June I emailed to ask when I could expect to receive an answer. I received no reply.

Today, 4th July, I sent a reminder, and copied in Kahn, who promptly replied, “It is an extremely busy time and am travelling a lot. Unfortunately, I have no time to address further questions at the moment. Thank you for your understanding.”

I don’t know how the Stolz email ended up on mailing list. Sometimes people put the wrong address in when sending emails, or perhaps there is some other explanation. But I feel my question is worthy of an answer. It is, after all, a simple but important question.

Sadly, I cannot obtain an answer by contacting the former Dove directors as in the past my emails to them received no reply, and the former Dove publisher told me in 2010 that he intended never again to respond to any emails from me.

The upshot: the mystery that has always surrounded Dove Press continues.