Why not to publish in “Sustainability” (and you’re welcome to share this post)

Update 14 April 2021: Following on from previous discussions below this blog post, I’d like to highlight another level of “escalation” in MDPI practice. I received an invitation from an actual special issue editor — presumably an academic, i.e. NOT just from MDPI staff (!) — to contribute to a special issue. Fine — apart from the fact that I do not work in that topic area. Credible special issues obviously approach colleagues with expertise on the topic, which in this case, I clearly did not have. So even some academics are now — either willingly or unwillingly — pulled into nonsense spamming of everyone for not-so-special special issues. We’re all harming our academic communities if we collaborate with this publisher.

By Joern Fischer

If you are a publishing academic in sustainability science, chances are high that you have been approached by the journal “Sustainability” to lead a special issue. With this blog post, I would like to share my personal opinion why not to work with this journal, not as an author, and not as an editor.

Sustainability is a journal that specialises in publishing special issues. To set up those special issues, it approaches authors of other recent papers, asking them if they might like to consider a special issue on a particular topic. For example, over the years, I have received invitations (among others) to contribute work for special issues on “Sustainability and Institutional Change”, “Landscape and Sustainability”, “Ecosystem Function and Land Use Change”, “Sustainable Landscape Management”, “Sustainable Futures”, “Integrated Landscape Governance for Food Security”, “Sustainable Multifunctional Landscapes” or “What is Sustainability? Examining Faux Sustainability”.

If you do accept to guest edit a special issue, you become one of now more than 1800 editorial board members (!). (I won’t link this to the journal’s website, but you can find that information easily on the journal website.) Hardly much of an achievement or distinction, given the predatory process with which the journal recruits people who are willing to run special issues.

That’s all not very uplifting, and many of us have known of this shady process for some time. But the situation appears to be getting worse, bordering on entirely non-sensical invitation emails.

One colleague of mine received the following statement:

We recently invited you to serve as Guest Editor in Sustainability for the Special Issue “Sustainability Journal”. Please let us know whether or not you are interested, and if you have any further questions.

Another person received this:

“Sustainability has launched a new position—Topic Editor.

Given your impressive expertise, we would like to invite you … The main responsibilities of Topic Editors are as follows:

  • Promoting the journal during conferences (adding 1–2 slides into your presentation, distributing flyers, recommending the journal to your colleagues, etc.);
  • Providing support for the Special Issues on topics related to your expertise or when the Guest Editor(s) is not available, including SI promotion via social media, pre-checking new submissions, making decisions, and giving advice on some scientific cases.

Benefits:

  1. We are glad to publish a paper of the Topic Editors with a special discount …

Please take these excerpts as examples of the kinds of emails that come from this journal. YES, it’s easy to get stuff published there (I don’t know of anything ever having got rejected, in fact). YES, it has an impact factor. And YES, I’ve even co-authored one paper in this journal myself. But seriously, if we want to advance credible science on sustainability, then clearly not like this.

In case anyone from the Web of Science happens to be reading this blog: please review whether this journal and other similar ones really deserve an impact factor.

It is not my intention to say that all else is working well in the publishing business. I simply chose to share some basic facts and excerpts from recent emails by the journal, which for most of us, will make it self-evident that this is not a journal that ought to be supported in any way that might boost its credibility.

18 thoughts on “Why not to publish in “Sustainability” (and you’re welcome to share this post)

  1. Hi, thanks for this. I have been collecting data on MDPI for a while now and the situation at Sustainability is getting exponentially worse; on the other hand, this is not just one journal, but a coordinated effot voer all of their journals that have gained a little of credibility.

    Here you find the data I collected: https://github.com/paolocrosetto/MDPI_special_issues

    And here on twitter a discussion that went fairly viral: https://twitter.com/PaoloCrosetto/status/1370309130578186242?s=20

    • Thank you — really important that you also are helping to “spread the word” on this — as you say, we need to stay clear of them! I re-tweeted your tweet. Thanks!

    • Dear Paolo,

      Thank you for collecting the data on Special Issues at Sustainability and at MDPI journals in general. The data is interesting, but I cannot agree with your interpretation.

      First, I would like to mention that you could see the growth also by just looking at the journal statistics provided by MDPI (click on papers yearly): https://www.mdpi.com/journal/sustainability/stats
      You can also see it on SciLit: https://www.scilit.net/journal/1003346
      If you further know that many papers published are part of Special Issues, your data is no news at all. It follows logically.
      SciLit also allows you to compare Sustainability to similar journals like “Journal of Cleaner Production” or “Science of the Total Environment”. Have a look here:
      https://www.scilit.net/journal/288389
      https://www.scilit.net/journal/389653
      Very similar pattern. How do you explain this? Any concerns with these journals?

      You write that conditions at Sustainability are getting exponentially worse. I cannot agree.

      I regularly read papers published in Sustainability. The quality is not decreasing but rather increasing.

      The Impact Factor and Cite Score values are not decreasing but increasing.

      The rejection rates are constant over time (about 60%).

      The median time from submission to first decision is constant over time (about 16 days).

      All these indicators show that it’s not getting worse, but that it improves.

      Your write that once MDPI journals “have gained a little of credibility” they start with Special Issues. That’s not ture. Right from the beginning Special Issues are important for the journal development. This does not change over time. As the journal grows, the number of special issues grows as well. That’s it.

      For MDPI journals, Special Issues are a tool to get researchers around the world actively involved as editors. I like this a lot. It is participatory and inclusive. This serves the needs of many scientists around the world. MDPI has developed a model for how to effectively and responsibly handle Special Issues at a large scale. Just read how it works: https://www.mdpi.com/editors

      I was invited in 2013 to edit one Special Issue in Sustainability. Due to my very positive experiences (among others the great support from the Assistant Editors) I initiated over the years three more Special Issues in Sustainability, Resources, and Land. My experiences were and are very positive. I guess I’m not the only one who had this kind of experience.

      Kind regards
      Volker

      Prof. Dr. Volker Beckmann, University of Greifswald, Germany

      • Dear Volker,

        thanks for your long and detailed reply. I was made aware of your reply some days ago by Joern. I was in the process of making up my mind and collecting more data to produce a blog post, so I did not reply earlier. My post is here: https://paolocrosetto.wordpress.com/2021/04/12/is-mdpi-a-predatory-publisher/ You might find there some answers to your comment.

        You might have a point that the quality has not deteriorated. But the point I make in my post is that it is bound to deteriorate if MDPI continues to push the special issue model at this rate. They have 36k SIs open this year, up from 7k last year. You will see that the growth rate of SIs is 3 times as much as thegrowth rate of normal issues, over 5 years; much more so in the last year. I find it unsustainable and just a matter of time before the whole thing crashes down on us.

        At the same time, I think you are right and lots of good research is published in MDPI.

        I just wonder how long they will be able to keep on increasing wuantity and keep quality high.

  2. Dear Joern,

    I was approached twice for geust-editing a special issue of Sustainability. The weird thing is that on their website, the company http://www.mdpi.com/journal/sustainability/ in Basel adverizes dozens of journals on general topics. The papers they list are not fake but sometimes unintelligible with names from all over the planet. Do you know if they actually make up these articles? And what happened with the erstwhile seirious journal Sustainability?

    If this journal is really predatory (see https://www.researchgate.net/post/Is-the-journal-Sustainability-and-its-publisher-MDPI-predatory-or-reputable ), then most of doezns of others are probably as well. What a shame.

    Regards – Bert de Vries

    Prof. em. Dr. Bert J M de Vries

    IMEW/Copernicus Institute of Sustainable Development Faculteit Geowetenschappen, Universiteit Utrecht, Princetonlaan 8a, 3584CB Utrecht http://www.sustainabilityscience.eu en https://www.uu.nl/staff/BJMdeVries/Profile

    ________________________________ Van: Ideas for Sustainability Verzonden: vrijdag 30 oktober 2020 13:25 Aan: Vries, B.J.M. de (Bert) Onderwerp: [New post] Why not to publish in “Sustainability” (and you’re welcome to share this post)

    Joern posted: ” By Joern Fischer If you are a publishing academic in sustainability science, chances are high that you have been approached by the journal “Sustainability” to lead a special issue. With this blog post, I would like to share my personal opinion why not”

  3. Dear Joern,

    I don’t share your concerns about “Sustainability”. I have edited two Special Issues with them and was highly satisfied in both cases.

    I respect your opinion, but I don’t think that your claims are supported by the facts.

    Please allow me to correct some.

    It’s not true that Guest Editors automatically become Editorial Board Members. Although I served as a Guest Editor twice, I’m not an Editorial Board Member nor a Topic Board Member of Sustainability.

    It’s not true that all submitted papers get published. The rejection rate of manuscripts submitted to Sustainability was 61% in 2020. See: https://www.mdpi.com/journal/sustainability/stats

    I have gained a lot of insights and experiences as a Guest Editor, but in particular since I joined the Editorial Board of two other MDPI journals “Land” and “Resources”. My experiences are very positive. Rejection rates are real. The editorial processes are high quality and very efficient. I have no reason to suspect something different from “Sustainability”.

    I don’t understand why you consider invitations for editing Special Issues in Sustainability as a “predatory process”? I was invited several times too. I followed one invitation in 2013 and made very good experiences. I was the one who guest-edited the Special Issue on “Sustainability and Institutional Change”. Often thereafter I declined further invitations because of time constraints. However, due to my positive experiences I later initiated (without any specific invitation) three Special Issues (in 2017, 2019 and 2020), some together with colleagues. Again my experiences were (are) very positive. I consider those invitations for editing Special Issues in Sustainability as follows: It’s an offer. Not more, not less. Having choices is good for scientists.

    Yes, Sustainability and other MDPI journals work extensively with Special Issues. However, I appreciate this. For many researchers around the world, it’s an option to get involved and to gain experiences. This is very positive. Traditional journals are usually very reluctant to Special Issues. Regarding editors, they are often closed shops. That’s the market niche where publishers like MDPI, but also Frontiers entered. MDPI has developed a model for how to effectively and responsibly handle special issues at a large scale. According to my opinion, this serves the needs of science and scientists very well.

    Thus my conclusions are completely opposite to yours: if you want to develop a relevant topic of your expertise in sustainability together with colleagues around the world and with professional support by Assistant Editors I can recommend without any reservation applying to become a Guest Editor of a Special Issue in Sustainability. It will be a good experience. It goes without saying that I can also recommend publishing your work with Sustainability.

    Kind regards
    Volker

    Prof. Dr. Volker Beckmann, University of Greifswald, Germany

    • Thank you for sharing your perspective! I remain concerned about the way in which the journal is run and seems to be growing exponentially (see tweet linked above) … but still, it’s good that we’re having this conversation! It’s obviously needed given a lot of uncertainty and different views on this topic. Thanks for your input!

      • Yes, MDPI journals are run differently, but very professional, innovative and ethically responsible. I also would consider growth to be a problem if it occurs at the expense of quality. However, this is not the case with Sustainability (and the other MDPI journals I follow).
        Another point is that we observe an exponential growth of papers and research in the field of sustainability. This is the topic of our lifetime. This trend is not only reflected in the growth of Sustainability, but also in the Journal of Cleaner Production or Science of The Total Environment. Just compare the patterns:

        https://www.scilit.net/journal/1003346
        https://www.scilit.net/journal/288389
        https://www.scilit.net/journal/389653

        Very similar and clearly above the average growth. Please compare with: https://www.scilit.net/statistic-publishing-market-article

        Do you have the same concerns with Journal of Cleaner Production or Science of The Total Environment?

      • Thanks Volker, and that website is very useful.

        Indeed, I agree that a general rise in numbers is happening. This has many reasons — incentives to publish earlier, more people publishing from poorer countries, incentives to publish more, for example. Some of these reasons are good things for science; some are a sign of a sick system that simply thinks that “more is better”.

        Sustainability is clearly “using” this trend as its business model.

        While that per se is not wrong — and indeed, there are some good papers in that journal — I remain critical of the business model, and yes, that does seem predatory to me.

        Sending out repeated emails to people to secure special issues; including with non-sensical grammar or financial incentives (see my examples in the post) is not the sort of practice I’d expect of a “good” journal. It is not driven by a genuine interest in particular issues, which is what special issues should be about.

        I also think editorial boards of many hundreds of people, where basically anyone with a tiny bit of experience can join, are not a good sign of quality control.

        So in summary: some papers in that journal are very good. How the journal is run, I believe, is not good, but is “using” the trends of our time for a financial advantage (not to advance science per se; that would look different).

        I do not dispute that other journals might be similarly taking advantage of the existing trend.

        Put differently: why publish there and not in a “normal” journal, given there are other journals with normal practices and growth rates around?

        Cheers

        Joern

  4. Dear Joern,

    as to the points you made in your last response.

    (1) Emails. There clearly was a mistake in the first email you cite. Why make a case out of that? The second one is explicit about expectations and rewards. What’s wrong with that? Yes, MDPI journals also work with small rewards for reviewers (APC vouchers) and editors (one APC free publication), but I consider this as fair. There is no automatism. Only high quality and timely reviews receive vouchers. The APC free publication for editors is only an option, no guarantee. If editors are involved in a submitted paper, they are not allowed to make any decision on that submission. Please note that also other publishers offer small rewards (e.g. access to Scopus, discounts on books) for reviewers and editors, however, often they are not so explicit about that.

    (2) Large Editorial Boards. Publishers and journals follow very different strategies. Small and exclusive or large and inclusive. MDPI and Frontiers journals often have large editorial boards. Both publishers, however, have different rules in place. PLOS ONE has a very large editorial board too. Others have rather small editorial boards, like many Elsevier, Springer or Wiley journals, e.g. Journal of Cleaner Production. The small boards are often supported by a larger number of unnamed Academic Assistant Editors. MDPI, Frontiers, and PLOS journals instead name the Academic Editor on the published paper. I like that. It creates clear and identifiable responsibility. Clearly there are different ways to secure quality.

    (3) Publication as a business. Open Access publishers often have been criticized as money making machines, ignoring that the big traditional publishers are profit oriented too. Sometimes scholars argue that scholarly publishing should be non-profit. What matters for me is the question whether the publisher serves the interests of the scientific community and strictly follows publication ethics. This is clearly the case with MDPI. Just read the annual report:

    Click to access 2020_web.pdf


    The big advantage of profit compared to non-profit publishers is that profit publishers are often more innovative. MDPI has established lots of innovations to the benefits of the scientific community. You may also want to read this blog entry: https://blog.mdpi.com/2021/04/09/25-things-you-didnt-know-about-mdpi/

    (4) Where to submit? Today there are many options. The market is developing rapidly. It’s a multi-criteria decision making problem. Decisions are not easy. You may follow recommendations (like yours or mine). You may consult rankings based on Impact Factors or Cite Score. You may use https://thinkchecksubmit.org/ As a matter of fact, MDPI journals are often reasonably ranked in Q1 or Q2 (like Sustainability). However, the big advantage of MDPI journals is speed without compromising on quality. I don’t know of any other trustworthy publisher where you can expect the first substantial response in a bit more than two weeks time after submission. How is this possible? It’s mainly due to a very efficient organization of the editorial process and an excellent division of labor between academic editors and in-house assistant editors. The reward system for timely and rigorous reviews also helps. Furthermore, the SuSy system for handling submissions is excellent. So there are quite some reasons why somebody wants to submit her/his manuscript to Sustainability or other MDPI journals.

    Kind regards,
    Volker

  5. Pingback: Is MDPI a predatory publisher? – Paolo Crosetto

  6. Dear Joern,
    you get an email invitation for a Special Issue in a MDPI journal which is not in your field of expertise and you claim “We’re all harming our academic communities if we collaborate with this publisher.” Do we really want to discuss at that level? Should I mention the invitations from “Sage Open Medicine” or from “Current Plant Biology” or “Biofilm” (both Elsevier), just to mention a few invitations I got recently which are clearly out of my field of expertise? Should I get upset? Should I now recommend that we are all “harming our academic communities if we collaborate with” Sage or Elsevier? Sorry, but with all respect, I can’t take this seriously.
    Kind regards,
    Volker

    • Thanks again, Volker — I guess we don’t agree, but I respect your views. Time will tell, I guess, where things are headed for MDPI, or other large publishing businesses for that matter. Thank you for sharing your experiences and reflections. — Joern

  7. Let me just point few interesting observations:

    1) The supposed 60% rejection rate. Suspicious. I am aware of multiple authors who were unable to get published for tens of years, but now, suddenly, they have 2-3 publications a year in Sustainability and other MDPI journals. It is a considerable problem in my region – suddenly, you have ‘experts’. Why is that? Several reviewer for Sustainability confirmed to me that irrespective of how many times they reject a paper it gets a revision or a reject and resubmit (this is how they might play the acceptance rate). At the end as a reviewer, you are tired, give up and the paper gets published because you as the ‘negative’ reviewer are unresponsive. Nice.

    2) So you are telling me that about 50% of papers get a first decision after 16 days? That is not a a sign of a thorough review process. Sorry – just… not. It takes time to find a reviewer that has time and it takes him to find time for a thorough review and it still takes few days to do it. 16 days…. lol. I just waited 2.5 years. But that was an extreme. But the journal is a top-tier journal as well. There is a reason, why top journals do not have such short review times.

    3) Why those papers have an impact factor? I do not know. But I would not be surprised if WoS would be involved. Just calculate the revenue. Around 10k papers in Sustainability published a year times APC…. and very little variable costs. So if they share that income with WoS… there might be a motif. It would make sense. But this is just a speculation.

    4) Now one of the reasons, why at research grant agencies and at multiple universities in my region we do not accept MDPI (some institutions still do to be fair). It can be easily proved that with their business model a profit maximizing behavior of MDPI is to publish as many papers as possible. There is no ‘quality’ involved. Just quantity of accepted publications. This is exactly what we observe. Huge growth of published papers. How that differs from Elsevier? Elsevier sells subscription to institutions (universities,…) to it’s database of journals. This happens irrespective of whether a specific author of that institution is able to publish his paper in some specific journal. If anything, Elsevier will maximize it’s profit if it is able to provide high quality content that attracts as many institutions as possible. As an institution, you do NOT want quantity – but quality. Because it takes TIME to go through papers. So overall, it’s more about quality than about quantity, although quantity might also be involved in this a bit. But the difference in motivation for the publisher, in the environment and practices it creates and supports are extreme.

    It is a no brainer for all top universities in the world – Sustainability (and several others) are not considered a good point in your CV. Actually it might hurt you academic career (at a good institution). So why are we even discussing this? Why it is not a relevant topic on Harvard or MIT (I suppose). Oh wait, I am not at a top university.

    Moreover, because of the publish and perish culture, researchers are often under huge pressure and they subsume to these doubtful practices of MDPI, where you basically pay to… well you know what I mean. By getting a paper accepted, you relieve some pressure. Moreover, after you publish in MDPI you are becoming an advocate of MDPI – such a great business model. They do not have to even defend themselves much, others will do. You have to admire that.

    Now believe it or not, but in some countries most of the (top) universities are public and they are financed also based on the number of impact factor publications. Now you see where it goes. It is funny, but it makes sense …. so you pay around 1900,-CHF and receive around 5000,- from the government. Well well well, isnt it great? This is what happened in our country and guess what. It’s a pandemic.

    However, I am not against MDPI as such. Really. Why? Because at the end of the day, if you attract enough citations in good journals, your work is relevant. Therefore I focus on the impact your research makes – not so much where you get published.

    Still…my concern is that young researchers get used to have it the easier (MDPI) way and we are some are basically raising (not me, my PhD students are forbidden to publish this way – we can do better than that!) a generation of people who will not be able to go through a 1-3 year hell with a top journal.

    Sorry for the long post.
    A concerned citizen.

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