When a journal is delisted, authors pay a price

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Shocked, confused, disappointed — these are the reactions of authors who recently published in a cancer journal that was delisted by a company that indexes journals.

Recently, Clarivate Analytics announced it would discontinue indexing Oncotarget after the first few issues of 2018 — as a result, the journal would not receive a current impact factor. The company did not provide a specific reason why, simply saying it “no longer meets the standards necessary for continued coverage.” Last year, the journal was also removed from the U.S. government biomedical research database MEDLINE, also with no explanation. (At the time, the National Library of Medicine’s Associate Director for Library Operations told us readers who are familiar with the guidelines MEDLINE follows when deselecting journals “can draw their own conclusions” as to why Oncotarget was removed.)

After we covered Clarivate’s decision to delist Oncotarget, many posted comments on the story, including suggestions the move could hurt authors who submitted papers before the announcement. (Some comments also appeared to be versions of the same request that the journal be indexed through January 15.)

We reached out to many of the corresponding authors on papers in the January 26 issue, the seventh issue published in 2018. Many are based at leading institutions around the world; all had submitted their manuscripts months ago. Some noted that they were surprised by the decision, as the review process appeared quite rigorous; some told us that if they’d known the journal was going to be delisted, they would not have submitted their papers there.

Their dismay stems, at least in part, from the loss of the journal’s impact factor, which may affect quantitative calculations of researchers’ output. But not everyone agrees with this type of system. Kelly Cobey, part of the Knowledge Synthesis Group at the Ottawa Hospital Research Institute, told Retraction Watch:

The impact factor is not a responsible metric to use to evaluate research. It fails altogether to consider research quality, reproducibility, or transparency. Reliance on the impact factor may lead researchers to consciously or non-consciously de-value these aspects of research and prioritize arbitrary indicators that don’t help to advance scientific knowledge. We need to create, implement, and evaluate responsible metrics for research evaluation.

I would not submit again

David Ziegler of the University of New South Wales in Australia told Retraction Watch he submitted his paper approximately five months ago, and just learned the journal had been delisted by Clarivate:

My understanding was that Oncotarget was a reputable open access journal with a rising impact factor. I have reviewed articles previously for them and the review process was thorough and routine. For the article that we have just published we received three reviews which were thorough and raised helpful and legitimate criticisms which we responded to by performing further experiments and updating the manuscript. There was nothing to suggest any predatory behaviour.

Ziegler said:

The decision by Clarivate Analytics and Medline is puzzling and disappointing and my concern is the suggestion of disrepute that potentially can be associated with contributors to the journal, without any explanation as to the underlying issues or concerns.

Herta Chao at Yale University, who submitted her paper in September, told us:

This is shocking news to me and my collaborators. We would have never considered Oncotarget if we had known that there would issues like.

Marco Demaria of the University Medical Center Groningen in The Netherlands, whose gene therapy paper was submitted in the beginning of November, said he was “definitely” concerned that his paper wouldn’t be indexed by Clarivate:

Knowing this I would have not submitted to Oncotarget…I would not submit again.

He said he didn’t know the journal had been removed from MEDLINE when he submitted, either:

I know both editors-in-chief and I was trusting their interest in the publishing world.

Scott Ness of the University of New Mexico echoed many of the same sentiments to Retraction Watch regarding the publication of his paper, which he submitted in early October:

I must say I was surprised to learn this news about Oncotarget. Our paper was submitted months ago, and went through a rigorous review process with four reviewers. We went to great lengths to revise the manuscript to accommodate the reviewers and address their critiques. So I am surprised to learn that Oncotarget was listed as a “predatory” journal.

Also, Clarivate has apparently not released information about why it delisted Oncotarget, which seems very unfair.

Gianfranco Mattia of the Oncology Unit-Istituto Superiore di Sanita’ in Italy told us:

Of course I did not know the problems of Oncotarget! Being aware of this in advance, I would have certainly avoided this submission.

Actually this is the first time that I publish on Oncotarget that I believe an interesting journal in the area of cancer research. Our paper has been submitted in August 2017 and, after a review I would say very demanding and serious, it was accepted for publication on January 2-2018.

He agreed the lack of indexing could most penalize young researchers:

Web of Science should consider time and money the authors spent!  I really hope that the situation will be soon clarified (why we could not know the underlying reasons?), and Oncotarget indexing restored, especially for the authors who, like me, have their papers published in the January volume of Oncotarget.

The journal reacts

After we covered Clarivate’s decision, we also received an email from a public relations expert at Status Labs, a company that specializes in reputation management, asking if we wanted to connect with editor Mikhail Blagosklonny; we sent questions Jan. 23. On Jan. 29 we received an email from the general publisher email for the journal:

Please explain to us why Retraction Watch circulates offensive information about Oncotarget?

Does Retraction Watch act on behalf of J.Beall?

We responded asking what the questions were in reference to — including the mention of Jeffrey Beall, a librarian who curated a controversial (and now-defunct) list of potentially predatory journals (which included Oncotarget and its publisher, Impact). One of our questions also asked for comment about evidence we’ve seen showing that, after Beall added Oncotarget’s publisher to his list of potential predatory publishers, Blagosklonny contacted multiple researchers affiliated with Beall’s institution (University of Colorado, Denver) and threatened to retract their papers. We have not yet received a response to our specific questions.

A representative of Roswell Park Cancer Institute, where Blagosklonny was based, told us he hasn’t held a full-time position there for more than one year. She did not provide any details of his departure.

Oncotarget recently announced on its site that the journal will be indexed in Meta, “a world-renowned database of scientific literature.”

Oncoscience, another Impact publication, was recently discontinued from Scopus.

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