Frontiers Research Topics

A few months ago, I got an invitation to host a Research Topic at Frontiers, one of the (relatively) new wave of Open Access journals, where authors pay publication costs and readers can freely access articles. Apparently, my recent article would be an excellent fit for the Research Topics initiative! Research Topics are where a couple of editors get together and invite submissions on their pet topic – a bit like a special issue, or a conference symposium. I’ve seen some great examples of these on topics dear to my own heart, like VanRullen & Krieman’s The timing of visual object recognition, so you’d think being asked to host one would be pretty cool, no?

Now here’s the thing: I get plenty of spam. Invitations to random conferences, offers of monoclonal antibodies, invitations to enlarge various appendages. Every couple of months I get a letter from a vanity publishing press asking if I want to publish my thesis as a book. The common theme is that they’re rather impersonal. When I get what reads like a form email that makes only a cursory reference to me and my work and then tells me what a great opportunity it’s providing me, I get suspicious.

After a moment’s pause, I discounted the invitation as spam, as I have done the repeat invitations. And the pause was only because it was from Frontiers, a journal family I like. From a few conversations on Twitter, it feels like this is a pretty common reaction.

The attitude that Open Access is simply vanity publishing is one I clearly disagree with (published in both PLOS ONE and Frontiers), but it’s a long way from being a dead opinion yet. It’s not great if even supporters of the OA movement and Frontiers find these kind of invitations a bit spammy.

There are a couple of things at play here. I’m a junior researcher. Nobody asks me to host a symposium or edit a special issue. I once mentioned to a colleague that perhaps we could try setting up a research topic with Frontiers, and the reaction was “isn’t that really for more senior researchers?” If I start inviting people, I feel like the most likely reaction will be “Who are you, and how did you get my address?” This is something Frontiers have explicitly claimed they’re trying to address, opening up such paths to junior researchers, but it’s not a stated aim on their website or in the emails.

The article that formed the basis of my invitation has been cited once – by me – so if you want to tell me that this is an article that can form the keystone of a research topic, you need to do more than re-state the title. Tell me why it’s interesting and why it might fit. Otherwise, I don’t get the feeling you’ve even read the abstract, and I start to get the impression that these special issue Research Topics are perhaps not so special.

So in other words, if you want to appeal to us juniors, you have to overcome both our insecurity in our early career status and our doubts about your sincerity. If you want to reach out to us, make it feel like you’re interested in *us* and have some idea what our research area actually *is*. That’s if that’s what you really want to do.


4 thoughts on “Frontiers Research Topics

  1. Louise White

    Interesting blog. Am currently working on a project to set up a research policy practice hub for autism, to bring these three communities closer and to encourage practitioners and policy makers to use an evidence base when making decisions. I was considering yesterday how to engage researchers and one of these things I was thinking was that you need different strategies for people of different stages of their careers. Your blog has inspired me that early career people will want to be involved. Obviously the open access movement in pertinent to the hub as well, as it should make research outputs more accessible to clinicians and policy makers.

    1. timefreq Post author

      Hi Louise, thanks for replying. Of course, one thing I’d like to make clearer is early career people would really like to be involved in these things, and there’s no reason why we shouldn’t or can’t be! But if an invitation comes across as just somebody taking a shot in the dark, or flattering you into doing something for nothing, it doesn’t reflect well on the inviting organization, regardless of any good intentions. It needs to be a genuine approach. Of course, the same is true for researchers of any status, not just early-career; but for us – sensitive souls that we (I’m using the Royal we) are – there’s just a little voice, sometimes, saying “Why me? Why this topic?”, that we’d imagine is absent from more established, eminent researchers. So there’s clearly a need to overcome this from both sides. But we’re not daft, so if we get a whiff of something not being right, there’s a convenient folder marked “junk”.

      And you’re absolutely right, the greater accessibility of research outputs is one of the critical advantages of open access!


      1. Louise White

        hi Matt,
        I take your point and I think there has to be ‘something in it for me’. For early career people getting their name known and networking is important, depending on the field you’re in this is more or less easy. I did PhD in a very small field and everyone knew everyone, but autism is a huge field.

  2. me

    Sorry, but this is just spam.

    I get such invitations all the time, and they claim that has a “high chance” of being the best research topic of 2016?

    That is just automatic email spam.


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