Research Features: seems sketchy to me


I see that it’s been nearly three weeks since I posted, maybe the longest gap since I started this. It wasn’t a conscious decision, just a combination of deadlines and life in general.

Research Features

Back in April, I got an email out of the blue from a ‘Project Manager’ at Research Features, a digital magazine “…born from a passion to break down barriers that exist in the dissemination life cycle from researcher to the mass audience.”

Dear Dr. Herron

I would like to speak with you concerning your work with the Collaborative Research: De Novo Evolution of Multicellularity in a Unicellular Volvocine Alga study.

We would like to discuss your involvement in the July edition of Research Features. In this special edition, we will focus on coverage of 14 research projects from around the globe.

In addition to the research covered, we will host content from a variety of thought leaders from various government agencies and societies from the world of Biological Sciences.

Would it be possible for us to speak briefly about this?

I thought this was pretty unusual. The ‘study’ he referred to is my NSF grant, not something media usually report on. News media don’t usually contact me (or, I think, most other scientists) out of the blue to report on my work. Science news stories typically stem from publication in a high-profile journal (Science, Nature, PNAS, and the like), a press release from the institution(s) where the work was done, or (less often) a presentation at a scientific meeting. I haven’t published anything in a top-tier journal lately, given a talk where a reporter was likely present, or had a press release written about my work, so I was skeptical right off the bat. I figured I had nothing to lose, though, so I replied that I’d be happy to talk.

We settled on a time that worked for both of us (he was in the U.K.), and he called me at the arranged time. The more he explained what he was offering, the skeezier it sounded. After he explained the process, I told him I didn’t think I was interested, but I agreed that he was welcome to send a follow-up email. I’m glad I did, because it saves me having to wonder how accurately I’m remembering our conversation.

As confirmed, we would create a 4-page article providing a clear and detailed overview of your research. We will of course ensure we highlight any aspects of this work and development that you are keen to emphasize, so we have a flexible and tailored approach and would never publish anything without your full approval.

This is REALLY unusual. Reporters do not, as a general rule, give veto power to the subjects of their reporting. Any suggestion that their subject should have any control over the finished product is a good way to get a journalist’s hackles up. And by the way, I think you mean “If confirmed,” not “As confirmed,” since I didn’t confirm any of this.

After I provide some background text, answer some interview questions, and send some relevant images, they would

…like to begin working with you on this as soon as possible and would aim to have the first draft completed within 4-weeks from receipt of background material.

Once the initial draft is complete, we will then ask for your first approval. As confirmed, we will NOT publish anything until you have given us the green light to proceed.

Once visuals have been included and the article has been finally approved, we shall then host it immediately in our digital online repository, where it shall always remain for people to access, download and share for FREE.

So they will write the article, give me full editorial authority, and publish it as open access. For this, they ask a “nominal fee”. This is what the Project Manager told me early in the conversation: a “nominal fee”. I don’t remember if I asked him then or if it came up later in the conversation, but the “nominal fee” turned out to be $2230.

In what universe is that nominal? $10 is a nominal fee. $2230 is a fairly typical charge for open access publication (PLoS Genetics, for example, is $2250); it is in no way nominal.

But that’s not what’s sketchy about all this. They’re of course free to charge whatever they like. Yes, calling two grand nominal is a bit misleading, but it’s not as if he tried to hide the actual amount; he told me the amount on the phone, and it matches the followup email:

The final cost as confirmed is $2,230 USD. This is a final, tax-free sum, and covers everything as stated.

What’s sketchy about this is that it’s self-promotion passing itself off as journalism. Research Features calls itself a ‘digital magazine’. It LOOKS like a magazine, and a slick one at that (kudos to their layout and web development teams):

Research Features Spread

Research Features Issue 112

It’s full of what look like articles, though their authorship is not attributed. They’re not articles, though; they’re ads. Ads for researchers, ads for labs.

The followup email makes that pretty clear:

We will of course ensure we highlight any aspects of this work and development that you are keen to emphasize, so we have a flexible and tailored approach and would never publish anything without your full approval.

So this is advertising, but for what audience? To whom are we selling?

The digital edition of Research Features will be sent out to over 90,000 science professionals worldwide, along with being hosted on our website and your article will be distributed across key social media channels, such as Twitter and Facebook, giving you broader impact and wider coverage of the tax paying lay public.

The tax paying lay public? Is this about getting more grants? Attracting postdocs?

A more generous interpretation is as outreach, increasing the ‘broader impacts’ of research by explaining it outside of the academic journals. I don’t buy that. If outreach were the goal, there’d be no reason Research Features couldn’t write about research and interview the researchers without subjecting the resulting articles to the researchers’ approval. There’d be no reason to emphasize the distribution to science professionals. No, their ‘flexible and tailored approach’ sounds much more like something an ad agency would say than a news source.

To be fair, they do say that

We are not a news media company. We are not a scholarly publisher. We sit somewhere in the middle and feel very comfortable in our unique space.

So they’re not being dishonest about what they offer: it’s self-promotion.

Research Features Promoted

It still seems sketchy to me. I’m not naïve; I know we all do self-promotion. I do it with my academic website, and I sometimes write about my own work here. Paying for it, though, paying real money, seems a bit messed up. Are people paying for this with grant money? If so, are we okay with tax dollars going toward individual researchers’ self promotion? Does that go on the ‘Publications’ line of the budget? I’ve read lots of grant budgets and budget justifications, and I’ve never seen something like this itemized. I can’t even imagine trying to justify the $2230 expense to my program officer at NSF.

Am I wrong to think this is sketchy? Has anyone used this or a similar service?

Comments

  1. Bruce says

    You say: Has anyone used this or a similar service?

    Would it count as similar to use the services of certain Nigerian princes, who offer to deposit millions into your bank account, after you give them the account info and a nominal set of fees, starting with $10,000 or however much you have in the account, whichever is greater?

    This is only the appropriate publishing venue for research teams whose only degrees are from Trump university. Who subscribes to a journal having literally nothing but ads?

  2. blf says

    Comment on Spammers Invite Researchers to Pay to Advertise Their Research by Herr Doktor Bimler (November-2016):

    Science Diffusion is the company that publishes Scientia, a glossy magazine / website that many at first think is a predatory journal. It’s not a scholarly, peer-reviewed journal. Instead, it’s an aggregation of paid advertisements for research and researchers — scientific puffery. A related service is Research Media. It used to employ the same aggressive and high-pressure spam and sales tactics as the services described above, but then in 2013 it was sold to Emerald Group Publishing. I have no evidence the firm has used spam email since its sale to Emerald.

    Do you mean “related” in the sense of the individuals involved? The UK Companies Registry directs my attention to Simon Peter Jones, erstwhile director of Research Media, who parted ways with that company in 2014. Early this year he signed up as a director of “Research Publishing International” — publisher of the magazine Research Features — and “Sci Ani”, which is that magazine’s multimedia “scientific animation” wing.* Starting from the other end… the domains for “scientiapublications.com” and “sciencediffusion.com” are held by Avril Bagnall. Who also registered the domains “scianic.com” and “sci-ani.com”. As for the company Science Diffusion Ltd, its directors are Avril and Nicholas Bagnall, where Nicholas was also a founding director — along with Simon Jones — of Sci Ani Ltd. All these companies also use the same accountant in Bristol as their contact address. I have had no personal dealings with any of these magazines, and must leave it to others to decide whether they engage in spamming, cold-calling or sharp practices. But there does seem to be a lot of them, all targetting the same niche market of researchers who want to promote their work (so as to secure lucrative govt. / EU contracts, or to maintain existing contracts). It seems over-crowded. And they all seem to be set up by the same people. Any ideas why this particular niche in the science-publishing ecosystem seems to be centred in the UK? (with the exception of Atlas of Science).

    * In his role as “saintlysimon@gmail.com”, Mr Jones holds a domain for Impact Factor Magazine, which does not exist yet, and should not be confused with Science Impact.

    ** Avril Bagnall also founded the company “Knowledge Translation Media”, with the same general business model, but that is in the process of winding up, and its website is inn abeyance.

    My suspicion is Herr Doktor Bimler has put his finger on it: “Research Features” is intended to impress politicians and other non-specialists who influence / control grants, which nicely explains the glossary appearance and self-confessed simplification.

    That guess is related to Bruce@1’s point, Who is the readership? Which leads to — especially since it (claims to be) a free-to-access (in the sense of no paywall) mostly-electronic publication — if they happen to “know” who the readership is (and aren’t lying), How to they know?

  3. blf says

    (I have a long comment, which is probably being held in moderation due to too many links, based on Comment on Spammers Invite Researchers to Pay to Advertise Their Research by Herr Doktor Bimler (November-2016). Below is part of my comment’s conclusion.)

    My suspicion is Herr Doktor Bimler has put his finger on it: “Research Features” is intended to impress politicians and other non-specialists who influence / control grants, which nicely explains the glossary appearance and self-confessed simplification.

    That guess is related to Bruce@1’s point, Who is the readership? […]

    • Matthew Herron says

      You were right; your comment was in my spam folder. I’m going to have to keep a closer eye on it.

  4. Another Ross says

    I was also recently contacted with a nearly identical pitch by a “project co-ordinator” for Adjacent Open Access. The offer was even more expensive: a two-page project overview published for the low, low price of 3000 pounds!

    I think I can explain this phenomenon: the European Commission’s Horizon 2020 funding program, which provides billions of euros in research funding in Europe, now requires that all project-related publishing be open access. Projects are also evaluated on metrics for dissemination – and not only scientific dissemination, but things like number of website visits, twitter followers, etc. So a project coordinator might well be tempted to spend some money on project promotion with good metrics (by the way, I was promised 165000 readers, not just 90000, so the higher cost is clearly justified!). And such a company, while clearly having its primary market in Europe, might as well try to reach the US while they are at it.

    So yes: as the original author surmises, it is paid promotion, pure and simple. And in case my irony is poorly constructed: no, I will not be taking this offer either!

  5. Joey Rans says

    I just received an similar e-mail from Research Features and I had the same initial reaction as you. What gave me the most pause was the project they referred to has only one publication associated with it and I am a third author on this publication. I do have two first author publications ready to go out the door but couldn’t figure out how they targeted me in regards to this project. Your blog brought it home, the project title in the e-mail was the same as my F32 grant.

    The crazy thing is that a lot of legitimate and powerful labs are publishing in this magazine. I completely agree that this is a shady way to use tax payer funding.

    • Matthew Herron says

      I haven’t asked (and don’t plan to), but I would think paying for this out of grant money would lead to an unpleasant conversation with my program officer at best, loss of eligibility for future funding at worst.

      • Paul Töbelmann says

        SciComm guy at a German institute here, we just got a similar proactive pitch. I’d be interested to hear whether any more German institutes engaged in the so-called Excellence Initiative (a state-funded drive worth billions of Euros in total funding for German universities) are contacted: the race for ExIni funds is going to be a close one, and it has just entered its next stage, with full applications called for 11 days ago and due in February. For a business model such as this “Research Features” magazine, it would make sense to target institutions that are currently engaged in funding initiatives such as the ExIni in Germany.

  6. Carl Johansson says

    I was contacted by this organization. i eventually desided to go ahead with an article. Primarily because it gave me a chance to highlight my college, and particulalry the undergrad students who do remarkable work. I do not look at it as a research publication, i view it as outreach and PR. My PIO loves it, my president used it going before the board, the students all really liked it, and it has been passed on to my state and local politicians offices. NSF is pushing to try and make a more public oriented justification fror their grant moneys, and this article has already reached way beyond most of our publications.
    every one needs to make their own decision on this, in my situation, I see no issue with this, as long as you accept and understand what it is! promotion and public information!

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