Last July, Marcel van der Heyden, a molecular biologist at University Medical Center Utrecht in the Netherlands, got a cold call with an intriguing offer. Would Van der Heyden be interested in writing up some of his laboratory’s work, the caller asked, to be included in a glossy publication aimed at some of Europe’s most senior science decision-makers?
Intrigued, Van der Heyden began asking questions. But when he learned he would have to pay about ₤9000 ($12,400) to publish the two-page profile, “I immediately hit the brake,” he says. He said he would have to think it over, but the caller persisted. “I was told I had to decide rapidly, because their board meeting was about to start. He offered me a large discount if I would decide immediately.”
Van der Heyden isn’t the only European researcher to get such a hard sell from Pan European Networks (PEN), a 6-year-old publishing company with offices in Congleton, U.K., and Brussels that promises to provide opportunities for “leading figures from across Europe” to get attention for their work or ideas. Many other scientists had similar experiences, Van der Heyden discovered when he started poking around on blogs and Twitter, including the promise of attention from decision-makers and the warning about the imminent board meeting. Some also said that PEN suggested it is directly affiliated with EU agencies. (PEN declined to answer questions from Science.)
The strategy appears to work well. PEN operates a handful of websites about projects funded by Horizon 2020, Europe’s largest research program; science and technology; and health that feature news and stories about labs, research groups, conferences, and emerging technologies, as well as interviews with researchers. The websites also host digital magazines that can include up to 100 profiles per issue, many of them paid for by labs and researchers, and written by the researchers themselves or their press officers. One such magazine, SciTech Europa Quarterly, has published 26 issues since 2011; Health Europa Quarterly, which started in 2017, has published four.
Some of PEN's websites state that “PEN is an independent publication" and "is not, and does not purport to be, an official partner of the European Commission;” the digital magazines' table of contents also mention that all articles marked "profile" are advertising features. But EU officials aren't happy about the booming business, in part because some of PEN's current and past websites resemble the official web pages of European institutions and even feature star-spangled logos.
The European Commission's Directorate-General for Research and Innovation regards PEN as a "very aggressive marketing company, which gives the impression it is affiliated with the commission," an EU official says. In fact, she adds, it has little influence. "There might be people in the [commission] who actually read it, but it is not regarded as a credible organization," she says. The commission can't officially tell researchers to steer clear of PEN, she says, but does so informally.
A letter that the European Research Council (ERC) sent to its grantees last July didn't mention PEN by name, but warned about "certain publishing houses and online publications" whose tactics, "including vague references—usually by telephone—to any sort of official recognition by the ERC, the EC or the EU, are to be considered an attempt to fraud." And in a 2016 letter to PEN, Jörg Polakiewicz, director of legal advice and public international law at the Council of Europe in Strasbourg, France, asked the publisher to remove the council's logo from its website and to note use the words "in association with." (The Council of Europe, which has 47 member countries, is separate from the European Union.)
PEN is owned by Darren Wilson, former director of a now-defunct company called Public Service Ltd. that published public sector information in the United Kingdom and was also known for its aggressive marketing tactics. Wilson did not respond to requests for an interview.
PEN isn't the only outlet that offers scientists and labs exposure for a price. Journals including Science and Nature run advertorials that feature academic and company labs and even individual researchers. Euroscientist, the official publication of a researchers' association named Euroscience, also based in Strasbourg, occasionally publishes sponsored special issues as well. A U.K. digital magazine named Impact, founded in 2016, runs paid profiles, this far mainly focusing on large European research projects. But PEN appears to be unique in its aggressive marketing tactics, high prices, and unsupported claims about reaching into the highest echelons of European policy.
PEN does have dozens of positive testimonials, though many come from people who didn't publish a paid profile but were interviewed for one of the publications, which is free of charge. "They were always helpful, replied promptly, and above all, interested in getting the details right, rather than sacrificing them for the sake of journalistic sensationalism," wrote physicist Manus Hayne of Lancaster University in the United Kingdom, who was interviewed in SciTech Europa Quarterly, then still named Science and Technology. (Hayne says he would not pay to appear in the publication.) Maria Die Trill, president of the International Psycho-Oncology Society at the Hospital Gregorio Marañón in Madrid, wrote in a testimonial that she expected her PEN interview to help "spread the word” about the society. Caroline Lynn Kamerlin of Uppsala University in Sweden did pay for a profile, but now regrets writing a nice review afterward because of the "incessant harassment" of PEN's sales force since then.
"For me it was a good opportunity to show what we were doing," says Berber Vlieg-Boerstra, a research dietician at the Onze Lieve Vrouwe Gasthuis Hospital in Amsterdam. She managed to negotiate the price of a profile about new dietary approaches to food allergies, published in PEN's health magazine in August 2017, down to ₤1500. Realizing now that she is unlikely to see any returns, "I won’t do it again." she says. "Still, I don’t really regret it. At least I have in writing what we’re currently doing, so that I can show it to others."
But Jon Snaedal, a geriatrics professor at Reykjavik University, feels he did not get his money’s worth. "Being in the middle of the ocean, I saw it as an opportunity to get some connections at the continent." He paid ₤12,000 from his research budget for an ad and three profiles, one published in the health magazine in 2017, the other two due out this year. After the first publication, PEN sold him a ₤2000 "partnership," as part of which the company promised to show him how many readers looked at the publications. (PEN’s managing editor, Michael Thame, didn't answer questions but wrote to Science that the company is "able to provide bespoke reports tailored for individual advertisers detailing the full extent of their exposure upon request.") Snaedal says he never received such data, and he would not work with PEN again.
PEN can be aggressive against its critics, says Czech chemist Michael Bojdys of Charles University in Prague, who was approached by the company last year. In an 8 September 2017 blog post, he wrote that PEN "tries to take on the appearance of an EU agency or affiliated body" and described the business as "parasitic." Bojdys soon received a phone call from PEN Executive Director Daniel Bott, who threatened to take legal action if the “slanderous” blog post wasn't removed. Bojdys says he insisted there were no factual errors in his post and has not taken it down; he says Bott has dropped the matter.
As to Van der Heyden, he ended up refusing PEN's proposition and feels lucky that he did. "They do seem to operate within the legal borders," he says. "But I can imagine better ways to spend my valuable research money."