The journal Ecosystem Health and Sustainability (EHS) has an enviable roster of high-profile scientists on its editorial board, including noted biologist Paul Ehrlich, an emeritus professor at Stanford University, and Jerry Franklin, an ecosystem analyst at University of Washington, Seattle.
There’s only one problem: Many board members are no longer involved with EHS—if they ever were. “I can remember no contact with the journal for years, if ever,” Ehrlich says. “I should not be appearing as associated with the journal,” Franklin adds.
Their names ended up on the journal’s masthead, along with many others, when the Ecological Society of America (ESA) and the Ecological Society of China (ESC) jointly launched EHS 6 years ago. But that collaboration has ended, and several scientists contacted by Science were unaware EHS still bills them as “international advisors” or “subject editors.” Such padding can make a journal look more prestigious than it is—and help it qualify for an impact factor, crucial for attracting submissions.
EHS Editor-in-Chief Lu Yonglong, an ecologist at Xiamen University, says it is “really a surprise to me” that several scientists balk at being listed as editorial board members. He says the journal has regularly informed them of EHS’s status, providing a list of nine emails sent over the past 18 months to all those listed as advisers and editors. But Lu concedes the EHS website “may not be upgraded often” and says he will remove the names of scientists who ask him.
It’s not uncommon for so-called predatory journals to enlist scientists as board members without their knowledge. A study published last year found that of the almost 4000 scientists in Australia who are on the editorial boards of potentially predatory journals, about one-quarter are unaware of it. To expose such journals, one scientist signed up his dog, an American Staffordshire terrier named Ollie, as an editorial board member for six journals.
The practice appears to be far less common among more respectable journals like EHS, but is not unheard of. Johannes Knops of Xi’an Jiaotong-Liverpool University in Suzhou, China, recently had his name removed as an “editorial member” from the journal Sciences in Cold and Arid Regions; he says he never agreed to the job. “I used to tell students to look at the reviewing editors to know the quality of a journal,” Knops says. But now, “You have to contact some editors to see if they’re real.” (The journal’s editors did not respond to an email from Science.)
Filling out a board with high-profile scientists can boost a journal’s odds of being included in Clarivate’s Science Citation Index Expanded, which is a step toward getting an impact factor. Doing so without their consent “borders on predatory,” says Xiaotian Chen, a professor of library science at Bradley University in Peoria, Illinois. But given what’s at stake, “fudges here are not a surprise,” says a publishing industry executive who asked not to be identified.
ESA and ESC agreed in 2013 to set up a new open-access journal to create an international publishing opportunity for ecologists from China; ESC paid ESA 1 million yuan ($150,000) per year to publish it. Prominent ESA members and past presidents joined the international advisory board to help recruit authors and develop affiliations with Chinese scientists, says former ESA President Ann Bartuska, a senior adviser at the nonprofit Resources for the Future.
The first issue appeared online in March 2015, but EHS struggled to attract submissions. “A problem the journal faced when starting up was that no Chinese authors would submit to a new journal without an impact factor, but other authors were reluctant to submit to a journal that seemed to target Chinese authors and readers,” says David Inouye, an ecologist at the Rocky Mountain Biological Laboratory who was ESA president in 2015. Academic publisher Taylor & Francis took over publication in fall 2017.
“I frankly assumed that when ESA severed ties, all of us were no longer on the board,” says Bartuska, who was surprised to find herself still listed. Seven scientists on the editorial board who responded to a query from Science gave similar responses. Former ESA President Norman Christensen was recently removed as co–editor-in-chief at his request, but agreed to be listed on the board of advisers.
The list is outdated in other ways. Most of the 79 subject editors’ names are linked to web pages or email addresses. But 35 of those links lead to “page not available” or similar messages.
EHS’s three associate editors, who are based in the United Kingdom, Italy, and the United States, all confirmed to Science that they actually work for the journal. Lu “has been rigorous over his conduct of the journal,” says one of them, Geoff Squire of the James Hutton Institute in Dundee, U.K.
Today, EHS has a respectable impact factor of 2.315, and even scientists surprised to find themselves still on the editorial board are happy to see the journal surviving. “EHS has enriched the dialogue on sustainability,” says Jerry Melillo, of the Marine Biological Laboratory in Woods Hole, Massachusetts. The journal’s challenge now, says Associate Editor Hanqin Tian, of Auburn University in Alabama, “is to recruit more manuscripts from outside of China and maintain an international editorial board.”