Malcolm H. Levitt, Professor of Physical
Chemistry, University of Southampton
Scientific publishing is a strange business.
Publishing houses make profits through the
following extraordinary business model: (1)
hundreds of highly qualified professionals
perform thousands of hours of academic and
scientific research at the expense of the tax payers
or charitable foundations, (2) they and their teams
produce with great care scientific publications
conforming to rigorous quality standards, (3) the
research teams typeset their papers at their own
expense using freely available software, to the
specifications of the journal, (4) the paper is
submitted to rigorous peer review by other highly
qualified professionals, performed entirely
without pay, (5) if successful, the authors’
institution pays a large fee to publish the article in
one of the many thousands of scientific journals,
with transfer of copyright to the publisher, (6) the
authors or institution libraries buy back the rights
to view or use the articles, even if they themselves
did all the work and wrote the article. Steps (1) to
(4) are performed entirely free, at no cost to the
publishing house. Steps (5) and (6) result in huge
profit for the publishers. It is all completely mad
and has been for years. The scientific world is
struggling like an insect in a spider’s web to break
free from this insane model, but it is remarkably
resilient, for reasons beyond the scope of this
Not surprisingly this, to put it mildly, attractive
business model has attracted the attention of all
sorts of dubious operators, some of them
respectable and some of them less so. One of the
big operators in this marketplace is called MDPI
( Its boss is called ShuKun Lin (more on him later), and although it is
largely based in China, it maintains a small office
in Switzerland presumably for residency
advantages. MDPI runs 283 scientific journals,
and one of those is a Chemistry journal called
Molecules. Molecules has itself several sections,
one of them being Organic Chemistry. At some
point in the summer, the Organic Chemistry
section of Molecules opened a special issue on a
particular branch of Chemistry with a Guest
Editor called Dr Mindy Levine, who declared her
affiliation as “Department of Chemical Sciences,
Ariel University, 65 Ramat HaGolan Street, Ariel,
This contentious affiliation came to the attention
of BRICUP and PACBI (The Palestinian
Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott
of Israel) in July. I was asked if I could help to
raise the issue of the affiliation and I agreed. I
thought the best way was to contact the editorial
board of the special issue and request that the
author’s affiliation is corrected to one meeting
international standards. As the readers of this
newsletter will know very well, Ariel is not in
Israel. I should mention that I am a UK scientist
with a lifetime of experience in chemistry and
physics and my reading of the situation was that
the best way to handle this issue was to avoid
stirring up a political campaign, with open letters,
press releases and the like, but to calmly raise the
issue through the academic channels. My
experience of the vast majority of scientists is that
political campaigns or stunts are a big turn-off,
with few exceptions. I know that this view may
not be entirely consonant with BRICUP members,
but that was, and remains, my reading of the
While preparing to contact the editorial board I
was astonished to discover that just the Organic
Chemistry section of Molecules has 69 members.
This is very unusual – the editorial boards of most
journals have no more than 10-20 members. The
reason that MDPI journals have enormous
editorial boards is not because those members
actually do anything. It’s seen as good for one’s
CV to be on the editorial board of a journal. In
return for the nominal kudos, one of the
expectations of an editorial board member is that
they contribute an article a year to the journal.
Hence by appointing 69 scientists to the editorial
board, the Organic Section of Molecules (note –
just one section of a single journal) more or less
ensures about 50 articles a year, together with its
publication charges. Repeated over all sections of
all 283 journals of MDPI, this constitutes a very
nice stable profit for doing absolutely nothing
except counting the income. Nice.
Anyway, I spent a good afternoon tracking down
and emailing all 69 members. The email I sent
was very restrained and professional in tone, and
merely proposed that the Guest Editor should be
requested to correct her affiliation to one
conforming to international law. I cited at least
one UN resolution on the status of the occupied
territories. I deliberately did not suggest a specific
corrected affiliation since I did not think, and still
do not think, that is a wise or appropriate thing to
do. It’s likely that my view differs from many
other BRICUP members here, but I do not
consider myself qualified to propose the correct
form of the affiliation of someone living in Ariel.
However, I do consider it within my rights to
point out that “Ariel, Israel” is not correct under
international law.
I did not know at the time, but later came to know
that the American Physical Society, an academic
society that also publishes a raft of academic
journals, some of them the best in the field, had
already adopted an explicit policy on the
acceptable form of affiliations, for example “Ariel
University, Ariel, West Bank”,
t-nations#gaza. If I had known this, I would have
used that information.
Anyway, after sending that email, nothing
appeared to happen, except that I received two or
three supportive responses from members of the
editorial board. However, on 14 September, I was
copied in to an email from the section managing
editor of Molecules to one of the editorial board
members, stating that “Our leader contacted Dr
Levine to discuss, and Dr Levine disagreed to
change her affiliation. And in order to avoid
further mistakes, they decided to close her special
issue and remove her information from our
journal website.” Indeed, the reference to the
special issue had disappeared from the journal
This small victory proved to be temporary. The
subsequent developments are quite confusing, but
I think instructive. My inclination was to bank
this small victory, and start to chip away, using a
similar low-key behind-the-scenes approach
wherever the same issue cropped up again. Maybe
eventually enough momentum could be built up to
open up the campaign and make it more public.
However, I felt that the time was not right. That
cautious view was definitely not shared by
PACBI, and in my opinion what followed was a
textbook case of overplaying one’s hand, although
many others will disagree with me on that.
Quite rightly, this was seen primarily as a PACBI
issue (and indeed, they had originally raised the
issue with BRICUP who had got me involved.)
But, in going for the declaration of a big victory
with attendant press releases and open letters, the
gains were lost. In my view it was a case of
misguided overreach. A Zoom call between
several of us ended up with an agreement to
publish a press release and an open letter
(although my recollection of the call seems to
differ a bit from the others.) PACBI issued a press
release which contained the following phrases:
“Nobel Chemistry Laureate George P Smith and
Royal Society Fellow Malcolm H Levitt
congratulate journal on principled decision”. In a
letter to the editors, they urged the journal to
“correctly and factually” indicate the professor’s
affiliation as “Ariel University, illegal Israeli
settlement of Ariel, Occupied Palestinian
Although I have omitted some of the intermediate
text, the press release can certainly be read as
meaning that I, and also George P Smith,
demanded that the journal corrected the affiliation
to include “illegal Israeli settlement of Ariel”. As
stated above, that is not strictly accurate. I never
suggested such an affiliation, and I would not
have done so. To be fair, I agreed to sign this
press release, having failed to read it closely
Possibly the only people who read the press
release were at the offices of the Jerusalem Post
in Israel. They published an article on 5 October
stating that “The group is led by Prof. George
Smith, winner of the 2018 Nobel Prize in
Chemistry, and Prof. Malcolm Levitt, a Fellow of
the Royal Society. The group asked the journal to
change the address to say “Ariel University,
illegal Israeli settlement of Ariel, Occupied
Palestinian Territory’.” As you can imagine from
my views above, I was not at all happy about this.
In fact, I felt that I and George were now branded
as well-meaning but misguided idiots indulging in
a stunt, which was of course, precisely the
intention of the Jerusalem Post. George and I
immediately received, as expected, a good portion
of hate email. More importantly, the fuss caused
the journal to reverse its decision. Indeed, the
special issue has been reinstated (link above) and
will now appear with “Ariel, Israel” as the
affiliation of the Guest Editor.
There is a curious sequel. George Smith, who is
indeed a Nobel Laureate and a quite extraordinary
person, managed to get in contact with Shu-Kun
Lin, the director of MDPI. He asked him in a
measured and polite email to reconsider the
decision to reinstate the special issue. He received
this terse reply from the man himself: “If your
guys are scholars please do research. The
political issue is not your business.” George and I
discussed this, and I followed up with a polite
email to Lin which sneakily informed him that
George was a Nobel Prize winner and that maybe
someone had hacked his (Lin’s) account since his
email was so out of character. To my
astonishment I got a prompt response from Lin
apologising for his email to George, saying that
he was very busy and had responded hastily, etc.,
and that he would consider the issue further, in
light of the APS policy (see above). However,
nothing has happened. That’s where we are now.
I think that for BRICUP members there is quite a
bit to consider and discuss here. Did the cautious
and low-key approach lead to a small but concrete
gain which was thrown away? Or was the loss of
the small gain a small price to pay for the
attendant publicity and coverage? I have my own