“What the F?”: How we Failed to Publish a Journal Special Issue on Failures

This is an updated version of the article originally written by the WASH Failures Team. Follow them on Twitter: @FSM_Fail It explains why we have had to withdraw from publishing the IJERPH Special Issue on “Learning from Failure in Environmental and Public Health Research”


For the last couple of years, we have been advocating for everyone, including journals, to publish more information on ‘failures’ in water, sanitation and hygiene – where things have gone wrong in projects, or where hypotheses have been proven wrong and returned null results.

Late last year, team member Dani was approached by MDPI to join one of the Boards of International Journal of Environmental Research and Health. In January it was suggested that she begin as a Guest Editor before joining one of the Boards:

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(Screenshot of email sent by IJERPH to Dani Barrington dated 10th January 2020)

We felt this was a great opportunity to propose an issue titled “Learning from Failure in Environmental and Public Health Research”. We were particularly excited that if the Special Issue was accepted, we would be able to fund five open access articles on failures – ideally from academics who don’t normally have access to the (exorbitant) fees required to publish open access.

In March we heard that our proposal had been accepted, and the website launched! Unfortunately, the Academic Editors had not approved team members Becky and Esther as co-editors – we were unimpressed with the lack of foresight to recognise the value of practical experience, even if they had shorter publishing records than Dani. However, we decided to go ahead with just Dani as Guest Editor, as in the grand scheme of things this was a step forward in getting failures into the limelight, and we still intended to work as a team, whatever the inside cover of the Special Issue said!

So, we began advertising the Special Issue – you may even have seen this image on Twitter:screen2

But something didn’t seem quite right as we tried to work out the details of these five ‘free’ papers we had been promised. The below email conversation ensued:

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(Screenshot of email sent by Dani Barrington (after discussion with Esther Shaylor and Becky Sindall) to IJERPH dated 6th March 2020)
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(Screenshot of email sent by IJERPH to Dani Barrington dated 9th March 2020)

Our backs went up immediately – ANOTHER way of privileging researchers from high income countries over those in low/middle income countries? No way could this be happening in 2020. We tried appealing to their better nature, suggesting they make an exception in the case of this Special Issue, at least.

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(Screenshot of email sent by Dani Barrington (after discussion with Esther Shaylor and Becky Sindall) to IJERPH dated 15th April 2020)

We failed.

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(Screenshot of email sent by IJERPH to Dani Barrington dated 23rd April 2020)
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(Screenshot of email sent by Dani Barrington (after discussion with Esther Shaylor and Becky Sindall) to IJERPH dated 24th April 2020)

As we’re sure you understand from the email discussions above, we cannot ethically undertake this Special Issue under these conditions: it goes against everything The Nakuru Accord stands for. We failed to understand the process of allocating open access funding before we proposed and announced a Special Issue. We hold ourselves fully accountable for this.

We realise that there were people who had been planning to submit to this Special Issue, and we’re really sorry that we have had to withdraw our involvement in its current format. However, we are still SUPER KEEN to publish a special issue on failures if we can find a journal that will work with us ethically with the aim of getting rigorous, peer-reviewed failure papers out into the world, rather than as a marketing exercise to improve their brand recognition.

Yours accountably,

The WASH Failures Team


As the WASH Failures team took this pretty embarrassing situation to social media, MDPI quickly felt the need to take an official – and this time politically correct stand – stating that they would launch an investigation into what had gone wrong here and declaring the only criteria for rejection should be the quality of the paper and not the background of its authors. Well pledged MDPI and we are looking forward to seeing deeds following your pledge. However,

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this does not seem to be a “single” case were something “went wrong”, but rather exposed the publicity and ultimately money-driven agenda of MDPI, as other scholars have reported similar communication with the publisher. Time will show if this practice continues after this truly unfortunate backlash for MDPI. In the meantime, publicising similar correspondence is sure to keep publishers’ ethics on track. 

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Dani is a Lecturer in the School of Population and Global Health at the University of Western Australia, a Visiting Lecturer in Water, Sanitation and Health at The University of Leeds, and an Honorary Fellow in the School of Public Health, The University of Queensland. She is also a co-founder of the 'WASH Failures' movement.

Esther is an Innovation Specalist for WASH and Education and works with the UNICEF Supply Division. She part of the WASH Failures Team.

Rebecca is Operations Manager for the Pollution Research Group at the University of KwaZulu-Natal and part of the the WASH Failures Team.

Godfred is a researcher with deep interest in digital innovations for Water and Sanitation services, particularly in global South countries. He is currently a Doctoral Researcher at the University of Manchester and holds an MSc in Water Science, Policy and Management from Oxford University.

Christian holds degrees in Economics, Biology and Water Science from the University of Munich and the University of Oxford. He is a young water professional and currently serves as Managing Director at Oxenu - a consultancy for development and the environment.

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