Paul L. Caron

Tuesday, October 8, 2019

Meet the Researchers Fighting Back Against Rogue Peer Reviewers And ‘Citation Cartels’

Following up on my previous post, The Network Of Law Reviews: Citation Cartels, Scientific Communities, And Journal Rankings:  Chronicle of Higher Education, Meet the Researchers Fighting Back Against Rogue Peer Reviewers and ‘Citation Cartels’:

Eric A. Fong’s manuscript had been conditionally accepted. The editor said Fong needed to ensure it conformed with the journal’s style and to shorten it to meet the word limit. That was easy enough. But the third condition gave Fong pause.

He’d cited only one source from the journal he’d submitted the article to. The editor wrote in an email that that was “unacceptable,” and told him to “please add at least five more.”

Adding citations to articles in the same journal, as the editor had requested, would inflate the journal’s impact factor, which often dictates a journal’s importance. It’s a phenomenon some scholars call “coercive citation,” but Fong, then an assistant professor of management at the University of Alabama at Huntsville, had never heard that term.

Still, he felt what he was being asked to do was wrong. And yet publishing this paper would be an important part of his case for tenure. Conflicted, Fong printed out the email and headed to Allen Wilhite’s office. Wilhite, Fong’s mentor and an economics professor, was stunned. Most of their colleagues were, too. A few, though, said they had received a similar request from an editor.

Coercive citation has drawn increased attention in recent years. Last month two researchers at the Dutch publishing giant Elsevier published a study, titled “When Peer Reviewers Go Rogue,” that examined the citation patterns of nearly 55,000 reviewers for its journals. They found that 433 of those reviewers — less than 1 percent — consistently had their own work cited in papers they reviewed. ...

Coercive citation is rare, the study suggests, but when it does occur, it’s egregious. Analysis of Elsevier’s reviewer network found one scholar who had requested in 120 separate reviews that the authors add “multiple irrelevant citations” to their papers. Only four of the authors refused to do so.

Faced with his own coercion dilemma, Fong, who’s now an associate professor, wound up adding the superfluous citations to his paper — and he did the same when a reviewer on another paper asked for more citations. He felt he couldn’t refuse. “I would not be here today if I didn’t succumb to the pressure of the editors. Without those publications, my record probably would not have been deemed tenurable,” Fong says. “I’m not saying that makes my decision right, but that’s the pressure that I was under.” ...

Fong, though, would later stand up to the practice, albeit in a different way. He and Wilhite have written a number of papers on citation manipulation. ... “The instant I earned tenure, we took off with this,” Fong says. “We kind of made hay out of fighting it.” ...

A bundle of terms have been used to describe the constellation of bad-faith actions plaguing citation culture: coercive citation, citation manipulation, citation stacking, citation pushing, citation padding.

Not to mention “citation cartels,” which are pretty much what they sound like: groups of editors or journals banding together, usually agreeing to cite one another’s work for a mutual impact-factor bump. The term was coined in a 1999 article entitled “Scientific Communication — A Vanity Fair?

The genius of citation cartels lies in the fact that they distribute unethical practices across multiple journals and editors, making them impossible to detect without access to an extensive database of citations, which must then be mapped to illuminate possibly suspicious connections.

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