A first? Papers retracted for citation manipulation

In what appears to be a first, two papers have been retracted for including citations designed to help another journal improve its impact factor rankings. The articles in The Scientific World Journal cited papers in Cell Transplantation, which in turn appears to have cited to a high degree other journals with shared board members.

Here’s publisher Hindawi’s statement on the matter, which involved their publication The Scientific World Journal:

Statement Regarding Two Cases of Citation Manipulation

It has been brought to the attention of The Scientific World Journal that two articles which were previously published in the journal (“A Showcase of Bench-to-Bedside Regenerative Medicine at the 2010 ASNTR” and “Regenerative Medicine for Neurological Disorders”) included a large number of references whose primary purpose was to manipulate the citation record. These articles have both been retracted on the basis that they violate The Scientific World Journal’s policy against citation manipulation, and the corresponding sanctions have been imposed against the authors of these articles.

The Editorial Board Member who was responsible for the evaluation of these articles does appear to have been involved in facilitating this citation manipulation, however neither the journal’s former publisher nor any of the other Editorial Board Members of the journal were found to have been involved in knowingly facilitating this citation manipulation. The Editor who handled these manuscripts is no longer a member of The Scientific World Journal’s Editorial Board, and the sanctions described in the journal’s policy against citation manipulation have been applied to him as well for his role in facilitating this citation manipulation.

Self-citation at journals — in which papers cite other recent articles in the journal to boost the title’s impact factor, a measure of how often, on average, studies are cited in the previous two years — is a well-described phenomenon. Those who get caught practicing it are barred from Thomson Reuters’ Journal Citation Reports, a ranking of titles by impact factor.

In fact, the timing of these two retractions seems to be linked to The Scientific World Journal‘s having been excluded from 2011’s Thomson Reuters Journal Citation Reports for behavior with similar goals but that is even more difficult to detect — being part of a “citation cartel.” (Disclosure: Ivan works at Thomson Reuters, in a completely different division from the one that produces the JCR.)

Phil Davis, who brought the retractions to our attention, first highlighted the behavior of The Scientific World Journal, Cell Transplantation, and a third journal, Medical Science Monitor, in an April Scholarly Kitchen post titled “The Emergence of a Citation Cartel.” In a fascinating analysis, Davis shows clear patterns of citation manipulation at the journals, which share editorial board members but not publishers. Davis reported Friday that the three journals will not receive an impact factor ranking this year, a development Richard van Noorden followed up on in the Nature News blog.

Hindawi publisher Paul Peters left this comment on both blog posts:

As the current publisher of The Scientific World Journal, which is one of the titles that was suspended from the 2011 JCR, I would like to reply to the description of this situation as a “citation cartel.” It is unfortunately true that two articles were published in The Scientific World Journal with excessive citations to the journal Cell Transplantation, which have subsequently been retracted on the grounds that they violate the journal’s Policy Against Citation Manipulation (http://www.tswj.com/policies/). These articles were both written by members of the Cell Transplantation Editorial Board, and the Editor who accepted both articles for publication in The Scientific World Journal, who later left The Scientific World Journal’s Editorial Board, is one of the Section Editors for Cell Transplantation.

While this situation (which is explained on The Scientific World Journal’s website at http://www.tswj.com/statement/) is very regrettable, it is incorrect to describe this as a “citation cartel” since there have never been any articles with excessive citations to The Scientific World Journal published in Cell Transplantation or Medical Science Monitor. It appears that a number of Editors from Cell Transplantation worked together to exploit their position on the Editorial Boards of other journals (including The Scientific World Journal) in order to boost the citation count to Cell Transplantation, but without the involvement of any other Editorial Board Members or the former publisher of The Scientific World Journal. We very much agree that better safeguards should have been in place to prevent these sort of articles from being accepted for publication, and after Hindawi took over the publication of The Scientific World Journal last year we implemented a number of changes to the editorial workflow of the journal which should prevent any similar cases from happening in the future. More recently, we developed a tool that our in-house staff currently use to check every submitted manuscript that we receive in any of our journals in order to detect possible cases of citation manipulation prior to the article being sent for peer review.

While we very much regret the fact that The Scientific World Journal will not receive an Impact Factor for the current year, we appreciate the need for Thomson Reuters to take a firm stance against any manipulation of the citation record, which is an issue that we take very seriously as a publisher.

Hindawi’s punishment for citation manipulation — which is similar to its sanctions for plagiarism — is quite strict. Unlike many journals, it does not shy away from bans on authors:

Submitted manuscripts that are found to include citations whose primary purpose is to increase the number of citations to a given author’s work, or to articles published in a particular journal, will incur citation manipulation sanctions. The following citation manipulation sanctions will be applied:

  • Immediate rejection of the infringing manuscript.
  • Immediate rejection of every other manuscript submitted to any journal published by Hindawi Publishing Corporation by any of the authors of the infringing manuscript.
  • Prohibition against all of the authors for any new submissions to any journal published by Hindawi Publishing Corporation, either individually or in combination with other authors of the infringing manuscript, as well as in combination with any other authors. The prohibition shall continue for three years from notice of suspension.
  • Prohibition against all of the authors from serving on the Editorial Board of any journal published by Hindawi Publishing Corporation.

We asked Peters whether it was the ban that “brought [the citation manipulation] to the attention” of the publisher, and will update with anything we hear back. In the meantime, hope seems to spring eternal at the journal, which has an “Impact Factor Coming in 2013” banner on every page.

Update, 5:30 p.m. Eastern, 7/5/12: Peters tells us:

…we became aware of these two articles from Phil Davis’ article in the Scholarly Kitchen in April. Upon learning about these two articles, we put an additional screening process in place for all of our journals to detect any similar papers in the future. Thomson Reuters contacted us a couple of days before the 2011 JCR was released to tell us that the journal would be suppressed from the Impact Factor list as the result of these two articles.

11 thoughts on “A first? Papers retracted for citation manipulation”

    1. Judging by the titles of the papers, these were of the review variety. Thus, excessive citations to one journal are likely to bias the review and therefore compromise its legitimacy.

  1. @$#%# We just have a paper accepted in Cell Transplantation. They have an impact factor of above 6 and this was of course… a factor in our decision to submit. I do not think there is anything wrong with the journal but am quite pissed off.
    Is this a reason for a retraction from our side…?

    1. I had exactly the same problem and at the end my boss decided to retract in publish there because we need IF journals to continue been granted. What have you decided?

  2. Ever had the editorial office of a journal while replying you, asked you to include citation of at least a certain number of papers from the journal itself? I have received such a correspondence before but thought it was an open secret. Now I realize that this is actually punishable.

    1. I once received a very broad hint, but can’t remember whether it benefited an author in another journal or an author in the same journal. If I can dredge up the ancient e-mail, I’ll report back. I laughed and did it. Whatever the goal, people will try to game the system. People collude to help each other get more citations, journals try to pump up their impact factors, universities … okay, the list there is long.

      Evaluating actual quality is difficult. The evaluator must know something about the subject. Counting is much easier and faster, and machines or minimum-wage employees can count, so evaluation schemes are based on counting. If you understand how the counts are arrived at, you can subvert the intent. I’ve seen it in government. I’ve seen it in academia. (In business, they don’t need a special evaluation scheme. They count money.) No surprise that evaluation schemes can be subverted. But always entertaining to hear details of it happening. Thanks, SK.

    2. Yes. And after receiving such a request, I decided never to submit an invited review to that journal ever again. The only reason I didn’t cancel the submission was because my graduate student spent quite a bit of work on writing the manuscript with me, and I didn’t think it fair to penalize him.

  3. I disagree with the claim by the editor of TSWJ that the journal is not part of a citation cartel. The Scholarly Kitchen post gives the numbers. Yes, Cell Transplantation received the majority of the citations and thus gained the most benefit from the scheme, but TSWJ, in return for accepting the manuscript, received all the rest of the citations in that manuscript. Therefore its ranking probably increased as a result of the collaboration. Entities that collaborate with each other to their mutual benefit and to the detriment of entities outside the group, in a way that breaks the rules, are members of a cartel. The entities in the cartel may not all benefit equally — and since the editors of Cell Transplantation did the work to write the paper, it seems “fair” that they should get the lion’s share of the benefit — but all members benefit by participating in the scheme. TSWJ need not receive an exorbitant number of citations in the other journals to be a member of the cartel. It has received an inflated number of citations in its own journal as payment for accepting the manuscript.

    Whether the single editor who was given the sack is a scape-goat or had truly managed to conceal the shceme from everybody else is unknown. But the team must take its punishment.

  4. Has anyone had a look at TSWJ? I came across one of their journals some years ago doing a Systematic Review. Out of curiosity I followed the trail of the lead author of a particularly colourful-sounding article (which revealed a pretty interesting story in itself). I found that this author was first author on more than 100 articles in just a couple of years, most of which seemed to have cut and paste big chunks of text from one article to the next, obviously also with the requisite excessive self-citation.

    This sort of behaviour is obviously a problem, but where does the solution lie? Informatics companies who list the journal on databases, Journal publishers (compromised by financial motivation), Journal editors (compromised by professional advancement motivation), academics submitting articles (compromised by the pressure to publish), readers (compromised by time availability or skills to detect fraud of this nature)?

    I dont know the answer, probably there is no single one.

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