Citation-boosting episode leads to editors’ resignations, university investigation

Artemi Cerdà

The fallout from an investigation into alleged citation-boosting at several journals that we first reported on two weeks ago has widened, leading to the resignation of the executive editor of one of the journals, and an investigation at a university in The Netherlands.

On February 13, the European Geosciences Union (EGU) announced that an editor at two of its journals had resigned following an investigation by the EGU and its publishing arm, Copernicus, into citation-boosting. They declined to name the editor in question. Last week, we reported that the editor in chief of a Wiley journal, Land Degradation & Development, has temporarily stepped down while the journal investigated similar concerns about why the journal’s impact factor had jumped dramatically recently.

Others — many cleared in the EGU’s investigation — have been swept up in the ongoing story. Here’s what has happened in the last two weeks:

  • Following the wide circulation of an anonymous report detailing an alleged “citation cartel,” Wageningen University announced that it was investigating the matter further, with one report on its site suggesting the investigation involved whether a particular one of its researchers was involved.
  • The EGU reversed course, naming the editor in question, Artemi Cerdà, following the circulation of the anonymous report.
  • The executive editor of one of the journals involved has stepped down, saying the “distraction…is not in the best interests of the journal.”
  • Cerdà resigned from the editorial board of Geoderma, published by Elsevier. Another editorial board member has also resigned from Geoderma.

Beginning on February 18, someone using the pseudonym “Akhenaten McDonald” began circulating a report — including to Retraction Watch — alleging that eight different soil science researchers, and five different journals, were members of a citation cartel.

In response to that report, on February 23, Wageningen announced that it was investigating. A report on its site indicated that the investigation centered on one unnamed researcher who

went from zero citation in Land Degradation & Development in 2013 to 124 citations last year. In that period, her total number of citations went from 38 to 430.

That researcher, however, was simply caught up in Cerda’s citation boosting, Hubert Savenje, EGU publication committee chair, tells Retraction Watch:

Wageningen communicated with us and we informed them, at the time, that we had no indication of their staff member being part of the malpractice. Our final report indeed puts this staff member in the clear.

On February 27, also in response to the anonymous report, the EGU posted a 14-page document detailing its findings in the case. Previously, the EGU had declined to name the editor it said was responsible and who had stepped down from the two editorial boards, but the document concludes:

From our analysis it appears that only one editor, Artemi Cerdà, violated our ethical rule that “any manipulation of citations (e.g. including citations not contributing to a manuscript’s scientific content, citations solely aiming at increasing an author’s or a journal’s citations) is regarded as scientific malpractice.” There is no indication that other editors would have violated relevant ethical rules, and there is no evidence that a group of editors would have formed a “cartel” to boost citations to their journals.

Cerdà was also the editor who stepped down temporarily from the editorship of Land Degradation & Development. We asked Savenije why the EGU had reversed course:

In the beginning we tried to protect the names of the people who had no dealing with this malpractice, but after the “McDonald” report we realised we had to mention all the people mentioned in the report by name, so as to clear the names of those who were implied but had no part in the malpractice.

Yesterday (March 2), Eric Brevik, the executive editor of one of the two EGU journals, SOIL, announced he was resigning. In a letter posted on SOIL, he wrote that:

given recent events I feel that my continued presence on the SOIL editorial board would become a distraction that is not in the best interests of the journal. Therefore, I have submitted my resignation.

Savenije tells Retraction Watch that it was Brevik’s

…own initiative and decision to step down. In fact, we asked him to stay on as, throughout this affair, he acted responsibly and professionally. In fact, he was the first to raise the alarm that something unusual was taking place, which triggered our investigation.

In an undated letter this week, Geoderma editors announced that Cerdà had resigned from the journal’s editorial board, and that someone cleared of citation boosting also resigned:

Over the last week, we have carefully checked all the work that these additional three board members have done for Geoderma as reviewers and guest editors over the last decade. We have found no indications of citation stacking by these individuals, or the existence of a “citation cartel”.  Unfortunately, one of them withdrew from our board in order to avoid any negative associations of our journal with these anonymous allegations – a fact that we deeply regret.

In the meantime, a number of the editors named in the anonymous report have expressed concerns that they are being implicated in misconduct despite not being responsible. One such editor, Jorge Mataix-Solera, circulated a letter that reads, in part:

From the investigations to date it is clear that there has been some scientific misconduct, with one individual clearly implicated at its root. Whilst the anonymous “citation cartel” report provides useful evidence for citation malpractice, it has also led to serious damage to the reputation of colleagues including myself, which I feel is also a form of unfortunate scientific misconduct. I hope my letter and the evidence given in the appendix goes some way in repairing the damage. I also urge the authors of the report to contribute to repairing some of the damage they have done.

We asked Mataix-Solera whether he was thought that the EGU’s original release of information, omitting Cerda’s name, was the right decision:

EGU and Copernicus acted promptly to this case, as fast as possible and the name was obvious since after editorial and resignation of him from the editorial boards was clear who was, it was not necessary to write the name and punish more to the person, the right decisions were adopted in due moment, before the “anonymous cartel citation report”, and in the EGU-Copernicus report after all investigations the name of him was released.

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4 thoughts on “Citation-boosting episode leads to editors’ resignations, university investigation”

  1. There were rumblings in the European soil science community several years ago about curious editorial practices that boosted the journal impact factors. For instance the “Journal of Soils and Sediments is a relatively new journal and had a relatively high impact factor since it was first calculated in 2008. It got an impact factor of 4.373 for year 2007. … A bit of citation analysis shows that most of the citations came from its editors” (

    Maybe these soil scientists just got tired of their journal getting treated like dirt.

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