Some peer reviews evidently are tempted to ask authors to cite their work, perhaps as a way to boost their own influence. But a recent episode at the journal Bioinformatics suggests, the risk can outweigh the reward.
We’ll let the editors — Jonathan Wren, Alfonso Valencia and Janet Kelso — tell the tale, which they did in “Reviewer-coerced citation: Case report, update on journal policy, and suggestions for future prevention:”
A case was recently brought to the journal’s attention regarding a reviewer who had requested a large number of citations to their own papers as part of their review. After investigation of their most recent reviews, we found that in every review this reviewer requested an average of 35 citations be added, approximately 90% of which were to their own papers and the remainder to papers that both cited them extensively and mentioned them by name in the title. The reviewer’s phrasing strongly suggested that inclusion of these citations would influence their recommendation to the editor to accept or reject the paper. The reviewer was unable to provide a satisfactory justification for these requests and Bioinformatics has therefore banned them as a reviewer. Our investigation also suggests that the reviewer has behaved similarly in reviewing for other journals.
We asked why the editorial didn’t name the offender, given that he could be doing the same thing for lots of journals. Wren told Retraction Watch that the publisher of the journal — Oxford University Press — had other ideas:
I felt the simplest solution was to mention him by name, but OUP’s legal department made an effective argument that I/we don’t have the legal right to do that, given that journals commit to peer-reviewer anonymity as a condition of peer-review. It’s new territory and that’s why I think some increased awareness of the nature of this problem is important. I personally think that journals should adopt a new clause that says something along the lines of “reviewers found to have engaged in misconduct, after a fair and impartial investigation, will be banned from reviewing from that journal for X years and the findings of the investigation will be made public”. Obviously, such investigations should be held to a high standard to protect people from false accusations, and I think everyone eventually deserves a second chance, but it would be an inexpensive and simple disincentive. And, of course, there are other possible solutions, but that’s what I think merits some thought and discussion in the scientific community – what are the pros and cons of the different possible solutions to this type of problem, specifically when a pattern of behavior (i.e., compelling, not anecdotal, evidence) is hard to detect?
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Still, Wren and his colleagues could contact other journals for whom the perpetrator might be reviewing. However, he told us:
Well, that turns out to be the hard part. I did compile some citation metrics for this reviewer and a list of journals he likely reviewed for based on non-self and self-citation patterns. I contacted #1 on that list, they confirmed he was doing the same thing there and banned him from reviewing as well. I contacted one more (which turned out to be an interesting and complicated story, which I can’t go into yet, but is still ongoing) and planned to contact others, but there are a lot of journals to contact and even if I managed to contact them all, he can still review for other journals that haven’t been contacted. This is one of the reasons I wanted to publish the editorial – not only can we not effectively solve this problem for this specific reviewer, the peer-review system is not currently amenable to solving this type of problem in general.
Citation boosting is of course nothing new in scientific publishing.
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