In his landmark 1999 essay, “Scientific Communication — A Vanity Fair?” polymath Georg Franck warned readers that our dependence on citation counting could result in a “shadow market,” where journal editors coerce authors into bolstering their citation counts by requiring that unnecessary journal references be added to a manuscript prior to acceptance.
A new article published in Science this week suggests that this fear may have already become a reality, at least for the business and marketing literature.
The article, “Coercive Citation in Academic Publishing,” analyzed the nearly 7,000 responses from an online questionnaire sent to researchers in economics, sociology, psychology and business. The researchers were particularly interested in whether editors attempted to coerce authors into citing more articles from their own journal. A coercive self-citation request was defined as a request for more journal citations without providing specific relevant articles or indicating that the manuscript was lacking in attribution.
The researchers report that one in five respondents described being coerced by editors. While the vast majority of respondents (86%) viewed citation coercion as inappropriate behavior, more than half (57%) indicated that they would consent to the request. Not surprisingly, lower-ranked faculty were more likely to acquiesce to coercion. The culture of citation coercion also appears to be much more of a problem in business than economics, sociology, or psychology. A list of the biggest journal offenders are found in supplementary table S12.
The researchers also reported that journals published by commercial presses or societies were more likely to attempt citation coercion than journals published by university presses.
To me, this is the weakest part of the analysis since the authors didn’t distinguish between who runs the operation of the journal and who publishes it. Many scholarly journals are owned and operated by a society who may select a commercial publisher to host it. Even so, scholars are largely in control of the editorial office and review process of a journal, whoever publishes the journal. For the record, Elsevier is the publisher of 4 of the top 5 journal offenders.
Citation gaming is as old as the process of attribution itself, and we shouldn’t be shocked that inappropriate citation behavior is occurring. This study suggests that citation coercion is a problem for a number of journals in business, yet we should be hesitant to conclude that the problem is acute and widespread. While there are clear benefits for a journal engaging in citation coercion, there is also real potential for doing harm.
Most of the respondents in the study felt that citation coercion was inappropriate, depressed the prestige of the journal, and reduced the likelihood that authors would engage with that journal in the future. Thomson Reuters also monitors self-citations when calculating a journal’s impact factor, and may delist a journal when self-citation rates become too high or changes the relative ranking of a journal within its field. No editor wants to be known as the one who put the journal in “time out.”
In sum, the results of this study put real numbers to what many have reported anecdotally over the years. It also points to errant behaviors that may be more acceptable in some fields than others. Any variable that is used to evaluate science is susceptible to manipulation. Developing tools to detect, report, and hold accountable those who view citations as little more than marketing tools is critical for those of us who still view the citation as a tool for scholarly attribution.