Thomson Reuters released the 2011 edition of the Journal Citation Report (JCR) on Thursday, promoting increased coverage of regional journals and listing 526 new journals receiving their first journal impact factor. Far less conspicuous was a list of 51 journals that were suspended from this year’s report due to “anomalous citation patterns.”
Anomalous citation patterns is typically a euphemism for systemic self-citation.
Rampant self-citation is very easy to identify, and it can be achieved by several premeditated strategies. Editors may attempt to coerce authors into self-citing the journal as a condition of manuscript acceptance — a practice that is reportedly widespread among some business and marketing journals. A less intrusive tactic is for an editor to publish a short review (listed as an editorial) citing every article in the journal published in the prior two years (the window from which the impact factor is calculated), or to contrive a bibliometric study that is limited to the papers published in one’s journal and then citing each paper as a data point.
Since 2004, the JCR has been calculating self-citation rates, reporting their percentage and contribution to a journal’s impact factor calculation. For some journals, self-citation can reach nearly 100%. Because self-citation is so easy to detect, it is also easy to take punitive action. Each year, dozens of journals are suspended by the JCR; many are reinstated several years later with self-citation rates that resemble other journal in their field.
This year, the list of 51 suspended journals included three of four titles that engaged in citation behavior resembling a citation cartel. Citation cartels are exceedingly difficult to detect since they represent coordinated efforts among several journals to collectively self-cite.
It would be tempting at this point to begin a long diatribe against the impact factor, why it represents the hegemony of commercial interests over the needs of scientists, or why we should abandon journal-level metrics for article-level metrics. I’ll leave others to take these positions.
To me, the suspension of journals from the JCR represents a serious consequence to editors wishing to manipulate an important rating and a warning to others that such behavior is clearly unacceptable. No editor wants to be known as the one who was responsible for getting the journal kicked off the JCR. Being suspended from the JCR does not mean that a journal cannot publish; it just means that it cannot send an important quality signal to the scientific community. The fact that most journals are ultimately reinstated in the JCR in future years suggests that suspension provides a strong incentive to editors to abide by community norms of acceptable behavior. Suspension from the JCR may be considered a punitive action but it does come with a second chance.
Thomson Reuters, the parent company behind the JCR, has a long and vested interest in keeping the impact factor relevant and salient in the minds of academics and those who evaluate them. But it can only do this by working to maintain the integrity of the citation network and to preserve the collective believe that the citation represents some form of accomplishment and peer recognition. Thomson Reuters does not take a moral position in what is considered acceptable behavior but relies on the norms of the scientific community to protect against “anomalous citation patterns.”
Whether or not you agree with the impact factor as a credible indicator of scientific importance, the process of sanctioning journals that attempt to game the system helps maintain the integrity of the scientific publishing enterprise for everyone.