Frog made of marzipan.
Frog made of marzipan. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Editors and publishers know how important the impact factor is, and can go to great lengths to generate more citations. Sometimes, such efforts can pay off handsomely. In one case, merely calling for a paper to be cited in its text (“This paper could serve as a general literature citation . . .”) led to more than 6,600 citations and increased the impact factor of Acta Crystallographica Section A from 2.051 to 49.926. Its next-most cited article had 28 citations.

Coercion is another approach. Citation coercion has been experienced by about 20% of academic authors, and younger faculty are more likely to succumb when editors or publishers “request” more journal citations. In these situations, it’s easy to picture editors or publishers deploying heavy-handed techniques — intimidation, threats, and directives — to browbeat young authors into pumping up impact factors with bogus self-citations.

So it’s reassuring that such an attempt recently came to pass because of innocent enthusiasm, was quickly withdrawn after the inappropriateness of the request was pointed out, and involved a sweeter form of coercion, as this email forwarded to the Scholarly Kitchen in mid-November reveals:

SUBJECT: JEOS:RP Sweepstakes: Win a Marzipan Loaf of the Year!

Dear [redacted],

do you currently have any manuscripts on your desk that need your approval? If yes, please check if a JEOS:RP paper from the 2010 or 2011 issue relates and insert a reference – it pays off!

For every paper that is published until the end of 2012 and that includes a reference to a JEOS:RP paper from 2010 or 2011 you will be rewarded with a Niederegger Marzipan Loaf of the Year. Just email me a copy of the paper and I will have a loaf of finest German marzipan delivered directly to your office.

. . .

Best regards,

[name redacted]

PS: Citations to older issues (2006-2009) are of no importance for the impact factor.

The EOS is the European Optical Society, and JEOS:RP is the Journal of the European Optical Society: Rapid Publications. The author of the email is an executive at EOS — I’ve chosen to redact the name based on the complete story, which follows, and because everyone felt this was merely a case of misinformed and misdirected enthusiasm.

JEOS:RP is an open access (OA) journal competing to some extent on its impact factor, noting on their journal’s About page:

In the Thomson Reuters’ 2011 Journal Citation Index Report JEOS:RP achieved an impact factor of 1.019 – which is a substantial increase from the value of 0.787 in 2009.

The marzipan in question is Niederegger, but it’s not clear whether it’s the Blood Orange Loaf of the Year listed on Amazon for $11.50. A lack of specificity about the flavoring may be a failing of this attempt to secure more citations — is it almond, chocolate, blood orange, or apricot? One is left to speculate, and this uncertainty may have left some respondents unmoved.

Niederegger marzipan sounds particularly enticing, however, based on the White Marzipan Loaf’s description:

  • Niederegger is the only marzipan using 100% quality marzipan paste, no others compare
  • They have won over 30 Gold medals and numerous prizes for their production of the world’s best marzipan
  • The packaging along with the best ingredients used make Nideregger the market leader it is today
  • This is a loaf of pure white marzipan to be eaten by a person with discerning taste

While the marzipan angle gives this attempt to influence editorial behavior a certain endearing quality, pointedly requesting additional self-serving citations is clearly inappropriate, especially when underscored by the postscript clarifying exactly what the author intended.

After this email was distributed, its author was contacted, and the problematic nature of the request for citations pointed out. The email and request were quickly withdrawn, which is only proper.

A satisfying conclusion, you may think. But one question remains:

What’s going to happen to that unclaimed marzipan?

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Kent Anderson

Kent Anderson

Kent Anderson is the CEO of RedLink and RedLink Network, a past-President of SSP, and the founder of the Scholarly Kitchen. He has worked as Publisher at AAAS/Science, CEO/Publisher of JBJS, Inc., a publishing executive at the Massachusetts Medical Society, Publishing Director of the New England Journal of Medicine, and Director of Medical Journals at the American Academy of Pediatrics. Opinions on social media or blogs are his own.


12 Thoughts on "Of Confections and Citations, Missteps and Marzipan"

Wikipedia is also going a bit citation-crazy, even when it’s just not necessary. No marzipan offered, however – as far as I am aware.

Wikipedia is seeking legitimacy through citation, which is a different reason to overdo it.

Two other possible explanations hit me just now. 1) Perhaps crowd-sourcing citations yields more citations than single- or multi-author papers? Seems a worthy research question. Or 2) Perhaps Wikipedia entries are more akin to review articles, which have longer citation lists in general, so are the better comparator population.

Stopping now. Feeling myself drawn down Citation Road, which is not far from the Road to Perdition.

Surely this post is about citations. Wikipedia could become a magnet for citations since many citations are about summarizing the problem addressed by research. I did a quick study and found that roughly 60% of the citations occurred in the first 25% of a journal article (measured by word count), which is where the problem is explained. This is probably why reviews get so many. Wikipedia is all about review.

Yes, both of those possibilities make sense. The vast numbers of citations appearing after some of the Wiki entries is really quite amazing, and also given the long-standing negative press ‘versus’ the quality of Wiki, providing many footnotes seems an understandable reaction. And, being here in burundi where there are so few resources, these links are often quite useful, responding to needs of an open, international audience (very few are to non OA references).

The latter point – that Wiki tends to have primarily OA footnotes and references, I think is quite important, setting their citations apart from referenced journal articles?

Kent, I think the time has finally come for a line of SK-themed t-shirts. One of them could say “Will Cite for Marzipan.”

I wonder what the reaction here would have been if Elsevier or one of the other commercial publishers had done something similar; however, because it involves a society-owned open access journal, the attempt to skew the impact factor is viewed as “endearing”.

You’re right, I tread lightly on this one because it seemed more ignorance than malice at work. If a professional publisher had done this, the presumption of innocence, so to speak, wouldn’t have been there. I’d have slammed them. (And still would have wanted to know about the disposition of the unclaimed marzipan.)

Hold on a minute! Why isn’t an OA journal considered a “professional” publisher? They compete on the same field of play as what you would call “professionals.” So, why shouldn’t they be responsible for knowing the rules and following them? The editor of the journal in question, whether through avarice or ignorance — we don’t know, — cheated. Why make a joke out of it?

It was a delicate balance. There were plenty of potential ways to go — harsh condemnation was certainly an option. But because the marzipan “hook” was so eye-catching, and the organization apparently so unaware that it was completely in the wrong here (and quick to retract when the error of their ways was pointed out), I opted to tread lightly.

Looking at how it has socialized (if Twitter and Facebook are any indication), the marzipan hook helped word spread. I don’t think the shame is any less, even if a spoonful of sugar helped the medicine go down.

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