How much can a single editor distort the citation record? Ivan Oransky at Retraction Watch has been tracking the fallout of Artemi Cerdà, the recently departed Editor-in-Chief of Land Degradation & Development (LDD) and editorial board member of several journals in the geophysical sciences.
The allegation? Setting up a citation cartel.
The European Geosciences Union (EGU) undertook a detailed investigation of Cerdà along with several other EGU editors to determine the extent of the damage.
Citation coercion is not a new phenomenon in academic publishing
As topical editor and reviewer, Cerdà handled 82 manuscripts for two EGU journals: Solid Earth and SOIL. For half of these manuscripts, he suggested that authors add a total of 622 additional references, mostly to LDD. In one case, he suggested that an author add 53 references to a manuscript. Authors complied with 399 of these citation requests, according to the investigation report. In his role as reviewer, Cerdà also suggested that authors add 423 additional references to LDD and other journals.
The collective effect of his coercion resulted in a massive increase of LDD‘s Impact Factor, from 3.089 in 2014 to 8.145 in 2015, according to the Journal Citation Report. Some of this rise can be attributed to self-citation, which accounted for one-third (33%) of its 2015 Impact Factor. In 2016, self-citation will account for almost half (49%) of its Impact Factor. Before Cerdà assumed the role of Editor-in-Chief in 2013, self-citation accounted for just 1% of LDD’s Impact Factor.
Using VOSViewer, I mapped the influence of citations from other journals on LDD‘s Impact Factor. The following graph was constructed by conducting a cited-by-search in the Web of Science and limiting the results to papers that were citing LDD papers published in the prior two years — the window from which the Impact Factor is constructed. Journals under which Cerdà had influence are highlighted in red. [Note: The Web of Science does not index all EGU publications. SOIL and ESurf are excluded.]
Solid Earth, for which Cerdà handled 76 manuscripts, cited LDD a total of 761 times in 2015 and 2016, 411 (54%) of which counted towards LDD‘s Impact Factor.
Outside the Impact Factor window, citations to Cerdà’s own papers (ORCID ID: 0000-0001-5326-4489) has has more than quadrupled during his editorship, from 243 citations in 2012 to 1,084 in 2016, according to the Web of Science.
While Cerdà’s actions have had a huge effect on the performance of LDD and his own publications, he appears to have acted alone, as the European Geosciences Union’s investigation 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.
While the European Geosciences Union could not identify more than one editor engaging in coercive citation behavior, its investigation was limited to EGU journals. The publisher has informed Wiley, publisher of LDD, and Elsevier, publisher of Catena and Geoderma, of their findings.
Citation coercion is not a new phenomenon in academic publishing. A large author survey in the social sciences indicated that one-in-five respondents were coerced by editors to cite more papers without specifying relevant articles or indicating that their manuscripts were lacking in attribution.
While other EGU editors have been cleared of any wrongdoing, the investigation clearly hurt the reputations of fellow editorial board members on affected journals. The executive editor of SOIL voluntarily resigned from his post, stating 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.”
If LDD, SOIL, Solid Earth, Catena, and other journals are de-listed from the upcoming 2016 Journal Citation Report, authors will be the real victims in this multi-vessel shipwreck.