The separation of powers is as important in academic publishing as it is in government.
If readers are to trust the integrity of the editorial and peer review process, editors need to be insulated from the business of publishing, which often means keeping them away from their colleagues in marketing, sales, and advertising.
So important is the separation of powers that some publishers physically separate editorial offices from business operations and place them in different cities. If they can’t separate these divisions physically, they will often develop strong internal policies to minimize influence. For example, PLOS does not disclose to the editor whether a submitting author has applied for article processing fee assistance when reviewing a manuscript.
Similarly, many publishers have explicit rules that prevent editors from handling their own paper or the papers of authors very closely associated with them. None of these separations of roles and powers guarantee that the decision to publish is entirely free of bias, but they do demonstrate a seriousness in building an institution, a process, and a product that can be trusted.
Last week, I described a publisher (American Scientific Publishers) that had four of its journals singled out this year by Clarivate Analytics for displaying a “problematic pattern of citations.” In a series of media questions conducted by email, the publisher, Dr. Hari Singh Nalwa, was quick to blame Chinese authors for the problem, before denying that he knew anything of the matter.
Nalwa (a name he adopted later in life) is listed as the “Founder, President, and Chief Executive Officer” of American Scientific Publishers, the Editor-in-Chief (EiC) of two of its journals, and an associate editor for two more. Not only does Nalwa have a stake in the business and editorial operations of his journals, he is also the author of several reviews published in the journals in which he operates as EiC. More surprising is that some of these reviews include first authors (Eric Singh and Ravina Singh), who appear to be his children. In three papers [1, 2, 3] published in 2015, Eric Singh lists the “William S. Hart High School,” located just a few miles from the ASP publications office as his institutional address. Eric is now an undergraduate in the computer sciences department at Stanford University. The LinkedIn page for Ravina Singh states that she worked as an Editorial Assistant and Marketing Associate for ASP between 2010 and 2016, where she “directed the editorial efforts of multiple academic publications that are circulated in over 600 universities worldwide.” Nalwa did not respond to my questions about family relationships at ASP.
Like the family associated most strongly with ASP, the eight ASP journals indexed in the Web of Science show a curious level of self-dealings, with high levels of citations directed to, and from, other ASP journals.
[T]he vast majority of citations used to calculate 2017 Journal Impact Factors for some ASP journals came from other ASP journals.
As should be visually apparent from the above graph, the vast majority of citations used to calculate 2017 Journal Impact Factors (JIFs) for some ASP journals came from other ASP journals (see Table below). For example, 87% (384) of the citations that determined the JIF score for Journal of Biobased Materials and Bioenergy were from other ASP journals, leaving just 13% (56) citations from other sources. If we were to remove ASP citations from Clarivate’s calculations, its JIF would drop from 2.993 to just 0.381. Similarly, 83% of citations determining the JIF score for Nanoscience and Nanotechnology Letters came from other ASP journals. These two journals also share the same EiC (Dr. Nongyue He). While these percentages should be alarming to most readers, they apparently are not high enough to invoke editorial suppression from the Journal Citation Reports.
Last year, the European Geosciences Union conducted an investigation of Artemi Cerdà –an editor suspected of abusing his position to manipulate the citation record to benefit his own journal, Land Degradation and Development, and his own publications. The publishers of EGU journals (Copernicus and Wiley) were involved as well. Without the separation of roles and powers, such an investigation (and ultimate resignation of the EiC) would not have been possible.
In the case of ASP journals, the founder, owner, CEO, editor, and author not only occupy the same office suite, but the same chair, with no separation of roles or powers. It’s like having the President of the United States overseeing the Executive, Judicial, and Legislative branches of government with the involvement of his children in various decision-making positions. With such a concentration of powers in the hands of a single individual, we shouldn’t expect that ASP will do anything as a result of Clarivate’s editorial expression of concern over the problematic pattern of citations in its journals. “This problem has been resolved so there is nothing to say,” wrote Nalwa in his response to my inquiry.
All hail the Chief!
Table Notes: % JIF Numerator is the percentage of citations from the citing (donor) journal that form the numerator of the citing (recipient’s) Journal Impact Factor calculation. % Exchange to JIF Years is the proportion of citations from donor to recipient that are considered in the JIF calculation. Source items is the number of papers used in the denominator of the JIF.