Professors expose the 'uncomfortably common' practice of coercive citation

March 11, 2015 by Diana Lachance

In today's highly competitive world, everyone wants to get ahead. But at what cost? That's the question Dr. Eric Fong, associate professor of management at The University of Alabama in Huntsville (UAH), had to ask himself at a pivotal time in his academic career.

"It's publish or perish, so I had submitted a couple of articles to a couple of journals," he says, recalling his early years as a newly minted Ph.D. "But when I received the reviews, the editors had asked me to do something of questionable ethics. They had asked me to add citations from those journals to my paper for no reason."

His confusion was only compounded by the fact that both journals were reputable. Perhaps, he thought, this was a common practice and he simply wasn't aware of it as a relative newcomer to academia. He decided to seek the advice of his College of Business Administration colleague and veteran professor Dr. Allen "Al" Wilhite.

"I'd never heard of it," says Dr. Wilhite, who by then had been publishing for 20 years. "It was jaw dropping!" The two then asked other members of the College if they'd ever had a similar experience. "We ran into a couple of people who said, 'It happens,' but almost everyone else reacted like I did."

Nevertheless, the fact remained that for Dr. Fong to be able to publish his articles - and in turn become tenured - he would have to acquiesce to the editors' demands. "I did what they asked at the time," he says, "but I said, after I earn tenure, I'm going to study this." And one year later, that's exactly what he and Dr. Wilhite did.

The project began with a survey. "We knew we'd need to write a compelling one, because we were asking really sensitive stuff," he says. It also had to be short. "If a survey is too long, respondents lose interest, so you have to keep thinking about what you are trying to get the answer to without asking extra questions."

They ended up with 20, including whether the respondent had heard about anyone being coerced into adding more citations, whether they themselves had been coerced, which journals had made the request, whether they agreed with the request, and what they thought of the practice. They also asked what rank the respondent held when asked and whether or not they were the only author on the paper.

"We predicted that the editors knew they were doing something unethical, so if they were going to ask someone, they'd be more likely to ask an assistant professor than a full professor," says Dr. Fong. The same, they believed, applied to a single author over a group. "As the group gets larger, you're advertising it to more people."

The survey was then emailed to 50,000 people in the fields of business and social sciences. "There was work involved in getting that list!" says Dr. Wilhite with a laugh. But it was worth it. Within a half-dozen months, they had over 6,000 replies - an impressive response rate that yielded more than enough data to validate the pair's hypotheses.

"We nailed every single one," he says. "It's uncomfortably common, and editors do target manuscripts with fewer authors and with lower-ranked authors." There's also a difference across disciplines, adds Dr. Fong. "Business journals do it more often, while the ones do it less."

The only thing left to do was share their findings. They submitted their coauthored paper, "Coercive Citation in Academic Publishing," to the highly respected journal Science - "they were tough on us to make sure all of our statistics were correct," says Dr. Wilhite - and it was published soon after.

"There was quite a response!" he says. "I think there was an awakening. There were letters to the editor of Science. We got comments from people we knew in the past who we hadn't seen in forever. One journal we named emailed and said they'd had an editorship turnover and it stops with the new one."

Encouraged by the reaction, Drs. Fong and Wilhite began planning an expansion. "We'd talked to people in business and the social sciences," says Dr. Wilhite, "but what about the rest of the world?" So they pulled together a follow-up survey for academicians in the hard sciences, using some questions from the original and adding others about another unethical practice they'd come across.

"In editorials, we saw something that came up called honorary or gratuitous authorship," he says, explaining that authors are sometimes added to scholarly articles without meeting the established criteria for authorship. "It's all hanky-panky, so we thought, let's go ahead and ask them about that at the same time."

The second survey ended up going to 100,000 people, and like the first, generated thousands of responses. This time, though, Drs. Fong and Wilhite were able to afford the additional help needed to go through them with a $212,000 grant from the Office of Research Integrity of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. "They enjoyed it - and they were good!" says Dr. Wilhite of the UAH students they hired.

As for the results? They have yet to be published. Instead, Dr. Fong will share them in a presentation entitled "Authorship and Citation Manipulation in Academic Research," which he plans to give in late May at the 4th World Conference on Research Integrity in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.

"One of the benefits of going to Brazil is that we'll get feedback from experts who are there," says Dr. Fong. "There could be new ideas generated or people could make suggestions that could lead to a third study." Adds Dr. Wilhite, "this is the target audience so they'll have insights."

In the meantime, the pair has already proposed solutions, among them encouraging junior faculty to speak up when they're being coerced and reducing reliance on the used to rate journals. "The impact factor measures how many times your journal is cited and includes how many times your journal cites itself," says Dr. Fong, "so that's an incentive for the editors to coerce."

Whether it will ultimately add up to a sea change in academic publishing, however, remains to be seen. The real responsibility lies with the editors themselves, over whom Dr. Wilhite points out, "we don't have any authority." All that can be done by anyone else is to keep the issue in the limelight - which is exactly what these two intrepid researchers plan to do.

"You point out when things are wrong and you hope that there's a reaction," says Dr. Fong. "And if there's not, you continue to point it out."

Explore further: Coercive citation in academic publishing investigated

More information: "Coercive citation in academic publishing." Science 3 February 2012: Vol. 335 no. 6068 pp. 542-543. DOI: 10.1126/science.1212540

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antialias_physorg
5 / 5 (11) Mar 11, 2015
Excellent work. I hadn't heard of this practice, but if it is prevalent at all it must be stopped (by making it public) ASAP.

It's going to be interesting what the differences to the hard sciences are. I'd predict not as much coercive quoting, since there delineating between what actually is a (hard) foundation and what is not is much easier.
As for the gratuitous authorships. This must be looked at with differentiated view: in some sciences it is just standrad practice that the leader of an institute gets included in the list of authors. Whether That's good or bad is an issue in itself (Personally I find it a good indicator of whether I put a paper on the top of the pile for reading or not. You know that some groups have a track record of excellence - and that the head of the institute at least reads the papers to make sure that only excellent papers are submitted)
Z99
4 / 5 (1) Mar 11, 2015
Power corrupts, so where are the checks and balances? If editors watch the authors, who watches the watchers? Obviously, the readers do. Yet if they can't spot this type of OBVIOUS misconduct - and call the journal out on it - then does it really matter? Isn't that prima facie evidence that the rag is rubbish? What else would you expect to happen when there is one academic position for every 3 or 4 (or 10) PhD in many fields? 30% of social "science" isn't replicable...what more needs to be said?
ryggesogn2
2 / 5 (4) Mar 11, 2015
The 'peer' reviewed journals are gospel.
Dethe
1 / 5 (3) Mar 11, 2015
in some sciences it is just standard practice that the leader of an institute gets included in the list of authors. Whether that's good or bad is an issue in itself
Of course it's a bad practice - if nothing else it's a form of corruption. Only persons with biased morality could be in doubts about it.
KBK
3 / 5 (1) Mar 11, 2015
Imagine what Google's Orwellian little idea pusher software would to with this.

The software program that will be a 'truth-o-meter' ranking system.

It would make this sort of thing more difficult to bring out. As it goes against the facts, the norms, you see?

No-one can find truth in a selective fact system, and that is what Google is proposing. their methodology is severely flawed.

It would make finding this data, knowing it exists, and getting the message out, far more difficult and far more unlikely that the issue would be found in the first place.

Not exactly the best fit of a comment for for this article, but that Google proposal, that overt controlling elitist fascism thing..... has really pissed me off. For all the right reasons.

Lord knows I don't care about some kardashian ass-thing pictures, and want it out of the system completely, but that is not for me to judge. Most specifically, Google is not to be in the judgement business.
antialias_physorg
4.8 / 5 (4) Mar 12, 2015
Of course it's a bad practice - if nothing else it's a form of corruption

It's only a form of corruption if the person profits by it. Since these are invariably already professors (and heads of institutions) the impact rating system no longer holds any benefits for them. You only need to have a certain impact rating (at some universities) to get to be considered for a professorship.

After that, if you want to switch somewhere else, it's the quality of the output of your department that counts. And for that it is actually usefull to be able to determine what kinds of papers came out of that department (by looking for the professor's name on papers). The head of the insititute does set policy what kinds of reasearch is conduicted.

Since they don't have first authorship so it is quite evident which papers they did author and which they did not.
ryggesogn2
1 / 5 (2) Mar 12, 2015
It's only a form of corruption if the person profits by it.


Not very objective.

Science is supposed be objective, no?
antialias_physorg
5 / 5 (4) Mar 12, 2015
Not very objective.

Papers are supposed to be useful. If you eliminate a useful feature that does not cause any harm (and cannot be abused for personal gain) then you've just done something stupid.

The thing that qualifies scientists - apart from being objective - is this: they are not stupid.
ryggesogn2
1 / 5 (4) Mar 12, 2015
The thing that qualifies scientists - apart from being objective - is this: they are not stupid.


Really?

I define stupid is choosing to remain ignorant.

Scientists choose to remain ignorant on many important topics. Especially economics and socialism.
antialias_physorg
5 / 5 (6) Mar 12, 2015
I define stupid is choosing to remain ignorant

Well, I bow to your unrivalled experience in that field.

Especially economics and socialism.

That from someone who doesn't even know the difference between socialism and communism? Do you even have an inkling how stupid the stuff you write actually makes you sound?
ryggesogn2
1 / 5 (3) Mar 12, 2015
the difference between socialism and communism?


The only difference is style, not substance.

National socialism, international socialism, communism, fascism, corporatism, ... all use the power of the state to plunder wealth from the people and redistribute to cronies and buy power.

Scientists participate and support such plunder to keep employed.
zz5555
4 / 5 (4) Mar 12, 2015
I had a similar thing happen during my defense when one of the committee members asked to add one of his papers to my dissertation. I didn't mind doing it - it was at least somewhat related and it meant that I'd get my PhD and hadn't wasted 7 years of my life ;). I probably could have objected and not done it and still got my degree, but it was hard to come up with justification to do that. I've never had a reviewer ask me to add a reference on a paper I've written, though. But I haven't written a journal paper in over a decade, so things might have changed. Or maybe things are different in the hard sciences.
antialias_physorg
5 / 5 (3) Mar 12, 2015
But I haven't written a journal paper in over a decade, so things might have changed.

Well, I've been writing papers up until two years ago - and never had an editor request that I cite a particular paper.
(The only request I ever had to change a citation was by a co-collaborator who asked me to exchange one of the citations of his works for another, because the subject was covered in more depth there)
SaulAlinsky
5 / 5 (5) Mar 12, 2015
Do you even have an inkling how stupid the stuff you write actually makes you sound?


Remember this is the same Ryg that posted this:
How much science was accomplished BEFORE the creation of all the agencies designed to 'help' science?

http://phys.org/n...html#jCp

He basically attributes the last century of scientific advancement to government spending, then goes on to call that a bad thing. It's stupefying.
Dethe
1 / 5 (3) Mar 12, 2015
It's only a form of corruption if the person profits by it
Of course some people will profit from it, or the citations of leader of an institute wouldn't be done. The scientists aren't downward idiots and they don't want to share fame and incentives, if they don't have to..;-)
antialias_physorg
5 / 5 (5) Mar 12, 2015
Of course some people will profit from it, or the citations of leader of an institute wouldn't be done.

The reason leaders of institutes get sometimes included in the author list is so that you know which group this is from. The place is also specified (e.g. in the medical sciences it's last place. In mathematical papers its often first place)

People who read (and understand) these papers are in the field. They KNOW this.

As for the fame: I'm not sure how many famous scientists there are. I certainly know not a single one that is famous because his name is "also" on a bunch of papers. If you get any public recognition at all as a scientists it's for public speaking, publishing a book accessible to the layman or getting a Nobel Prize for YOUR work.
ryggesogn2
1 / 5 (3) Mar 12, 2015
I'm not sure how many famous scientists there are.


Fame is subjective.
The entire concept of PhD research is based upon the work of an individual.
The more PhD candidates and PhD grads an academic has the more 'famous' he is.
I am working with an individual who spent 6 years working with his adviser, who left the school and tried to coerce him to leave. He chose not to and sacrificed all that work.

Just look up the Anderson Research Group at Harvard and see how humble Anderson is.

http://www.arp.ha...our-team

Or the Mann Reasearch Group

http://www.meteo....roup.php

Scientists are soooo humble.
Dethe
1 / 5 (3) Mar 12, 2015
The reason leaders of institutes get sometimes included in the author list is so that you know which group this is from
This is completely nonsensical reasoning (and an attempt for conservation of contemporary unhealthy state with science), as the affiliations of authors are given in articles explicitly at separate place. After all, the focusing to authors, their origin, qualification etc is unhealthy attitude too - the objective analysis and attention should always focus to the content of work itself. I'm pretty well aware that the contemporary scientists are like voting trolls here at physorg - they focus to persons instead of their ideas, as it helps them to reject the inconvenient truth easier. It's much easier to reject & dismiss the scientific work as a whole, if you know, its author is engaged in cold fusion research too. This attitude leads into contemporary state of taboo and pluralistic ignorance of important findings.
Captain Stumpy
3.7 / 5 (6) Mar 12, 2015
This is completely nonsensical reasoning
@ZEPHIR
only to someone who has never published a scientific paper in their life... and are NOT likely to in any near future or in any format

the reasons you are denigrating this at all is because you subscribe to a RELIGIOUS styled set of beliefs that are inviolable, regardless of the evidence against it
regardless of the evidence against your aw/daw, you refuse to let it go, and as such, refuse to acknowledge actual science
there really IS a reason you fear science, evidence and reality
http://www.ploson...tion=PDF

The only difference is style, not substance
@rygg
proof that you are stupid, and admission is good for you

i've showed you the differences before more than once, and the differences are HUGE...
try re-reading them and learning something
antialias_physorg
5 / 5 (6) Mar 12, 2015
as the affiliations of authors are given in articles explicitly at separate place.

Nope.The affiliation is just with "university X". That doesn't tell you which group the paper is from.

the objective analysis and attention should always focus to the content of work

True. However you have to understand that there are many papers being published - and you do not have time to read them all. Going for groups you know have a track record of producing excellent papers is a good way to prioritize.
(Note: That doesn't mean other people's work will not get read.)

I'm pretty well aware that the contemporary scientists are like voting trolls here at physorg - they focus to persons instead of their ideas

No. Since you keep changing personas and keep getting the same votes: That's pretty conclusive proof that they judge you by your ideas, solely. Face it: Your ideas are just crap.
PhysicsMatter
3 / 5 (1) Mar 12, 2015
Adding additional references by editor himself/herself is rare but paper referee request of addition of some specific references, relevant to the paper I think is common. I did it few times myself. Mostly in cases where authors new " theory or explanation" refutes older theories, all of which must be cited and discussed in the paper if the paper really claims to refute them.

Let's be honest. When you are using multimillion dollar lab you'd better include its director otherwise you're going to have a problem to book time on the equipment in the future. Is it ethical. Of course not. What worse is that if conclusions of your paper are contradictory to the directors distinguished record you screwed.

It is sad that, as a result of such practices,science is a witness to countless volumes of thoughtless panegyrics excreted by top academics in quest for their self-aggrandizement and financial gain and dedicated solely to grandeur of their illustrious sponsors.
PhysicsMatter
1 / 5 (2) Mar 12, 2015
The problem is in catastrophic collapse of funding and erratic scrambling of scientists for leftover bread crumbs of research money by filing thirty or more research proposal a year everywhere practically begging for just few thousands $. Under such duress especially young scientists cannot afford to confront any ideas worshiped by members of proposal review panels. It leads inevitably strait to mediocrity and opportunism both killers of true science while proliferate volumes of incoherent utterances. Open any scientific journal and examine for yourself mostly re-warmed half-century-old ideas and outright baseless speculations presented as facts. The fairness in reviewing of scientific papers is and will always depend of sense of individual morality of reviewer, responsibility for scientific community and its relevance in social context. Virtues desperately lack in today's business of science. More found at https://contraria...science/
ryggesogn2
1 / 5 (1) Mar 13, 2015
"Study Finds There Are Too Many Studies"
http://sacramento...studies/

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