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Unethical journals tell academics to pad their papers with citations

Some journal editors demand academics boost the number of references to other articles published in their journal. Flickr/Spinstah

One in five academics from a range of fields say they have come under pressure from journals to pad out their papers with unnecessary citations to get published, a large survey has found.

Analysis of 6,672 responses from US academics working in the areas of economics, sociology, psychology and business showed that 40% knew about the practice of “coercive citation”. Half of those had been on the receiving end, according to researchers from The University of Alabama in Huntsville’s College of Business Administration who carried out the survey.

Journal editors who engage in coercive citation want to boost the number of references to other articles previously published in their journals. This raises the journal ranking and is used to make claims of prestige and importance.

The findings of the survey are published in the latest edition of the journal Science.

The authors, Dr Allen Wilhite and Dr Eric Fong, found that journals usually targeted junior academics, who were more likely to capitulate to the pressure: assistant professors were 5.5 percentage points more likely to acquiesce than higher-ranking professors.

“When we first learned about coercion we were stunned, but after asking around we found that several people were aware of this behavior,” said Dr Wilhite. “At that point we decided to look into the extent and consequences of the practice.”

The survey also found that 57% of respondents would add unnecessary citations to a paper if they were planning to submit it to a journal that had a reputation for coercion.

Dr Fong said the behavior “hurts all of academia and affects the integrity of academic publications”.

The findings also call into question the metrics-based system of measuring research excellence and directing funding, which counts the number of peer-reviewed publications and citations accumulated by universities.

This year a dozen Australian universities will trial a system of assessing the broader impact of their research on the world outside academia as an alternative way of determining where research funding should go. The pilot scheme is being led by the Australian Technology Network of Universities.

Andrew Norton, who directs the higher education program at the Grattan Institute, said that “all metrics-based systems create opportunities for gaming or incentives for over-emphasising whatever is measured; all qualitative systems generate claims of bias, error and misjudgement. There is no perfect system.

Citation coercion was not as big a problem in Australia, he said. "But where gaming can be identified and controlled without major unintended negative consequences, policymakers should tweak the system accordingly.”

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