Elsevier recently announced to crack down on their peer reviewers who rig citations. The problem goes however further, since most rotten fishes (which many Elsevier journals are) stink from the head down. The following guest post by a Scandinavian cancer researcher, under the pseudonym “Morty“, will reveal some clever tactics academic editors use to boost both their own and their journal’s publication output.
This time it is not the simple mandate to authors about citing random papers from the journal they submit to, or publishing any fraud without looking, it is more sophisticated. First of all, there are cases of editors who use their journal as the main pipeline for their own research. Sure, editors are expected to publish their own work in the journal they edit, but the key point is not to overdo it. Depending on the field, up to one or two papers per year can be OK, but otherwise one does wonder whether the work is so awful that no other journal but your own wanted it.
One particularly egregious case Morty presents is of a certain British former academic and now businessman: 95% of his entire “research” output was published in the two Elsevier journals he presides over as Editor-in-Chief. Another option to game the system: when several academics sit on editorial boards of two or more seemingly unrelated journals, they can push through each other’s papers, in a mutual back-scratching manner. And yet another route to boost your publication output seems to be to require a gift authorship as reward for pushing somebody’s paper into the journal you edit.
Editors: Captains on rat ships
We are witnessing a crisis of trust in science, where researchers struggle to orientate in the wild west of scholarly literature. Instead of fighting against the global misinformation, research scientists are occupied with their own little universe and all too concerned about research funds and securing a future career. Although sad, it is in some way understandable. Even as academic journal editors, scientists often fail their responsibility. What kind of science do we get when the editors of so called scientific journals don’t bother about the quality and stop maintaining true scientific standards?
Some editors apparently use their journals as their own playground, where they publish with high frequency. John F. Kennedy, not the former US president, but a businessman and Editor-in-Chief of the two Elsevier journals International Journal of Biological Macromolecules (IJBM) and Carbohydrate Polymers, can serve as a good example. The two journals share many similarities besides having the same Editor-in-Chief. The vast majority of contributing authors is from China, with India as the second most contributing country. They have a high self-citation rate and the two journals are citing each other at an unusual high frequency. This means that their relatively decent journal impact factor would be much lower without this collaboration. Kennedy figures as a frequent contributor in both journals. We are not talking about editorials, but original articles or reviews. As many as 16 of the last 20 published articles where Kennedy figures as author, were published in IJBM (from 2015 to 2019). In addition, three of the articles were published in Carbohydrate Polymers. This means that 95% of Kennedys’ articles were published in the two journals where he is Editor-in-Chief!
You may have noticed the problem that editors are so eager to publish that a large proportion of their publications are in their own journal. This phenomenon seems to be common in many research fields, e.g. cancer research. Wafik S. El-Deiry, Editor-in-Chief in Cancer Biology & Therapy (CBT, published by Taylor & Francis), got nearly a quarter of his articles published in his own journal from when he started as Editor-in-Chief in 2001. Paul Dent, deputy Editor-in-Chief in CBT is even more eager: half of his scientific production since 2017 has been published in CBT! But he has already got enough publicity at PubPeer together with his colleagues Steven Grant and Paul B Fisher (editor and editorial board member in CBT, respectively). Another example is Marc E. Lippman, Editor-in-Chief of the Springer journal Breast Cancer Research and Therapy. He is a frequent contributor in his own journals, with 45% of his last 20 articles published there (since 2009). Moving over to polymer science, a research field closer to what is the focus of this story: Ann-Christine Albertsson, Editor-in-Chief in the ACS journal Biomacromolecules, has so far published 40% of her last articles since 2014 in her own journal.
So what about the scientific quality? You would think that the Editors- in-Chief should figure as a good role model and present data with the highest standards. I’m afraid not. Most of the data is presented as opaque graphical illustrations without any raw data, which makes it more challenging to analyze the quality of the published data. However, by looking at the statistical analysis, or more correctly lack of any statistical analysis, you are left with an impression that most of the results are scientifically worthless. Before I started at the university, I learned that only one measurement is equal to no measurement. In Kennedy’s articles, average values and standard deviations are conspicuous by their absence. In most of the articles, results from one measurement are shown (examples here), often without any explanations regarding the statistics. On top of the fact that most of the results are scientifically meaningless, the sloppiness shown in the graphical illustrations where e.g. errors in the graph axis are frequent makes it a complete disaster.
The journal Carbohydrate Polymers’ second editor-in-chief, Manuel A. Coimbra, is also a frequent contributor in Carbohydrate Polymers: A quarter of the last twenty articles by Coimbra were published in this journal. If you count the last forty it is even higher (35%). Interestingly, six of the last twenty articles by Coimbra were also published in the Elsevier journal Food Chemistry. I am not sure if it’s a coincidence, but his friend Kennedy is also a member of the editorial board of Food Chemistry. Friends like to play together, and that is clearly seen when studying the tight link between some of the journals, where journals share editors and editorial board members. Maurice Collins and Ian Sims are e.g. editors in IJBM, but they also figures as editorial board members in Carbohydrate Polymers. Francisco Hidalgo is editor in Food Chemistry, in addition to editorial board member at Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry, published by ACS. Another editor in Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry, Liangli (Lucy) Yu is also editorial board member in Food Chemistry. Daniel Granato, editor in Food Chemistry, figures also as an editorial board member of a fifth journal: Food Research International, published by Elsevier. An editor in this journal, Vural Gökmen, is also member of the editorial board of Food Chemistry. To end the circle, editor at IJBM, Run-Cang Sun, figures also as an editorial board member in Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry. An overview of the “journal club” is seen here:
The collaboration between IJBM and Carbohydrate Polymers (CP) is an example of apparently cross-citation between friendly journals. Another example is the association between Food Chemistry and J. of Agricultural Food Chemistry. Cross-citation can be an efficient way to boost the journal impact.
So what about the other editors in IJBM and Carbohydrate Polymers (CP) and their publication record? Many of them seem to have free vouchers for publications in these journals and an unusual high proportion of their articles have been published in the mentioned journals:
- Rizwan H. Khan (editor in IJBM): 55% of the last forty articles (2018-2019) in IJBM.
- Tatiana Budtova (editor in CP): 40% of the last twenty articles (2014-2019) in CP.
- Yangchao Luo (editor in IJBM): 25% of the last twenty articles (2015-2019) in IJBM (40% in IJBM + CP).
- Kevin J. Edgar (editor in CP): 35% of the last twenty articles (2016-2019) in CP.
- Robert G Gilbert (editor in CP): 35% of the last twenty articles (2016-2019) in CP.
- Xiaxiong Zeng (editor in IJBM): 30% of the last twenty articles (2018-2019) in IJBM.
The editorial board members of IJBM and CP are of course also frequent contributors in these journals, For IJBM, six of the eighteen members of the editorial board were identified with an unusual high publication frequency in IJBM and CP:
- Terin Adali: 57% of the last seven articles (2013-2019) in IJBM.
- Boris I. Kurganov: 40% of the last twenty articles in IJBM.
- Jian-Ping Luo: 23% of the last forty articles (2014-2019) in IJBM and 25% in CP.
- Ali A. Moosavi-Movahedi: 40% of the last twenty articles in IJBM.
- Victor J. Morris VJ: 40% of the last twenty articles in IJBM.
- Tsutomu Arakawa: 35% of the last twenty in IJBM.
For Carbohydrate Polymers, eleven members of the editorial board showed a similar high contribution frequency in CP and IJBM:
- Jovin Hasjim: 78% of the last nine articles (2013-2019) in CP.
- James N. BeMiller: 73% of the last eleven articles (2008-2019) in CP.
- Andreas Koschella: 67% of the last twelve articles (2013-2019) in CP.
- Gloria Huerta-Angeles: 63% of the last 16 articles (2012-2019) in CP.
- Patrick Navard: 60% of the last ten articles (2007-2019) in CP.
- Eric Bertoft: 45% of the last 20 articles (2014-2019) in CP and 30% in IJBM.
- Bjørn E. Christensen: 45% of the last 20 articles (2013-2019) in CP.
- Jacques Desbrieres: 45% of the last 20 articles (2013-2019) in CP and 15% in IJBM.
- Rekha S. Singhal: 35% of the last 20 articles (2015-2019) in CP.
- Marcello Iacomini: 30% of the last 20 articles (2017-2019) in CP and 40% in IJBM.
Usually in research, where it has become more and more challenging to get manuscripts published in a decent journal if you don’t have the right contacts or cheat, you publish your results in a variety of journals. If a large proportion of a scientist’s papers ends up in one specific journal, you have reasons to be suspicious. How is the journal peer-reviewing policy and are there any unhealthy connections that interfere with the editorial decision making? After screening the articles from editors and editorial board members in IJBM and Carbohydrate Polymers, you may start to wonder how they were accepted for publishing after all. Because there are a lot of trouble, all from sloppy errors, texts full of spelling errors, lack of controls and statistical information, to more serious business with apparently manipulation and falsification of data and frequent re-use of data. Here are some examples:
The journal club of IJBM, Carbohydrate Polymers and the other mentioned journals, is most probably not unusual. When screening the journals and checking the editors’ publications, you may easily find similar examples of journal clubs. Let me give you one more example, again from a collection of journals published by the great Elsevier. Let’s call it Journal club 2. Journal of Controlled Release (JCR) and Biomaterials are, in comparison with the journals in Journal club 1, in a higher division. They are elite journals in their field, with impact factors between 8 and 9. Similar to IJBM and Carbohydrate Polymers, there is no doubt that there are close ties between them. Kam W. Leong, Editor-in-Chief of Biomaterials, figures also as an editorial board member of JCR. Furthermore, three Biomaterials editors (Youngro Byun, Yukio Nagasaki and Hsing-Wen Sung) are also editorial board members of JCR. In addition, editor in JCR Wim Hennink, is also editorial board member in Biomaterials.
Major contribution countries are also here dominated by China and South Korea. For JCR, China is number one, with USA and South Korea as the second and third most contributing countries, respectively. For Biomaterials, USA is the most contributing country, but China and South Korea are at the second and third place, and together they are contributing more than USA.
One may add two more journals to this journal club. Editor-in-chief of JCR, Kinam Park, is also an editorial board member of two Elsevier journals International Journal of Pharmaceutics (IJP) and Journal of Drug Delivery Science and Technology (JDDST). JCR editor You Han Bae is also editor in IJP, and Hideyoshi Harashima, another JCR editor, figures also in the editorial board of IJP. Jürgen Siepmann, editor-in-chief in IJP, is also member of the JCR editorial board together with another editor in IJP (Raymond M Shiffelers). The collaboration between these journals can also be seen by the frequent citation between the journals (figure). The Editor-in-Chief of the last journal in the club, JDDST, is Florence Siepmann (also member of Jürgen Siepmann lab) and you may not be surprised that there is collaboration between JDDST and IJP. Florence Siepmann is also editorial board member in IJP, together with another JDDST editor, Anna Maria Fadda. Furthermore, editors in IJP, Abdul Basit and Thorsteinn Loftsson, are also members of the editorial board of JDDST.
In Journal club 2 the editors and editorial board members also show a high contribution frequency. Just a few examples this time:
Editors in JCR:
- Kinam Park (editor-in-chief): 47% of the last 15 articles (2017-2019) in JCR.
- You Han Bae: 35% of the last 20 articles (2015-2019) in JCR.
- Steven P. Schwendeman: 28% of the last 40 articles (2011-2019) in JCR.
- Ick Chan Kwon: 28% of the last 40 articles (2016-2019) in JCR.
- Hideyoshi Harashima: 25% of the last 20 articles (2018-2019) in JCR.
Editors in Biomaterials:
- Youngro Byun: 30% of the last 20 articles (2017-2019) in Biomaterials (+ 30% of the last 20 articles in JCR).
- Yukio Nagasaki: 30% of the last 20 articles (2016-2019) in JCR.
- Hsing-Wen Sung: 30% of the last 20 articles (2016-2019) in Biomaterials.
Editors in IJP:
- Jürgen Siepmann (editor-in-chief): 45% of the last 20 articles (2015-2019) in IJP.
- Abdul W. Basit: 45% of the last 20 articles (2018-2019) in IJP.
- Veronique Préat: 20% of the last 20 articles (2017-2019) in IJP + 25% in JCR.
- Fumiyoshi Yamashita: 20% of the last 20 articles (2015-2019) in IJP + 20% in JCR.
Editors in Drug Delivery Science and Technology (DDST):
- Florence Siepmann (editor-in-chief): 35% of the last 20 articles (2015-2019) in IJP.
- Anna Maria Fadda: 45% of the last 20 articles (2017-2019) in IJP.
The collaboration between the journals in Journal Club 2 is seen by the high contribution by many of the journal editors in more than one journal. There is also an example of apparently cross-citation between friendly journals JCR and IJP.
So why do the editors publish so frequently in their own journals? One obvious reason is of course improving their own publication record to generate research funding. Many of the editors have an impressive publication record which has generated a lot of public funds. There are examples of editors that usually are last authors of their publications. Good examples here are John F. Kennedy (IJBM/CP), Hsing-Wen Sung (Biomaterials) and Jürgen Siepmann (IJP). Some of the editors are in many cases not figuring as last authors, which may suggest possible gift-authorship agreements. Examples here are You Han Bae (JCR/IJP) and Abdul W Basit (IJP). Another driving force for frequent publication in their own journals is prestige. Some editors are eager to raise the journal impact factor, maybe too eager.
Elsevier controls a fleet of rat ships. They are filled with treasure, but without scientific values. Their captains do fulfill their duty: to carry the vessels to a Dutch harbor to unload the treasure. However, infested ships are spreading a devastating pest which now are threatening the fundament and trust in science all over the world.
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