Citation Cartels: Manipulating the Metrics of Authors and Journals

Citation Cartels: Manipulating the Metrics of Authors and Journals
For as long as academics and scientists have been writing about their research, they have also been referring to the published research of colleagues both within and outside their fields of study. Such citations are part of healthy scholarly exchange and development. They are necessary and beneficial to researchers, authors and readers in a wide variety of ways, and there is certainly nothing questionable about the practice provided that the publications cited are actually relevant in some substantial way to the new study and the research it presents. When, on the other hand, publications are cited by a group of researchers or journals not for scholarly reasons, but simply to increase citation counts and earn reciprocal citations of the same kind, this is the activity of a citation cartel.

Unfortunately, citation patterns alone cannot reveal misconduct. In highly specialised fields of study, for instance, a small group of academics or scientists might cite each others’ publications with a much higher frequency than would usually be the case in larger fields, and even in those larger fields collaborative projects mean that high inter-citation rates among research group members is far from unusual. Two academic or scientific journals that publish similar research material might also cite each other frequently, and there is significant variation in citation patterns among disciplines. Judgements about excessive or disproportionate citations can therefore be unreliable. As with so many ethical issues, intention is the key, and it is extremely difficult to detect and prove unethical or fraudulent intent. This is why journals engaged in what seem suspicious citation practices are denied impact factor rankings not because of citation cartels, but due to ‘anomalous citation patterns,’ ‘self-citation,’ which in journals means citing other papers in the same journal, or ‘citation stacking,’ which refers to a journal’s papers sporting a particularly or disproportionately large number of references to the papers in another journal.
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In a ‘citation cartel’ the primary intention is to increase the citation counts of authors and/or the impact factor of journals, with concerns about quality research falling to the wayside. A cartel also implies a willing collusion for mutual benefits among the individuals involved, yet coercion often plays a significant role, and the line between acceptable and unacceptable scholarly citation practices can be very thin indeed. Let us say, for example, that the prestigious academic with whom a young researcher is writing a book asks that researcher to include in his part of the book a reference to her latest journal paper. The researcher reads the article, finds it helpful for one of his chapters and decides to cite it. This is perfectly normal: mentors often provide guidance for younger scholars and researchers frequently draw important sources to the attention of their co-authors. However, if the young researcher decides that the article is not relevant and the senior academic continues to insist that he cite it anyway, the process becomes ethically questionable. If the researcher agrees, he is caught in a citation cartel, especially if his co-author argues that none of her other co-authors have a problem with such behaviour. Yet refusing to be coerced in such a situation can be incredibly difficult and ultimately have catastrophic consequences for early-career scholars, who are usually more than eager to improve their citation counts.

Another kind of coercion occurs when an academic or scientist submits a manuscript to a journal and is asked by an editor to add references to other papers in the journal before the manuscript can be accepted for publication. I do not mean here citations required for scholarly reasons, as when a peer reviewer notices that a pioneer article in the field is missing from an author’s references or the one study that could contradict an author’s conclusions has been ignored. Instead, these citations are valuable simply because they increase citations of the journal’s papers and thus its impact factor. Refusing can result in rejection, but complying means involvement in what is potentially a citation cartel, because it is relatively certain that more than one author is being coerced by the editor in this way. Unfortunately, the editors of academic and scientific journals can and do play central roles of this kind in citation cartels. Examples in recent years reveal senior editors not just making intra- and inter-journal citations a requirement of publication, but even working with other members of their editorial boards to write low-quality review papers for no other reason than to produce the citations needed to boost the impact factor of the journals and the citation counts and careers of the editors involved. So obviously successful were their efforts in some cases that their covert activities were discovered and exposed to the scholarly community.

It may be convenient to write this sort of behaviour off as beneath any worthy researcher, editor or journal, or to claim that it only harms citation metrics as a measure of quality and influence, thereby serving as an effective reminder to take citation counts, impact factors and other metrics with a grain of salt. However, the problem has serious consequences for those who do not participate. Refusing to be coerced into inappropriate citation practices can be difficult and detrimental. Skewed citation counts and impact factors can harm the authors, journals and editors who do follow legitimate citation practices, and when the impact factor of journals suspected of citation malpractice is suppressed, the authors who have published their research in those journals suffer. Fundamentally troubling is the recognition that groups of scholars who prioritise citing each other’s work solely to boost citation counts may ignore essential publications by authors outside their cartel, narrowing their perspectives to certain ways of thinking, discouraging innovation and compromising the integrity and value of research in their fields. Finally, although solid evidence for citation cartels suggests that they are still relatively rare, news about uncovered cartels travels far and fast across today’s communication networks and can only harm public perceptions of professional scholars and their work.

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