Megajournal editors ‘swapped acceptances for citations’

Analysis of highly prolific Plos One editors finds evidence for ‘editor-author backscratching’

October 16, 2019
Academic journals
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A small number of “extremely active” megajournal editors were the beneficiaries of “citation remuneration” after accepting large numbers of papers that disproportionately cited their own work, a study suggests.

To publish tens of thousands of articles each year, the open access periodical Plos One relies on the work of nearly 7,000 editors who also work as research leaders in their field. But a study by Alexander Petersen, an assistant professor in the management of complex systems department at the University of California, Merced, raises concerns about this model in which scientists are also gatekeepers to their discipline.

In the paper, published in the Journal of Informetrics, Dr Petersen analyses the activity of 6,934 editors who oversaw the publication of nearly 142,000 articles over a decade. While most handled just a few articles a year, the 100 most active editors accounted for 17,000 papers published between 2006 and 2015, and 10 of them oversaw 3,000 articles, the paper says.

While the average time between an editor receiving a paper and accepting it was 126 days, about one in 20 papers was accepted within just seven days.

Dr Petersen found that manuscript turnaround times were faster still among the most prolific editors if the author included references that cited the editor’s research – with this “preferential treatment” shown to repeat authors being “reciprocated through citations directed back at the editor’s research publications…providing substantial evidence for editor-author ‘backscratching’”.

Plos One’s most prolific editor managed to handle 557 articles in five years – an average of one article roughly every three days, Dr Petersen told Times Higher Education.

“If you consider the amount of time that should in principle enter into an editorial review decision process, this corresponds to quite a bit of editorial board service,” said Dr Petersen, adding: “Why would a [largely unpaid] editor take on all that extra work?”

The answer, he said, was explained by the “perverse incentives associated with citation obsession by authors and other actors with a vested interest in the citation economy”.

Dr Petersen said that megajournals should limit the number of articles that individual editors could handle to tackle the “new level of temptation that may increase the prevalence of apathy or outright misconduct on the part of otherwise already busy academic editors challenged by their dual roles as both producers and gatekeepers of scientific publication”.

A spokeswoman for the Public Library of Open Science, Plos One’s publisher, said that it had “already taken a number of steps” to address the article’s recommendations, including the removal of “a number of editors that did not meet our high standards of manuscript handling”.

jack.grove@timeshighereducation.com

POSTSCRIPT:

Print headline: Citing editors won papers fast-track approval, study claims

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