‘Nepotistic’ journals fast-track hyperprolific authors

Close relationships between journal boards and most-published authors may explain speedy publishing times, says study

November 23, 2021
People playing leapfrog on a beach to illustrate ‘Nepotistic’ journals fast-track hyperprolific authors
Source: Alamy
Head start: examples of ‘self-promotion’ journals suggest ‘considerable bias’

Those wondering how some busy academics manage to produce so many papers for some journals may now have further doubts after a study found that the work of hyperprolific authors is reviewed and published much quicker than other scholars’ efforts, which suggests “considerable bias and favouritism”.

The phenomenon is not confined to a handful of journals, either; about 280 biomedical journals were identified by the study published in Plos Biology on 23 November as having an author who contributed to more than 10.6 per cent of all publications, with those papers being published three weeks faster on average than other outputs.

In 60 of those cases, the most prolific author was also a member of the journal’s editorial board – and, in some cases, even the editor themselves, or their boss.

“It is really unusual if someone is publishing more than two to three papers a year in a particular journal. So if they are publishing more than 10 per cent of a journal’s output, that is very unusual,” said Dorothy Bishop, professor of developmental neuropsychology at the University of Oxford, who co-authored the paper with researchers from the universities of Rennes and Ottawa.

The paper highlights the case of Didier Raoult, the Marseilles-based microbiologist whose support for the discredited hydroxychloroquine treatment for Covid-19 was famously backed by Donald Trump, who co-authored 32 per cent of the 728 papers published by the Elsevier title New Microbes and New Infections (NMNI).

In this case, the journal’s editor and six associate editors – who themselves accounted for 44 per cent of all NMNI papers up to June 2020 – all worked directly for Professor Raoult, the study explains.

Similar examples of “self-promotion journals” were also identified in the study of some 5,468 biomedical journals between 2015 and 2019, which found, for one in 20 titles, the most prolific author’s appearance in 10.6 per cent of all publications was about three times the normal frequency for other journals.

This disparity among a subset of “nepotistic journals” could be seen as a “red flag” for publishers and scientists alike – particularly if the most prolific author is also an editor or editorial board member, the paper says.

“You cannot say this is definitely bad behaviour because there might be a reason for it, but the worry is that you might have an editor who has gone rogue,” Professor Bishop told Times Higher Education.

The study also highlights the importance of a journal being transparent about the date an article was submitted and when it was published, with hyperprolific authors typically having their work published within 85 days of submission, compared with 107 days for other authors, added Professor Bishop.

“If some authors are getting their work published really quickly, this should also be a concern, but many journals still don’t publish information about this at all,” she said.

Patricia Schlagenhauf, a University of Zurich professor who will take over as NMNI editor-in-chief next month, declined to comment on the journal’s history but said she “intend[ed] to have a broader range of board members and that the board will be more global and diverse”.

“In defence of Professor Raoult, he and his group are very active in research in the scope of interest of the journal and…produce a lot of good papers – sometimes controversial – so NMNI were probably very lucky to have some of these papers submitted,” Professor Schlagenhauf told THE.


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Reader's comments (5)

This is really bad. I was reading about a Queensland University Professor being referred to a Crime and Corruption Commission inquiry today. We need some laws to protect against the risk of cronyism. These practices lead to real financial gains and career oppotunities for those who benefit.
Best to introduce quotas.
I am concerned that incoming editor Prof Schlagenhauf thinks that Professor Raoult's publishing practices are defensible, because he produces "a lot of good papers" and that she concludes the NMNI journal was "lucky" to have his papers. This indicates she has no familiarity with COPE guidelines on editors publishing in their own journals, guidelines which the publisher, Elsevier, has signed up to: see https://publicationethics.org/resources/guidelines-new/short-guide-ethical-editing-new-editors. For further discussion see http://deevybee.blogspot.com/2020/08/pepiops-prolific-editors-who-publish-in.html. I'd also like to take the opportunity to name the two authors who did most of the heavy lifting on this paper: Clara Locher and Alexandre Scanff.
Its not rocket science. Finding reviewers for papers is a difficult task given that good reviewers are often academics with heavy demands on their time. Research expertise is not uniformly distributed. Typically there is a small number of people with expertise in emerging areas, Papers that are clearly well written and claim novel results are more attractive to potential reviewers than those that are not. Even with blind reviewing Experts get a sense of what category a paper is likely to fall into from the abstract, and respond accordingly to review requests. Sometimes it can take dozens of attempts to find a single reviewer, and some journals require 6+ reviews per paper. Its not an issue if reviewers being unpaid. Its that there are only so many hours in the day/year. Better take away message, Publication data can help - many journals now provide this routinely However some. academics would benefit from better internal peer review.
This is not about reviewing. It's about editors publishing in their own journals, often without any evidence of peer review. Please see paper in PLOS Biology for details.