The soil scientific journal Geoderma, led by professor Jan Willem van Groenigen, is banning a fellow soil scientist for professional misconduct. The journal wants to use this to clean its slate.
The scientist in question is the Spanish professor and prominent soil scientist Artemi Cerdà. Last year, he was found to be involved in what is called citation stacking. As a reviewer, he systematically insisted that authors include references to his articles or to journals he was partly responsible for. This way, he improved his citation scores and the impact factor of “his” journals.
Geoderma, for which Van Groenigen (professor in Soil Biogeochemistry) is the editor in chief, was among the journals that were subject to this scientific misconduct. Cerdà did not plead guilty, but he did resign from his position as editor of the journals concerned. And then it all went quiet. Too quiet, as far as Van Groenigen is concerned. According to him, there is not enough transparency about what exactly happened, how it was possible for this to last for so many years and what measures could be taken to prevent citation stacking in the future.
With a noteworthy editorial initiated by Van Groenigen, the editorial office of the journal has now sent out a strong signal. The journal contains a list of all articles that were affected by Cerdà’s misconduct and the unjustly made citations they contained. Van Groenigen calls for other journals to follow the example. At Geoderma, these were 13 articles and 83 unjustified citations. The numbers are still relatively low compared to fellow journals, as Cerdà only reviewed manuscripts and did not have any kind of leading power at Geoderma.
Although Cerdà’s name is not mentioned, Van Groenigen confirms it is about him, indeed. ‘We wanted to prevent giving the impression that our actions are meant as a personal attack; that we want to harm him personally. This is not our motivation. We primarily want to clarify what has happened and that this is absolutely unacceptable. In the past year, I have heard from mainly younger researchers that they have the impression one could get away with this. This could be fatal to science.’
Actually, Geoderma takes it much further than just transparency. The editorial office calls for all journals concerned to refuse Cerdà as author, reviewer or editor for the time being. This basically means they are calling for a ban. Van Groenigen acknowledges this is quite an extensive and unusual step to take. ‘It is a nightmare scenario, and it goes against everything I stand for in science. But these measures were borne from necessity. Cerdà believes he did nothing wrong and even defends his actions publicly. We simply cannot trust him anymore.’
According to Van Groenigen, Geoderma is acting within the law. ‘Our publisher Elsevier has assured us this is allowed. We are not prohibiting Cerdà from exercising his profession. We are simply asking him to do so according to the ethical guidelines that we have applied for years. As soon as he does so, he will be welcome to return. Besides, there are plenty of other journals in which he can still publish. Although I do think that many journals have already de facto more or less banned him. In that case, it is more honest to simply say it, explain why you do so and what needs to be done to reverse the situation.’