Citation stacking, academic misconduct with references, is almost impossible to correct. But the journal Geoderma is making an attempt. In an editorial, the journal has identified all the affected articles and has banned the culprit. Editor-in-chief Jan Willem van Groenigen explains.
photo Guy Ackermans
Jan Willem van Groenigen, personal professor of Soil Biogeochemistry, had been editor-in-chief of the soil science journal Geoderma for precisely one week when the Cerdà issue landed on his desk, over a year ago now. Professor Artemi Cerdà of the University of Valencia (Spain) turned out to have been boosting his citation scores for years by suggesting unwarranted references to his own articles, in his capacity as reviewer. Geoderma was one of the journals he reviewed for.
After the conflict, the Spaniard withdrew from his positions with the journals in question. Some journals reported the number of articles published by him with a questionable reference list. But that was about as far as it went, much to the dissatisfaction of soil scientists, particularly the younger generation. They wrote an open letter to the journals and to the European Geosciences Union (EGU) asking them to improve the reviewing process and to rectify the offence. With their remarkable editorial, Van Groeningen and other Geoderma editors have responded to this request.
Do you agree that not enough lessons have been learned from what happened?
‘Yes. Some journals, especially the EGU’s journals such as SOIL and Solid Earth, initially took fast and effective action to publicize the matter. But after that we didn’t do enough together. The citation scores were not corrected, nor were comments added. It is not clear what kinds of measures most journals took. And that is really damaging. I have the impression that some people don’t realize this wasn’t just someone who proposed references with a bit too much enthusiasm. This really was systematic misconduct. If you don't correct that, if you don’t mobilize the scientific world’s capacity for self-correction at a moment like that, we might as well all give up and go home.’
How did Cerdà go about it?
‘The reviews he wrote for us consisted of a couple of brief, vague comments: “A fantastic paper, I suggest a few minor revisions”. But the devil was in the details, because in the attached PDF there were usually loads of comments on the introduction and the discussion in the article, where Cerdà suggested a lot of references should be added in order to “place the study in a wider context” or to “bring it up to date”. Nearly all those references were from his own work or journals where he was editor. And he always signed his reviews, which is not customary as the review process is supposed to be anonymous. Given his prominent position, mentioning his name is likely to have nudged authors to follow his suggestions.’
Doesn’t an editor keep an eye on that?
‘We went wrong by not always checking that. We are going to do that differently from now on. But on the other hand, it has to do with trust as well. It is quite usual for a reviewer to say he has a few suggestions in a PDF. But they are at the level of commas and full stops. The review process is based on mutual trust and taking responsibility. We were misled. If a reviewer suggests an additional 20 or 30 citations, something is seriously wrong with the referencing. It means the author didn’t do his homework properly and the reviewer should propose rejecting the article, or major revision at the very least. And if the suggested references are nearly all to the reviewer’s personal advantage…’
Can the unwarranted references still be corrected?
‘No, and that is what is so frustrating. Databases such as Scopus and Web of sciences don’t adjust their citation records retrospectively. On the one hand, I understand that. Articles that have been published have been published. At the time, we as editors took responsibility for them. You can’t rewrite history. In extreme cases of authors doing something wrong, you can withdraw the article. But that would be totally unjustified in this case. A rectification in our journal would have been possible too, but that won’t change those citation scores in Scopus or Web of Science. What is more, I don’t think it would be fair to the authors to add a correction to their article.’
Your alternative was to publish a list of the affected articles and the unwarranted references. What is solved by doing that?
‘This is in fact a collective erratum, in which we show what happened. For future reference, we have established what went wrong. This is the best we can do. If there are questions about individual citation scores or the impact factors of journals, we now have something with which to prove that it might be the result of citation manipulation. Certainly if other journals follow our example.’
You have also banned Cerdà as a reviewer, editor and author. Isn’t that going too far?
‘To create a good journal, you need reviewers and editors who take their responsibilities seriously. Cerdà has shown that he doesn’t do that. He has a very strange idea of the reviewing process, which goes against everything we stand for, and he defends that view publicly. So we can’t rely on him anymore. Not as an author either. If he decides he wants to work by the same yardsticks that apply to all of us, he is welcome back.’
The ban affects his co-authors too. One of them is a Wageningen colleague who had her knuckles rapped by the Committee on Scientific Integrity last year for inappropriate academic behavior. Did that play a role?
‘The colleague in question was not a reviewer or author for our journal; the only person who has done anything wrong with us is Cerdà. Of course, it is a fact that a number of people have ‘profited’ considerably, if you can put it like that, from his misconduct. I think it is reasonable to put those references in perspective. If it had happened to me, I would be appalled, but ultimately I would feel it was better for it to be corrected. And that is in fact the response of other Wageningen researchers who – to a lesser extent – benefitted from these citations.’
Do you expect other affected journals to follow Geoderma’s example?
‘The journals were informed in advance about what we were going to do. Nobody said it wasn’t acceptable. But whether they will follow suit themselves, I don’t know. In any case, there is now more pressure to be clear about exactly what happened. That is a plus in itself.’