But while most just do the best work they can and hope other colleagues will notice, some people end up tempted to help their rankings out, just a little.
The Journal of Vibroengineering recently retracted three papers published in 2016 due to a seemingly strange reason – the papers were suddenly being cited too much.
As it turns out, the editor of the journal had suspicions that one of the co-authors of these papers, applied mechanician Magd Abdel Wahab from Ghent University in Belgium, may have solicited the citations.
Wahab chaired an international conference in July last year, and several of the papers published in the subsequent conference proceedings ended up citing these same three papers.
As Victoria Stern reported for Retraction Watch, “the three papers each had been cited a dozen or more times by papers at the conference, as well as a handful of times by other papers.”
“The publisher decided to retract all three papers due to the internal warning based on the statistical indicators,” the journal editor, Minvydas Ragulskis, told Stern.
If the chair of the conference did indeed ask the attendees to cite his co-authored papers in the publications they submitted, that would be a case of what’s known as ‘citation manipulation’.
According to a 2017 study by Eric Fong and Allen Wilhite from the University of Alabama, this kind of stuff happens in academic publishing with startling regularity, as journals are vying for increased rankings.
“With these incentives it is not surprising that academia is seeing authors and editors engaged in questionable behaviours in an attempt to increase their publication success,” they noted in PLOS One.
Amongst these behaviours are things like adding superfluous citations to the paper, including unnecessary citations under the directions of a journal editor, padding out the reference list, and even ‘honorary authorship’ by people who didn’t contribute to the research.
This kind of fudging “spans the academic universe”, according to Fong and Wilhite, so it stands to reason that some journals would become increasingly vigilant over suspicious citations.
But even though it’s a fine ethical line many researchers are toeing here, citation manipulation is not a typical cause for retraction, Stern notes on Retraction Watch.
And this time, it looks like the editor may have actually jumped the gun.
While the situation definitely looked suspicious on the citation front, there was actually nothing wrong with the three retracted studies from a scientific standpoint.
Importantly, there’s also no formal evidence that Wahab solicited citations at the conference (also, the journal publisher’s ethics and malpractice statement doesn’t seem to say anything about this kind of behaviour).
Thus, Stern reports that the publisher of the journal is actually going to bring those three papers back in the first issue of the year, due to appear in mid-February.
Until that happens, Wahab has declined to comment on the situation, and Ragulskis has not offered any further details, either.
There will be an editorial note accompanying the resurrected papers, and we’re curious to see what it will say.
You can find out more about this case and other retractions over at Retraction Watch.