A staff member in our editorial office noticed a decision letter where a handling editor instructed an author to cite an article published by the handling editor. The staff member wondered if this had happened before and reviewed recent decision letters by that editor. This revealed a concerning pattern of behaviour—the handling editor’s decision letters (including reviewers’ comments) asked authors to add citations of his work more than 50 times, three times more often than he asked authors to add citation of work he did not co-author.
Looking more closely, the handling editor frequently invited the same four reviewers to review the papers he handled. The requests for added citations sometimes came from those reviewers, and sometimes from the handling editor alone. The handling editor asked for his own papers to be cited more than 20 times and never personally requested citation of papers that were not his own. The four regular reviewers requested citation of the handling editor’s work much more frequently than they requested citation of papers he had not authored, and most of the citations they requested that were not the handling editor’s were of papers they themselves had co-authored.
In at least one case, an author did not add the citation of the handling editor’s paper as requested, so the handling editor returned the paper to the author again with the request that the citation be added. This created concern that he was requiring authors to add these citations before he would accept their papers. According to COPE’s ethics guidelines for peer reviewers, reviewers should “refrain from suggesting that authors include citations to your (or an associate’s) work merely to increase citation counts or to enhance the visibility of your or your associate’s work; suggestions must be based on valid academic or technological reasons.”
The staff member brought the issue to the journal’s editor-in-chief to see if there was legitimate scientific reason for these papers to be cited. (Note: in our editorial structure, handling editors make final decisions about papers; the editor-in-chief does not normally review decision letters before they are sent out). After reviewing the papers in question, the editor-in-chief did not see a reason why these additional citations were scientifically necessary. The editor-in-chief then consulted with the journal’s editorial board (handling editors are not part of the editorial board). The editorial board agreed that they could not see a scientific reason why these citations were requested. The editor-in-chief and editorial board drafted a letter to the handling editor to ask him to explain the pattern and why he requested these additional citations. The editorial board and editor-in-chief agreed to wait until hearing from the handling editor before contacting the reviewers.
The handling editor responded with a letter that stated that he requested citation of his own work more often than others’ work because he was most familiar with his own work. He then stated that he found the inquiry from the editorial board to be offensive and resigned immediately. The editor-in-chief and editorial board decided that the resignation was sufficient and closed the case.
In response to this case, the journal staff have added time to the journal’s annual meeting with the handling editors for review of editorial ethics, to ensure that all editors are familiar with COPE and the journal’s ethical standards. The journal’s code of ethics is also included in the handbook provided to all handling editors, and editors will be asked to sign an agreement stating that they have read and agree to the code of ethics each year.
Question(s) for the COPE Forum
• What if anything should the journal have done differently? Are there other actions the journal should have taken?
• Should the journal have reached out to the reviewers as well, or was reaching out to the handling editor sufficient?
• Do other journals have safeguards in place that would help identify a pattern such as this one more easily?
The Forum advised that any suggested citations to a paper must advance the argument within the article. There can be circumstances where there are genuine suggestions for additional citations which may improve the quality of the paper, but these should not be a condition of acceptance. However, this case appears to be a blatant example of problematic and unethical behaviour. The Forum agreed with the actions of the journal and commended the journal in terms of educating their handling editors. The Forum suggested that the journal may wish to add to their decision letters that acceptance is not contingent on adding specific references suggested by editors. The journal could also review all the decision letters before they are sent out. Although this could be quite labour intensive, it would prevent these patterns of behaviour in the future.
The journal may also wish to consider providing more education for reviewers with a reminder of their responsibilities. The editor may wish to share the COPE Ethical Guidelines for Peer Reviewers (https://publicationethics.org/resources/guidelines-new/cope-ethical-guid...).
The journal is working on implementing additional steps in the submission process to prevent similar issues in the future. The editor considers the case closed.