Editor manipulation of impact factor
Case text (Anonymised)
An editor in chief of a major medical journal in a specialty field is also an author. The editor submits a manuscript to a competing journal in the same field. The manuscript receives moderately favourable reviews and the authors are invited to respond to the reviewer input and submit a revised manuscript. In the communication from that journal's editor in chief, the authors are asked to cite additional references, both of which are from the same journal. The references are only peripherally related to the topic of the manuscript and are within the time frame of publication that will influence the impact factor.
Question(s) for the COPE Forum
• Is using the manuscript review process to increase citations of your journal ethical?
• In a related question, is writing editorials which cite large percentages of manuscripts from your journal ethical?
In summary, is it ethical to use these tools to influence the impact factor metric?
The Forum agreed with the advice given previously by COPE council on this case. The summary is given below. Citation concerns have been raised by Clarivate Analytics as evidenced by recent dropping of some journals for citation manipulation. It may be unavoidable to cite the journal if the subject is a new or niche topic as there may be fewer options for citing peer reviewed work in the field.
However, acceptance of an article should not be contingent on introduction of inappropriate or tangential citations. For reviewers, when authors self-cite for more of the authors’ prior work, an extra check by editorial staff is needed.
The new CEO at Clarivate in charge of impact factor issues is Annette Thomas. She holds an AMA (Ask Me Anything) Reddit on a regular basis according to one of the attendees at the Forum. Questions such as these can be raised to obtain more specific information, for example, the question about citing papers in an issue in the editorial. There is generally a limit of 15% for self-citations but it might be possible for editors to calculate this so that they come up to but not over the limit.
Summary of previous advice: In general, the answer to all of the questions is no. Using the manuscript review process to increase citations of your journal is unethical, especially if the references are not germane to the paper. Sadly, this practice is common. A figure of 15% for journal self-citations is deemed acceptable by Clarivate Analytics.
However, it is very difficult to know whether in this specific case the editor-in-chief's behaviour was unethical. Reviewers and editors routinely suggest papers that the authors may have neglected to include in their review of the prior literature. It is also usual that other relevant papers would have come from the same journal. An editor-in-chief may be choosing references to bolster the level of scholarship of a borderline paper, regardless of where they come from. Were those the only references the editor-in-chief asked for? If the suggested papers are truly wide of the mark, authors can simply ignore them.
It is also unclear if the additional references came from one of the reviewers and are being reiterated by the editor-in-chief or if the editor-in-chief stated them independently. In either case, the tone and context would indicate coercion versus trying to improve a paper ("you are strongly recommended" versus "you could consider"). If a reason is given but the relevance of those specific references is low, then the authors could find other references that address the point better.
Writing an editorial and using citations to manipulate the impact factor is wrong, but in a more generic case, editorials have been written which have cited nothing but the journal articles. For example, editorial introductions to a special issue or themed article set, in which those articles that appear are cited, is not a case of citation manipulation.
The following materials may be useful
The CSE white paper 2.1.5 Citation Manipulation
A letter was sent from the journal and the publisher requesting that Clarivate not count citations from editorials in the IF calculations. We have not had a response.