A handling editor noticed a reviewer report where the reviewer instructed the author to cite multiple publications by the same reviewer in their manuscript. The handling editor noted a similar instance involving this reviewer from the past and requested the editorial office to look into his reviewing history. This uncovered a concerning pattern of behaviour where the reviewer habitually asked authors to add citations to his work when reviewing their manuscript, often when there was no scientifically legitimate reason to do so.
A deeper analysis of this reviewer’s activity showed that he predominantly asked for his own papers to be cited, as well as citations to papers that heavily cited his work. In some cases, he requested for more than 30 citations of his own papers to be added to a single manuscript. His citation requests were heavily weighted towards recent publications, giving preference to citations within a particular timeframe.
According to COPE’s ethical guidelines, 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 handling editor brought the issue to the journal’s editors-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 editors-in-chief do not review decision letters before they are sent out). After reviewing the papers in question, the editors-in-chief did not see a reason why these additional citations were scientifically necessary. The editors-in-chief then drafted a letter to the reviewer to ask him to explain the pattern and why he requested these additional citations. The handling editor and editors-in-chief agreed to allow time for the reviewer to respond. No response was received.
The reviewer has only one academic affiliation, however it is with an institution that has been previously found to offer financial incentives to Clarivate’s highly cited researchers in exchange for the researcher’s agreement to include an affiliation to their institution in future publications. The reviewer is self-employed, thus without an institutional employer, and the editorial team have no direct recourse to an institution in this case.
In response to this case, the journal has banned this individual from reviewing for the journal. We are writing an editorial to clarify the journal’s official position on when reviewer requested citations are appropriate and to offer some suggestions to help others detect this behaviour. Editorial staff have convened a meeting with all the journal’s handling editors to ensure they are all familiar with COPE and the journals ethical standards, and to ensure they are looking out for cases of citation manipulation. Instructions to reviewers have also been updated to make it clear that there must always be a scientifically legitimate reason to suggest the author add citations to existing scholarship.
Question(s) for the COPE Forum
• What does COPE recommend to the journal editorial team in this case where the reviewer does not have an institutional body to turn to in order to continue the investigation?
• What else can the journal do to ensure that other journals working with this reviewer are aware of his evident citation manipulation?
• Should the journal also ban this individual as an author, both out of concern for his potential for future ethical problems, but also as a deterrent for those who might behave similarly?
• What, if anything, should the journal have done differently? Are there other actions the journal can take?
• Do other journals have safeguards in place that would help identify a pattern such as this one more easily?
The editor told the Forum that the journal has since discovered similar activity by the reviewer at other journals. COPE has guidelines on what to do if an editor wishes to share information with other editors (see Sharing of Information Among Editors-in-Chief Regarding Possible Misconduct).
Editors can share these data with Web of Science/Clarivate who work on algorithms at the journal level and for groups of journals regarding citation stacking. However, there are currently no tools available to detect this type of citation manipulation and hence no effective measures against it.
The usual advice in such situations would be for the editor to contact the reviewer’s institution. As the reviewer is self-employed, this is not possible in this case. The editor told the Forum that they had contacted the author’s one academic affiliation, with no response.
The authors of these papers must have accepted the insertion of so many citations—are they also complicit/being incentivised somehow to include? Authors should push back when asked to include extra citations.