Predatory publishing is generally defined as for-profit open access journal publication of scholarly articles without the benefit of peer review by experts in the field or the usual editorial oversight of the journals in question. The journals have no standards and no quality control and frequently publish within a very brief period of time while claiming that articles are peer-reviewed. There is confusion between some legitimate open-access peer review journals and predatory open-access journals, and sometimes include legitimate scholars on their editorial masthead.
We have experienced a sudden spurt in casual submissions of poor quality articles. We believe this is because authors wish to show that they have submitted articles which are under consideration at reputable journals.
While any journal or editor would be happy to see increased numbers of submissions, sadly, most are of very poor quality in all respects. Most are very casually prepared without following even basic principles of scientific writing and publication ethics. The incidence of plagiarism and potential compromise of publication ethics is increasing.
Increased numbers of submissions of such poorly written casual submissions take substantial time and resources, adding a lot of pressure to the editorial process. We believe some of the reasons why this is happening include: 1) the scam of publication in predatory journals is being exposed; 2) authors are now realising that articles in dubious/predatory journals are actually a liability; 3) it is easy to submit articles to reputable journals, which do not charge any fees; 4) in many cases, authors submit manuscripts to reputable journals as a transient step to notationally improve their cv; 5) most authors wish to show that their article is submitted to a reputable journal and is “under consideration”.
Question(s) for the COPE Forum • How can we curb the number of casual submissions? • Are there any appropriate restrictive steps, such as charging a reasonable fee at the submission stage? These 'submission charges' could be refunded/adjusted with the APC after the article is accepted?
If the journal has a specific discipline focus, educating university faculty members in that discipline regarding effective methods to mentor students who submit articles to journals as a form of credit for their courses could be one measure to address this problem. The number of submissions to journals should not be a measure a university uses to assess its students and their activities (see for example: http://naepub.com/student-authorship/2016-26-4-6/).
The Forum agreed that charging submission fees could be an option. These could be separate from publication fees. Hence a small fee could be charged for submissions, which may curb the number of casual submissions, or submission of poor quality articles. Then a larger fee could be charged if the manuscript is accepted. In accordance with COPE’s Principles of Transparency (https://publicationethics.org/resources/guidelines-new/principles-transparency-and-best-practice-scholarly-publishing), if the journal decides to take this approach, the fees should be transparent, and should be signposted and clearly stated on the journal website and in the instructions to authors.
We are a publisher with a portfolio of about 25 journals, with journal X being the flagship journal. Journal X has a high impact factor. We also publish a range of other, newer journals, some of which are ranked highly but most have no impact factor.
An author submitted a manuscript to journal Y where it underwent peer review and was accepted after revisions. After acceptance, the author contacted the editor saying that he had made a mistake and wished to have the paper considered by journal X instead, because it has an impact factor, and stated that if the editor would not publish the article in journal X, the consensus of all authors is to withdraw the paper from journal Y in order to submit it to a journal with an impact factor. The editor informed the author that the paper was not suitable for journal X and that his behaviour was unethical: withdrawal after acceptance violates scientific community norms, as it wastes editorial and peer reviewer resources, in particular if there are no scientific reasons to do so.
The editor wrote to the authors stating that if they insist on a withdrawal at this stage there would be three sanctions: 1) they would be blacklisted (ie, none of the publisher’s journals would consider future submissions from any of the authors, 2) the journal would write a letter to the superiors of the authors outlining the case and 3) they would still be responsible for the Article Processing Charge which is payable on acceptance; ours is an open access journal, with the fee schedule clearly disclosed and agreed upon by the submitting author (the fee schedule specifies that if the paper is withdrawn after acceptance it is still payable and will not be refunded).
The author continues to say that they made a mistake—they thought that journal Y was a section within journal X (in reality the submission form clearly allows the author to pick a journal from a dropdown list and the submission acknowledgement email also contains the name of the journal, as does all subsequent communications). On submission, the author checked a box where he agreed on a possible transfer of the paper within the publisher family.
The author pleads that “The kinds of journals that my PhD student publishes in potentially affects his graduation prospects” and that publication in journal Y “could have terrible repercussions for a very promising PhD student”, as well as “going to negatively affect my prospects [for promotion and tenure]”. The editor is not impressed by these arguments as they illustrate a misuse of the impact factor, and PhD students should be taught to respect the journal submission and peer review/publication process and not taught that it is acceptable to waste editorial resources in order to play impact factor games.
Question(s) for the COPE Forum
• What does the Forum think about the ethics of withdrawing a paper during or after peer review in order to publish in a higher impact factor journal?
• If the Forum agrees with the assessment that the authors acted in an unethical fashion, are the sanctions proposed by the editor in this case reasonable?
• Is there anything else that should be done?
The Forum agreed that this was not good behaviour on the part of the author, but COPE would always advocate a more educational rather than a punitive approach. COPE guidance also advises against blacklisting authors.
Although it seems that the authors’ behaviour was intentional, it is the authors’ prerogative to withdraw a paper at any point before it is published. While the Forum agreed that such behaviour is deplorable and a waste of editorial resources, the advice was to communicate this message clearly to the authors but not necessarily to directly punish them. This is especially applicable to more junior authors.
A suggestion was to write an editorial on this issue in general, explaining why it is not good practice.
Another suggestion was to review the journal submission system and consider outside user testing to make sure there is no confusion for authors regarding submission to different journals in the publisher portfolio. The Forum also noted that it is unusual to charge an author if they withdraw a paper that is not published and hence the editor may wish to reconsider this decision.
Despite communication with the authors that their behaviour was "not good" and in fact "deplorable" (citing the COPE Forum), and despite communication from the dean of the university that the authors’ behaviour is based on a gross misunderstanding on how the university evaluates the value of a publication (which is not based on the impact factor), the authors still insisted on withdrawing their manuscript.
The journal and publisher refrained from any further sanctions, such as blacklisting authors or charging the Article Processing Fee for a peer-reviewed and accepted (but not published) manuscript. The publisher has also discontinued its use of any formal blacklist.
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.