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.
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.
On occasion a journal may get not one, but a series of complaints from the same source. Complaints may be directed at an author, an editor, or the journal in general. If these complaints turn out to be well founded, investigations should proceed as warranted. However, there are also cases where a complainant makes repeated allegations against a journal, editor, or author that turn out to be baseless. Examples of multiple complaints include:
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.
A journal appointed a new editor-in-chief to their journal. He had previously been on the editorial board of the journal for 10 years and the editorial registrar for 5 years. During the handover period, it came to the journal’s attention that he was due to appear in front of a tribunal for research fraud. By agreement with the journal, he stepped down until the outcome of the tribunal, and the editor-in-chief of another journal took over as acting editor-in-chief in the interim.
The outcome of the tribunal was that many of the charges against the editor were upheld, so he has stepped down permanently. The charges that the tribunal found him guilty of (which did not relate to any papers published in the journal) included fabricating data, accessing electronic patient records without permission, breaching patient confidentiality, submitting a paper knowing that his coauthors had not approved it as a final version, forging his coauthors’ signatures on copyright forms, and referencing a particular fictitious individual in the acknowledgments (apparently as a private joke).
During his time on the editorial board, he published numerous articles in the journal, including two original research articles, nine reviews, three editorials/commentaries and one case study. As far as the journal is aware, there are no substantive issues with any of these papers, which underwent the usual review procedures, but several reference the fictitious person in the acknowledgements.
During his time as editorial registrar, he had input in editorial decisions, as a reviewer and associate editor, and by assisting the then editor-in-chief with decisions on the two categories of papers in our journal which undergo internal review rather than full double-blind peer review. During the weeks when the editor-in-chief role was being handed over, before he stepped down, he made the final decision on several manuscripts as editor-in-chief.
Questions for the COPE Forum
• To what extent should the journal consider the editor’s previous publications in the journal as 'suspect'? The journal will publish a correction relating to the fictitious acknowledgments; should they publish any additional note of editorial concern against his papers? • To what extent should the journal revisit editorial decisions he has previously been involved with during his 10 years' association with the journal? • The acting editor-in-chief has not been appointed editor-in-chief according to the stringent procedures recommended by COPE/ICMJE. Is there anything the journal can do to mitigate this situation during the process of appointing a new editor, which may take several months?
The Forum noted that thankfully this is a relatively rare event. The journal needs to handle this well to avoid reputational damage. Hence the journal needs to think in terms of a public explanation or statement of what has happened
The Forum agreed there needs to be a thorough investigation. Previous papers written by the editor need to be handled on a case by case basis—hence all of the papers should be looked at if practically possible, in particular if any have medical/patient implications. The journal will need to carry out due diligence for these papers. While the acknowledgement issue is relatively minor, it is very unprofessional behaviour. The core issue is whether there is any likelihood of problems with the papers that were written by the editor. This is not dissimilar to institutional handling of research misconduct—is the misconduct a one-off or a systemic problem?
Regarding his input in editorial decisions, as a reviewer and associate editor, and in assisting the then editor-in-chief, the advice was to do a spot check of, say, 10% of the decisions, so the journal is reassured there are no problems with the process or the outcome of any of the decisions. In particular, decisions he took himself or where he went against a decision of the reviewers, for example, should be looked at carefully.
The journal needs to reassure potential authors that they have processes in place to be confident in what they have published in the past—otherwise the journal risks serious reputational damage.
The Forum suggested that this may be too difficult and indeed inappropriate to handle only internally and the journal might consider engaging an external, independent group of people to deal with the issue on behalf of the journal.
The journal needs to develop a process to appoint a new editor-in-chief that ensures that this situation does not happen in the future. Again, it is essential to have external people in the selection process.
The author X of a paper published by journal A complained to the editor-in-chief of journal A that his/her paper has been plagiarised by a paper that has been published later by journal B. Moreover, the authors of the paper in journal B allegedly did not respond to letters sent by author X asking for an explanation about the apparent plagiarism.
The editor-in-chief of journal A compared the two papers and confirmed the plagiarism. Then s/he tried to contact the editor-in-chief of journal B, but no response was received, even after several reminders. Similarly, no more successful were attempts by a representative of the publishing house of journal A to contact any representative of the publishing house of journal B.
Author X continues to ask what journal A (where his/her plagiarised paper has been published) can do for him/her. Journal A is considering publishing either an expression of concern or a ‘note of plagiarism’ on its paper that would inform the community that the paper in journal A has been plagiarised by a paper in journal B.
Question(s) for the COPE Forum • Is journal A entitled to publish an expression of concern or ‘note of plagiarism’ in the absence of any reaction from the author/editor-in-chief/publisher of paper B? • Can this expression of concern/note be published based only on the assessment of the editor-in-chief of journal A?
The Forum agreed that there is often little that the editor can do in these situations when another journal refuses to engage.
One suggestion was to contact the publisher of journal B if there is no response from the editor. The publisher should responsibility in these cases so escalating the issue to the publisher level should be considered. If journal B is a member of COPE, a complaint to COPE could be lodged. The editor could also consider contacting the institution of the author who had plagiarised the work.
There could be copyright issues here, with violation of copyright by journal B (if copyright was transferred to journal A by the author). Therefore, legal action could be considered.
There are instances where unscrupulous journals do not respond to these requests and in these circumstances the Forum would advise journal A to post a note on the paper. The note would also clarify which of the papers is plagiarised. The note should be worded in neutral terms. However, it is unlikely that author X would be satisfied with a note in journal A; he probably wants the paper removed from journal B. If journal A holds copyright to the plagiarised paper, then legal action may be the only option.
The authors of a manuscript sent an official complaint to our journal regarding a breach of confidentiality by an associate editor (AE). The authors had been informed by the supervisor of a reviewer of a manuscript. After submission of the review, the reviewer received a confidential email from AE asking whether the favourable recommendation made by the reviewer would have been different if the reviewer had been aware that the group submitting the manuscript had been recently queried by two journals on ethical issues. The reviewer (junior member of a research group) did not respond to the email of AE but informed her supervisor. The supervisor informed the authors and the authors filed a formal complaint.
The journal acknowledged receipt of the complaint and requested details and evidence of the accusations against AE. The editor received an email from the supervisor of the reviewer confirming the facts, as well as an edited copy of the email send by AE to the reviewer.
We informed AE of the complaint and our investigation of the allegation concerning a follow-up email send by AE to one of the reviewers of the manuscript informing them of the past history of the author group.
We asked AE for comments and an explanation, and told him that manuscripts will not be assigned until a resolution has been reached.
The reply from AE contained apologies for the "wrong behaviour" and a plea to be able to continue his work as AE. At no point was the resignation of AE offered to the journal. The editor and editorial team (deputy editors and managing editor) have considered all aspects and have come to the conclusion that collaboration with AE should be stopped.
Has the COPE Forum any additional comments? Have similar cases been submitted?
The Forum were told that the journal provides formal training for associate editors so there was no question that the associate editor was aware that their behaviour was wrong. The editor believes that professional competition was the motive of the associate editor. All agreed that the associate editor should have declared a conflict of interest and excused him/herself from the review process. The Forum advised that it is up to the editor to make the decision, and that he needs to consider how valuable he believes the associate editor is, and how likely they are to repeat this behaviour? Can the editor trust the associate editor now? The Forum suggested that the editor might re-emphasise the journal’s policy on conflicts of interest to the other associate editors.
The editorial team was unanimous in their decisions to stop collaboration with the associate editor and, regretfully, the collaboration stopped. The confidentiality issue was discussed with incoming associate editors during an annual associate editor course but this experience convinced the editors to emphasise the issue even more.
This case was posted on the WAME (World Association of Medical Editors) list-serv and the editor (from India) asked whether COPE could provide guidance.
An author (who happens to also be a journal editor) submitted a manuscript to a journal listed in one of the major medical databases. Having heard nothing for several months he tried to contact the editor to discover what was happening. At one stage he also stated that he would withdraw his manuscript from the journal – but none of his communications were acknowledged or answered. Finally, 18 months after submission, he received an apologetic letter from the editor stating that his manuscript was rejected because the journal had been unable to find any suitable reviewers. Is this acceptable?
The COPE Code of Conduct states that editors should ensure ‘timely’ peer review but we have never attempted to define ‘timely’ – should we do this?
All agreed that waiting 18 months for a decision on a manuscript was wholly unacceptable, especially as no acknowledgement was sent.
The Forum acknowledged that finding suitable reviewers can be a problem, particularly in specialist areas. But even in these situations, the author should be contacted within 2–3 months and kept updated on the situation. If it is a very specialist area, editors should perhaps ask the author to suggest 5 reviewers and reject the paper if he can’t. If a journal gives an average time to acceptance, then the author has a right to pursue the issue after this time. COPE’s advice would be if no progress is being made within 3-4 months, contact the author and keep them updated.
(presented by Liz Wager on behalf of an author) (NB: COPE doesn’t normally discuss cases from non-members but as this raised some interesting general points, we thought it would be interesting to hear Forum’s views)
According to the COPE guidelines, editors should “ensure the quality of published material… publish cogent criticisms from readers… [and] ensure research articles conform to ethical guidelines”. Yet, editors enjoy an (almost) absolute power and are barely accountable. I describe here how a Letter to the Editor submitted by myself to a COPE member journal was rejected only after it was forwarded by the editor to the concerned authors purportedly to get a reply.
In that letter, I pointed out the omission of a relevant reference which I considered was deliberate. I was also concerned that the article represented duplicate publication (which was supported by evidence from Déjà Vu)
I submitted the letter to the editor in December 2008. One month later, I got a rejection letter in which the editor-in-chief expressed his reluctance to expose “not strictly scientific aspects”. I immediately appealed this decision only to get the rejection confirmed in April 2009 on the basis of the explanations offered to the editor by the concerned authors. Thus the editor seems to have violated the confidentiality of my unpublished letter in forwarding it to the authors only to ultimately reject it.
My question to COPE is, should editors treat submitted material as confidential, or is it acceptable for them to show it to the authors of the work criticised, even if they have no intention of publishing it?
The question posed was “did the editor breach confidentiality?” Some members of the Forum said that in their instructions to authors they make it clear that they will send the letter to the criticised author but will not necessarily publish the letter. If an author is making a serious allegation of misconduct, most agreed that the letter should be anonymised when it is sent to the criticised authors. However, if it is a straightforward matter (ie simply critiquing or commenting on the published research), then most thought there was no need to anonymise the letter. While most agreed that the editor should not have dismissed the issue, the consensus was that it was not a breach of confidentiality. The author did not submit the letter in confidence so he should be prepared for it to be seen by the the criticised authors regardless of whether or not it was subsequently published.
The author published the letter in another journal.