Citation Manipulation Is Unethical

Citation manipulation is not a new practice, but with the strong emphasis placed on journal impact factors, the abuse has escalated to the point that the Committee on Publication Ethics (COPE) released a discussion document dated July 1, 2019 that defines citation manipulation, explains how coercive citation manipulation has been practiced by editors and reviewers, and distinguishes between legitimate and illegitimate reasons for self-citation.

Journal impact factors are driven by citations, and number of strategies to increase a publication’s citations—many of them unethical—have been devised and implemented. The impetus is 2-fold: not only are impact factors widely used as a barometer for a journal’s importance and prestige, but impact factors are also widely used to evaluate staff, confer promotions, and award grants. In the world of scholarly publishing and academia, the higher the impact factor, the better.

Stakes this high lead to abuses. Citation manipulation is one of them. Here’s how COPE defines citation manipulation:

Excessive citation of an author’s research by the author (ie, self-citation by authors) as a means solely of increasing the number of citations of the author’s work;

Excessive citation of articles from the journal in which the author is publishing a research article as a means solely of increasing the number of citations of the journal; or

Excessive citation of the work of another author or journal, sometimes referred to as ‘honorary’ citations (eg, the editor-in-chief of the journal to which one is submitting a manuscript or a well-known scholar in the field of the researcher) or ‘citation stacking’ solely to contribute to the citations of the author(s)/ journal(s) in question.

Excessive author self-citation is an issue related to an individual’s ethics and is best addressed within the individual’s institution. Excessive journal citation, however, is a broader problem that can lead to what COPE defines as coercive citation manipulation:

Citation manipulation is considered coercive citation manipulation when it is made a condition for having an article accepted in a journal.

At some journals, reviewers have required citation of their work as a condition of acceptance. At some journals, editors and editorial board members have required citation of their own articles or of articles published in their journal as a condition of acceptance. There are even citation manipulation cartels in which more than one journal collaborates to boost their impact factors by mutually increasing the citations of work from each journal.

COPE has gone on record to label these practices unethical and a violation of best practice in publishing.

If an editor or reviewer requires you to cite work that is clearly related to their interests as a condition of article acceptance, you may want to opt out and publish with a journal that does not practice unethical behavior. We’d like to suggest the Ochsner Journal.

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