Trolling for stats, other science journal shenanigans


One of the most deplorable results of corporate media consolidation has been the corporatization of science journals, those peer-review publications on which academics depend for the publication without which their careers perish.

Costs of journals have exploded, and for those who can’t afford subscriptions, access to individual articles can range up to $50 and more, a phenomenon we’ve encountered frequently in our attempts to access articles cited in news stories.

Now two researchers have published research [in a journal we can't access] revealing that journal editors often force researchers to tweak their reports in order to generate better stats for the journals themselves.

Here’s the report from Chrystal Morgan of the University of Alabama in Huntsville’s press office:

Two faculty members from The University of Alabama in Huntsville’s College of Business Administration were published today in the prestigious journal Science for their investigation of an important issue in research ethics.

Dr. Allen W. Wilhite, and Dr. Eric A. Fong co-authored a paper on the unethical practices of some journal publications, articulating results from their research to show that some editors coerce authors into adding unnecessary citations to articles in the same journal that is considering publishing the submitted work.

Journal editors want to increase the number of times articles within their journals are cited by researchers – because it raises the journal ranking and is used to make claims of prestige and importance.

“When we first learned about coercion we were stunned, but after asking around we found that several people were aware of this behavior,” said Dr. Wilhite. “At that point we decided to look into the extent and consequences of the practice.”

The duo analyzed 6,672 responses from a survey that was sent to researchers in the fields of economics, sociology, psychology, and business.

According to their research, Wilhite and Fong determined that many journal editors engage in the practice of coercion, requiring authors to add citations to the journal that is considering publishing the work.  They require additional citation of articles in the journal that will publish the work – without  (1) indicating that the article was actually deficient in attribution, 2) suggesting particular articles, authors, or bodies of work, or 3) guiding authors to add citations from the other  journals.

Furthermore, the work of Wilhite and Fong indicates that many journal editors appear to even strategically target certain authors, such as associate professors, rather than full professors, relying on the fact that lower ranking authors may be more willing to add the unnecessary citations. They also found that while the majority of authors disapprove of the practice, most acquiesce and add citations when coerced.

“This type of behavior hurts all of academia,” said Dr. Fong, “ and affects the integrity of academic publications.”

“We hope this research brings this unethical practice to light.  If left unchecked, it could distort our understanding of journal quality and research impact and, over time, influence decisions about tenure, promotion, awards and funding. Importantly, it is adding to the pressures faced by vulnerable junior faculty who are trying to build a record for tenure,” said Dr. Caron St. John, Dean of UA Huntsville’s College of Business Administration.

The report, titled “Coercive Citation in Academic Publishing,” is available here for Science subscribers. We’d read it, except it costs $15 bucks.

And then there’s that new legislation

Even more odious than citation stuffing in a bit of legislation pending in Congress that would deny free public access to research published by the National Institutes of Health and other publicly funded research centers.

From UC Berkeley evolutionary biologist and blogger Michael Eisen:

A new AAP backed bill – the “Research Works Act” – was just introduced by Reps Carolyn Maloney (D-NY) and Darrell Issa (R-CA). Its text is simple and odious:

No Federal agency may adopt, implement, maintain, continue, or otherwise engage in any policy, program, or other activity that:

(1) causes, permits, or authorizes network dissemination of any private-sector research work without the prior consent of the publisher of such work; or

(2) requires that any actual or prospective author, or the employer of such an actual or prospective author, assent to network dissemination of a private-sector research work.

This bill would not only end the NIH’s Public Access Policy, but it would forbid any effort on the part of any agency to ensure taxpayer access to work funded by the federal government.

Read the rest.

Eisen is a cofounder of a revolutionary alternative to the monopolized academic published racket.

The Public Library of Science [PloS] is a collection of peer-reviewed online journals and has three primary objectives:

  • Provide ways to overcome unnecessary barriers to immediate availability, access, and use of research
  • Pursue a publishing strategy that optimizes the openness, quality, and integrity of the publication process
  • Develop innovative approaches to the assessment, organization, and reuse of ideas and data

But let’s get back to those paid journals, and a leading corporate giant.

Elsevier, the publisher as nemesis

A publisher as nemesis? What’s with that?

Well, turns out that not only does Elsevier price its articles quite dearly, but it’s key player in the Research Works Act gambit.

From mathematician and jazz pianist Timothy Gowers, Royal Society Research Professor at the Department of Pure Mathematics and Mathematical Statistics at Cambridge University, writing at his Gowers’s Weblog:

The Dutch publisher Elsevier publishes many of the world’s best known mathematics journals, including Advances in Mathematics, Comptes Rendus, Discrete Mathematics, The European Journal of Combinatorics, Historia Mathematica, Journal of Algebra, Journal of Approximation Theory, Journal of Combinatorics Series A, Journal of Functional Analysis, Journal of Geometry and Physics, Journal of Mathematical Analysis and Applications, Journal of Number Theory, Topology, and Topology and its Applications. For many years, it has also been heavily criticized for its business practices. Let me briefly summarize these criticisms.

1. It charges very high prices — so far above the average that it seems quite extraordinary that they can get away with it.

2. One method that they have for getting away with it is a practice known as “bundling”, where instead of giving libraries the choice of which journals they want to subscribe to, they offer them the choice between a large collection of journals (chosen by them) or nothing at all. So if some Elsevier journals in the “bundle” are indispensable to a library, that library is forced to subscribe at very high subscription rates to a large number of journals, across all the sciences, many of which they do not want. (The journal Chaos, Solitons and Fractals is a notorious example of a journal that is regarded as a joke by many mathematicians, but which libraries all round the world must nevertheless subscribe to.) Given that libraries have limited budgets, this often means that they cannot subscribe to journals that they would much rather subscribe to, so it is not just libraries that are harmed, but other publishers, which is of course part of the motivation for the scheme.

3. If libraries attempt to negotiate better deals, Elsevier is ruthless about cutting off access to all their journals.

4. Elsevier supports many of the measures, such as the Research Works Act, that attempt to stop the move to open access. They also supported SOPA and PIPA and lobbied strongly for them.

I could carry on, but I’ll leave it there.

It might seem inexplicable that this situation has been allowed to continue. After all, mathematicians (and other scientists) have been complaining about it for a long time. Why can’t we just tell Elsevier that we no longer wish to publish with them?

Read the rest.

More on Elsevier here, here, here, here, and here. And keep a regular watch on Michael Eisen’s blog, it is not JUNK.

There’s also The Cost of Knowledge, an online campaign calling for an academy boycott of Elsevier which has garnered more than three thousand signatories at last count, including several from the UC Berkeley faculty.

From The Guardians Alison Flood:

More than 3,000 academics, including several Fields medal-winning mathematicians, have put their names to a petition declaring their intention to boycott the academic publisher Elsevier.

The “Cost of Knowledge” petition claims Elsevier charges “exorbitantly high” prices for its journals and criticises its practice of selling journals in “bundles” so libraries “must buy a large set with many unwanted journals, or none at all”. It says the publisher makes “huge profits by exploiting their essential titles, at the expense of other journals”.

The petition also criticises Elsevier’s support for the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA), PIPA and the US Research Works Act, which it says are an attempt to “restrict the free exchange of information”.

“If you would like to declare publicly that you will not support any Elsevier journal unless they radically change how they operate, then you can do so by filling in your details in the box below,” the petition says.

By Thursday afternoon, there were more than 3,000 names on the list – including academics from Oxford, Cambridge, Harvard and Yale universities, and the Fields medal winners Timothy Gowers, Wendelin Werner and Terence Tao – and a host of critical comments.

Elsevier has disputed the claims, saying that its average list price per article is $10 (£6.50), which is “bang on the industry mean”, and that volume-based discounts bring the effective price per article down to $2, which is “slightly below the industry average”.

It said the claim about bundles was “absolutely false”. “Elsevier allows you to buy articles at the level of the individual article, to buy a single journal, any combination of any number of journals and everything we have,” said Dr Nick Fowler, director of global academic relations at Elsevier. “There are benefits that come from taking more, which is a very standard practice, but that doesn’t mean you don’t have the choice [not to] – but then you can’t expect a discount.”

Read the rest.

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One response to “Trolling for stats, other science journal shenanigans

  1. I haven’t yet tried this myself, but a scientist of my acquaintance told me that most scientific authors keep their own PDFs of their articles. If you email and ask, they will usually email you a copy. He said he provides copies of his work when he gets requests this way.

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