Journal editors push authors to add citations to improve impact factors?

A new study in Science suggests that some journal editors push authors to include citations in their soon-t0-be published studies to boost the reputation of their journals:

A system of “impact factors”, tied to references listed in studies, pervades the scholarly enterprise, notes survey author Allen Wilhite and Eric Fong of the University of Alabama in Huntsville, who reports the survey of 6,672 researchers in economics, sociology, psychology, and business research in the current Science journal. The survey covered journal editor behavior from 832 publications.

Overall, about 20% of survey respondents say that a journal editor had coerced extra citations to their own journal from them. Broadly, journals with higher impact factors attract more prestige, advertising and power in hiring and firing decisions in scholarly circles, the authors note, giving journal editors an incentive to extort added citations to their publications in the studies they consider for publication. “(T)he message is clear: Add citations or risk rejection,” write the authors.

In particular, younger professors with few co-authors who need publications to keep their jobs reported the most pressure. Business journal editors coerced the most often, followed by economics, and then psychology and other social sciences. As well, “journals published by commercial, for-profit companies show significantly greater use of coercive tactics than journals from university presses. Academic societies also coerce more than university presses.”

Less than 7% of the respondents thought researchers would resist this coercion, so desperate for publication are professors. “Although this behavior is less common in economics, psychology, and sociology, these disciplines are not immune—every discipline reported multiple instances of coercion. And there are published references to coercion in fields beyond the social sciences,” concludes the survey report…

While I’m glad to see that sociology seems to be toward the bottom of this list, this is still a problem. In some ways, this is not surprising as many in academia feel the pressure to make their work stand out.

However, I think you could ask broader questions about the system of citations. Here are a few other ideas:

1. Do researchers feel pressure to add citations to articles simply to reach a “magic number” or to have enough so that it looks like they have “properly” scoped out the topic?

2. How much have citations increased with the widespread use of online databases that make it much easier to find articles?

2a. Since I assume this has increased the number of citations, does this lead to “better research”?

3. When choosing what articles to cite, how much are researchers influenced by how many other people have cited the article (supposedly a measure of its value) and the impact factors of the journal the article is in?

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