Thursday, 12 April 2012

Short-cited VI: the scientific skullduggery of the citation cartel

In yesterday's post, I briefly mentioned and linked to an interesting blog article on "The Emergence of a Citation Cartel", in which editors from one journal are exposed writing review articles in a different journal that almost exclusively cite their journal's papers from the last two years, thus boosting their Impact Factor.

The most striking case cited was a review article in Medical Science Monitor by Eve, Fillmore, Borlongan and Sanberg: "Stem cells have the potential to rejuvenate regenerative medicine research". This review cites 495 papers (at an average of around 9 words per citation!), of which 445 are from "Cell Transplantation - The Regenerative Medicine Journal", published between 2008 and 2009.

At the time, I wondered:
How they can write a coherent article by doing this without plaigiarising heavily, I am not sure, as they must have to ignore masses of relevant literature...
The answer turns out to be depressing simple: despite the rather intriguing title of the review, it is nothing more than literally "an analysis of the articles published in the journal Cell Transplantation - The Regenerative Medicine Journal between 2008 and 2009" under the pretext that this "reveals the topics and categories that are on the cutting edge of regenerative medicine research". If you want to read the whole article, you can download it for personal use here. It's a bit boring, though, to be honest. You can actually get the idea of what they did from the abstract:
The increasing number of publications featuring the use of stem cells in regenerative processes supports the idea that they are revolutionizing regenerative medicine research. In an analysis of the articles published in the journal Cell Transplantation - The Regenerative Medicine Journal between 2008 and 2009, which reveals the topics and categories that are on the cutting edge of regenerative medicine research, stem cells are becoming increasingly relevant as the "runner-up" category to "neuroscience" related articles. The high volume of stem cell research casts a bright light on the hope for stem cells and their role in regenerative medicine as a number of reports deal with research using stem cells entering, or seeking approval for, clinical trials. The "methods and new technologies" and "tissue engineering" sections were almost equally as popular, and in part, reflect attempts to maximize the potential of stem cells and other treatments for the repair of damaged tissue. Transplantation studies were again more popular than non-transplantation, and the contribution of stem cell-related transplants was greater than other types of transplants. The non-transplantation articles were predominantly related to new methods for the preparation, isolation and manipulation of materials for transplant by specific culture media, gene therapy, medicines, dietary supplements, and co-culturing with other cells and further elucidation of disease mechanisms. A sizeable proportion of the transplantation articles reported on how previously new methods may have aided the ability of the cells or tissue to exert beneficial effects following transplantation.
Table 1 of the paper, "Characterization of publications in Cell Transplantation from 2008 to 2009", tabulates all 453 papers from this period. (This actually begs the question as to why only 445 seem to be in the reference list but I am certainly not going to try and find out which eight are missing!) As one can imagine, this is hardly gripping reading and I would greatly question that two years of one journal can give any unbiased insights into "the topics and categories that are on the cutting edge of regenerative medicine research"; it therefore comes as no surprise that (according to Google Scholar), this paper has only been cited once to date.

So, despite first appearances, this does not seem to be a case of scientific malpractice. It's hard to see it as anything other than scientific skullduggery (and drudgery), however. The pretext for publication is really pretty thin and, I would argue, if the intent was not at least in part to hide the activity then the choice of sources would feature in the title, not just the abstract. As highlighted in the Scholarly Kitchen article, three out of four authors are editorial board members of Cell Transplantation and, if nothing else, this surely constitutes a "conflict of interests". (None were listed.) Indeed, parts of the paper read like an advert for the journal. Perhaps there is a place for such an article, but surely it is as an editorial in the journal itself? The Scholarly Kitchen post covers more activities of a similar ilk - the authors seem to have made this review a regular activity.

I'm not generally one to point fingers and, to be fair to Eve et al., it's a competitive world; it could be argued that they are guilty of nothing other than "playing the game". (And playing it well!) That said, if Impact Factor and other metrics are going to be used to compare journals and select where to publish, surely this kind of thing must be stopped?


  1. You might be interested to know that this has happened more often: see "A Showcase of Bench-to-Bedside Regenerative Medicine at the 2010 ASNTR by David J. Eve, Cesar V. Borlongan, and Paul R. Sanberg" by now retracted from The Scientific World Journal (see, which, if I have counted correctly, cites 124 papers from Cell Transplantation out of 141 cited papers, and "Regenerative Medicine for Neurological Disorders by Dong-Hyuk Park, David J. Eve, Yong-Gu Chung, and Paul R. Sanberg" with 98 out of 126, also retracted (see This actually caused the TSWJ to lose its impact factor this year. Some people have no scruples whatsoever.

  2. Interesting! I am glad to see that something is being done about it, though. How does a journal lose its Impact Factor? Who decides?

  3. Thomson Reuters - who calculates the impact factors - has excluded Cell Transplantation and any journal that published the excessive citations. I don't know if any other journals are affected/punished. The editor for these papers with TSWJ was also an editor for CT, so that explains how it got through.


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