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A statistical research project: Weeding out the fraudulent citations

John Mashey points me to a blog post by Phil Davis on “the emergence of a citation cartel.” Davis tells the story:

Cell Transplantation is a medical journal published by the Cognizant Communication Corporation of Putnam Valley, New York. In recent years, its impact factor has been growing rapidly. In 2006, it was 3.482 [I think he means “3.5”—ed.]. In 2010, it had almost doubled to 6.204.

When you look at which journals cite Cell Transplantation, two journals stand out noticeably: the Medical Science Monitor, and The Scientific World Journal. According to the JCR, neither of these journals cited Cell Transplantation until 2010.

Then, in 2010, a review article was published in the Medical Science Monitor citing 490 articles, 445 of which were to papers published in Cell Transplantation. All 445 citations pointed to papers published in 2008 or 2009 — the citation window from which the journal’s 2010 impact factor was derived. Of the remaining 45 citations, 44 cited the Medical Science Monitor, again, to papers published in 2008 and 2009.

Three of the four authors of this paper sit on the editorial board of Cell Transplantation. Two are associate editors, one is the founding editor. The fourth is the CEO of a medical communications company.

Further details follow, but I think you get the picture.

Davis continues:

The ease to which members of an editorial board were able to use a cartel of journals to influence their journal’s impact factor concerns me greatly because the cost to do so is very low, the rewards are astonishingly high, it is difficult to detect, and the practice can be facilitated very easily by overlapping editorial boards or through cooperative agreements between them. What’s more, editors can protect these “reviews” from peer review if they are labeled as “editorial material,” as some are. It’s the perfect strategy for gaming the system.

I’d think this sort of thing should be detectable using statistical analysis. This seems like the sort
of fight-fire-with-fire situation where there will be at least a partial
technological solution.

P.S. The discussion thread is worth reading too.

P.P.S. Lots more interesting stuff on that blog, for example this post by Kent Anderson disparaging open-access publishing.


  1. […] A statistical research project: Weeding out the fraudulent citations […]

  2. I recently received the following from a colleague. Apparently some journals are trying to increase their impact factor by manipulating citations in articles submitted to them. This has never happened to me, and if it did, I would withdraw the paper and give the editor a piece of my mind. Anyway, here is what I received:


    Please consider this actual example. A scholar receives a letter from the managing editor of a journal saying his article has been accepted for publication. Some time later, the author receives a follow-up letter from the senior editor of the same journal directing the author to add citations from his journal before publication. Specifically the editor writes, “you only use one (name of my journal) source which is unacceptable. Please add at least five more relevant-(name of my journal) sources.”

    Notice that this citation request does not mention omitted content, insufficient attribution, or shortcomings in the manuscript’s analysis; it simply asks the authors to cite articles from the editor’s journal.

    This practice is controversial. Some view it as inappropriate behavior, padding citations and diluting the value of the reference list. Others see it as a legitimate way to introduce readers to past literature in the editor’s journal. This study investigates this issue and we need your help. Would you please take a moment to complete the following survey?—it will take only a few minutes. If you consent to this survey just follow the link provided below.

    As required by our Institutional Review Board, individual identities will not be revealed or linked to specific responses. IRB contact information:

    Thank you for your help.

    Link to survey:

  3. John Mashey says:

    Of course, this is just one of various cases in which there is, in effect, some mechanically-computed reputational score that matters, and people try to find ways to game them.

    Examples include Amazon reviews, Google page-rank (via link farms, the logical equivalent of this citation cartel thing).

    I think the general message is that like any calculated statistics, one should always ask how it is computed.

  4. Alex says:

    Not sure if you or your readers know the story of Folia Phoniatrica et Logopaedica, which appears to be a worthy journal with a low impact factor. In an editorial in 2007 (DOI: 10.1159/000108334), Schutte and Svec complained that the impact factor was forcing specialists not to publish with them but in more general journals, and “as a reaction to this disturbing trend, the authors have decided to put together this review, which cites all the articles published in FPL within the last 2 years. This article is thus expected to considerably increase the impact factor of this journal and its ranking.” Lo, the impact factor doubled with that one article, but then Thomson Reuters noticed and suspended the journal’s impact factor. Or at least that’s what wikipedia says.

  5. John Mashey says:

    “what Wikipedia says” ahh yes:
    How the Professor Who Fooled Wikipedia Got Caught by Reddit

    ‘T. Mills Kelly encourages his students to deceive thousands of people on the Web. This has angered many, but the experiment helps reveal the shifting nature of the truth on the Internet.’

    This was at George Mason U.

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