Watch out for cheats in citation game

When scientists misbehave, the culture of ‘publish or perish’ is often blamed. Some researchers cut corners, massage data and images or invent results to secure academic papers and the rewards that come with them. This is rightly regarded as misconduct. But there is a new class of bad behaviour — one that is driven by a related but different pressure: ‘impact or perish’.

It is no longer enough for scientists to publish their work. The work must be seen to have an influential shelf life. This drive for impact places the academic paper at the centre of a web of metrics — typically, where it is published and how many times it is cited — and a good score on these metrics becomes a goal that scientists and publishers are willing to cheat for.

Collectively, these new practices don’t seek to produce articles that are based on fraudulent evidence or claims. Rather, they use fraudulent means to secure their publication, enhance their impact and inflate the importance of those who write them. They are on the march — and scientists no longer have to look far to find them. News about research now includes regular reports of authors who supply fake e-mail addresses of suggested peer reviewers. They then use those addresses to offer reports that are supportive enough to ensure that the paper is published. ‘Review and citation’ rings go a step further, trading favourable fake reviews for citations to the reviewer’s work. Others hack publisher databases to seek more invitations to review papers, and so possibly insert more citations to their own work.

“All metrics of scientific evaluation are bound to be abused.”