A scholarly journal run by the Dutch publishing giant Elsevier has come under scrutiny for rejecting a paper submitted for publication because, among other reasons, it didn’t cite enough of the journal’s previously published papers.
The rejection letter, from the International Journal of Hydrogen Energy (IJHE), which is published by Elsevier on behalf of the International Association for Hydrogen Energy, reads: “while the subject is within the scope of the journal, there are only four citations to past papers published in IJHE out of 150 references cited.”
The letter came to light after microbiologist-turned-scientific integrity expert Elisabeth Bik posted it on Twitter on Jan. 19.
Several researchers took to Twitter to criticize the wording of the letter. “Asking for more citations of the journal is inappropriate,” tweeted Jeff Catalano, a geochemist at Washington University in St. Louis. “While papers that are a poor fit often lack citations from the journal, this is not a predictor of fit.”
If a paper doesn’t cite any studies from a journal, that should be a flag to check if the paper is within the journal’s scope, Catalano tells C&EN. But “this shouldn’t be an acceptable deciding factor on an acceptance or rejection,” he says.
Nabi Ullah, a chemist at the University of Lodz who wrote the rejected paper, says it’s not the first time he has been asked to pad his manuscript with citations. “Previously, they just requested and did not reject our articles,” he says. “But this time they rejected our article, and once I saw the letter and read it I was surprised.”
Ullah subsequently submitted his paper to a different journal. “This makes me very disappointed, and I feel it is against science integrity,” he says.
“The obvious implication is that they are gaming the system,” says Guy Gratton, a professor of aviation and the environment at Cranfield University who also posted on Twitter about the rejection letter. “They’re simply trying to get more citations to up the Journal Impact Factor.” The impact factor is a controversial metric that is used to judge the significance of journals.
Darren Broom, product manager at Hiden Isochema, a company that makes instruments for sorption analysis, tweeted that he and his colleagues received a similar request when publishing in the IJHE. “I think we pushed back against the request & it was fine, but I wish they would not do this,” he wrote on Twitter. Broom declined a request for an interview with C&EN.
In a statement, Elsevier communications director David Tucker says the publisher takes manipulation of citation metrics seriously. “Elsevier has a clear policy around editors influencing citations to their journals: ‘The editor must not attempt to influence the journal’s ranking by artificially increasing any journal metric,’” he says. “We take coercive citation practices and peer-review manipulation very seriously and have retracted 131 papers from Elsevier journals over the last three years for peer-review manipulation.”
Referring specifically to the rejection letter circulating on Twitter, Tucker notes that it was issued without the knowledge of the IJHE’s editor-in-chief. “The Editor-in-Chief does not agree with the wording used and doesn’t in any way promote citations to the journal as an acceptance criterion. He is now talking with the other Editors of the journal to reinforce this point.”
But Gratton noted on Twitter that he previously received a similar request from another Elsevier journal. “The wording looked almost identical to the wording a group of colleagues and I had in a rejection about three years ago,” Gratton tells C&EN. “It was a paper [submitted] to one of Elsevier’s engineering journals.” He recalls that he and his colleagues were asked to add three or four citations from papers already published by the same journal before the manuscript would be considered for peer review.
“We decided that this was a piece of cynical game playing we weren’t prepared to get involved with, so we simply pulled it and submitted to another journal,” Gratton adds. He also notes, that the journal didn’t specify which papers should be cited; instead, it just demanded more papers from the same title. “This sort of behavior has no place. It’s cheating,” he says.
Peer reviewers asking for authors to cite their work is a similar problem. In 2019, Elsevier launched an investigation into hundreds of peer reviewers accused of manipulating citations by asking authors of submitted papers to pad them with citations to the reviewers’ own papers. The investigation was launched after a study by Elsevier staff found that fewer than 1% of peer reviewers of Elsevier journals out of the 55,000 examined consistently had their own papers referenced by the studies they refereed.
Academics say abuse and manipulation will continue as long as current incentive systems—which encourage publishing as many papers as possible in so-called prestigious publications—are in place.
“If we could find a way to value quality and have people slow down and not try to publish the smallest increment of results or not publish excessively, that would be helpful,” Catalano says.