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Academic Hacks Quote Own Papers To Boost Standing

Apparently academic journal editors are beginning to get worried that no one is reading what they publish; so worried, in fact, that they have been manipulating the numbers to make published research appear more influential than it actually is. The WSJ reports:

In July, a publication called Scientific World Journal retracted two papers about regenerative medicine, saying they had excessively cited another journal, Cell Transplantation.

At issue was the “impact-factor ranking,” one of the most influential numbers in scholarship. The impact factor was invented more than 50 years ago as a simple way to grade journals, on the basis of how frequently their articles got cited in the literature.

But concerns have arisen that some journals’ impact factor is artificially inflated by excessive citations—which appears to be why the editors of The Scientific World Journal retracted previously published work.

In one case, scientists serving on the same journal’s editorial board cited articles from their own publication nearly 100 times in other journals. Perhaps they actually do believe that the articles they have been publishing are just that good, but in the topsy-turvey world of academia there are strong incentives for having the most influential journal: incentives like fellowships, grants and tenure.

What is most striking here is the stunning crudity of the measures being used and the horrifying mix of sloth and insecurity by evaluators and faculties in the sciences. Why not evaluate people’s work seriously, using things like intellectual judgment to tell the difference between a laudable researcher and an ambitious hack?

The quest for “objective” criteria in qualitative questions almost always has the nasty results seen here. There is no substitute for intelligence and no way to bureaucratize insight. In our academic establishment, driven by a culture of affirmative action and lawsuits to reduce all hiring and promotion decisions to “objective criteria” so that you don’t get sued, the attempt to objectify insight combined with weak personal ethics is creating an unholy mess.

Improving the system used to rank published papers can help, and excluding “own quotes” can make it harder for mediocre journals to boost their ratings by gaming it, but tenure plus bureaucracy plus litigation leads inexorably to a more mediocre, less honest academy. Bureaucracy and litigation are here to stay; tenure, on the other hand, is beginning to look a little shaky.

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