Citation Coercion

While browsing my twitter stream today, I was struck by a particular headline courtesy of The Provence—a British Columbia daily newspaper:

Needless to say, as a publishing academic, I found this headline a bit disturbing. So I tracked down the original article on which the tweet and province article was based: Allen W. Wilhite and Eric A. Fong. (2012) Coercive Citation in Academic Publishing. Science 335: 542-3. Here’s the link. Be ready for the obligatory academic publishing pay wall.

Long story short, the authors surveyed 6672 scholars and 832 journals in economics, sociology, and various business disciplines. With regards to the surveyed scholars alone the study addresses 45,955 articles. Respondents were surveyed regarding whether or not they felt coerced to add more self-citations (that is, citations to the target journal). Let’s clarify that just a bit. The authors stipulate that coercive self-citation requests should be understood as follows:

Coercive self-citation refers to requests that (i) give no indication that the manuscript was lacking in attribution; (ii) make no suggestion as to specific articles, authors, or a body of work requiring review; and (iii) only guide authors to add citations from the editor’s journal. This quote from an editor as a condition for publication highlights the problem: “you cite Leukemia [once in 42 references]. Consequently, we kindly ask you to add references of articles published in Leukemia to your present article” ( 6). Wilhite and Fong p. 542.

According to Wilhite and Fong, 20% of respondents cited being coerced and 50% reported being aware of coercive practices on the part of journal editors. Also noteworthy is the fact that 86% of respondents identified “coercive self-citation” requests as inappropriate. These data are reported amidst explicitly referenced concern about the role of impact factors in the evaluation of scholarly journals. And the supposition is that journal editors request additional, non-specific, citations of their journal solely based on a desire to raise the journal’s impact factor.

Obviously, this possibility raises some serious concerns for the integrity of academic publishing. And if, if, journal editors are, indeed, asking authors to cite additional references to the target journal with a primary aim of raising the impact factor, then I’m with the 86%. However, I wonder if Wihite and Fong aren’t jumping the gun a bit in attributing this nefarious motivation. I’ve certainly been asked, on more than one occasion, to add self-citations to a potential publication. And, yes, it’s very, very annoying. But is it wrong? I can think of at least two issues which suggest it might not be.

Issue 1: Burke’s Parlor
Rhetoricians among my audience a imminently familiar with Burke’s parlor metaphor. For those who aren’t, in the Philosophy of Literary Form, Burke writes:

Imagine that you enter a parlor. You come late. When you arrive, others have long preceded you, and they are engaged in a heated discussion, a discussion too heated for them to pause and tell you exactly what it is about. In fact, the discussion had already begun long before any of them got there, so that no one present is qualified to retrace for you all the steps that had gone before. You listen for a while, until you decide that you have caught the tenor of the argument; then you put in your oar. Someone answers; you answer him; another comes to your defense; another aligns himself against you, to either the embarrassment or gratification of your opponent, depending upon the quality of your ally’s assistance. However, the discussion is interminable. The hour grows late, you must depart. And you do depart, with the discussion still vigorously in progress.

Scholars of rhetorical theory take this as the perfect metaphor for participation in a scholarly journal. A would-be author must participate in the on-going conversation. Now certainly that conversation transcends journal boundaries, but if there really isn’t much of anything worth citing in your target journal, perhaps you’ve targeted the wrong journal. Perhaps you should be participating in a different conversation. Wihite and Fong offer a different, perhaps a-rhetorical, edict for determine who to cite. They argue, “The American Psychological Association Publication Manual states, “Cite the work of those individuals whose ideas, theories, or research have directly influenced your work” (emphasis added) ( 8)” (p. 543). For me, however, this still raises the question of my first issue. If no article (or nearly no article) from your target journal has “directly influenced your work,” then isn’t that the time to ask if you’re pursuing the proper venue? Perhaps the unnamed author above receiving editorial comments from Leukemia did, indeed, need to work harder to explain to the audience the relevance of the contribution to the conversation of that journal.

Issue 2: Scholarly Flexibility
For this issue I return to point one of Wilhite and Fong coercive self-citation definition. According to their rubric requests for self-citation are not coercive if they identify specific articles, authors, or intellectual traditions that the article needs to cite. (Let’s leave aside the issue that it’s still perfectly coercive to say, “we won’t publish this article unless you cite Article X by Person Y.”) Is the lack of specificity really a problem? Or is it, maybe, the recognition that the author needs to participate in the on-going conversation coupled with the trust in said author to identify the scholarship already present in the target journal which is most germane to their own area of inquiry. I really do get annoyed when an editor tells me to cite more from my target journal. But, I’m pretty sure I’d be way more annoyed if the editor told me I had to cite x, y, and z specific articles in order to fit my manuscript to the journal.

Lest I stay even further into TL;DR territory…
I don’t have any answers here. I’m very deeply concerned by the idea that editors could be requesting citations just to pad their impact factor. But I’m also just as deeply concerned by the suppositions of Wihlte and Fong: 1) the attribution of nefarious motive, 2) the lack of recognition regarding “the scholarly conversation,” and 3) the idea that a lack of specific suggestion is somehow worse than a specific, yet still coerced, self-citation request. One thing I am sure about is that these are questions that all scholars need to start actively engaging. And, perhaps even more so, rhetoricians of science and other scholars who have devoted their research to the study of scientific articles and the contexts which surround those articles. Leave a comment. Talk to me. Tell me your thoughts on this issue.

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