Wednesday, September 23, 2015

Adventures in non-fake academic publishing: impact factor gaming edition

One of the things that fake academic journals do is game the impact factors for their fake publications. But apparently at least one non-fake academic journal has joined in the fun, inflating its impact rankings by shameless self-citation within its own articles.

The Journal of Criminal Justice has been on a roll. Once considered a somewhat middling publication — not in the same league as top journals like Criminology and Justice Quarterly — it is now ranked No. 1 in the field according to its impact factor, which measures the average number of citations a journal receives and is meant to indicate which titles are generating the most buzz.
Rocketing to No. 1 is even more impressive when you find out that in 2012 the Journal of Criminal Justice was way back in 22nd place. That’s quite a leap!
Predictably, that sharp uptick made some researchers in a field devoted to misdeeds a tad, shall we say, suspicious. Among them was Thomas Baker, an assistant professor of criminal justice at the University of Central Florida. So Mr. Baker did what good researchers in all fields do: He took a hard look at the data. Then, after emailing it to a few friends, he decided to publish what he found in the field’s widely read newsletter, The Criminologist.
What he found was this: Much of the rise in the journal’s impact factor was due to citations in articles published in the Journal of Criminal Justice itself.
That impact factors can be gamed is news to no one who has paid any attention to academic publishing in the last, oh, couple of decades. For instance, in 2012 Thomson Reuters, which publishes the rankings, dropped 51 journals from its list for trying to artificially inflate their statuses. In one instance, several medical journals were banned after apparently colluding in a kind of you-cite-my-articles, I’ll-cite-yours arrangement.
Looking back over the last two years of articles published in the Journal of Criminal Justice, Mr. Baker noticed that many of the citations had appeared in editorials and articles written or co-written by Matt DeLisi, the editor in chief, who is a professor of criminal justice at Iowa State University. Of the 328 citations made to the journal in 2012 and 2013, 157 appeared in the pages of the journal itself, and 90 of those 157 papers had Mr. DeLisi’s name at the top.
In the most eyebrow-raising instance, one four-paragraph editorial, published in 2014, didn’t take up even a single page yet managed to have 47 citations, all to the Journal of Criminal Justice. Notably, all but three of the citations were from 2012 and 2013, the years used to calculate the most recent impact factor. (All three of the 2011 citations were to articles on which Mr. DeLisi was an author.)
Editor and author Matt DeLisi denies he was gaming the system.
So the journal is clearly, brazenly gaming the system, right?
No, says Mr. DeLisi, who took over as editor in 2010. In an interview, he explains that he was citing research that was relevant to the articles, and nothing else. "If someone writes an editorial, of course there are going to be citations," Mr. DeLisi says. His critics "seem to think that the only reason one does editorials is for citations," he says.
As for citing so many of the papers in his own journal, Mr. DeLisi says this was a way of further recognizing the authors, not pumping up the stats.
Mr. DeLisi notes that Eric Baumer, the editor of the Criminologist newsletter, is also a co-editor of the journal Criminology, which was knocked down a peg by the rise of the Journal of Criminal Justice. "There are all kinds of interesting conflicts of interest," Mr. DeLisi says. He is now working on a written response to Mr. Baker’s piece.
What this will mean for the journal’s reputation is unclear. If Thomson Reuters decided the journal was, in fact, gaming its impact factor, it could be banned from the rankings. (A call to Thomson Reuters went unreturned.)
One well-known scholar, Bob Bursik, a professor of criminology and criminal justice at the University of Missouri at St. Louis, thinks the damage has already been done. "Intentional or not, in my mind, there is no question that the meteoric rise in the ranking of JCJ was due mostly to highly questionable editorial decisions," he writes in an email. Those decisions, he says, render the impact-factor ranking "misleading and meaningless."

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