An analysis of more than 1000 science journals published over 38 years suggests that 12 per cent of journal editors publish a fifth of their own research
16 January 2023
More than 1 in 10 researchers who are also the editors of science journals publish a fifth of their own papers in their journals – and 1 in 20 publish a third of their own work. This raises the question of whether editors’ submissions get treated more favourably.
For over a decade, there has been concern that a growing number of research papers are flawed. This is sometimes called science’s replication crisis, as the flaws may come to light if other research teams can’t reproduce the results.
Part of the problem is the pressure on scientists to publish as many papers as possible, as this helps them gain promotion and access research funds.
Decisions on which papers to accept are made by a journal’s board of editors, who are usually practising research scientists. While editors seek advice on submitted papers from other scientists who are experts on the topic, known as peer review, they still have a lot of influence over the process.
To gauge the extent of the problem, Bedoor AlShebli at New York University Abu Dhabi, the United Arab Emirates, and her colleagues analysed a database of more than 1000 journals published between 1980 and 2018 by Elsevier, a company behind one-fifth of the world’s scientific papers.
While there was great variation in the self-publishing rates, 12 per cent of these journals’ editors published more than a fifth of their papers in their journals and 6 per cent published more than a third in their journals.
The team used software to match each of these editors with a similar researcher, for example one in the same scientific field. Results show that these comparison researchers generally had only a small percentage of their papers accepted by the journal in question.
This raises the possibility that papers submitted to a journal by its editor are treated more favourably, “which may be considered an abuse of the scientific publishing system”, according to AlShebli’s team.
“Publishing in a journal is supposed to be a signal that the journal thought this is good-quality science,” says Stuart Buck, who runs the Good Science Project, a non-profit US organisation that aims to improve scientific rigour. “At the very least, [self-publishing] seems like a conflict of interest.”
Dorothy Bishop at the University of Oxford, says some editors may try to publish high-quality science in their own journals to improve its profile, rather than to boost their own careers. In such cases, the scientists should step back from editorial board decisions on whether to accept the work and state in the paper that this has happened, says Bishop.
This is recommended in a set of guidelines from the Committee on Publication Ethics, an international journal advisory body. The editors whose research was included in the latest study may have followed this process, as AlShebli’s team didn’t assess how often any such statements appear in self-published papers.
A spokesperson for Elsevier says it does not exclude editors from publishing in their own journals as some scientific fields are narrow and may only have a handful of relevant journals. Nevertheless, editors should not be involved in decisions about papers they have written and there must be a clear statement to this effect when any such paper is published, they say.
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