Journals singled out for favoritism

French doctor Didier Raoult is an author on one-third of the papers in a single journal. 

Alain Apaydin/Abaca/Sipa via AP Images

When Didier Raoult published several studies last year purporting to show the promise of the malaria drug hydroxychloroquine as a treatment for COVID-19, critics quickly denounced his methods. Raoult, a microbiologist at Aix-Marseille University, now faces disciplinary action by a French medical regulator, and the drug has largely been discredited as a COVID-19 treatment.

But some researchers had another concern: Raoult’s astonishingly prolific publication in the journal New Microbes and New Infections, where some of Raoult’s collaborators serve as associate editors and editor-in-chief. Since the journal’s creation in 2013, Raoult’s name appeared on one-third of its 728 papers. Florian Naudet, a meta-scientist at the University of Rennes, wondered how common the pattern was. He and his colleagues teamed up with University of Oxford psychologist Dorothy Bishop, who had developed a method to identify prolific authorship, to explore its extent in the biomedical research literature.

The group extracted data on nearly 5 million papers published between 2015 and 2019 in more than 5000 biomedical journals indexed by the U.S. National Library of Medicine’s “Broad Subject Terms,” which catalogs journals’ subject focus. This method didn’t capture journals that aren’t registered in the catalog with these subject terms—among them, less established journals such as New Microbes and New Infections, Naudet says. The researchers then counted the number of articles each author had published to identify the most prolific researcher at each journal.

In half of the journals, the most prolific author published less than 3% of the papers. But 206 journals were outliers, with a single author responsible for between 11% and 40% of the papers, the team reports in a preprint posted this month. Although many of these outlier journals are obscure, some are recognizable titles with significant impact factors: Journal of Enzyme Inhibition and Medicinal ChemistryJournal of the American Dental Association, and Current Problems in Surgery. If New Microbes and New Infections had been included in the analysis, Raoult’s publication rate would place it in the top 10 outlier journals. Raoult and Michel Drancourt, the editor-in-chief of New Microbes and New Infections, did not respond to requests for comment.

The researchers also compared the time from submission to publication and found that prolific authors enjoyed faster peer reviews. And in a random sample of 100 of the outlier journals chosen for closer scrutiny, the researchers found what they consider evidence of favoritism or, as they call it, “nepotism”: For about one-quarter of these journals, the prolific author was the editor-in-chief of the journal, and in 61% of them the author was on the editorial board.

The study, which has not yet been peer-reviewed, is “well done,” says Ludo Waltman, a bibliometrician at Leiden University, and raises questions about the integrity of the scientific literature. Study co-author Clara Locher, a pharmacologist at the University of Rennes, notes there is still work to be done because the analysis does not show whether papers authored by prolific researchers at these “nepotistic” journals are lower in quality. Naudet says asking readers blinded to the status of the journals to grade a subset of the papers could shed light on that question.

But Waltman cautions against making simple binary distinctions between “good” and “bad” journals. Many fall in a gray zone, he says, and drawing bright lines risks giving a tacit stamp of approval to journals that don’t exceed an arbitrary cut-off but may still have substantial problems.

What’s needed, he says, is more transparency from journals about their editorial processes. The best way for journals to avoid nepotism, he says, would be to publish comments from each article’s peer reviewers, allowing readers to judge for themselves whether it has been properly reviewed.

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