Unethical Reviewers in Academia!

In this blog post, I will talk about a common problem in academia, which is the unethical behavior of some reviewers that ask authors to cite several of their papers.

It is quite common that some reviewer will ask authors to cite his papers to increase his citation count. I have encountered this problem many times for my own papers when submiting to journals. Sometimes the reviewer will try to hide his identify by asking to cite four or five papers and include one or two from himself among those. But sometimes, it is very obvious as the reviewer will directly ask to cite many papers and they will all be from the same author. For example, just a few weeks ago, I received a notification for one of my papers where the reviewer wrote:

The related work needs improvement: Please add the following works:
…. title of paper 1 …
…. title of paper 2 ..
…. title of paper 3 ….
…. title of paper 4 …

That reviewer asked to cite four papers by the same person. In that case, it is very easy to guess who is the reviewer. In some cases, I have even seen two reviewers of the same papers both asking the author to cite their papers. Each of them was asking to cite about five of their papers. This was completely ridiculous and gave a very bad impressionabout the review process. This unethical behavior is quite common. If you submit many papers to journals, you will sooner or later encounter this problem, even for top 20 % journals.

Why it happens? The reason is that many universities consider citation count as an important metric for performance evaluation. Thus, some authors will try to artificially increase their citation count by forcing other authors to cite their papers.

So what are the solutions?

  • Authors facing this problem will often accept to cite the papers from the reviewer because they are afraid that the reviewer will reject the paper if they don’t. This is understandable. However, if the authors accept, this will encourage the reviewer to continue this unethical behavior for other papers. Thus, the best solution is to send an e-mail to the editor to let them know about it. This is what I do when I am in this situation. If you let the editor knows, the editor will normally take this into account and may even take some punitive actions like removing the reviewer from the journal.
  • To avoid this problem before it happens, some editors will read carefully the reviews and delete unethical requests by reviewers. However, this does not always happen because editors are often very busy and may not spend the time to read all comments made by reviewers. But it is good that some journal such as IEEE Access will put a disclaimer in the notification to inform authors that they are not required to cite papers that are not relevant to the article. This is a good way of preventing this problem.
  • Reviewers should only ask to cite papers that are relevant to the paper and will contribute to improving the quality of the paper. To avoid conflict of interests, a reviewer can suggest to cite a paper rather than tell authors that they must cite paper. This is more acceptable.

Conclusion

In this blog post, I have talked about some unethical behavior that many people have encountered when submiting to journals, and sometimes also for conferences. The reason why I wrote this blog post is that I have encountered this situation for two of my papers in the last two months and I have become quite tired to see this happen in academia.

If it also happened to you, please leave a comment below with your story. I will be happy to read it!


Philippe Fournier-Viger is a computer science professor and founder of the SPMF open-source data mining library, which offers more than 170 algorithms for analyzing data, implemented in Java.

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