Some biomedical journals may practice “nepotistic behavior,” a new study has suggested.
In a random sample of 98 journals with a disproportionate number of publications by an author, that author was on the editorial board in 61% of cases, reported Clara Locher, PharmD, PhD, of the University of Rennes in France, and these partner’work. In 26% of the cases, the most prolific author was also the editor of the journal.
“Our results highlight possible problematic relationships between authors who sit on editorial boards and decision-making editors,” Locher and colleagues wrote in PLOS Biology. “Generally, publishers promote independence between authors and journals. Hyperpublished authors may view these relationships as a way to more easily meet posting thresholds for hire, promotion, and tenure. “
Researchers analyzed 5,468 active biomedical journals from 2015 to 2019 to identify cases of potential editorial bias. They used two measures: the percentage of articles by the most prolific author (PPMP) and the Gini index, which measures inequality in the distribution of authorship in journals.
Based on all articles published during this period, the median PPMP was 2.88% (interquartile range [IQR] 1.71-4.9%, while 5% of the journals had a PPMP of 10.6% or more. The median Gini index was 0.183 (IQR 0.131-0.246) and 0.355 for the 95th percentile.
Using the 95th percentile value, a subset of 480 journals were identified as disproportionately publishing one author. Of these journals, a random subset of 100 journals was selected for further analysis, none of which had an open peer review policy. Of these 100, 98 were reported in English.
Barely half of the more than 5,000 journals reviewed indicated submission and acceptance dates. In journals that reported dates, articles by the most prolific authors were published with less time lag (85 days versus 107 days) between submission and publication.
“Although our results are based only on a subsample of journals, they provide crucial evidence that editorial decisions were not only unusually, but also selectively, rapid for the privileged subset of prolific authors,” Locher wrote. and his colleagues.
In a recent high-profile case that Locher and his co-authors dissected in a different study, Didier Raoult, MD, PhD, published a study on the effectiveness of hydroxychloroquine against COVID-19 in the International Journal of Antimicrobial Agents, whose editor-in-chief, Jean-Marc Rolain, PhD, works for Raoult. The peer review process for this study lasted 1 day.
While the benefits of using hydroxychloroquine to treat COVID were later debunked, Raoult’s study led French President Emmanuel Macron to personally visit the microbiologist.
Raoult’s team also published a meta-analysis on the effectiveness of hydroxychloroquine in New germs and new infections (NMNI), whose editor and six of the associate editors all worked for Raoult. Out of 728 articles published in NMNI, Raoult co-wrote 32%, while the editors who worked for Raoult co-wrote 44%.
Not all prolific authors engage in questionable publishing practices, noted Locher and his team. Some writers may just be very productive, or may participate in or oversee multiple projects, they noted.
They called for more transparent editorial practices and approved the reporting of non-financial conflicts of interest, such as publisher-author relationships.
“Manipulating individual metrics using a dedicated ‘nepotist’ journal appears to be a poorly studied way of exploiting the system,” they wrote.
Due to the quantitative nature of this study, Locher and his colleagues were unable to examine “fine points,” such as the quality of articles published by prolific authors, they acknowledged.
The authors did not report any disclosures.