In 2010 Mohamed El Naschie, former editor of the journal Chaos, Solitons and Fractals, embarrassed a lot of people by launching the University of Alexandria into the world's top five universities for research impact in the new Times Higher Education (THE) World University Rankings. He did this partly by diligent self citation and partly by lot of mutual citation with a few friends and another journal. He was also helped by a ranking indicator that gave the university disproportionate credit for citations in a little cited field, for citations in a short period of time and for being in a country were there are few citations.
Clearly self citation was only part of he story of Alexandria's brief and undeserved success but it was not an insignificant one.
It now seems that Thomson Reuters (TR), who collect and process the data for THE beginning to get a bit worried about "anomalous citation patterns" . According to an article by Paul Jump in THE.
When Thomson Reuters announced at the end of June that a record 26 journals had been consigned to its naughty corner this year for "anomalous citation patterns", defenders of research ethics were quick to raise an eyebrow.
"Anomalous citation patterns" is a euphemism for excessive citation of other articles published in the same journal. It is generally assumed to be a ruse to boost a journal's impact factor, which is a measure of the average number of citations garnered by articles in the journal over the previous two years.
Impact factors are often used, controversially, as a proxy for journal quality and, even more contentiously, for the quality of individual papers published in the journal and even of the people who write them.
When Thomson Reuters discovers that anomalous citation has had a significant effect on a journal's impact factor, it bans the journal for two years from its annual Journal Citation Reports (JCR), which publishes up-to-date impact factors.
"Impact factor is hugely important for academics in choosing where to publish because [it is] often used to measure [their] research productivity," according to Liz Wager, former chair of the Committee on Publication Ethics.
"So a journal with a falsely inflated impact factor will get more submissions, which could lead to the true impact factor rising, so it's a positive spiral."
One trick employed by editors is to require submitting authors to include superfluous references to other papers in the same journal.
A large-scale survey by researchers at the University of Alabama in Huntsville's College of Business Administration published in the 3 February edition of Science found that such demands had been made of one in five authors in various social science and business fields.
That TR are beginning to crack down on self citation is good news. But will they follow their rivals QS and stop counting self citation in the citation indicator in their rankings? When I spoke to Simon Pratt of TR at the Shanghai World Class Universities conference in Shanghai at the end of last year he seemed adamant that they would go on counting self citations.
Even if TR and THE start excluding self citations, it would probably not be enough.. It may soon become necessary to exclude intra-journal citations as well.