Consider it the publishing equivalent of catching notorious gangster and murderer Al Capone on the simple charge of tax evasion: A homeopathy journal has gotten itself booted from the list of respectable scientific titles thanks not to its questionable science but rather a smaller infraction: fishy citations.
That was the upshot of Thomson Reuters’s annual list of journal rankings, published this week. The rankings are closely followed and used — and, many would say, misused — by everyone from the journals themselves to grant-giving agencies. Alongside that list, though, is a juicier one: an annual lineup of journals delisted (aka punished) for bad behavior. One of the leading reasons Thomson Reuters delists titles is because their papers cite themselves too frequently, thereby inflating their rankings.
That was the fate of the journal Homeopathy. Homeopathy the discipline is the practice of diluting chemicals in water to the point where the active ingredient is no longer present, then giving that water to patients to treat what ails them. And it doesn’t work. A 2012 study by researchers in Australia concluded that, “There was no reliable evidence from research in humans that homeopathy was effective for treating the range of health conditions considered.” What’s more, the researchers warned, “People who choose homeopathy may put their health at risk if they reject or delay treatments for which there is good evidence for safety and effectiveness.”
But the downfall of the century-old journal was that it is, you might say, quite self-referential: More than 70 percent of the citations to its papers were from other studies in Homeopathy. That’s quite high, beaten by just a few of the 16 journals delisted by Thomson Reuters for the same charge.
And Homeopathy isn’t some fly-by-night outfit. It’s owned by Elsevier, one of the world’s largest publishers. (Most of the other journals on the delisted list are published by similarly big outfits, including Springer and Wiley.)
“Higher self-citation rates are typical of a quality journal in a niche field,” an Elsevier spokesperson told us, which makes sense. But Homeopathy’s self-citation rate was far above average, and it remains true that basically no studies anywhere else were citing anything in the journal.
To be fair, Homeopathy is not a high-profile journal. Even with its citation inflation, its Thomson Reuters Impact Factor — a reflection of how often, on average, other publications cite the papers it publishes — was well below 1, which, in scientific terms, is incredibly sucky. So delisting the title isn’t likely to be a major loss for scholars around the world. It may be more of a loss for Homeopathy, since indexing carries an imprimatur that many scientists look for when deciding where to publish, and that many funding agencies look for when deciding how to award money. That means it will become less competitive to publish there, which may lead to lower quality if the journal decides to continue publishing the same amount.
But that’s not really the point. Rather, the issue is that science publishers, even legitimate global corporations like Elsevier, will accept something patently unscientific if it might make them money.
“We support debate around this topic,” the Elsevier spokesperson said. Well, sure, but that debate can happen anywhere. Is it really the best idea to give it the peer-reviewed imprimatur of Elsevier? What’s next, a journal on vaccines and autism? Clinical astrology? When readers complained about a journal whose standards were too low, Elsevier did something about it. They could do the same here.
Publishers like to crow about all of the value they add to the scientific process. Maybe they should add “deciding whether to give unscientific ideas a platform” to that list, and think about it more carefully.