Editorial Bias and Nepotism in Biomedical Journals Revealed

Tom Broder

November 24, 2021

A few favoured authors are responsible for a disproportionate number of publications in some biomedical journals, a recent study has found.

These most prolific authors are often members of the journals’ own editorial boards.

The survey by researchers at the University of Rennes and colleagues raises questions about the relationship between authors who sit on editorial boards and journal editors.

Clara Locher, one of the study's authors, explains: "We think that a large proportion of papers published by one author could be used to identify journals suspected of dubious editorial practice."

But she cautions that this metric is "a warning sign that should lead to a more detailed inspection of the journal to eliminate false positives".

Prolific Authors

The study examined nearly 5 million articles in a huge sample of 5468 biomedical journals indexed in the National Library of Medicine.

To assess for potential editorial bias, the researchers used two values - the percentage of papers by the most prolific author (PPMP) and the Gini index (level of inequality in the distribution of authorship among authors).

The survey found that in most journals, publications are distributed across a large number of contributors - the median PPMP across all the journals was just 2.9%. But 5% of journals showed a PPMP of 10.6% or more.

When the researchers examined a random sample within this subset of journals, the most prolific author was part of the editorial board in 61% of cases.

Papers by these authors were also more likely to be accepted for publication within 3 weeks of submission, suggesting favouritism within the journals’ editorial procedures.

Self Promotion

One example highlighted in the study is the Elsevier journal, New Microbes and New Infections (NMNI). The NMNI’s most prolific author, Didier Raoult, co-authored 32% of the journal’s 728 published papers.

Dr Raoult is a prominent French microbiologist who controversially championed the anti-malaria drug hydroxychloroquine as a COVID treatment.

The study notes that NMNI’s editor-in-chief and a further six associate editors at the journal worked directly for Dr Raoult.

Restoring Trust

To enhance trust in the scientific publication process, the study’s authors argue that journals need to be "transparent about their editorial and peer review practices".

"Research integrity matters across the research ecosystem. Scientific journal editors are the key actors that ensure the trustworthiness of the scientific publication process."

Scanff A, Naudet F, Cristea I, Moher D, Bishop DVM, Locher C (2021) A survey of biomedical journals to detect editorial bias and nepotistic behaviour. PLoS Biol 19(11):e3001133.

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