Highly cited researcher banned from journal board for citation abuse

Investigation finds that biophysicist Kuo-Chen Chou repeatedly suggested dozens of citations be added to papers.

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A US-based biophysicist who is one of the world’s most highly cited researchers has been removed from the editorial board of one journal and barred as a reviewer for another, after repeatedly manipulating the peer-review process to amass citations to his own work.

On 29 January, three editors at the Journal of Theoretical Biology (JTB) announced in an editorial that the journal had investigated and barred an unnamed editor from the board for “scientific misconduct of the highest order”.

The journal’s publisher, Elsevier, confirmed to Nature that the barred editor is Kuo-Chen Chou, who founded and runs an organization that he calls the Gordon Life Science Institute, in Boston, Massachusetts. According to the editorial, Chou asked authors of dozens of papers he was editing to cite a long list of his publications — sometimes more than 50 — and suggested that they change the titles of their papers to mention an algorithm he had developed.

“The magnitude of his self-citation requests are shocking,” says Jonathan Wren, an associate editor for Bioinformatics, a journal that last year barred Chou from reviewing its papers, although it did not name him at the time. “But what blows my mind is that suspicious citation patterns to him go back decades and authors comply with an apparently amazing frequency.”

Citations spike

Chou retired from a career in the pharmaceutical industry in 2003. He then founded the Gordon Life Science Institute, which he calls an institute with “no physical boundaries” that anyone can join. Before 2003, Chou had published 168 papers — mostly in the field of computational biology — which were cited around 2,000 times. But he now has 602 papers with more than 58,000 citations, according to Elsevier’s Scopus citations database. He is one of the world’s most highly cited researchers.

The JTB editorial says that Chou also handled papers written by close colleagues at his own institute — some of whom the journal later couldn’t trace, which the editorial says calls into question their veracity. It adds that Chou sometimes reviewed papers himself under a pseudonym, or chose reviewers from his institution. And in many cases, Chou himself was added to papers as a co-author in the final stage of review.

“Regrettably, this process was repeated for dozens of papers,” the editorial says. It adds that the journal wants to “apologize for missing this blatant misuse of the editorial system”.

Chou told Nature that mentions of his algorithms in papers were “not from ‘reviewer coercion’, but from their very high efficacy and widely recognized by many users”. But he declined to answer questions about the citation practices for which he was banned, and instead referred Nature to his website.

Wren flagged the suspicious citation patterns to the JTB after an investigation at his own journal. That probe revealed that in every review, Chou had requested that manuscript authors add an average of 35 citations, 90% of them to papers he had co-authored. Bioinformatics announced that it had barred a referee from reviewing for the journal in January 2019.

Wider investigations

Wren, a bioinformatician at the Oklahoma Medical Research Foundation in Oklahoma City, says investigations into Chou’s citations are under way at at least three other journals to which he has pointed out suspicious patterns. Wren is currently writing an algorithm that tries to flag unusual citation patterns in papers automatically.

The case comes amid efforts by Elsevier to crack down on the practice of ‘coercive citation’. Last year, the Amsterdam-based publisher said it was investigating hundreds of researchers whom it suspected of manipulating peer review to boost their own citations. Chou’s case is the first to be revealed after that announcement. “While thankfully rare, such practices are an abuse of the peer-review system and undermine the hard work and commitment that editors and reviewers devote to ensuring the integrity of the scholarly record,” a spokesperson says. “Elsevier has developed analytical tools to help detect such practices and is committed to implementing technology to flag citation manipulation before publication.”

From 2014 to 2018, Chou was named as a highly cited researcher in a list produced by Clarivate Analytics, an information-services firm in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, that owns the citation database Web of Science. But his name does not appear on the 2019 list; last year, Clarivate decided to remove scientists whose papers showed “unusually high levels of self-citation”.

Elsevier hasn’t yet decided what to do about papers that Chou handled that liberally cite his work, the spokesperson says. “It would be premature to comment on any potential retractions. Unfortunately, there is no robust mechanism for removing citations at the moment in a way that is reflected in indexation services.”

Nature 578, 200-201 (2020)

doi: 10.1038/d41586-020-00335-7

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