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Study shows possible bias, 'nepotistic behavior' in some science journals

Study shows possible bias, 'nepotistic behavior' in some science journals
An analysis of published scientific research suggests possibly editorial bias "nepotistic behavior" among subsets of biomedical journals, researchers said Tuesday. File Photo by Anawat Sudchanham/Shutterstock

Nov. 23 (UPI) -- Researchers said in a study published Tuesday published by PLOS Biology that they found possible editorial bias and "nepotistic behavior" in a subset of biomedical journals.

The analysis, which included nearly 5 million articles published in nearly 5,500 publications between 2015 and 2019, found that most journals publish work by a large number of authors.

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But a small number of journals featured "hyper-prolific" individuals that were published disproportionately more often -- and that their papers were more likely to be accepted for publication within three weeks of submission.

"Our results underscore possible problematic relationships between authors who sit on editorial boards and decision-making editors," the researchers wrote, though they cautioned that publishers typically promote independence between researchers and journals.

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"We should beware of assuming that a hyper-prolific author is necessarily engaged in questionable publishing practices," the researchers wrote.

They note that "some people are highly productive, and the speed with which good research can be completed is highly variable across research fields," adding that some authors may also be noted often because of multiple projects they may be involved with or are overseeing.

Some of these authors, the researchers said, are also on the editorial boards of the journals.

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"There may be defensible reasons for members of the editorial board to hyperpublish in a journal," including in areas of research with a small number of experts, they wrote.

The researchers examined the issue through two indexes, including the percentage of papers by the most prolific author, and by the Gini index related to the level of inequality in the distribution of authorship among authors.

They found a subset of journals "where a few authors, often members of the editorial board, were responsible for a disproportionate number of publications," the researchers wrote.

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While the researchers didn't find overwhelming evidence of bias -- though they note a detailed qualitative analysis of papers was not performed, and that more research is needed -- the issue has drawn more attention in recent years.

In 2016, for example, a study showed the sugar industry meddled in medical research by Harvard researchers to downplay sugar's role in increased risk of heart disease.

And last year, a study showed bias was more likely in medical journals that accept reprint fees.

"To enhance trust in their practices, journals need to be transparent about their editorial and peer review practices," the researchers wrote.

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