RetractionWatch published in Feburary 2018 an article titled “A journal waited 13 months to reject a submission. Days later, it published a plagiarized version by different authors”, indicating that in the journal Multimedia Tools and Applications (MTAP) may have been manipulated in the editorial process.

Now, more than a year later, Springer apparently has retracted additional articles from the journal, as mentioned in the blog For Better Science. On the downside, Elsevier has been publishing many of these in another journal now instead…

I am currently aware of 22 32 retractions associated with this incident. One would have expected to see a clear pattern in the author names, but they seem to have little in common except Chinese names and affiliations, and suspicious email addresses (also, usually only one author has an email at all). It almost appears as if the identities are made up. And most retracted papers clearly contained citation spam: they cite a particular author very often, usually in a single paragraph. Interestingly, there are some exceptions where I did not spot obvious citation spam, so my guess is that they also sold authorship (apparently there is a market for this, c.f., https://www.sciencemag.org/news/2017/07/china-cracks-down-after-investigation-finds-massive-peer-review-fraud).

The retraction notices typically include the explanation “there is evidence suggesting authorship manipulation and an attempt to subvert the peer review process”, confirming the earlier claims by Retraction Watch. One of the articles was: “Received: 7 January 2018 /Revised: 10 January 2018 /Accepted: 10 January 2018” – yes, it claims to have had two rounds of peer review within three days. This should have triggered a “red alert” at Springer publishing.

So I used the CrossRef API to get the citations from all the articles (I tried SemanticScholar first, but for some of the retracted papers it only had the self-cite of the retraction notice), and counted the citations in these papers. Data is not perfect, and there can be name mismatches and incomplete data here. But overall, the data looks pretty clean (as far as I can tell, Springer provided this data to CrossRef). Results using SemanticScholar were similar, but based on fewer articles.

Essentially, I am counting how many citations authors lost by the retractions.

Here is the “high score” with the top 10 citation losers:

Author Citations lost Cited in papers Reference share Retractions
L Zhang 455 26 54.4% 2
M Song 76 23 10.8% 0
C Chen 71 22 10.3% 0
X Liu 69 22 10.0% 0
R Zimmermann 65 20 10.4% 0
J Bu 55 20 8.7% 0
D Tao 48 20 7.7% 0
Z Liu 38 20 6.0% 0
Y Gao 33 23 5.2% 0
X Li 27 17 5.7% 0

This is a surprisingly clear pattern: In 26 of the 32 retracted papers included here, L. Zhang was cited on average 17.5 times, being co-author of over 50% of the references - such citations should have raised a red flag during real paper review. Of two of the other retracted papers on my list, he was an author.

The next authors on this list seem to be there because of co-authoring with L. Zhang earlier, and hence receiving some share of his citations. In fact, if we ignore all references co-authored by L. Zhang, no author receives more than 5 citations. If we would distribute each citation uniformly across all authors (instead of giving each a full citation, which emphasizes papers with many authors), L. Zhang would receive 36% of the citation mass on average, and the second-most receiving author, R. Zimmermann, only 2.7%.

So this very clearly suggests that L. Zhang manipulated the MTAP journal to boost his citation index. And it is quite disappointing how long it took until Springer retracted those articles! Judging by the For Better Science article, there may be even more affected papers, and hence more citation count boosting.