How “quotation cartels” are shaking mathematics

How “quotation cartels” are shaking mathematics

Scientific research aims to be collaborative rather than competitive. But we must find ways to separate anecdotal papers from the more important studies, those that provide potentially revolutionary discoveries that will go down in history by transforming our civilization.

Today, every publication must be based on other discoveries that have been previously validated through a peer review process, during which a team of experts carefully dissects the methodology and interprets the researchers who want to publish their findings. Each of these sources must be explicitly mentioned in the new paper.

This approach, which is one of the foundations of modern science, has a double benefit. First, this theoretically allows ensuring the solidity of the scientific base on which other researchers will rely. Secondly, this highlights a A critical metric for judging the impact of a publication: the number of citations. The more important the discoveries a paper makes, the more other scientists will point to it and cite it in their work.

Thus, the more a researcher is cited, the more he benefits from an important aura in the academic field. An anonymous person whose papers go unnoticed has a good chance of ending up forgotten. Conversely, a specialist cited by almost all of his colleagues can Become a real star in your field, thus claiming prestigious prizes or big prizes. Therefore, it is also an important criterion for the career of researchers and the status of universities… Unfortunately, this status can give misleading ideas to some.

Because even if it works well, this system is far from infallible. It has very obvious flaws, and they have become even more apparent in the wake of an academic scandal that has caused a lot of noise.

Mountains of quotes out of nowhere

It all started with Domingo Docampo, a Spanish mathematician who is deeply interested in these metrics. In the prestigious magazine scienceHe explains that in recent years, he noticed with amazement that the academic landscape was changing in the field of mathematics.

More specifically, he was interested in it UNHCRa ranking of most cited researchers produced by Clarivate. This list is very influential and is generally considered a reference; The most prominent specialists are traditionally found there. In a sense, it's a bit like the ATP ranking for researchers. But according to Docampo, it had been taken over by mathematicians less well known – or even completely unknown to the battalion.

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© Annie Spratt – Unsplash

There are people who publish in journals that no serious mathematician reads, whose work is cited in papers that no one pays attention to, and who come from institutions that no one knows about in the field of mathematics “, he explains in Science.

TRUE ” Quote bands »

Fascinated, he took the initiative to look into the history of this classification. He noted that as of 2021, Chinese, Saudi, and even Egyptian institutions have begun to replace heavyweight companies in this sectorsuch as Princeton or Stanford universities.

This is a result that does not necessarily cause concern; These numbers could simply represent the fact that new institutions emerging were helping to advance science. But as he looked further, he realized that most of the citations in these highly successful papers came… from the same universities. The trend already More suspicious, but again, not necessarily incriminating. IThese can be particularly productive groups that help each other advance.

The straw that broke the camel's back was the type of journal in which these papers were published. Decampos and other scholars found that many of them did Published in journals considered ” Predatory ».

This term refers to scientific journals that do not have much influence and have a reputation for being very lax regarding the basic peer review process. But as this unflattering characteristic suggests, it is not simply a matter of incompetence, but of greed. These journals are generally accepted Publish any poor study with poor methodology in exchange for a big check. For unscrupulous researchers, it is a way to circumvent the guarantees of scientific cooperation in order to bolster their statistics with articles that would never have been accepted in a serious journal.

For Decampos, the conclusion is quite clear: “ Groups of mathematicians ” Owns They artificially raised their colleagues' quotes By producing large quantities of low-grade items that indicate their work. TRUE ” Quote bands “, Briefly.

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This collusion among researchers regarding citations has consequences for the entire discipline. © Journal du Geek – MidjourneyAI

Therefore, we can ask about the motives of these groups. Is it a matter of pride? This is unlikely. In fact, elite mathematics is a very exclusive microcosm, where all the big names in the field know everyone else's work well. Therefore, scammers will have no chance of identifying their peers through this approach.

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Huge impact on universities

To get to the real source of the problem, we have to take a step back. Specialists believe that it is appropriate to focus not on researchers, but on the universities that host them. Because the collusion of these unscrupulous actors distorts statistics in the microcosm of high-level mathematics, with disastrous consequences.

In fact, these quotes are one of the main criteria used when choosing between them. However, compared to disciplines such as biology, mathematics is a relatively small area of ​​research at an academic level. This in no way means that they are less important, it simply means that they produce less paper… so they are Statistically more at risk For this type of manipulation. So these few cartels have it on their ownThe ability to distort all measures of discipline. With all that this means for other research institutes.

Because the point is that higher-ranking institutions – the ones that should normally act as engines of global research – could receive large sums of money to support their future work. This then The lure of profit will be the main driver of this trend. By engaging in these practices, a lax university can drain a lot of money. Above all, it deprives others of valuable resources that could help advance science.

The stakes are high: High-profile moves could cost universities tens of millions of dollars », explains Cameron Nealon, a university professor interviewed by Science magazine. ” It is inevitable that people will bend or break the rules to improve their situation. »

Those concerned strongly reject these accusations. Leaders of China Medical University, one of the main institutions targeted by Decampos, reject any involvement in this type of manipulation. Other universities, such as King Abdulaziz University in Saudi Arabia, have opted for radio silence.

Behind the scenes at Clarivate, the company that runs the popular HCR rating, the report appears to have lit a fire. She also published an evocative press release on the subject, where she talked about “Strategies for improving status and rewards through manipulation of quotes “But in the first place, The company chose to do a major spring cleaning prematurely by expelling all mathematicians from its highly influential roster as a precaution.. A radical decision that sparked cries of discontent, because it could have dire consequences for institutions specialized in this field.

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Towards a major qualitative shift?

But the most troubling thing is that maybe just the math Tip of the iceberg. There is no doubt that other researchers are engaging in similar practices in other fields. However, they can go unnoticed more easily in disciplines where the frequency of publication is higher.

For his part, Decampus grabbed the bull by the horns. Always in accordance with sciencehe is working on More sophisticated metrics take into account quality The journals and institutions from which the mentioned papers originate, and It is no longer just their number. By reducing the system's dependence on size, it may be possible to put an end to this type of manipulation.

But this idea is not a magic solution either. It's common Several drawbacks are obvious. For example, this approach would favor historically successful institutions…at the risk of exacerbating their tendency to rest on their laurels, at the expense of other, less well-known, less rich, but more idea-filled universities. It is a dynamic that is already being criticized today, and which could be further exacerbated by this type of measure. In other words, it would be like putting a band-aid on a compound fracture.

The conclusion that seems to emerge from this case is that we must now consider A A radical change in style. Many researchers agree that it is time to consign citation counts to bibliometric oblivion once and for all. But this necessarily means finding other representative standards. Anything is not clear, not to mention the fact that there is a risk of having to go back to square one after too much damage.

You will have understood, it is A very difficult equation to solve. So it will be interesting to see how those involved in scientific research, from journals to universities to companies like Clarivate, deal with this old problem that has been brought back into play thanks to these controversies.

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