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Typewriter (symbolic image): Data from the past 15 years examined

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There are various quality characteristics for scientific research work. One of them: that many other experts cite a work - i.e. apparently consider it good and relevant enough to include it in their own publication. But the system is error-prone and can easily be manipulated, Domingo Docampo from the Spanish Universidade de Vigo now shows in a study.

Citation numbers could be artificially inflated, according to a Science article from the end of January, which refers to the as yet unpublished study. The “Süddeutsche Zeitung” first reported.

Docampo has long been concerned with the significance of university rankings, the report says. In recent years, he has noticed that the Clarivate list of most frequently cited researchers (HCR), which is recognized by experts, increasingly includes names of lesser-known mathematicians. Docampo then examined Clarivate data from the past 15 years.

Mathematics particularly susceptible to manipulation

Institutions in China and Saudi Arabia, for example, have increasingly published lower-quality work and repeatedly cited lower-quality essays by colleagues. It is said that the works then rose in the relevant rankings regardless of their quality.

Even universities, some of which do not have mathematical departments, are said to have published mathematical papers that were frequently cited. Some of these universities apparently published more highly cited mathematical papers than institutions with a high reputation in the subject, such as Princeton or Stanford.

Docampo derives a pattern from the data - namely that the phenomenon can be traced back to so-called citation cartels. This is evident, among other things, in the fact that the citations to the top papers often come from researchers at the same institution as the authors of the cited paper.

Clarivate declined to comment on the matter when contacted by Science, it said. However, in previous statements, the company behind the HCR list stated that mathematics was particularly susceptible to manipulation. The reason: the department is small. »The average publication and citation rate is relatively low, so small increases in publications and citations can distort the analysis of the entire field.«

According to the Science report, scientists who were not involved in Docampo's analysis confirmed that the findings indicated widespread citation manipulation. "There are a number of researchers who try to artificially increase their citation frequency in a way that in no way reflects their scientific quality," said Helge Holden of the Abel Prize Committee, one of the most prestigious awards in mathematics . “One can only condemn that.”