Gaming the system: How to get an astronomical h-index with little scientific impact

The old scientific adage “publish or perish” has garnered a lot of debate lately. I’ve posted about my own scientific impact as well as the impact of papers published about computational methods that are named versus unnamed in the title. Certainly publications remain the currency of scientific careers, for better or worse- though I think this is changing with more emphasis being placed on other, more flexible and open, forms of scientific outreach. There’s a lot of talk about this subject from various places including ByteSizeBiology, Peter Lawrence, and Michael Eisen – to name a few.

The purpose of this post is to highlight an instance of abuse of the system- kind of in a funny (odd, surprising, shocking) way. This is similar in spirit to recent reports that a math paper generated by linking mathematical words together by an algorithm to write papers was accepted into a journal.

I was searching gene names to research a paper I was writing a couple of years ago and started to notice a weird pattern. Some genes were mostly absent from the literature (that is, no one has actually studied their function, and they haven’t been highlighted in any other screen-type studies that identify lots of things). However, a number of publications on completely different genes looked suspiciously similar. Many of these had titles that included the words “integrative genomic analyses” or “identification and characterization of [gene] in silico”, they all had two authors M. Katoh and M. Katoh or Y. Katoh, though some had more authors, and most were published in a few journals, the International Journal of Molecular Medicine and the International Journal of Oncology both with low, but respectable impact factors (1.8 or so). Many, though not all, of these papers seem to be rehashed digests of information obtained from databases combined with review-type information about potential functions related to cancer or biomedicine. This PubMed search retrieves most of these citations for your amusement.

A quick search in Web of Knowledge for “Katoh M” as an author and “INTERNATIONAL JOURNAL OF ONCOLOGY” as a publication retrieves 99 publications, with a jaw-dropping h-index of 48 (h-index is a measurement of scientific impact of a group of publications). Results from the “INTERNATIONAL JOURNAL OF MOLECULAR MEDICINE” were only slightly less impressive (h-index of 37 with exactly 99 publications as well; see the screen capture of results below). Following up with a search of the three main names here, Masaru, Masuko, or Yuriko (there was also a mysteriously named “Mom Katoh”, who may be the ringleader of the bunch- but she/he only had a couple of publications) retrieved 216 publications with a combined h-index of 56, a number that any biologist would die for (or at least should be very happy with).

Web of Knowledge Search for Katoh M

Web of Knowledge Search for Katoh M

Masaru is affiliated with the apparently reputable National Cancer Research Institute in Japan. But Masuko and Yuriko don’t seem to be closely affiliated to any place in particular (judging by a Google search).

Some of these publications may, in fact, be valuable and have valuable information and results in them- I certainly haven’t gone through each and every one. However, a large number of these “integrative genomic analyses” are not useful and seem to have been targeted at genes with little characterization and are written based on template text. The high citation number that they get, then, may be due to lack of care on the part of those citing the publication, and they are included simply because they appear to be the only comprehensive functional study of a particular gene that has turned up in the study. It certainly emphasizes the need for caution when “filling in” citations for a publication that are not central to the main story (and thus writers, myself certainly included, are less critical about the source of their citations).

2 thoughts on “Gaming the system: How to get an astronomical h-index with little scientific impact

  1. I remember bumping into this a few years ago. I think I saw them at the top of some ranking with a lot of people I knew so I went looking for their papers. I am surprised they have kept going. If I remember, there was also some ridiculous amount of self-citations in each paper.

    • Yep. I noticed them a few years ago and it looked, at that time, like they’d published in a narrow range of years. But they’re definitely continuing. It does look like _some_ of their later papers might be a bit more useful but I didn’t look too closely really.

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