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Quantifying the Distribution of Editorial Power and Manuscript Decision Bias at the Mega-Journal PLOS ONE

30 Pages Posted: 19 Jan 2017 Last revised: 4 Dec 2017

Alexander Michael Petersen

University of California Merced, Ernest and Julio Gallo Management Program

Date Written: January 9, 2017

Abstract

We analyzed the longitudinal activity of nearly 7,000 editors at the mega-journal PLOS ONE over the 10-year period 2006-2015. Using the article-editor associations, we develop editor-specific measures of power, activity, article acceptance time, citation impact, and editor remuneration (an analogue to self-citation). We observe remarkably high levels of disparity between editors' activity levels, with the top-10 editors responsible for 3,366 articles -- corresponding to 2.4% of the 141,986 articles we analyzed. Such high inequality levels suggest the presence of unintended incentives that may lead to excessive editorial activity, and possibly unethical behavior in the form of decision-level biases at the editor level. We use various anomalies uncovered at the descriptive level to motivate two longitudinal models that test and verify the presence of editor-level bias. In both panel regression models we clustered the articles within each editor's profile and used editor fixed-effects to isolate the individual-level trends over time: in the first model we analyzed the citation impact of articles, and in the second model we modeled the decision time between an article being submitted and ultimately accepted by the editor. We focused on two explanatory variables that represent social factors that capture potential conflicts-of-interest: (i) we accounted for the social ties between editors and authors by developing a measure of repeat authorship defined within an editor's article set, and (ii) we accounted for the rate of citations directed towards the editor's own publications in the reference list of each article he/she oversaw. Indeed, we find that these two factors play a significant role in the editor decision process, and moreover, their prominence appears to increase with editor age, consistent with behavioral studies concerning the evolution of misbehavior and response to temptation in power-driven environments. And finally, we analyze "editor remuneration'' -- the number of citations one might receive by adopting a strategy that favors close scientific peers and rewards self-citations from scientific strangers. By applying quantitative evaluation to the gatekeepers of scientific knowledge, we shed light on various issues crucial to science policy, and in particular, the management of large megajournals. In particular, our analysis makes the case for more transparent oversight of editor activities across science, in particular journals with large distributed editorial boards, since our results indicate that editors may become apathetic in judging the quality of articles and susceptible to modes of power-driven misconduct.

Keywords: Mega-journal, Power inequality, Review process, Editorial service, Science of science, Journal management

JEL Classification: C23, C54, C55, D63, M14

Suggested Citation

Petersen, Alexander Michael, Quantifying the Distribution of Editorial Power and Manuscript Decision Bias at the Mega-Journal PLOS ONE (January 9, 2017). Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=2901272 or http://dx.doi.org/10.2139/ssrn.2901272

Alexander Petersen (Contact Author)

University of California Merced, Ernest and Julio Gallo Management Program ( email )

School of Engineering
Science & Engineering 2, Suite 315
Merced, CA 95343
United States

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