Some of you may be following Dorothy Bishop's series of hubbub regarding Johnny Matson's reign of self-serving dishonor while in the role of editor for two Elsevier journals, Research in Autism Spectrum Disorders (RASD) and Research in Developmental Disabilities (RIDD). Really, the whole episode is kind of humorous and sad, in the way that most human activities are. But I would be remiss if I were not to point out here some observations that I am certain Bishop will overlook.
First of all, Matson's activities, while certainly extreme, are not at all unfamiliar. His reliance upon self citation, reciprocating citation and collegial nepotism differ from the remainder of the research community only in degree, not in kind. Everyone knows (wink, wink) that such activities have become the bedrock of survival for those scrambling to stay afloat in today's competitive academic industry. I am certain some might try to deny it or try to justify it, but if I were to rule out protests from those who have ever cited themselves, have ever cited a mentor or colleague, or have ever curried favor for position or assignment, then I am going to anticipate the push-back will be rather meager.
Second of all, Matson's activities are extremely old news (if they can even be called news, given how out in the open they were). I myself had noted all the way back in 2009 that RASD should be renamed The Matson Mouthpiece, and Michelle Dawson has been tweeting about Matson's self-referencing cesspool on practically a weekly basis since she opened her Twitter account. Bishop—who was acquainted with Matson, was aware of his work, and was listed as an editor on RASD—Bishop arrived extraordinarily late and ingénue to the party. But perhaps because she has been so successful in getting grant funding and publishing papers, when she raised a ruckus the research community finally took some notice.
Bishop's latest contribution to this episode is an attempt to shame Elsevier into apologizing for the Matson incident. The reason Bishop believes that an apology is in order is about as informative and revealing as any reason can be. Her words:
It matters because RIDD and RASD are presented to the world as peer-reviewed journals, backed up by the 'distinguished brand' of Elsevier. We live in times when there is competition for jobs and prizes, and these will go to those who have plenty of publications in peer-reviewed journals, preferably with high citations. If an editor bypasses peer review and encourages self-citation, then the quality of the work in the journal is misrepresented and some people gain unfair advantages from this. The main victims here are those who published in RASD and RIDD in good faith, thinking that acceptance in the journal was a marker of quality. They will be feeling pretty bitter about the 'added value' of Elsevier right now, as the value of their own work will be degraded by association with these journals.
Think about that statement for a moment. Think about it good and hard. Any of you who have ever put forth science as the preeminent means for acquiring truth and understanding about our world, think good and hard about what that statement must imply about what is actually valued in today's science. I certainly cannot fault the statement for being inaccurate, but I would think that for many of today's scientists, the exposure is just too embarrassing.
Or let me put it this way. If in today's research environment, Einstein were to publish his special relativity essay in a journal such as Science, the essay would of course be held in the highest regard by everyone—and this before anyone had even bothered to read it or understand it. On the other hand, if Einstein were to publish his essay in something like RASD as it was run under Johnny Matson's leadership, then the essay would now be regarded as forever tainted. And if Einstein were to publish his essay on the back of a set of cocktail napkins, it would be universally and instantaneously panned as totally worthless, not worth a glance. The contents of the essay? Well, what do they have to do with anything? (By the way, for anyone interested, the journal in which Einstein's essay first appeared was run with many remarkable similarities to Matson's RASD. Just saying.)
Listen, I am going to be blunt and crude about what I think is going on here: today's scientists do not give a shit about science. What they give a shit about is publication, reputation, grants and jobs. End of story.