How to become an author of ESI Highly Cited Papers?

Documents how unscrupulous predatory open access journals can distort citation counts

Prof. Anne-Wil Harzing, University of Melbourne

© Copyright 2012 Anne-Wil Harzing. All rights reserved.

Second version, 1 May 2012

Keywords: Essential Science Indicators, Higly Cited Papers, bibliometrics, research impact, research quality

Please note: This article is not meant to imply any criticism on open-access publishing. In fact, I am a very strong supporter of the open-access movement. It simply highlights the problems of predatory open-access journals.

This white paper led to prominent press coverage in the Australian. A detailed study of predatory open access journals, including a reference to this case study, was published in the Academy of Management Learning & Education.

  • Harzing, A.W.; Adler N.J. (2016) Disseminating knowledge: From potential to reality – New open-access journals collide with convention, Academy of Management Learning & Education, vol. 15(1):140-156. Available online... Publisher’s version.


Among its many services, Thomson Reuters publishes the Essential Science Indicators’ (ESI) Highly Cited Papers List, featuring the top one percent most highly cited articles published in each discipline during a particular period (in this case, 2001-2011). For 2009 and 2010, Thomson Reuters included nine articles from a single author on its Highly Cited Papers List.

Is this simply the success story of a highly productive scholar? Or is it a much more complex and potentially disconcerting story of the systemic impact of a series of “innovative”, and in some senses aberrant, decisions – decisions that appear to have the potential to alter the very essence of how scholarship and academia are perceived and valued. As the story is still unfolding, there is, as yet, no definitive answer.

Becoming an author of ESI Highly Cited Papers: The hard way

  1. Write up your results, and submit them for publication in a high-impact, top-quality journal.
  2. Then exhibit patience as you spend years in the grueling review process that has become an all-too-common precursor to publication in a leading journal.
  3. Then, if lucky enough to have your paper accepted for publication, wait another 1-2 years until the paper is formally published.
  4. Then, hope that enough other researchers cite your article in their work AND that they succeed in publishing their own papers quickly enough for your paper to meet the ESI threshold to become a Highly Cited Paper.

Becoming an author of ESI Highly Cited Papers: The easy way

  1. Write up your results, making certain to cite yourself multiple times in the paper (and in all your other papers). Ask your co-authors and colleagues to also cite your work multiple times, especially in those papers that they are preparing for submission to one of the ISI-listed open-access journals.
  2. Submit your own article(s) to one of the ISI-listed open-access journals published by the Nigerian publisher Academic Journals.
  3. No need to wait. Academic Journals guarantees that your paper will be reviewed within three weeks, and, if accepted, that it will be published within eight weeks. So, within two months of submission, your article(s), along with those of your colleagues who have cited your work, will, if accepted, be published. Publication-cycle time is reduced from years to weeks.
  4. Once you have achieved an adequate number of citations, other authors submitting to the same journal will likely notice your article (and its high citation rate) and will probably reason that citing it won’t hurt their chances of being published. Result: even more citations.

Presto!!! The Easy Plan brings almost instant success!!!

To better understand The Easy Plan, you need look no farther than the specific case of an author who has achieved extraordinary success using this approach. The author, who we will refer to as The Super Author, is now recognized by Thomson Reuters as having written not one, but nine of ESI’s most highly-cited articles in Economics & Business in just two years (2009 and 2010)!

Moreover, seven of his nine papers are what ESI labels as “hot papers” – papers that have received a much higher than average number of citations in their first two months immediately following publication, thus placing them among the top 0.1% most-cited papers in this initial period. To put The Super Author’s accomplishment in perspective, his work accounts for no less than seven of the entire set of 38 “hot papers” that ESI identified for Economics & Business. Making The Super Author’s record stand out even more, his work accounts for all five of ESI’s top-5 hot papers.

Hmmmm, if you choose to learn from this author, you too may be able to obtain what ESI labels as a “research front” created just for your papers, and an ESI Fast-Moving-Front commentary dedicated to one of your articles. Thomson Reuters defines its Research Front Analysis as being

“based on identifying the most-cited papers across multiple disciplines over a five-year period, and then determining how often these papers have been jointly cited – that is, how often, in the footnotes or references of given papers, a citation to one item is accompanied by a citation to another highly cited item. This defines the frequency of co-citation of the two highly cited papers.”

However, although in itself this methodology is sound, it falls down when all of the papers in a "research front" are written by the same author, in which case co-citation does not have the same positive connotation.

If The Super Author can keep up this rapid rate of publication and equally rapid garnering of citations, his number of highly cited papers will soon dramatically surpass that of that of other, contemporary authors in Economics & Business who have achieved the designation as most-highly-cited. By comparison, the top-10 most-highly-cited scholars in Economics & Business, on average, have only managed to publish eight highly cited papers in eleven years.

The publisher: Academic Journals

All nine of The Super Author’s highly cited articles have appeared in journals produced by the same publisher, Academic Journals. Jeff Beall, an academic librarian at the University of Colorado Denver, lists Academic Journals on his list of predatory open-access publishers.

Beall defines “predatory open access journals” as:

“those that unprofessionally exploit the author-pays model of open-access publishing (Gold OA) for their own profit. Typically, these publishers spam professional email lists, broadly soliciting article submissions for the clear purpose of gaining income. Operating essentially as vanity presses, these publishers typically have a low article acceptance threshold, with a false-front or non-existent peer review process. Unlike professional publishing operations, whether subscription-based or ethically-sound open access, these predatory publishers add little value to scholarship, pay little attention to digital preservation, and operate using fly-by-night, unsustainable business models.”

Referring specifically to Academic Journals, Beall states:

“This bogus, Nigeria-based publisher has been around for years, and continues to increase its journal fleet of over one hundred titles from all areas of study. Seeking legitimacy, it falsely associates itself with authentic organizations and conferences.”

Academic Journals’ oldest journal is less than ten years old. Most of this publisher’s journals have only been launched within the last 4-5 years. Even given this short time frame, Thomson Reuters has already awarded an ISI-listing to a significant number of their journals with some, quite surprisingly, having achieved ISI Web of Knowledge coverage from their first issue.

Academic Journals charges a US$550-$750 handling fee, payable by the author when their article is accepted. Several of Academic Journals’ current ISI-listed journals now publish more than 2,000 articles per year. Moreover, the number of articles published by some of their journals appears to be doubling each year. One of Academic Journals’ biotechnology journals, African Journal of Biotechnology, for example, published nine issues in January 2012 - a total of approximately 300 articles published in just one month.

So consider the alternatives – and the possibilities. It appears that there really is an easy way to get published and cited. Becoming an editor of one or more of these journals (as The Super Author has done) might make it even easier.

The author and his publications

The Super Author published 46 articles in ISI-listed journals in just three years, 41 of which were published in just two years. Forty of the 46 articles were published by Academic Journals (in eight of their journals). Four were published in a journal put out by the Pakistan-based ANSINetwork - another publisher identified by Beall as “predatory open access”. One of his articles was published in a fairly new journal put out by a university-based Polish publisher. The remaining article was published in a regional journal put out by an established publisher.

Over his career, The Super Author has accumulated 512 citations, reflecting references to his work included in 169 discrete articles. As the 169 articles were written by 169 authors (or sets of authors) the maximum number of authors he can have citing him is 169. Thus, on average, each article that cited The Super Author, cited more than three of his articles. Although having multiple citations to a single author’s work within a paper is not unusual, it is quite rare for the average to be this high.

The proportion of self-citations for this author is approximately 30%, which, while high, is not unduly problematic. What is problematic is that the citing articles seem to form a very tight and seemingly highly self-referential cluster:

  • Journal Self-Citation Rate Extremely High. 85% of the 512 citations to The Super Author’s work comes from the same journal in which he published his article. For The Super Author’s top-10 most cited articles, the percent of citations coming from the same journal goes up to 93%. Equally strikingly, five of The Super Author’s top-10 articles have either no citations, or only one citation, from a journal other than the journal in which his own article was published.
  • Publisher Self-Citation Rate Extremely High. 94% of the 169 articles citing The Super Author’s work come from the same publisher (Academic Journals). Only ten of the 169 articles citing his work come from journals not published by Academic Journals. Seven of the ten citations coming from journals published by other publishers come from one of ANSINetwork's journals (another predatory open-access publisher).
  • Author Co-citation - You cite me, and I’ll cite you. The 169 articles that cite The Super Author’s work are in turn cited in 165 articles. Only seven of these 165 articles are not also citing articles by The Super Author. So 158 of the 165 citing articles cite both The Super Author’s article and the articles that cite him. This pattern reveals the very tight co-citation network that led ESI to create a research front for The Super Author’s articles.

Conclusion: unfortunately, there appears to be little or no indication of an impact outside of predatory open-access publishers. Sadly enough, The Super Author appears to be doing himself a huge disservice by publishing primarily in such journals. As a result, his most interesting work is probably rarely seen outside of his very small circle of citing-each-other colleagues, and has definitely failed to have an impact on the broader scholarly community.

The standard bearer: The institute of scientific information (ISI)

The biggest question that we have about this whole story is: Why? Why did ISI evaluate the journals published by Academic Journals and find them to be worthy of their ISI listing? It is clear that Academic Journals is benefitting from having received ISI listing. In the Social Sciences alone, Academic Journals publishes nine journals, of which only one, the African Journal of Business Management, is ISI listed. The African Journal of Business Management published more than 1,200 articles in 2011, and currently publishes an issue nearly every week.

In contrast, Academic Journals non-ISI-listed Social Science journals only published between eight and 80 articles each in 2011, a number far closer to the norm for yearly publication rates of journals in the Social Sciences. ISI recognition appears to have catalyzed an explosion of submissions to (and subsequent publication in) the one Social Science journal published by Academic Journals that received ISI listing – the accepted “international yardstick to rate journals

Despite the availability of alternatives to ISI, such as Scopus and Google Scholar, many academics (and especially academic administrators and senior decision-makers) continue to view ISI as the gold standard. However, as we look more closely at ISI’s choices for inclusion in its listings, it certainly appears that “All that glitters may not be gold”, at least among scholarly journals.


This note was largely researched and written in early February 2012. A subsequent Google Search for the African Journal of Business Management revealed that this journal had already been exposed as an academic scam. I alerted Thomson Reuters of my preliminary findings on the 4th of February 2012. On the 8th of February I received the following response:

“We are very aware of this publisher and practices of their titles. We dropped 2 of their titles in 2011 and will drop additional ones, once the 2011 volume is completed. I appreciated your notes and have made my colleagues in the metrics area, and specifically ESI, aware of this situation.”

Postscript: 1 May 2012

No new articles for the African Journal of Business Management have been added to the Thomson Reuters database since December 2011. In the latest Essential Science Indicators update (1 May 2012), all articles written by our Super Author were removed retroactively from the Highly Cited Papers list (9 articles) and from the Hot Papers list (7 articles). The ESI Fast-Moving-Front commentary that includes an interview with the Super Author is still available online.

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