Editors helping each other?

Journal editors come and go, but the changes rarely make the news. This is not the case with the change in editorship at Research in Autism Spectrum Disorders (RASD) and Research in Developmental Disabilities (RIDD), which drew coverage in Times Higher Education (THE). It’s not exactly the change in the editorship that is the news, but some the activities of the editor that have resulted in headlines. First, let’s do the news and get that out of the way. Then we can delve into the details.

On 26 February 2015 in THE, Paul Jump reported that Johnny Matson, former editor of RASD and RIDD denied doing anything wrong:

A senior psychology professor has strongly denied any wrongdoing after a blog highlighted what it claimed was his high self-citation rate in papers published in journals he edited.

Johnny Matson, a professor at Louisiana State University and an expert in autism, was the founding editor in chief of the Elsevier journals Research in Developmental Disabilities (RIDD) and Research in Autism Spectrum Disorders (RASD).

Earlier this month the journals came to the attention of Dorothy Bishop, professor of developmental neuropsychology at the University of Oxford. Bishop learned that she was on the editorial board of RASD, although she said that she had no recollection of agreeing to such a position. According to Matson, Bishop did give her permission to be added to the board.

Bishop then looked into the journals, setting out her resulting claims in a blog posting, including that Matson is an author on more than 10 percent of the papers published in RASD since the journal was established in 2007. At around that time his citation count also began to shoot up (according to the Scopus database, he has published 117 papers in RASD and 133 in RIDD, founded in 1987).

O.K. Now, let’s see if we can establish a chronology and the issues. Professor Matson is no longer the editor of RASD and RIDD. According to a comment left 13 February 2015 by Michael Osuch (Publishing Director for Neuroscience & Psychology journals at Elsevier, the publisher of the journals) on a blog post by Professor Dorothy Bishop (to which I shall return in a subsequent paragraph; Mr. Osuch’s comment is about half-way through), the publisher began working to identify new editors for the journals in November of 2014. On 23 February 2015, Mr. Osuch commented again on the same post, identifying Sebastian Gaigg, of City University London (London, UK) as Editor-in-Chief for RASD. As of the time I wrote this post, Elsevier’s Web site for RIDD did not show an editor or an editorial board.

Often, if not usually, when editors change, the society that publishes the journal or, when the journal is the property of a for-profit publisher, the publisher itself announces that there will be a change in editors and publishes an invitiation, a “call,” for people to submit applications to serve as editor. Those applications are reviewed, and a new editor is selected. The new editor and out-going editor work together for a period of time, perhaps six months, and then the in-coming editor takes full responsibility for the journal. This process does not appear to have occurred for either RASD or RIDD. Frequently, there will be a backlog of accepted articles and, as they are published, the new editor will indicate which ones were accepted under the editorship of the previous editor. We shall see how any backlog is handled.

In early February of 2015 in a post entitled “Journals without editors: What is going on?,” Professor Bishop chronicled her effort, beginning in the fall of 2014, to withdraw from the editorial board of RASD. Along the way, she reported about how frequently Professor Matson published his own papers in the journal for which he served as editor. In addition, she analyzed the rate at which he cited his own work when he wrote articles. Self-citation is sometimes inevitable, but Professor Bishop’s analysis compared Professor Matson’s self-citation rate to the self-citation rates of other prominent scholars and showed the remarkable difference graphically (see figure).

In some of the comments on that blog post, there were discussions about unusually rapid acceptance or rejection of articles for RASD. Mr. Osuch claimed that Elsevier had reviewed the editorial records and found that “In a minority of cases, Dr Matson acted as sole referee.”

Following up on Professor Bishop’s post, on 16 February 2015, the self-identified neuroscientist who uses the psuedonym “Neuroskeptic” when he writes for Discover raised concerns about Professor Matson’s failure to declare conflicts of interest.

Anyway, Bishop’s post raises questions over Matson’s record as an editor of RASD and RIDD. But I’ve done some digging and I have other concerns about his work; namely, I’m concerned about apparent undeclared conflicts of interest.

Matson is an autism researcher and much of his work concerns the diagnosis and evaluation of this disorder. Over the years Matson has developed over a dozen questionnaires and other rating scales, ranging from the Baby and Infant Screen for Children with aUtIsm Traits (BISCUIT) to the Profile of Toileting Issues (POTI).

In Editorial Misbehaviour in Autism Journals?, Neuroskeptic explains that Professor Matson is not doing anything unethical by conducting research on instruments that he created, but that he ought to declare that he has competing interests, that he (or members of his family) receives financial benefits from the sales of the instruments.

On 24 February, Professor Bishop posted a second entry regarding the publication practices of Professor Matson and editors of other journals. In “Editors behaving badly?,” she reported analyses of Professor Matson’s publication record in multiple journals with multiple co-authors and other authors.

In my previous blogpost, I described unusual editorial practices at two journals – Research in Developmental Disabilities and Research in Autism Spectrum Disorders – that had led to the editor, Johnny Matson achieving an H-index on Web of Science of 59. (Since I wrote that blogpost it’s risen to 60). That impressive H-index was based in part, however, on Matson publishing numerous papers in his own journals, and engaging in self-citation at a rate that was at least five times higher than typical for productive researchers in his field.

It seems, though, that this is just the tip of a large and ugly iceberg. When looking at Matson’s publications, I found two other journals where he published an unusual number of papers: Developmental Neurorehabilitation (DN) and Journal of Developmental and Physical Disabilities (JDPD). JDPD does not publish dates of submission and acceptance for its papers, but DN does, and I found that for 32 papers co-authored by Matson in this journal between 2010 and 2014 for which the information was available, the median lag from a paper being received and it being accepted was one day. So it seemed a good idea to look at the editors of DN and JDPD. What I found was a very cosy relationship between editors of all four journals.

Professor Bishop found that Professor Matson accepted more than 50 papers co-authored by three of his colleagues (Professors Mark O’Reilly, Jeff Sigafoos, and Guiliano Lancioni) within one week of receiving them—30 of those within a day. Only 13 of this team’s papers took longer than a week and only three took more than one month (see figure). That’s very quick editorial turn-around for those of us who are accustomed to editorial decisions requiring months.

So, what do we have? Let me see if I can summarize.

  • This is about two very important journals and several very important professors in the Autism area.
  • Johnny Matson appears to have left the editorship of RASD and RIDD suddenly as of December 2014.
  • RASD has a new editor, but RIDD does not yet have one.
  • Dorothy Bishop raised concern about Johnny Matson’s self-citation rate, which increases his H-index.
  • Dorothy Bishop raised concern about rapid acceptance of manuscripts authored by individuals who are editors of other journals, a pace of acceptance that would not allow for reasonable peer review processses.
  • Neuroskeptic bemoaned Johnny Matson’s omission of conflict-of-interest statements.

Why does this matter? Well, it threatens the integrity of scientific reporting. How much can we trust the studies in our journals? Are the editors of our journals representing the work of scholars according to the time-honored systems to which we are accustomed?

What don’t we know? We don’t have independent verification of some of these data, though Professor Bishop has published her raw data so others may analyze them (but others should check them for accuracy, too). We don’t know all the facts about the resignations of the boards. There’s just a lot yet to be uncovered here. Whether these events rise to the level that they ultimately discredit the journals and individuals remains to be seen.


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1 Response to “Editors helping each other?”


  • Brenda Scheuermann

    Thanks for sharing, John. As you say, there is still much that we don’t know. Unfortunately, as you see on Professor Bishop’s blog, some folks don’t appear to be terribly interested in that part of the story. I appreciate you taking the time to sift through the noise and distill the issue down to a few cogent points. And now we wait to see what additional, objective data are offered to explain, refute, or support the concerns raised by Professor Bishop.

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