Homeopathy is a form of pseudoscientific quackery from the late 1700s that is based on denying basic chemistry. In reality, the more you dilute something, the weaker the substance becomes (think of mixing lemonade). Homeopaths, on the other and, think that a substance gets stronger when diluted. Mind-bogglingly, they think it is even more powerful when it is so diluted that no molecules are likely to be left of the original substance. They also believe that the substance that caused a disease is also the cure, so if you have a deadly snake bite, you should drink extremely diluted snake venom instead of a dose of the appropriate anti-venom.
The most methodologically rigorous studies shows that homeopathy is not clinically significantly better than placebo. This is to be expected, since you are basically drinking water or eating a sugar pill if you take homeopathic remedies.
What exactly is the Elsevier journal “Homeopathy?”
The Homeopathy journal has existed under various names since 1911 and is the official publication of the Faculty of Homeopathy. Since the 1950s, it has a legal status as an educational institution in England and their current tagline is the Orwellian claim that they are “ensuring the highest standards in homeopathic education and practice”.
This journal is published by Elsevier and its 2014 impact factor 0.758 according to Journal Citation Reports, which makes it among the lowest quality category of journals in the world. Other impact factor metrics were even lower, from 0.3 to 0.5 (according to the journal website).
What is Journal Citation Reports?
It is often hard to evaluate the quality of a journal, but there are a number of simple metrics that will give you an indication. Impact factor is based on the number of average citations the papers in a given journal gets per year. This assumes that a high-quality paper will get a lot of citations by other. There is also the rank, which tells you about how a specific journal in a particular field compare with other journals in the same field. Besides impact factor and rank, there are a large collection of other metrics on the level of papers, authors and journals.
Data for some of these metrics are collected by Thomas Reuters and calculated metrics are published once a year in the Journal Citation Reports.
What are self-citations and citation stacking?
Generally speaking, a journal with a higher value for a most of these metrics is a higher-quality journal. But this is not always true and even a good journal can publish enormously bad papers, so such metrics only give a brief indication of quality. However, these metrics, especially impact factor, has gotten a lot of attention. As a result, journals want to have an impact factor that is as high as possible.
This can be done in two different ways: publish great, high-quality papers that are cited due to their real-world scientific impact, or try to game the system to get a better impact factor while doing none of the work. There are two basic ways to do this. The first involves excessive self-citations whereby a journal inflates citation counts by often and almost exclusively citing papers previously published in that journal. The second is called citation stacking and involves several journals citing each other to boost each other’s impact factors. This is also called a citation ring or a citation cartel, but these indicate malice aforethought, which is not always the case.
What is title suppression?
To combat these dishonest citation techniques, Thomson Reuters developed algorithms that can detect both excessive self-citations and citation stacking. The sanction they use is known as title suppression, which means that no metrics are no longer published for that journal. Once the anomaly has passed, they are again included in the Journal Citation Reports.
Journal Citation Reports recently released results for 2015 and the journals that were suppressed due to “anomalous citation patterns” (i.e. excessive self-citations and citation stacking). For transparency, they also published the metrics they calculated and used as a basis for their decision. For 2015, they decided to suppress a total of 18 journals, ranging in topics from marital therapy to fusion energy. But in the list was also the journal Homeopathy.
What were the metrics that exposed the Homeopathy journal?
Homeopathy was deemed to engage in excessive self-citations to boosts its own impact factor and rank. The proportion of self-citations in 2015 was 71%, which skewed the rank by 48%. This distortion is calculated by comparing the rank the journal got when including versus excluding self-citations and close to 50% distortion is huge.
Did the editors honestly believe that they would not be exposed? Did they not know or understand that Thomson Reuters used algorithms to check for these kinds of anomalous citation patterns? Did they just not care? This shows the deceptive nature of this alternative medicine journal and should be seen as a major hit to their reputation and credibility. Well, whatever credibility a journal called Homeopathy can have, since the foundation of homeopathy violates most of what we know about physics, chemistry, biology and medicine.