Can Authors’ Emails (Personal vs. Work Emails) Be a Part of the Criteria
in Evaluating Scholarly Journal Articles?
Xiaomei Liu and Xiaotian Chen
Traditionally, when readers chose or evaluated scholarly journal articles, the criteria might include the reputation of the journals, of the authors, and of the authors’ affiliations. In the good old days, even though scholarly journals were not free of misinformation or fake research, people probably did not need to worry too much about their credibility. Today, with misinformation and disinformation that may spread more quickly than facts on the internet, there is also fake and questionable research published in scholarly journals. For example, on the single new research topic of COVID-19 alone, Retraction Watch, a website keeping the records of retracted articles, listed over 200 articles as of December 2021. Some of those retracted articles were published in the most reputable journals in the world, such as The Lancet (Retraction Watch, 2021). Some scientists believe that there are “thousands or tens of thousands of papers” created by paper mills, or fake paper factories (Else & Van Noorden, 2021). Therefore, even when reading scientific articles, it does not hurt for readers to be vigilant.
—Some scientists believe that there are “thousands or tens of thousands of papers” created by paper mills, or fake paper factories—
In the past, if readers of research articles cared about authors’ background at all, they might look over authors’ affiliations and other biography information. In today’s world, authors’ emails may be another piece of information readers can check out. Authors’ emails generally have two kinds.
- Work emails, or institutional emails. Work emails are easy to identify, because they usually have the internet domain name of the authors’ workplace, such as universities and research institutes. Examples of internet domain names include: harvard.edu, mit.edu, ox.ac.uk, ucl.ac.uk, utoronto.ca, and u-tokyo.ac.jp. If someone does not know which institution owns the domain of utoronto.ca, they can always search it on the web and find out easily that it is University of Toronto.
- Personal emails, non-institutional emails, public emails, commercial emails, or free emails. Some personal emails are easy to identify, such as gmail.com, hotmail.com, yahoo.com, and outlook.com. Others, such as 163.com and 126.com, may look unfamiliar to some people. Again, one can search the domains, to see whether they belong to universities or news/search engine/email services. A search of 163.com can find out that it offers news, email, and other services, similar to Yahoo. Therefore, an email account from 163.com is a personal or non-institutional email, which can be created by anyone with any unique user name.
Usually, there are pros and cons for authors to use either work emails or personal emails. While work emails may look more formal and professional, personal emails may last longer, well after authors leave their institutions. Even though it is now common for universities to let people who have graduated and retired keep their university emails, sometimes it happens that work emails stop working after people leave their institutions.
Various studies have found that on average, about two thirds to three quarters of authors use work emails, and about one quarter to one third of authors use personal emails in scientific publications in the world (Kozak et al., 2015; Rodriguez-Esteban et al., 2019; Rousseau, 2018).
In 2017, a journal named Tumor Biology retracted 107 articles at one time. That became news in scholarly publication because of such a large number of retractions by one journal. The primary reason of retraction is that authors of those articles provided fake reviewer information to the journal, and therefore the peer reviews were fake. One important quality control of scholarly journals is peer review—that is, manuscripts submitted to journals are reviewed by experts in the same field. Some journals allow authors to recommend reviewers. The authors/submitters of the 107 articles took advantage of that and recommended fake reviewers. We looked over the 107 articles one by one, examining the emails of the authors. We found that 104 of the 107 articles do not have authors’ work emails. In other words, over 97% of the 107 retracted Tumor Biology articles use authors’ personal emails. That is shockingly high, compared with the world average of one-quarter to one-third of articles with authors’ personal emails.
We studied more retracted articles by selecting samples from the Retraction Watch database, which keeps records of articles retracted by various publishers in the world. Although not all articles in Retraction Watch were retracted due to fraudulent reasons, and some could be retracted due to honest mistakes and some other reasons, many were retracted due to data falsification or fabrication, plagiarism, fake peer review, and publication duplication. We found that about 55.6% of samples use work emails and about 44.4% of samples use personal emails. So, compared with the average percentages of work and personal emails, articles in Retraction Watch database have higher percentage of personal emails.
So, what are the possible implications? Even when reading scholarly articles, it is a good idea for readers to be vigilant. The traditional evaluation criteria, such as journal reputation, should still be applicable. There might be some new factors for readers to consider. The lack of work emails of the authors could be one. Elizabeth Bik, a microbiologist who is more well-known for detecting fake research publications, said in an article of the journal Nature that “e-mail addresses that don’t seem to be linked to any of the author names” could be a red flag, together with other factors (Else & Van Noorden, 2021).
We by no means suggest that all articles not using authors’ work emails are questionable. There are always legitimate and good reasons why authors choose to use personal emails. But it seems that email choices could be a factor to evaluate scientific publications, based on our findings that retracted articles tend to have higher percentage of authors’ personal emails.
This article is a “translation” of an original research article entitled “Authors’ Non-Institutional Emails and Their Correlation with Retraction” published in Journal of the Association for Information Science and Technology (JASIST, V. 72, No 4, 2021) by the same authors.
Else, H., & Van Noorden, R. (2021). The fight against fake-paper factories that churn out sham science. Nature, 591, 516-519. doi: https://doi.org/10.1038/d41586-021-00733-5
Kozak, M., Iefremova, O., Szkoła, J., & Daniel Sas. (2015). Do researchers provide public or institutional E‐mail accounts as correspondence E‐mails in scientific articles? The Journal of the Association for Information Science and Technology, 66 (10), 2149–2154. doi: https://doi.org/10.1002/asi.23401.
Rodriguez-Esteban, R., Vishnyakova, D., & Rinaldi, F. (2019). Revisiting the decay of scientific email addresses. BioRxiv. https://www.biorxiv.org/content/10.1101/633255v1
Retraction Watch. (2021). Retracted coronavirus (COVID-19) papers. https://retractionwatch.com/retracted-coronavirus-covid-19-papers/
Rousseau, R. (2018). Institutional versus commercial email addresses: which one to use in your publications? https://blogs.lse.ac.uk/impactofsocialsciences/2018/06/21/institutional-versus-commercial-email-addresses-which-one-to-use-in-your-publications/
Cite this article in APA as: Chen, X., & Liu, X. (2022, January 4). Can authors’ emails (personal vs. work emails) be a part of the criteria in evaluating scholarly journal articles? Information Matters. https://informationmatters.org/2021/12/can-authors-emails-personal-vs-work-emails-be-a-part-of-the-criteria-in-evaluating-scholarly-journal-articles/