Revolt Over an Editor

Prominent psychologist apologizes and resigns as journal editor over allegations of aggressive self-citation and more.

April 30, 2018
 
Robert Sternberg

Robert Sternberg, professor of human development at Cornell University, resigned last week as editor of Perspectives on Psychological Science after colleagues raised concerns about his frequent self-citation in the journal and attitudes toward gender and diversity in general, among other issues.

Sternberg refuted many of the claims against him in a formal response to the Association for Psychological Science, which oversees the journal, and in emails to Inside Higher Ed. He also questioned his critics for talking about him online and to the association without first engaging him directly. Yet he repeatedly apologized for what he called certain “lapses in judgment and mistakes.”

Namely, he said via email, “I have sometimes cited myself too much and I was not always as careful as I should have been about ‘recycling’ my own material.”

Chris S. Crandall, a professor of psychology at the University of Kansas, drafted a petition of concern against Sternberg that was sent to the association earlier this month. He said Saturday that Sternberg’s resignation was the “strongest version” of events that could have followed the criticism, and that he had “very complicated feelings about the whole thing.”

Crandall continued, “I’m not looking for blood or vengeance. He’s very good at what he does. But it appears he lost sight of his ethical duty here -- and it’s really unfortunate that this has resulted in public humiliation for him.”

Charges Emerge

Sternberg is a well-known scholar on topics including intelligence, creativity and love, whose curriculum vitae spans an almost unfathomable 110 pages and whose citations number nearly 150,000, according to Google Scholar. He’s a strong presence in life, not just on the page -- he clashed with subordinates during his short-lived presidency at the University of Wyoming in 2013, for example -- but his impact on his field is indisputable.

Still, even some of Sternberg’s admirers began to agitate against his editorship of Perspectives in recent weeks. In discussions on social media, major names in psychology accused Sternberg of citing himself to excess, publishing his own work in the journal to a similarly troublesome degree, and shutting out diverse voices in major issues. Additional concerns have been raised about self-plagiarism throughout his career.

Crandall said he did not lead the charge against Sternberg but volunteered to “assemble” the major arguments against him in the letter to the psychology association’s publications committee.

The two-page document says individual scholars have previously questioned Sternberg’s editorship, namely regarding a 2016 published symposium, "'Am I Famous Yet?' Judging Scholarly Merit in Psychological Science," which included a single female author among seven articles in the section. And the 30th anniversary issue of the journal in March 2018 “again raised questions about publication ethics and the direction and leadership of the journal.”

The issue, themed “Which Articles Make a Difference?” included contributions from living authors of the top 30 most-cited articles in all association journals. So from the start, Crandall wrote, echoing the many critics of citation count as a measure of scholarly impact, the “choice of the topic and the selection of articles was based on a narrowly-defined, backward-looking, status-quo-enhancing method that ensured a selection of researchers who are decidedly not representative of scientific psychology,” association members or journal authors.

Moreover, Crandall said, Sternberg has published eight commentaries, introductions or discussions in Perspectives since 2016. Citing ethical editing guidelines from the international Committee on Publications Ethics, the petition says that while an editor “should not be denied the ability to publish in your own journal, you must take extra precautions not to exploit your position or to create an impression of impropriety.” There also must be “a procedure for handling submissions from editors or members of the editorial board that will ensure that the peer review is handled independently of the author/editor.”

Regarding self-citation, Crandall wrote that Sternberg cited himself 11 out of 17 times in his piece in the “Am I Famous?” issue, or 65 percent of the time. In his first article published in the March 2018 issue, 23 out of 36 references are self-citations. In Sternberg’s second piece in that issue, 25 out of 59 are.

In total, Crandall wrote, Sternberg's seven articles published in Perspectives while he was editor with citations have more than 150 self-citations. "This is a questionable ethical practice as editor-author.”

Editorial decisions and practices “communicate and shape a discipline’s values,” Crandall added, asking the association to do more than just “run out the clock” on Sternberg’s four-year term as editor, which was to have ended later this year. “Editors are gatekeepers, but they must situate the gate at a place where entry can be earned by all. We suggest that the current editor has failed at this, and substantially and repeatedly so.”

Barbara A. Spellman, a professor of psychology and law at the University of Virginia and former editor of Perspectives, signed the letter but also called for Sternberg’s termination as editor on her own. 

“So, APS, before we get back together, I want you to fire Sternberg as editor of Perspectives,” she wrote on her blog, saying that when editors publish in their own journals, it should be to explain something, not compete with principal articles and self-cite. “He has made the journal, and APS, a laughingstock. And you should do it before he does so again in his next special section, in which his rambling introduction and postscript take us on tours of his youth and, un-peer reviewed, garner him another 39 self-citations.”

Since the petition was delivered to the association April 10, additional claims against Sternberg have surfaced: alleged duplicate publishing without self-citation. James Heathers, a postdoctoral researcher at Northeastern University’s Computational Behavioral Science Lab and a self-described “data thug,” is among those to have discussed the issue online, in a post on duplication for Medium. Using Sternberg's case as an example, Heathers said even a preliminary look at his research reveals a “wholesale reproduction of multiple works, written by the central author with a cohort of coauthors, disseminated under the copyright of various academic publishers. This is absolute. You cannot ‘accidentally’ reproduce something which is 100 percent identical beyond a single sentence, two if we consider the absolute mind-meltingly uncommon upper bound of probability.”

Defending His Record

In a lengthy rebuttal to the charges against him, Sternberg said he put the anniversary issue idea to a vote among his associate editors, and that they in fact preferred the impact-based idea over another. He also noted that he addressed the controversial nature of citations as a measure of quality in the two articles he wrote for the issue. Of the additional published symposia that have been faulted for a lack of diversity, particularly when it comes to gender, he said, most included a number of women.

At the same time, he said, “Judging Scholarly Merit: Part 1,” from 2016, “should have been more diverse, and included more women and at least some members of minority groups.” That’s in part why the journal published a Part II symposium, he said. (The selection process for the second issue has nevertheless been criticized by six female scientists who were rejected.)

Of all the claims against him, Sternberg said the diversity-based ones were especially “painful.” Diversity has been a focus of his career in the U.S. and abroad, he said. In administrative roles at Tufts and Oklahoma State Universities, for example, he instituted admissions programs that have benefited thousands of students from diverse backgrounds who otherwise would have been rejected based on their standardized test scores. He created instructional programs on both campuses that benefited diverse learners once there, he added.

“I truly wonder how many psychological scientists, those who have signed the petition or otherwise, have done more to support diversity than I have,” he wrote to the association. “I realize this comment may not seem directly relevant to the letter, but based on my contributions, I believe there are relatively few psychological scientists who have shown as strong a commitment to diversity, and who have actually done something about it, as I have” (emphasis Sternberg’s).

As for publishing in his own journal, Sternberg said he’d never published a principal article and always sought non-confidential input, noted in the acknowledgments, from other scholars on his other pieces.

“If I overstepped my bounds, I apologize, but I really thought I had something of an editorial nature to add,” he said. “I even thought, perhaps wrongly, the pieces were valuable contributions to psychological science. Perhaps some readers were so concerned with who wrote them that they were reluctant or unwilling to read them. I don’t know."

At 68, and with decades of tenure under his belt, Sternberg told Inside Higher Ed that he didn't self-cite or otherwise self-promote to advance his career.

Nevertheless, he said, “I decided to resign as [journal] editor because I think the attacks are a distraction for the journal (and for me as well).” Defending his overall record, he said, “If you look at what the journal Perspectives on Psychological Science has published during my editorship -- I encourage you to do so -- I am proud of the high quality of the individual articles and symposia that have come out. The authors are diverse first-rate scholars and the work published, I believe, is uniformly excellent.”

Sternberg added, “I also am proud of the many contributions I’ve made in my career, and apologetic for the mistakes I have made. I’m grateful for people pointing out my mistakes, although I think there are perhaps more constructive ways of doing this than through social-media attacks. I will not make the mistakes again.”

Sarah Brookheart, executive director of the Association for Psychological Science, said both Crandall’s letter -- signed by dozens of scholars -- and Sternberg’s response were under consideration by the publication committee, and that it would be “premature” to comment on either. She confirmed that Sternberg had resigned, effective immediately.

John Carberry, a spokesperson for Cornell, said the university "only very recently became aware of the allegations and will review the situation carefully under applicable policy.”

Sternberg called social media chatter surrounding his work "attacks." Crandall said that because Sternberg had previously been criticized for self-serving and exclusionary practices as editor and continued to exhibit the same tendencies, discussing the matter with him first was not an option.

He reiterated that the criticism was not of a personal nature. Crandall said he also self-cites. He'll just do it a few times out of, say, 60 -- not half the time.

Part of Sternberg’s “great success is that he’s energetic and filled with great ideas and rushes and does things,” Crandall said. “But as an editor, he has to question himself a lot more. His great strength as a scientist was his Achilles' heel as an editor.”

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