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'Regulation of Journal Self-Referencing'

Regulation of 'Journal Self-Referencing':
The Substantive Role of the AIS Code of Research Conduct

Review Draft of 23 April 2009

For submission to Commun. AIS

Roger Clarke , Robert Davison and Cynthia Beath **

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The practice of a publisher requiring authors to include citations to previous articles in the publisher's journals is widely acknowledged to be inappropriate. This paper presents the reasons why that is so. It considers possible means whereby the practice could be subjected to control, and concludes that the primary regulatory vehicle in the Code of Research Conduct of the Association for Information Systems (AIS). The framework created by the original 2003 Code is described, and the extensions approved in principle by the AIS Council in December 2008 are shown to greatly enhance the discipline's ability to bring pressure to bear on publishers that misbehave in this way.


1. Introduction

This Special Issue considers a requirement set forth by the publisher of a refereed journal that articles published in that journal should contain at least five references to previous articles in that journal - a practice referred to [in this Issue? in this paper?] as 'journal self-referencing'.

An organisation that carries on the business of publishing has an economic interest in at least its own financial survival. In many cases (including that of the publisher whose actions gave rise to the controversy), a publisher also needs to achieve profits for its shareholders. Revenue depends primarily on the sale of subscriptions, which in turn depends on being noticed by researchers and librarians, being seen to contain articles worth reading and citing, and accumulating citations.

Editors are primarily motivated by the desire for an effective and high-quality communications medium and the reputation of the journal, the community that surrounds it, its authors, and its editor and associates. On the other hand, the journal's survival is dependent on an adequate supply of funds, and reputation derives from the papers it contains and the subsequent citations of them. Hence many journal editors are not only subject to pressure from the publisher to encourage `journal self-referencing', but also have a direct interest in doing so.

A number of avenues are available whereby an editor can legitimately encourage authors to cite papers. Guidance provided to authors can indicate to them the importance of the 'cumulative tradition' notion, whereby "researchers build on each other's and their own previous work" (Keen 1980, p. 5). It is perfectly reasonable to remind authors of the need to cite relevant articles, and to recommend that, before submitting their paper for review, they consider the whole corpus of relevant works, including prior publications in the journal in question, and in other journals that are within that particular publisher's stable. It is difficult to challenge on ethical grounds the encouragement of 'journal self-referencing' if it is done in a manner consistent with appropriate research practice.

During the review process, one of the reviewer's functions is to identify inadequacies in the author's literature review and exposition of existing theory. This may extend to recommending specific bodies of work that are directly relevant and/or sufficiently authoritative and/or sufficiently similar that they should not be overlooked (Clarke 2006). If the reviewer draws additional references to the author's attention, these may quite reasonably include previous articles within the journal in question and within other journals in the publisher's stable

Recommendations of additional citations requires care on the part of the reviewer, and hence on the part of the editor. This is particularly so where the reviewer has a self-interest, e.g. where they are recommending consideration of their own publications, especially if they do so in preference to others that may be more salient. The practices of editors vary, with some writing only brief covering notes referring to the review reports, while others define which aspects of the reviews should be reflected in a revised submission. In some cases, for example, an editor may need to provide guidance that over-rides a reviewer's recommendations, perhaps because of self-interest, or because the reviewer has a limited view of the literature. Some editors go so far as to write a further layer of review. In that case, an editor may quite reasonably add further suggestions about relevant literature not currently reflected in the paper. The possibility also exists that the editor may need to propose cuts to a bloated citation list, or a more balanced selection of references.

The boundary between such suggestions for extra references and inappropriate 'journal self-referencing' might seem to be blurred, but a clear criterion exists: relevance to the paper under review. Neither a reviewer nor an editor has any ethical basis for suggesting extraneous references.

A further clear delineation exists: the quality assurance of paper content is entirely under the control of the editor and editorial board. The publisher has no role whatsoever in quality assurance of content. There is accordingly no ethical basis for a publisher to intrude into the question of citations.

The remainder of the analysis in this paper is based on the assumption that 'journal self-referencing' is unethical, and that means are needed to prevent it occurring. The following section considers what means might be available. The discussion is subsequently narrowed down to one primary mechanism: the Codes of Conduct of professional bodies.

2. Regulatory Alternatives

There are some formal, legal constraints on publishers. For example, constructive misrepresentation and some other forms of improper trade practices could in principle be relevant. Copyright law may have an impact under some circumstances. However, broadly speaking, the practice of 'journal self-referencing' appears not to be directly subject to law, and it is difficult to see any way in which it is likely to become so. Moreover, court action is an expensive and slow means to seek redress, and the financial resources of the publisher would generally out-muscle those of the author.

The primary form of regulation that is applicable to such circumstances is informal controls. People are socialised by their education, by their mentors, and by their colleagues. Their sense of what is acceptable behaviour is conditioned by what they see successful people do without being chastised for it. The boundaries are therefore defined when disapproval is expressed, and seen to be expressed, by senior members of the discipline.

Authors of research papers are provided with a great deal of guidance, some of it formalised, such as the materials that support PhD programs, and instructions for authors issued by conferences and journals. Some informal guidance is provided by advisors and experienced co-authors. Much of the guidance, however, is in the form of exemplars. Authors absorb norms by osmosis from the large number of papers that they are exposed to during their studies and that by implication evidence proper approaches to adopt.

As doctoral candidates become professionals, they gain responsibilities to behave in ways consistent with conventions for their discipline. As they move onwards and adopt senior roles, however, they encounter only limited formal guidance. There is a limited academic literature on appropriate behaviour by reviewers, conference chairs and editors (e.g. Lee 1995, Davison et al. 2005). These are meta-topics rather than substantive issues within the subject-matter of the discipline itself.

In mature disciplines, conventions become institutionalised. This commonly takes the form of a 'learned society' or 'disciplinary association', which declares requirements of members, expresses them in a 'Code of Conduct', and establishes procedures for dealing with complaints about behaviour claimed to be in breach of the Code.

In the IS discipline, the maturation process is well-advanced. The discipline's emergence can be confidently traced to the University of Stockholm in 1965 (Clarke 2008). Thirty years later, in 1994, the international professional body, Association for Information Systems (AIS), was formed. By 2003, a decade after that, AIS published a Code of Research Conduct. It is in the process of upgrading that Code into a mature instrument for evaluating the appropriateness of behaviour by professional IS researchers.

The AIS Code of Research Conduct is the primary means available for exercising control over inappropriate behaviour among IS academics. This applies to their behaviour in all of their roles, as researchers, authors, reviewers and editors.

The remainder of this paper accordingly examines the aspects of the 2003 version of the Code that relate to 'journal self-referencing', and then the amendments that are currently in the process of being approved.

3. The AIS Code of 2003

A few years after the AIS was formed, an AIS Research Conduct Committee was established. This Committee prepared the original (and still current) version of AIS Code of Research Conduct (AIS 2003). A major motivation for the work was concerns about the lack of a clear framework for evaluating accusations of plagiarism. The Code's scope was not limited to that issue, however, and instead a comprehensive instrument was created.

The Code is addressed to "members of the AIS", and contains advice on 16 "Code Items". Of these, 2 are expressed as 'mandatories', 10 as "recommended ethical behaviour", and 4 as 'advisories'. The majority address behaviour by members in their roles as researchers and authors, but one of the 10 "recommended ethical behaviour" Items is directly relevant to editors and reviewers. "Flagrant disregard [of this Item] ... can result in damage to your reputation, editorial sanctions, professional embarrassment, legal action, and the ill will of your colleagues".

The relevant Item (number 5) states "Do not abuse the authority and responsibility you have been given as an editor, reviewer or supervisor ... Editors, reviewers and supervisors are by definition in a position of authority over others. Under no circumstances should you use your position for personal advantage (such as by coercion) or to the disadvantage of others. ...".

The Code is not specific about the kinds of behaviours that constitute 'abuse of authority and responsibility', 'use of position for personal advantage', and 'coercion'. However, in determining whether a particular practice is in breach of the Item, it is open to the AIS, through its Research Conduct Committee, to take into account existing norms and to apply accepted ethical principles. Given the pressure on researchers to achieve publication in quality journals (popularly referred to as the `publish or perish' syndrome), editors, especially of highly-reputed journals, have considerable power over authors, and hence it is open to the Research Conduct Committee to interpret a requirement to cite more articles as a form of coercion.

Moreover, if it is considered necessary in order to overcome uncertainties, the AIS is able to amend the Code and provide more specific determinations, as it has already done for some other Items, such as the rights of research subjects, and the interests of co-researchers.

4. Relevant Amendments in Train During 2009

During 2008, the AIS President requested a small Task Force to undertake a review of the Code, and recommend any appropriate enhancements. The primary motivation was the apparent need for refinements to Item 1 relating to Plagiarism. However, the charge to the Task Force was broad, and involved re-examining the whole of the Code and the means of applying it.

The Task Force presented AIS Council with Recommendations (AISTF 2008a) and a revised Code (AISTF 2008b). These were adopted in principle by Council in December 2008. Their implementation is, however, conditional on a vote by the membership, which is scheduled to take place during 2009.

The Task Force recommended many refinements and clarifications to the substance of the Code, although none that directly relate to the misbehaviour in question. On the other hand, the recommended actions go much further than merely upgrading the content of the Code. Two aspects of these additional recommendations are highly relevant to the control of 'journal self-referencing'.

One Recommendation is that the AIS Constitution be amended to require members to comply with the Constitution, By-Laws and Codes. This is a condition of membership of most professional associations (including many relevant to IS, such as the Association of Computing Machinery - ACM, the Australian Computer Society - ACS, the British Computer Society - BCS and the Institute of Electrical and Electronic Engineers - IEEE). It ensures that the behaviour of members can be judged against the ethical norms expressed in the Code.

Subject to approval of the motion by AIS members, all members would be bound by the Code, in all of the roles that they play. Once a subscription renewal cycle has been completed, all journal editors who are members of the AIS will therefore be able to be called to account for a breach of Item 5 of the Code.

This would, however, seem to leave untouched those journal editors who are not members of AIS. IS researchers publish in a wide range of journals, including in cognate disciplines and in multi-disciplinary journals that view particular research domains through many disciplinary lenses. Hence many editors who handle papers by IS researchers are not themselves IS researchers, and hence are unlikely to be members of AIS, and are therefore beyond its reach.

A further Recommendation, adopted by AIS Council, addresses this circumstance. The existence of the Code is to be communicated to editors and conference chairs of AIS-affiliated research outlets, and to other journals and conferences. The effect of this is that all journal editors will have the Code drawn to their attention, including Item 5 relating to the behaviour of editors. This can be reasonably expected to reinforce the impacts of Codes of other associations to which editors belong. It also represents a warning to editors that inappropriate behaviour of this and other kinds is increasingly likely to come to light and reflect badly on the editor, the journal and the publisher. That in turn strengthens the hand of editors vis á vis publishers, and makes it easier for them to resist publishers' attempts to impose inappropriate terms.

5. Conclusions

The practice of 'journal self-referencing' is generally regarded as being inappropriate, and is seen by many as being a serious breach of ethical standards. A regulatory framework exists within the IS discipline which provides means whereby control may be exercised over requests to authors to add insufficiently relevant citations to their articles. Full implementation awaits approval by the members of AIS, publication, and notice to journal editors.


AIS (2003) 'Code of Research Conduct' Association for Information Systems, September 2003, at

AISTF (2008a) 'Report to Council by the Task Group to Review the Code of Research Conduct' Association for Information Systems, November 2008

AISTF (2008b) 'Code of Research Conduct' Task Force to Review the Code of Research Conduct, Association for Information Systems, November 2008

Clarke R. (2006) 'Notes on the Reviewing of Papers' Xamax Consultancy Pty Ltd, June 2006, at

Clarke R. (2008) 'A Retrospective on the Information Systems Discipline in Australia' Chapter 2 of Gable G.G. et al. (2008) 'The Information Systems Discipline in Australia' ANU e-Press, 2008, pp. 47-107, at, Preprint at

Davison R.M., de Vreede G.J. & Briggs R.O. (2005) `On Peer Review Standards for the Information Systems Literature' Communications of the AIS 16, 49 pp. 967-980

Keen P. (1980) 'MIS Research: Reference Disciplines and a Cumulative Tradition' in McLean E. (Ed.), Proc. 1st Int'l Conf. Info. Sys.. 1980, pp. 9-18, at

Lee A.S. (1995) 'Reviewing a Manuscript for Publication' Journal of Operations Management 13, 1 (July 1995) 87-92, at


The authors have been involved in ethical aspects of the IS discipline over an extended period. One (Robert Davison) has been active in AIS Code activities since their inception. Together, the three authors served as the Task Force which recommended the changes to the AIS Code of Research Conduct discussed in this paper.

Author Affiliations

Roger Clarke is Principal of Xamax Consultancy Pty Ltd, Canberra. He is also a Visiting Professor in the Cyberspace Law & Policy Centre at the University of N.S.W., a Visiting Professor in the E-Commerce Programme at the University of Hong Kong, and a Visiting Professor in the Department of Computer Science at the Australian National University.

Robert Davison is an Associate Professor of Information Systems at the City University of Hong Kong. His current research focuses on virtual Knowledge Management and Collaboration in Chinese SMEs. He has published over 50 articles in a variety of journals such as the Information Systems Journal, IT&People, Decision Support Systems and MIS Quarterly. Robert is the Editor of the Electronic Journal of Information Systems in Developing Countries, and an Associate Editor for the Information Systems Journal, Information Technology & People and MIS Quarterly. He has also edited special issues of the IEEE Transactions on Engineering Management (Cultural Issues and IT Management), the Communications of the ACM (Global Application of Collaborative Technologies), Information Technology & People (Virtual Work, Teams and Organisations) and the Information Systems Journal (Information Systems in China). For more details see:

Cynthia Beath is a Professor Emerita of Information Systems at the McCombs School of Business, University of Texas at Austin. She received her MBA and PhD degrees from UCLA. Before embarking on her academic career, Cynthia worked in private industry in several systems development and consulting positions. Her research focuses on the joint management of information technology assets by the IT function, its vendors and its clients. Currently she is conducting research on the relationship between IT assets and organization agility. Her research has been published in leading information systems research journals. An advocate for her academic community, she has served in editorial roles for the IS field's major journals, chaired the OCIS division of the Academy of Management, served the AIS in a variety of roles, instigated several junior faculty workshops, and helped to institutionalize the Women's Breakfast at ICIS.

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