Knowledge management researchers are far more unethical than their peers, study finds [Really?!]

In a Google Scholar search earlier this week, a key finding in a recent conference paper[1] caught my eye. The paper examines ethics and integrity issues in management research through the analysis of retracted articles between 2005 and 2016, and the finding is:

Interestingly, the analyzed results indicate that knowledge management has the highest number of retracted articles with plagiarism as the predominant ethical issues.

A total of 50 retracted articles were analysed is the study, spanning the fields of accounting, business ethics, supply chain management, knowledge management, project management, human resources management and quality management. Of the 50 articles, 36 had a knowledge management focus, far more than the numbers of articles in the other fields, as shown in Figure 1.

Focus areas of the retracted papers
Figure 1. Focus areas of the retracted papers (source: Ayodele, Liu & Hasnah 2017).

I was more than a little surprised by this finding, given that I’ve not previously encountered any indications of rampant unethical behaviour by knowledge management researchers in my extensive reading of knowledge management research, or in my exploration of matters related to the quality of academic publishing.

My first thought was to be dubious about the conference paper. Google Scholar has become increasingly filled with junk science, so papers located with a Google Scholar search need to be rigorously analyzed, including checking them against blacklists of predatory journals and publishers. Predatory conferences are also on the rise, and like predatory journals, many of these conferences lack rigorous peer review.

However, from an examination of the conference website, the event appears very legitimate, being an initiative of the Universiti Malaysia Pahang. The associated Journal of Governance and Integrity is also not listed as a predatory journal. Further, the conference paper in question, which is titled “Promoting Ethics and Integrity in Management Academic Research: Retraction Initiative,” was one of six papers to be awarded best paper at the conference.

Looking in detail at the study findings, an issue not followed up by the authors is that nearly all of the retracted papers were published by just one publisher — the Institute of Electrical and Electronic Engineers (IEEE), which is based in New York.

After identifying this issue, I headed to the IEEE Xplore Digital Library website and entered “Notice of Retraction” into the search engine. As shown in Figure 2, a staggering 9,682 results were listed! To put this into perspective, a Retraction Watch article that I subsequently located said that as at 2015, Retraction Watch had covered some 2000 retractions in its five years of existence. IEEE, as just one publisher, lists five times as many retractions as Retraction Watch covered in five years!

IEEE Xplore search results for "Notice of Retraction"
Figure 2. IEEE Xplore search results for “Notice of Retraction”.

From this, it would appear that the searches conducted by the conference paper authors were not exhaustive. Further searches using the IEEE Xplore search engine also showed that the number of knowledge management retractions is not far higher than for most of the other fields. The results of these searches were:

  • 180 retraction notices for “Notice of Retraction” “accounting”
  • 3 retraction notices for “Notice of Retraction” “business ethics”
  • 128 retraction notices for “Notice of Retraction” “supply chain management”
  • 242 retraction notices for “Notice of Retraction” “knowledge management”
  • 220 retraction notices for “Notice of Retraction” “project management”
  • 31 retraction notices for “Notice of Retraction” “human resources management”
  • 139 retraction notices for “Notice of Retraction” “quality management”.

The conference paper identifies plagiarism as the primary cause of the retractions, as shown in Figure 3, and links this finding to the knowledge management papers. However, it’s not clear how the authors drew this conclusion, as it’s not stated in the retraction notices.

Figure 3. Primary cause of the retractions (source: Ayodele, Liu & Hasnah 2017).

Further, the primary location of the retractions is identified as China, as shown in Figure 4. That most of the IEEE retractions come from China was confirmed by an IEEE Xplore search using the keywords “Notice of Retraction” China, which produced 9,032 results (compared to the total of 9,682 “Notice of Retraction” results as shown above).

Figure 4. Primary location of the retractions (source: Ayodele, Liu & Hasnah 2017).

However, it seems very odd that such a large proportion of an already unusually very large number of retractions for just one publisher comes from just one country. A Retraction Watch article discussing the unusually high number of IEEE retractions was unable to obtain a definitive answer from IEEE about why the retractions had occurred.

Examining the IEEE database has shown the conclusion that “knowledge management has the highest number of retracted articles with plagiarism as the predominant ethical issue” to be correct, but that the number of retracted knowledge management papers is not far higher than for other fields. It has also revealed a significant mystery that as yet remains unresolved: why has one U.S.-based academic publisher had such a staggeringly high number of article retractions, most of which come from just one country — China?

Reference:

  1. Ayodele, F. O., Liu, Y., & Hasnah, H. (2017). Promoting Ethics and Integrity in Management Academic Research: Retraction Initiative. 1st Conference on Governance & Integrity, 2017 “Innovation & Sustainability Through Governance” 3–4 April 2017, Malaysia.

Originally published at RealKM.