EGU Executive Committee; EGU SSS Division President; EGU SSS Division Deputy President; EGU BG Division President; EGU BG Deputy President; EGU GM Division President; EGU GM Deputy President; EGU HS Division President; EGU HS Deputy President; Copernicus Managing Director


Regards: Open letter concerning scientific misconduct in the European Soil Science community

We are a group of early career scientists (PhD students to junior professor/lecturer level) working in Soil Science and connected disciplines. In a time that needs a “March for Science” to stand up against fake news, we believe that scientists themselves have a great responsibility to respect the codes of good scientific practice. We have followed, with great concern, the recent developments regarding the scientific misconduct in reviewer and editor activities in relation to citation stacking, affecting several major soil science journals.

As a result of these events, there is great uncertainty about the reliability of the peer-review process.  A first step towards solving the resulting crisis has been taken at this year’s EGU General Assembly through the start of a discussion on the role of editors and reviewers. This discussion was predominantly led by senior EGU officials and editors of the affected journals. Affected, however, are predominantly the authors, often early career members of our research community. Therefore, we believe our perspective on this form of citation stacking can be of great use to further elucidate the impact of the recent events on our scientific community. Hence, in this letter we would like to contribute to the ongoing debate, share our perspective and make suggestions on how to avoid future misconduct from the viewpoint of early career scientists.

In the following we would like to address these four, in our opinion, unresolved  issues:

i.         The consequences of manipulating citations for early career scientists.

ii.         How to report and avoid future misconduct, specifically by editors.

iii.         The ethical standards our community should follow.

iv.         Leadership and excellence within the European Soil Science Community.

This open letter is available to the public at:

We encourage all EGU early career scientists who support our notion to share this letter and join us as signees. Responses to this letter can be sent to:

A chronologically ordered list of references and documents related to the debate is added to this letter together with the names and institutes of the signees. Please note that we do not claim to represent our institutes in general, or the scientific community beyond the signees of this letter. 

The signees.

i. The consequences of manipulating citations for younger scientists

A large part of the discussion so far has been focused on the issues arising from inflated impact factors (Minasny & McBratney 2016; EGU & Copernicus online reports 27th/28th Feb 2017). For early career scientists and the public, it is an equally severe issue if citations are recommended only for a selected group of papers, without justifying why these papers should be especially important or representative for a reviewed manuscript. How can policy makers and the public make scientifically sound and fact driven choices when our method of selecting the most trustworthy sources of information is guided by impact factors and citations that have been inflated or skewed towards a selective choice of studies and researchers?

Similarly, early career scientists that apply for jobs are assessed not only by the number of publications and their impact factors, but to a large extent by the number of citations and, hence, the actual impact their research papers have accumulated. We feel that this has not been treated as a key issue in the ongoing discussion.

Our questions are the following:

  1. How can early career scientists who do not profit from citation stacking be assured that they have fair evaluation chances in future application processes when competing against researchers who profit from citation boosting?
  2. Which rules should be established to ensure that a large variety of research from different groups is represented when reviewers and editors suggest references?

We argue that there should be clear and transparent consequences for perpetrators who inflate citations of current or former students and associates, if it is proven that they have used their positions as reviewers or editors to suggest imbalanced literature recommendations.

ii. How to report and avoid future misconduct

At this year’s EGU SSS division meeting, a significant part of the discussion on citation stacking and impact factor manipulation focused on the fact that the accusations were sent to the administrators and editors of affected journals anonymously. Indeed, “odd” developments in some of the affected soil science journals were previously reported in published articles (Minasny & McBratney 2016; Savenije 2017).  Included in these anonymous reports were the names of the accused scientists. We agree that publishing anonymous, unverified reports that state the names of colleagues is not at all a practice that should be followed when reporting scientific misconduct. The issues with this procedure have been identified before (i.e. Pimple 2016). However, the anonymous reporting of scientific misconduct cannot be condemned per se.

To protect a reviewer from potential personal repercussions when reviewing, the anonymous peer-review process has been established in modern science. Without the assurance of anonymity, many members of our research community would hesitate to raise objective concerns in a review process. A whistleblower who reports scientific misconduct needs the same protection. This is particularly true for early career scientists, who may hesitate to report scientific misconduct out of fear of negative consequences for their own career and who may assume that their chances to publish submitted manuscripts will be reduced if suggestions by reviewers and editors are not followed (see, for example, discussion on “reporting scientific misconduct” at, link to be found below; Titus et al. 2008; Kornfeld & Titus 2016).

Our suggestions are as follows:

  1. We strongly encourage the establishment of a trustworthy system that protects both the rights and reputation of an accused scientist and the whistleblower in order to enable the reporting and fair investigation of scientific misconduct. These systems have been suggested previously (Fischbach and Gilbert 1995) and do exist for many national science foundations (see for example the web presence of DFG 2017 on “research ombudsman”, the US or UK office of research integrity, links to be found below).
  2. A binding, and very restrictive guideline should be followed by editors and reviewers of scientific journals, clarifying what type of suggestions can be made during the review process. Similarly, clear guidelines to differentiate between the roles of editors and reviewers should be given.
  3. More specifically, we argue that an editor or reviewer should have the right to suggest references only if those are vital for a specific subject of the manuscript. Generally, the handling editor should interact with the reviewers first and receive their agreement. Above a certain number of suggested references (e.g. >3)  a detailed motivation of the suggestions should be obligatory to avoid suggestions of exhaustive, unverified lists of references. If serious doubts are raised concerning the literature review for a submitted paper, it should lead to a reject & resubmit recommendation by the editors.

We argue that the role of the handling editor should be mainly to evaluate and balance the comments of reviewers and minimize his/her influence on the review and revision process beyond this task. Therefore, we would like to encourage the chief editors addressed in this letter to publish clear guidelines for the handling editors about their tasks and how they differ from those given to reviewers during the peer-review process.

iii. The ethical standards our community should follow

Leadership in science requires loyalty and responsibility towards the whole community that it represents, including whistleblowers trying to shed light on misconducts. The problem is not the lack of ethical guidelines in science (i.e. ALLEA 2017; Nature editorial 2017; a summary of examples of good scientific practice guidelines in different european countries can be found in DFG 2013), but rather that they are not properly applied. Towards our colleagues and the general public we are obliged to be reliable and accountable for the compliance of ethical and professional standards. This includes taking the responsibility and consequences if systematic violations of these standards from official representatives are evidenced. We feel that early career scientists, in particular, will lose their faith and trust in the scientific system if misconduct within the leadership does not lead to consequences. This may eventually result in lowering our standards and consequently corroding the trust that society has in the quality of our scientific work.

Our requests are as follows:

  1. To learn how to avoid and to deal with scientific misconduct, a vital part of university teaching to undergraduate, graduate and PhD students should prioritize good scientific practice over striving for positions, papers and impact.
  2. Senior scientists must encourage early career scientists in their groups to be aware of problems  about scientific misconduct, also within their own groups.

To our early career colleagues we say: If we want to ensure that scientific data is the fundament for political, socio-economic and environmental  decisions, we need to stand up and speak out against scientific misconduct. This also includes electing and supporting leadership that commits to fairness, transparency and condemning scientific misconduct (the next election of EGU division presidents and treasurers is scheduled for autumn 2017).

iv. Leadership and excellence within the European Soil Science Community

The current case of scientific misconduct in our community was not the first and will likely not be the last. Other scientific communities have been struck by similar issues in the past, leading to major consequences for the involved personnel and institutions (see Van Nordeen 2013). From our perspective, while the editors of the journals affected by manipulations spoke out very promptly, we were disappointed by the response from the current leadership of the SSS division at the division meeting during the general assembly of the EGU in April 2017. Ensuring a transparent investigation of the ongoing crisis and to avoid future misconduct requires independent leadership in our division. We are concerned that the handling of this situation at the division meeting by our current presidency is potentially catastrophic concerning the ethical standards in our community. In light of these developments, we highly appreciate the rapid response from the EGU Executive Committee to the EGU SSS division in response to imbalances in earlier published division minutes (published on May 15th 2017) from our division’s presidency (Update June 7th 2017: New revised SSS division minutes released, see link below).

(The following section was amended on June 8th 2017 on the basis of replies towards the open letter, including new revised EGU SSS division minutes)

In our opinion, a lack of transparency also taints the mechanisms by which scientists are recognized within the Soil Science community. For example, EGU’s guidelines for best practices for award and medal nominations state that “to increase diversity in the group of EGU awardees and medalists, we encourage the EGU membership to consider gender, geographical and cultural balance”. Currently, there are too few nominations for the Outstanding Young Scientists Award across all sub-divisions of EGU SSS to fulfill these guidelines. A more active advertising by everyone within the European Soil Science community is needed to increase the number of award nominees in the future.


We encourage that:

  1. EGU’s guidelines currently exclude researchers that are actively or were recently involved with representative functions at EGU for one year from nominations. We suggest an extension to a three year minimum. 
  2. More efforts need to be taken by all members of the Soil Science community to increase the number of award nominations (for example, conveners should suggest one of their younger invited speakers for the following year’s award, if suitable for nomination).  

Our conclusions

We urge the addressed senior researchers to establish a clear road map as to how this crisis will be handled and which actions will be taken to avoid future misconducts. In particular, this response should include (i) a way of handling the reporting of scientific misconduct, (ii) evaluating the role of and guidelines for editors and reviewers to avoid citation boosting, (iii) a re-evaluation of the leadership's own role and the consequences if there is a conflict of interest between their position as a leader of our division and the judgement of scientific misconduct and citation boosting, and (iv) a re-evaluation of the guidelines for the award practices at the EGU SSS division.

In the light of the outlined subjects of concern, we argue that the current leadership of EGU’s SSS division has to critically review their role and actions taken or not taken to solve this ongoing crisis of trust in the review processes and in the ethical standards of our field. Personal consequences and an evaluation of the current leadership’s suitability to guide this process should not be excluded.

References (chronological order)

Online resources to follow discussion (chronological order)

February 27th 2017

February 28th 2017

March 3rd 2017

March 3rd 2017

March 21st 2017

March 24th 2017

April 7th 2017

May 19th 2017

email from EGU Executive Committee circulated via

June 7th 2017

email from EGU SSS presidency circulated via

Accessed websites for supplementary information (May 2017)

List of signees in alphabetical order (at date: June 19th 2017)

Dr. Emilien Aldana-Jague; Université catholique de Louvain; Earth and Life Institute

Yolanda Ameijeiras Mariño, MSc.; Université catholique de Louvain; Earth and Life Institute

Dr. Louise C. Andresen; University of Gothenburg; Department of Earth Sciences

Dr. Roey Angel; University of Vienna, Department of Microbiology and Ecosystem Science

Marijn Bauters, M.Sc.; Ghent University; ISOFYS Lab

Dr. Mats Björkman; University of Gothenburg; Department of Earth Sciences

Dr. Jan Blöthe; Bonn University; Department of Geography

Dr. Petr Capek; University of South Bohemia in Ceske Budejovice, Department of Ecosystem Ecology

Dr. Chiara Cerli; Universiteit van Amsterdam; Institute for Biodiversity and Ecosystem Dynamics

Dr. Anne Daebeler; University of Vienna, Division of Microbial Ecology

Dr. Kateřina Diáková; University of South Bohemia; Department of Ecosystem Biology

Janina Dierks, M.Sc.; ETH Zürich; Institute of Agricultural Science

Dr. Sebastian Doetterl; Augsburg University; Water and Soil Resources Research

Dr. Olivier Evrard; Université Paris-Saclay; Laboratoire des Sciences du Climat et de l'Environnement

Dr. Lucia Fuchslueger; University of Antwerp; Department of Biology

Lars Ganzert; Leibniz-Institute of Freshwater Ecology and Inland Fisheries, Experimental Limnology

Dr. Gina Garland; ETH Zurich, Sustainable Agroecosystems

Dr. Norman Gentsch; Leibniz Universität Hannover, Institute of Soil Science

Dr.-Ing. Markus Graf-Rosenfellner; Albert-Ludwigs-Universität Freiburg, Chair of Soil Ecology

Dr. Marco Griepentrog; Ghent University; ISOFYS Lab

Roman Grüter, M.Sc.; ETH Zurich, Soil Protection

Dr. Volker Häring; Ruhr-University Bochum, Institute of Geography

Dr. Tobias Heckmann; Catholic University of Eichstaett-Ingolstadt; Physical Geography

Julian Helfenstein, MSc.; ETH Zurich; Plant Nutrition

Dr. Pedro Hervé-Fernández; Ghent University; Laboratory of Hydrology and Water Management

Dr. Florian Hirsch; Brandenburg University of Technology; Chair of Geopedology and Landscape Development

Dr. Eleanor Hobley; Technical University of Munich; Chair of Soil Science

Filip Hrbácek, Mgr.; Masaryk University Brno, Department of Geography

Dr. Klaus Jarosch; University of Bern, Institute of Geography

Dr. Stefan Julich, Technical University of Dresden; Institute of Soil Science and Site Ecology

Dr. Michael Kaiser

Dr. Eva Kastovska; University of South Bohemia, Faculty of Science, Department of Ecosystem Biology

Dr. Katharina Keiblinger; University of Natural Resources and Life Sciences Vienna; Department of Forest and Soil Sciences

Frédérique Kirkels, M.Sc; Utrecht University; Department of Earth Sciences

Petr Kotas; University of South Bohemia; Global Change Research Centre AS CR

Dr. Oliver Korch; Augsburg University; Institute of Geography

Dr. Sabine Kraushaar; University of Vienna; Department of Geography and Regional Research

Sonja Leitner, Mag.; University of Natural Resources and Life Sciences; Institute of Soil Research

Viviana Loaiza, M.Sc.; ETH Zurich; Sustainable Agroecosystems

Vera Makowski, M.Sc.; Technical University of Dresden; Institute for Soil Science and Site Ecology

Kewan Mertens, M.Sc.; Katholieke Universiteit Leuven

Dr. Carsten W. Müller; Technical University of Munich; Chair of Soil Science

Dr. Elisabet Nadeu

Dr. Victoria Naipal; Laboratoire des Sciences du Climat et de’l Environnement

Silke Neu, M.Sc.; Technical University of Dresden; Chair of Wood and Plant Chemistry

Gaetano Pecoraro; University of Salerno, Department of Civil Engineering

Dr. Engil Isadora Pujol Pereira, ETH Zürich; Sustainable Agroecosystems

Jakob Pferdmenges, M.Sc.; Justus-Liebig-University Giessen; Institute of Landscape Ecology and Resources Management

Dr. Christopher Poeplau; Thünen Institute of Climate-Smart Agriculture

Isabel Prater, BSc.; Technical University of Munich; Chair of Soil Science

Dr. Eric Pohl; Helmholtz Institute Freiberg for Resource Technology

Dr. Leonardo Ramirez-Lopez; BUCHI Labortechnik AG; Flawil, Switzerland

Dr. Taru Sanden; Austrian Agency for Health and Food Safety; Department for Soil Health and Plant Nutrition

Dr. Jörg Schaller; Bayreuth University; Environmental Geochemistry

Calogero Schillaci, MSc.; Department of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences; University of Milan

Dr. Hannes Schmidt; University of Vienna; Division of Microbial Ecology

Johannes Schmidt, M.Sc; Leipzig University; Institute of Geography

Dr. Jörg Schnecker; University of Vienna; Department of Microbiology and Ecosystem Science

Dr. Anna Schneider; Brandenburg University of Technology; Chair of Geopedology and Landscape Development

Florian Schneider, M.Sc; Thünen Institute of Climate-Smart Agriculture

Christian Schneider, Dipl.-Geogr.; Leipzig University; Institute of Geography

Dr. Wolfgang Schwanghart; University of Potsdam; Institute of Earth and Environmental Science

Steffen Schweizer, M.Sc.; Technical University of Munich; Chair of Soil Science

Dr. Carlos Sierra; Max-Planck Institute for Biogeochemistry; Theoretical Ecosystem Ecology

Dr. Philipp Stojakowits; Augsburg University; Institute of Geography

Mounir Takriti, Mag; Lancaster University; Lancaster Environment Centre

Dr. Marie-Liesse Vermeire; Université catholique de Louvain; Earth and Life Institute

Dr. Alix Vidal; Technical University of Munich; Chair of Soil Science

Marijn Van de Broek, MSc.; KU Leuven; Department of Earth and Environmental Sciences

Jeroen Van Leeuwen, MSc.; Wageningen University and Research; Department of Plant Sciences

Elizbaeth Verhoeven, MSc.; ETH Zurich; Sustainable Agroecosystems

Dr. Cordula Vogel; Technical University of Dresden; Institute of Soil Science and Site Ecology

Alexandre Wadoux, MSc.; Wageningen University; Soil Geography and Landscape Group

Dr. Martin Wiesmeier; LFL Bayern; Institute for Organic Farming, Soil and Resource Management

Benjamin Wilde M.Sc.; ETH Zurich; Sustainable Agroecosystems

Dr. Birgit Wild; Stockholm University; Department of Environmental Science and Analytical Chemistry

Florian Wilken, M.Sc.; Augsburg University; Institute of Geography

Patrick Wordell-Dietrich, Dipl.-Geogr.; Technical University of Dresden; Institute for Soil Science and Site Ecology