COPE code of conduct for Editors

This report is based on the proceedings of the annual seminar
held on March 11 2005, the seventh since COPE was founded in 1997. The meeting
aimed to evaluate the robustness of the code of conduct for editors, and to
share information on dealing with difficult cases of research misconduct.

Dr Fiona Godlee, editor of the BMJ and former chair of COPE

 

COPE started life as a self help group in 1997, providing a
focus for editors to share problems around difficult ethical cases. It also took
on the role of a pressure group to force government to put research misconduct
onto the national agenda, and in this it has been successful.

COPE published Guidelines on Good Publication Practice for
editors and authors in 1999, after which it decided that editors should be able
to regulate themselves, akin to the General Medical Council for doctors or the
Press Complaints Commission for media editors.

 

Why was the code developed?

Editorial misconduct tends to get ignored, with the focus on
misconduct perpetrated by peer reviewers and authors. This may be because
editors want to pretend that they don't commit such misdemeanours.

The code aims to:

  • Set baseline standards for good editorial conduct
  • Raise standards
  • Stimulate debate
  • Eventually move to a gold standard of behaviour

It is intended to be advisory and supportive rather than
punitive. COPE has neither the mandate nor the resources to conduct elaborate
investigations into editorial conduct
BMJ
2004;329: 1301-2

The code urges editors to make "all reasonable effort to make
sure that all allegations of misconduct are properly investigated." Instead of
simply rejecting a suspect paper, editors now have a duty to pursue that
allegation.

The code was agreed by the membership in November 2004, and
took effect in January 2005.

 

Are editors equipped to comply with the code?

COPE surveyed its members to obtain some information on what
they currently do, and whether they already had mechanisms in place for
complying with the code.

Of the 346 members of COPE, 118 journals responded, many of
which were from BIOMed Central.

 

Key findings:

  • 17% had no published descriptions of peer review processes
  • Over half had no declared appeals mechanism
  • 9% had no letters columns, despite the importance of peer
    review after publication
  • 9% had no mechanism for critical responses
  • 16% had no policy for protecting the confidentiality of
    patients and obtaining informed consent to publish; in 10% the policy was
    unclear
  • Half had no published guidance to authors
  • 13% had no mechanism for handling conflict of interest
  • 39% had no declared policies on advertising; 10% didn't
    know if they had such a policy
  • 60% had no declared complaints procedure
  • 28% had no mechanism for ensuring ethics committee approval
    had been obtained
  • 64% had no declared policies on pursuing research
    misconduct

On this last point most respondents felt that despite the
absence of a declared statement they had inbuilt mechanisms to prevent
commercial decisions impacting on editorial decisions. Some didn't carry much
advertising, so the picture may not be as bad as the figure suggests.

A declared complaints procedure is important for the COPE
code, because complainants must have exhausted the journal's own complaints
procedure first.

This could be a resource issue as much as not having thought
about it, because 30% had no declared complaints procedure and 10% were unclear
if they did.

Many responses indicated that membership of COPE was
sufficient and therefore there was no need to have declared policies on pursuing
misconduct.

 

Issues for editors

  • Inadequate resources
  • Journals are too small
  • They are not full time editors
  • They don't have back up

But quite a few commented that that they wanted to raise their
game and that the code provided a goal.

Areas for improvement include:

  • Appeal mechanisms
  • Guidance for authors
  • Editorial/commercial separation
  • Complaints procedures
  • Pursuit of misconduct

Areas that were satisfactory:

  • Description of peer review process
  • Provision for corrections/apologies
  • Policies for critical review
  • Confidentiality
  • Conflict of interest

The questionnaire is
available online
. It has also been submitted to the Peer Review Congress in
Chicago (2005).

 

Comments

  • There were some concerns that the data might be skewed in
    view of the fact that 118 responses came from BIOMed Central and that the
    respondents were COPE "regulars"
  • But Dr Godlee said that BIOMed journals had been counted as
    one.
  • It was also suggested that conflict of interest should be
    unpicked because it fails to distinguish between conflicts of interest for
    staff, authors, and reviewers. These are all different and need to be handled
    differently.
  • Dr Godlee said that the code will be reviewed in 18 months'
    time.
  • One delegate wanted to know if there had been a difference
    in response between basic science and medical journals. Dr Godlee responded
    that there were currently few science journals in COPE, a deficit which should
    be addressed.
  • Then treasurer Alex Williamson said that this issue had
    been debated long and hard when COPE was first set up. Inevitably, the
    journals tended to be at the clinical rather than the basic research end of
    the spectrum. Although the problems were different, it was difficult to have a
    code that covered the entire spectrum.