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