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COPE Digest: Publication Ethics in Practice. December 2013 (Vol. 1, Issue 3)

Letter from the Chair

COPE has always prided itself on providing practical, pragmatic advice to members and a non-judgmental place where peers can discuss the issues that concern them. In this newsletter, Marie-Andrée Jacob, an academic who has been observing how the COPE Forum works, describes her observations of us, placing COPE in the long tradition of debating societies such as that of the UK’s Royal Society. This is a compelling way of viewing what COPE does but poses a challenges for us - can we take such debate forward in the digital age?

I believe the end of 2013 sees COPE having done just that. We are more than ever an international organization: we now have almost 9000 members from around the world and our Council is now predominantly not UK based. In 2013 we have put in place the structure to support our members globally; we recognize that a robust virtual presence is critical to this. Changes over the past year include an update to our member database so that many more individuals from member journals can have their own account with COPE; we have moved the regular Forum where we discuss cases to being completely virtual and we have added more eLearning modules to our resources. And we have of course started this newsletter, which is already attracting a substantial number of readers. I’d like to thank Irene Hames, who has taken the lead in getting the newsletter off the ground, and who is now stepping down from COPE Council after 3 years of very valuable service.

At the same time we have not forgotten that face to face meetings are highly valued by our members and we have held seminars or participated in other organizations’ seminars in the UK, US, India, Japan, and Australia among others.

We have also reviewed our purposes and aims as an organization and have reaffirmed that our primary purpose is the education and support of our members as well as leading a debate on publication ethics more widely. To that end we have reviewed how we handle concerns brought to us about member editors and journals into what we believe will be a much more collaborative, transparent and educational process. We hope that this revised process will be constructive and lead long term to an increase in the understanding of publication ethics as well as helping resolve individual issues.

There is no doubt that publication ethics is, rightly, attracting more interest than ever before. Though being an editor is highly rewarding, it is, especially in this digital age, a very challenging one and we hope that you will continue to find COPE a support in your work. We look forward to supporting you and debating with you in 2014, wherever you may be. 

In the news

Scientific misconduct allegations: tell me, what would you do?

So asks Theo Bloom, Biology Editorial Director at PLOS. She outlines what happens at the PLOS biology journals, opening up a discussion on the appropriate way to investigate allegations of misconduct: What should happen while an investigation is ongoing? How do we express concern about a paper without doing damage to innocent parties en route? How should we balance the wish of many to live their lives in public and with immediacy, via social media, with situations that necessarily deserve a time-consuming and confidential due process? And how do we create a blame-free mechanism of correction that allows authors to amend their papers as they learn more about their studies? An interesting and interactive discussion follows.

Retraction penalty? Author self-reporting may help.

A new study has shown that a single retraction triggers citation losses through an author's prior body of work. However, whereas the effect of retraction on citations to the retracted papers themselves appears similar for both self-reported and non-self-reported retractions, self-reporting of mistakes isn’t associated with a citation penalty for prior work. There may even be positive citation benefits, and the authors speculate that this “may reflect a reward for correcting one's own mistakes.”

Science ‘sting’ journalist John Bohannon

A month after John Bohannon’s article ‘Who's Afraid of Peer Review?’ was published in Science, Phil Davis interviewed him and gave him the opportunity to address criticisms levelled at the study, including ethical aspects.

Buying authorship and ready-made papers

Want to add some publications to your name without the effort of doing the work or writing it up? Shady agencies and brokers in China are cashing in on the pressure to publish and offering authorship slots on papers indexed in a number of citation indices. Large sums of money are changing hands: “People are sparing no expense in order to get published in international journals.”
An undercover investigation has unearthed a range of corrupt publishing practices, including providing ghostwritten papers, providing the data with which to write papers for those authors who lack their own data, and adding unwarranted authors to papers after they have gone through peer review and been accepted for publication.

Three whistle blowers: the stories behind the people

Nature has profiled the personal stories of three individuals who have acted on their suspicions of research misconduct: ‘data-whisperer’ Uri Simonsohn, radiation biologist Helene Hill, and anonymous whistle blower ‘Clare Francis’, who for the past 3 years has been flagging up with editors multiple cases of suspected plagiarism or inappropriate image manipulation in articles published in their journals. COPE’s discussion document, ‘Responding to anonymous whistle blowers’, is mentioned, and various editors’ experiences of being contacted by Clare Francis are described.

Learned society members being solicited for manuscripts for journal with same title as their authentic society journal

Jeffrey Beall describes the deception being used by one questionable publisher to divert manuscript submissions away from legitimate journals to its own journals that have titles similar, or identical, to those of the legitimate journals.

Weak statistical standards implicated in scientific irreproducibility

Based on an innovative method developed by statistician Valen Johnson, it is suggested that the ‘plague of non-reproducibility in science’ may be mostly due to the use of weak statistical tests; a quarter of studies that meet a commonly used statistical cutoff (p-value of 0.05) may be false. Use of more stringent p-values, of 0.005 or less, to support findings is advocated.

Reproducibility – another viewpoint

Could the push to replicate findings shelve promising research and unfairly damage the reputations of careful, meticulous scientists? Replication can sometimes be difficult, especially when the techniques and reagents involved are sophisticated, time-consuming and difficult to master. The suggestion is made that journals could set aside a small space to publish short, peer-reviewed reports from groups that get together to collaboratively solve reproducibility problems, describing their trials and tribulations in detail.

Results going unpublished in clinical trials

A study into the public availability of the results of large randomized clinical trials registered with has found some alarming results. Non-publication of results was found to be common – nearly a third of the registered trials remained unpublished - and the availability of results in the database was limited, with three quarters of the unpublished trials having no results available there. Over a quarter of a million individuals in the trials looked at were therefore exposed to the risks of trial participation without the societal benefits that accompany the dissemination of trial results.

The ‘Euphemism Parade’

Adam Marcus and Ivan Oransky have updated their ‘Euphemism Parade’, a list of the best euphemisms for plagiarism they’ve come across, and which they say shows “the lengths editors have gone to in order to avoid using the word ‘plagiarism’ in retraction notices”. They ask: “Why can’t journals just come out and say ‘plagiarism’?" Could legal fears have something to do with it?

What's been happening at COPE

New eLearning module released!

COPE's eLearning course has a new module: Reviewer Misconduct. The seventh module to be released, it joins modules on: An Introduction to Publication Ethics, Plagiarism, Falsification, Fabrication, Conflicts of Interest and Authorship.

Each module takes about 15 minutes to complete and includes real-life COPE cases and scenarios. A resource page with links to articles for more in-depth reading is also available in each module. 

The course is available to members only (except An Introduction to Publication Ethics, which is available to all readers) and requires you to log in to the website to access it. If you don't have log in details please contact your journal/publishing manager for details. 

Fieldwork carried out at COPE Forums

Legal academic Marie-Andrée Jacob has been observing the COPE Forums since December 2010 as part of her fieldwork into a larger programme of research mapping of 'socio-legal responses to problems of research integrity and allegations of scientific research misconduct'. She draws some interesting conclusions about how the members of the COPE Forum are actively engaged in 'creative regulatory labour.....from a long-standing practice of using legal language in debating science', a tradition which she likens to the early days of the Royal Society. Her report makes for interesting reading and can be read here

COPE's Indian seminar, 15 November, New Delhi, India

COPE Vice-Chair, Charlotte Haug, was responsible for leading the COPE Indian Seminar in collaboration with the Indian Association of Medical Journal Editors (IAMJE). She was joined by COPE Alumna, Trish Groves, Editor-in-Chief of the Annals of Internal Medicine, Christine Laine, and Margaret Winker, Senior Research Editor of PLoS MedicineThe three day event (the COPE seminar was on the first day) was attended by 120 delegates - all Indian editors or medical doctors. The seminar was lively, with the workshops proving particularly popular. Some of COPE's advice was questioned, specifically our advice to contact the institution, as this could be harmful in a society like India's and we will be taking a look at how we can support our members based on such cultural issues. Charlotte's report can be read in full here

Trish Groves, Charlotte Haug, and Christine Laine at the COPE/IAMJE Indian Seminar

SCOPUS - mandatory policy on publication ethics

Past COPE Council member and Subject Chair for Medicine, SCOPUS Content Selection Advisory Board, David Rew, emailed us following publication of the last issue of COPE Digest: Publication Ethics in Practice. Rew not only found the newsletter an interesting and informative read but, as a member of the advisory board of SCOPUS CSAB, explained how he had been able to introduce a 'mandatory policy on Publication Ethics for the accession of all Journals to SCOPUS, referring all applicant journals back inter alia to COPE source material'. He goes on to explain how it is clear that many of the journals they review each year 'which would not previously have carried an overt Publication Ethics and Malpractice statement are now referring directly back to the COPE advisory material and statements.'

With many thanks to David for this very positive feedback. We are very pleased that the newsletter was enjoyed and that the COPE resources are so helpful.

Conflict of interest - serious issue on publication ethics for Indian medical journals

COPE International Advisory Group member, Professor Kusal Das,has, with his co-authors Tejaswini Vallabha, Jaydeb Ray, and P.S.N. Murthy published this article in the Journal of Nepal Medical Association. Their conclusions show that 'Results clearly shows poor understanding of ‘conflict of interest’ like important ethical issue among Indian medical scientists or journals.'


Case of the month

Every month we will be highlighting a publication ethics case that has been brought to COPE by one of its members. Cases will be highlighted for a number of reasons - they may be of broad interest, introduce an important new issue that members may not be aware of, or reflect a topic that COPE is increasingly being asked for advice about. We welcome comments and further discussion about the cases and will provide summaries in future issues.

Retractions of primary literature papers: how should a review journal react? (case #11-07)

What should an editor do when they’ve published a review article from an author associated with publication misconduct which contains references to a number of articles which were later retracted? A whistle blower is urging retraction of the review, but the editor is in a quandary and asking for COPE’s advice. Click here to find out what the Forum advised.

Education corner

Our recent reclassification and analysis of COPE cases found that those involving data have been increasing, and in 2009-2012 this was the most frequent topic discussed in cases brought to the COPE Forum ( The most common areas involved unauthorized use of data and image manipulation. Editors may therefore find it helpful to have pointers to useful resources to help them learn about and deal with image manipulation.

In 2004, the seminal paper ‘What's in a picture? The temptation of image manipulation’ by Mike Rossner and Kenneth M. Yamada was published in the Journal of Cell Biology (, and it is still one of the clearest and most accessible articles on the topic. It’s also one that editors and editorial staff can direct authors to for guidance on what is and is not acceptable image manipulation in the reporting of results.

The International Society of Managing and Technical Editors (ISMTE) has a couple of very useful resources. The first is an interview with Liz Williams, Executive Editor of the Journal of Cell Biology, which is freely available and also includes links to other resources The second, which is an ISMTE member benefit, is a 60 minute webinar ‘Defend your journal against image manipulation and fraud’. This includes a wealth of valuable practical guidance, and outlines simple steps that can be taken to ensure the accuracy of the content published

The November issue of Elsevier’s Editors' Update features a very useful article, ’The art of detecting data and image manipulation’. This includes details of the tools the US Office of Research Integrity (ORI) uses to detect inappropriate image manipulation, and tips from a journal editor on how to prevent the manipulation of specific images’s>

Recent automated image checking of the research literature by a company attempting to remove ‘contaminated’ articles from the database it has created for its meta-analysis service has revealed suspect images, ones that potentially breach widely accepted guidelines. Some of the anomalies have been referred to the police authorities, which has led to the investigation of the researcher involved.