You are here

COPE Digest: Publication Ethics in Practice. December 2014 (Vol. 2, Issue 12)

Letter from the Chair

At the end of December it’s hard to resist the temptation to try to draw out themes from the year. And this year there have been some very big themes; the main one being I think a crystallisation of understanding from groups across the spectrum of academia of how core publication ethics is to research integrity more widely. What has lagged behind somewhat is the acceptance that there are some very fundamental problems within the reward system of academia which even the best practices in publication ethics cannot solve unless the fundamental issues in academia are addressed.

Two issues at the end of the year highlight this theme. First, a thoughtful report from the Nuffield Council on Bioethics - The Culture of Scientific Research in the UK, made some hard hitting observations including “the potential for high levels of competition to encourage poor quality research practices”, which will require a concerted and a collaborative response from everyone involved in academia, including, but very much not limited to, journals, publisher and editors. COPE strongly supports the report’s findings

The second issue illustrates what happens when the pressure to publish becomes extreme. The uncovering of companies systematically manipulating publications, by the use of fake reviewers and more, offers an alarming glimpse into what can happen if reward systems are implemented with no thought or oversight. COPE is working with publishers and editors to respond to this issue.

These two issues illustrate the spectrum of behaviours incentivised by perverse reward systems and will not be easy to address. But starting the debate is a necessary first step to fixing the system. Journals and editors cannot do this alone, but they can be vigilant and professional in their handling of these issues, and COPE will continue to support editors and publishers as they do this.

This might seem an overly gloomy note to end the year on, but the fact that these issues are being aired is a tremendous first step and should be a cause for optimism.

From all of us at COPE we wish you a restful holiday season and look forward to working with journals and publishers on whatever 2015 brings.


COPE in Asia

Former Chairperson of COPE, Liz Wager, published an article titled 'Why publication ethics is relevant to information management: Experience from the Committee on Publication Ethics' in the Japanese journal Joho Kanri, volume 57, number 7 (October 2014). Although the published article is in Japanese (available at, a link to the English translation of the article is available here.

COPE has long participated in conferences about publication ethics in Japan, as well as other places in Asia. Many of these activities have been reported in previous issues of COPE Digest. A large number of scientific advances occur in Asia, and many of those scientific reports are found in English language journals. Many journals published in Asia are members of COPE. The first official COPE Asia Pacific Seminar was held in November 2011 in Melbourne, Australia. A second Asia Pacific Seminar was held in February 2013, again in Melbourne, and the presentations from that seminar are available on the COPE website. For 2015, negotiations are in process to hold a COPE Seminar in Tokyo in conjunction with the publisher Wiley sometime in October. This is an exciting opportunity for editors in Japan and other Asian nations to participate in an international publishing seminar with a strong focus on publication ethics. 

COPE resources, such as flowcharts and guidelines are always available in English. Currently, some of these resources have been translated into Chinese and Japanese, and COPE is always eager to see new translations. If you have translated any of these resources into another language, contact the COPE administrator.

In the news

The lighter side of retraction

Courier Mail in Queensland, Australia, published a heart warming note in the birth announcements—a retraction for a 1995 birth announcement of a baby girl. It was a boy.......

The China bazaar 1 year on

Has not gone away. An investigation of 32 meta-analyses and reviews finds shared characteristics with text shuffling to avoid detection by plagiarism software

Book reviewer finds significant plagiarism in Mark Twain's America

See comments by Kevin Mac Donnell on Mark Twain's America, a celebration in words and images, by Harry L Katz and The Library of Congress. Little, Brown and Company, 2015

BioMed Central has found about 50 manuscripts in their editorial system with fake peer reviewers

Most of the cases were not published because they were discovered by a manuscript editor on a final pre-publication check. The five or so that have been published will go through some sort of re-review, which may result in expressions of concern or retraction. Full story on Retraction Watch

1996 Polish paper retracted for plagiarism

The paper contained word for word text from a paper by a team at the University of Ankara. So never too late

Society for Sedimentary Geology Statement of Ethics in Research and Publication

A nice ‘at a glance’ short guide

Scientific ethics and publishing conduct

From the Journal of Business Economics

Data sharing

Why, why not and how

Proposals to expand requirements to register clinical trials and report results

The US Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) and National Institutes of Health (NIH) have announced proposals to expand requirements to register clinical trials and report results, and to make that a condition of research funding. Respondents are requested to post responses here!docketDetail;D=NIH-2011-0003 and respond to NIH consultation by emailing [email protected]

Imperial College London to ‘review procedures’ after the death of Stefan Grimm

Undue pressure on academics with a tragic outcome

Retraction Watch is growing

Thanks to a grant from the MacArthur Foundation of $200,000 per year for 2 years

Ethical issues for Mr Darcy

Should actor Colin Firth have been listed as an author or acknowledged for his contribution to an imaging study of politicians' brains?

What's been happening at COPE

COPE statement on inappropriate manipulation of peer review processes

The Committee on Publication Ethics (COPE) has become aware of systematic, inappropriate attempts to manipulate the peer review processes of several journals across different publishers. These manipulations appear to have been orchestrated by a number of third party agencies offering services to authors.  This statement is issued on behalf of COPE after consultation with a variety of publishers to underscore the seriousness with which we take these issues and our determination to address them.

While there are a number of well-established reputable agencies offering manuscript-preparation services to authors, investigations at several journals suggests that some agencies are selling services, ranging from authorship of pre-written manuscripts to providing fabricated contact details for peer reviewers during the submission process and then supplying reviews from these fabricated addresses.  Some of these peer reviewer accounts have the names of seemingly real researchers but with email addresses that differ from those from their institutions or associated with their previous publications, others appear to be completely fictitious

We are unclear how far authors of the submitted manuscripts are aware that the reviewer names and email addresses provided by these agencies are fraudulent. However, given the seriousness and potential scale of the investigation findings, we believe that the scientific integrity of manuscripts submitted via these agencies is significantly undermined. Publishers who already know they are affected will be publishing statements on their own websites and will be  taking the following immediate actions.
● Articles that have been published solely on the basis of reviews from fabricated contacts will be retracted in line with COPE guidance and authors and institutions involved will be contacted.
● Publishers are examining their own databases for the presence of fabricated reviewer accounts and contact details and will be contacting the authors of papers  for which those reviewers were suggested as well as the relevant institutions, even if the papers were not accepted.

Authors with any concerns about inappropriate agency involvement in suggesting peer reviewers or any other aspect of the manuscript preparation and submission process should contact the relevant journal. 

COPE is working with publishers, publishing organizations and relevant national bodies to determine how best to address this situation in the longer term. Updates will follow as more information becomes available. We encourage anyone with information on these issues to contact COPE directly.

Nuffield Council on Bioethics report on the on The Culture of Scientific Research in the UK

COPE welcomes the report from the Nuffield Council on Bioethics: The Culture of Scientific Research in the UK. It is timely, coming as it does when there is increased scrutiny of the scientific literature, and importantly an increasing recognition of the need to address fundamental issues such as the lack of reproducibility in science.
The report is the culmination of many months of consultation among the scientific community and its report should be essential reading for anyone involved in journal publishing, and science and publication ethics. In one critical passage the report notes that  “Fifty-eight per cent of survey respondents are aware of scientists feeling tempted or under pressure to compromise on research integrity and standards,” and that “Suggested causes include high levels of competition in science and the pressure to publish”.

Rightly the reports notes that there is  “a collective obligation for the actors in the system to do everything they can to ensure the culture of research supports good research practice and the production of high quality science” and its recommendations for all involved in research reflect this obligation.

This report lays out once and for all that no-one group can or should be expected to effect change on its own. COPE has long supported editors in their handling of publication misconduct but it has also firmly recognized others’ responsibility in this area, especially that of institutions.

Above all, we welcome the recognition that the culture in science has to have ethical practices at its core – in the report’s words, that we need “an environment in which ethics is seen as a positive and integral part of performing research”. This would chime firmly with COPE”s experience.

Research and publication ethics is not driven nor is it broken by one or two individuals; ethical research and publication practices require a culture of ethical research and publishing with education and support reaching all the way through the system from when a student first steps into higher education through to those at the highest levels of authority.

Second International Congress on Publication Ethics, Shiraz, Iran

The second International Congress on Publication Ethics in Shiraz, Iran, drew together a small but highly engaged group of editors mainly from Iran, but also from Syria, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Norway, and the UK. Topics under discussion included the perennial issues of authorship and conflicts of interest as well as some of the more novel forms of misconduct such as journal hijacking and reviewer impersonation. There was an impressive volume of original research presented by both junior and more seasoned editors. Live presentations delivered via video link from the UK interspersed the proceedings, and two workshops on international standards in journal flow and on dealing with plagiarism provided additional learning opportunities for delegates.

Second International Congress on Publication Ethics in Shiraz, Iran

Left to right: COPE Vice-Chair Charlotte Haug, COPE council member Zoe Mullan, and former COPE council member, Behrooz Astenah

Date set for COPE European Seminar 2015

Following the success of the first COPE European seminar to be held outside the UK, the 2015 seminar will again be held in Brussels, Belgium, on 16-17 April 2015. 

The theme of this year's European seminar is “Weighed and measured: how metrics shape publication (mis)behaviour”. Editors, publishers, authors and all those interested in publication ethics are welcome to attend. The full programme will be available shortly. In addition to the all day seminar on Friday 17 April, COPE is holding a half-day Workshop on Thursday 16 April (2.30-4.30pm) with discussion of ethical cases.The full programme will be available shortly.

The seminar will include invited talks, a panel discussion and interactive workshops.

The seminar is free for COPE members and £300 for non-members. Numbers are limited and early booking is advisable. For more information and to register, see the COPE website:


Case of the month

Every month we will be highlighting a publication ethics case that has been brought to the COPE Forum, Ask COPE session or a query posted to COPE council by one of our 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 about. We welcome comments and further discussion about the cases and will provide summaries in future issues.

Authors (or other journals) making peer reviews public

This was a query posted to COPE council by a member. Should authors and peer review journals make posting of reviews at a pre-print server after rejection at a journal? Is it is the authors' choice/decision? What happens if the reviewers are anonymonymous? Who owns the reviews after rejection and does reviewer anonymity/disclosure change anything?

COPE did not have a definitive answer on this, as it is really an issue of who ‘owns’ the reviews. COPE thinks it would help if publishers include a copyright line on the reviews themselves to indicate if they are considered the property of the reviewer, publisher, or author. Without this, the author publishing them online is a very grey area.

On balance, it would seem to be the reviewers themselves that own the review, but it may be that the publisher owns the copyright on the reviews themselves as it is a part of their 'value add' to the process. But if it is not the publisher, it may be the reviewer, not the author. So the author will not have the right to post these, even if they are anonymous. However, another view is that if the reviews are sent to the author, along with a letter from the editor, then it may be that the author ‘owns’ the entire package—paper, letters, reviews. What the author does with this package is another issue.

Either way, journals need to be transparent about what use they will make of submitted reviews. As alternative models of peer review become more common, journals/publishers will (have to) be clearer about these types of issues and develop statements regarding how reviews can/will be used. A legal perspective on this would be useful too.