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COPE Digest: Publication Ethics in Practice. June 2015 (Vol. 3, Issue 6)

Letter from the Chair

There have been big issues of fabrication circulating in publication ethics this month which highlight how publication ethics violations can be enabled by new technology and also how rapidly these issues can rise and then fall in the media – but may have longstanding consequences that mean we should not turn away so quickly.

The two substantial issues to challenge the integrity of publishing have come in the form of reviewer fraud and journal fraud. The reviewer fraud, that was perpetrated through the manipulation of online submission systems, and that was discovered by BioMed Central in 2014, led to 43 retractions, and has also led to other publishers examining their databases. It is likely that fallout will continue for many months and other retractions will follow. While we know reviewer fabrication is not new – it came to light in isolated cases that came to the COPE forum in 2012 – as more examples come to light of these issues being systematic, the need for careful and concerted action, as exhibited by BioMed Central, becomes more and more necessary.

But fabrication on a large scale does not stop at reviewers. What is now coming to light is the wholesale takeover of journals. A Chinese newspaper has reported this well, telling the story of how a review of the Ei index, owned by Elsevier, showed that one journal had suddenly increased the number of papers it was publishing dramatically and improbably, publishing many single author papers, which was unusual in itself, but moreover which were well outside the stated scope. Ei noted that it would delist the journal, but that action itself prompted the journal to publish a further large number of papers in an attempt presumably to get in before the ban.

What drives both of these deceptions is the incentive structure that requires desperate authors to chase publication in journals that will give them sufficient credit. The newer twist here, however, is the fact that it is no longer authors acting alone, but apparently a whole new industry has sprung up to serve these authors.

BioMed Central and Ei are to be commended by acting promptly but taking action on specific papers or journals won’t solve the problem. We have discussed before that incentives will drive behaviour for good or bad and that is seen everywhere – from the UK, as noted by the Nuffield Council on Bioethics, to China, which seems to be the current epicentre of fake journals and fake reviewers.

But another fake also made the headlines recently – a journalistic “sting”. This sting – well documented by Hilda Bastian on her blog – was an actual study on chocolate and weight loss done by a journalist,  but which was apparently designed to come up with incredible results that would then be fed to credulous journals, and then hyped even further to newspapers. I don’t know of any journal or editor who finds it at all surprising that this story was picked up  – chocolates always makes headlines. Nor is it new that the journalist was able to find a journal to publish this paper. We know there are journals willing to make a quick buck from desperate authors. However, publishing organisations, including COPE, Directory of Open Access Journals (DOAJ), Open Access Scholarly Publishers Association (OASPA), and World Association of Medical Editors (WAME), have been working consistently to identify reputable journals, including developing more rigorous membership application processes and joint principals of transparency that we have collaborated on in 2014, and which have just been revised and updated.

So what can we conclude from this story, given that we know there are fraudulent journals out there, and we know that there are journalists willing to bend the rules of publishing to make a point? We can certainly conclude that the journalist by his own admission colluded in a study which deceived its participants in a way that most ethical review boards would find profoundly troubling (apparently it did not have ethical review), wrote it up in a deliberately misleading way, and subsequently misrepresented it to journalists.

What is then the real story here? I’d argue that it is this. We know that doing publishing consistently well is hard. What’s really troubling is the many people who will leap on this as an example of all being unwell in publishing, then immediately move on. There are big, serious – and fascinating – debates to be had on the future of publishing: where does peer review fit in and should it be open or closed; what’s the best format and most complete way to report studies; how should we ensure authors get attribution for the work they do; how do we build an incentive structure that doesn’t penalise good behaviour; and when it does go wrong, how do we correct the record.

It’s always fun to poke holes in a system; it would be great if we could channel some of that energy into really helping with building robust publishing systems that will support all the fascinating changes in publishing that are on the horizon.

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.

Patient consent where a patient is deceased

At a recent Ask COPE session, the question was raised by an editor of whether authors of case reports need to obtain consent from the next of kin in a case where a patient is deceased.

COPE advised that you should err on the side of assuming that consent is required. In the USA, HIPAA regulations govern protection of certain health information, and ethics review committees have oversight over the use of research data, which could include individual case histories.

In the UK, the HRA (Health Research Authority) do have some guidance on consent. Other sources that the editor may wish to consult are the Data Protection Act and the General Medical Council (GMC). The BMJ also provide extensive information on their policies on patient consent and patient confidentiality, which may be of use.

COPE advised that the journal needs a policy on this issue, which should reflect the current laws of the country. If the case is anonymised and consent from the next of kin has been obtained, then this may be sufficient. However, there should be editorial oversight, and the editor should take into account factors such as a rare disease, a particularly small discipline field, and genetic information, which may mean that the patient or their relatives could be identified. But it is up to the editor to make a judgement call based on the information available. The journal needs to assure itself that the publication meets the journal's ethical standards. If a journal is satisfied that the author(s) have received appropriate review, that they have done all they reasonably can to obtain consent, or that they have a fair/reasoned argument for why sharing of consent is not appropriate, then the journal could decide to proceed based on that decision.


COPE at the CSE meeting

Report from the COPE Education Committee

A collaborative effort between the Council of Science Editors (CSE) and COPE on issues related to authorship resulted in a panel presentation at the CSE Annual Meeting in Philadelphia on 17 May 2015. Both CSE and COPE have resources to assist members in handling authorship issues, and this panel was an opportunity to present some of the discipline specific questions that arise in the course of scholarly publishing and provide guidance on best practices in preventing authorship problems. Presenters included Annette Flanagin, Executive Managing Editor, VP of Editorial Operations, JAMA and the JAMA Network; Jennifer Mahar, Executive Peer Review Manager, Origin Editorial; and Deborah Poff, Editor, Journal of Business Ethics and Journal of Academic Ethics and COPE Council Member. The moderator for the panel was Charon Pierson, Editor, Journal of the American Association of Nurse Practitioners and COPE Council Member. There was standing room only for this well received session, and the participants had a lot of great questions and interesting dilemmas to discuss.

Annette Flanagin provided rich data from her experiences at JAMA, and some of the research conducted related to authorship issues in biomedical publications; for example, although ghost authorship declined from 1996 to 2008, the prevalence of honorary authorship on research publications increased during that same period. She also demonstrated the contributorship statements on JAMA articles, which provide public listing and acknowledgement of all contributors.

A completely different problem was the focus for Jennifer Mahar’s presentation on the development of a ‘Concurrence policy’ for the 15 physics journals she manages. Concurrence is the term used in this field to describe authorship changes, which had become a large problem in her work due to the number of authors per paper (average of 10 per paper) and the workload involved in changing author names, order and affiliations. A key issue in developing best practices for these journals included solutions to work with authors from China, Korea and the Far East (nearly 50% of the total submissions), many of which involved difficulty in communicating with authors electronically due to country-wide internet blocking.

The perspective on authorship issues in the humanities and social sciences (HSS) was provided by Deborah Poff. As a COPE Council Member and editor of two ethics journals, Deborah focused on the arguments that some HSS researchers make related to the low risk of ethics violations in much of the research, the prevalence of sole authored works and the tradition of building on tested arguments over a course of many years to develop theories, monographs and treatises. There was something of interest to everyone in the audience, as witnessed by the lively discussion period that followed.

The handouts from COPE about authorship were available to all and included ‘What constitutes authorship? COPE Discussion Document’, several flowcharts related to changes in authorship and what to do if you suspect ghost, guest, or gift authorship, and guidelines on ‘How to spot authorship problems’. All of these resources are available on the COPE website. All CSE resources related to authorship and more information from the 2015 conference are available on the CSE website ( 

COPE council members Charon Pierson (left) and Deborah Poff (right) at the CSE meeting.

In the news

‘My professor demands to be listed as an author on many of my papers’

A plea to reform academia

Nobel scientist Tim Hunt: female scientists cause trouble for men in labs

Remarks made by Nobel Laureate when addressing a convention of senior female scientists and science journalists causes resignation

Retracted gay marriage study debated at the World Conference on Research Integrity

Need for academia to be vigilant to prevent research misconduct

Sting paper on dark chocolate and weight loss

Criticised  by many, and the final conclusion: “The end of the experiment is that millions of people all over the world were told that chocolate will help them lose weight”

Expression of concern regarding  2005 vitamin and hip fracture paper

The Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) has contacted administrative officials at the author’s institution and requested that they conduct an investigation to evaluate the scientific integrity of the research and the validity of the reported study results

Retraction because of lack of appropriate ethical approval

Study misclassified as a clinical trial

UK universities slow to publish reports of misconduct investigations

UK Research Integrity Office (UKRIO) has found that universities are falling short on publishing annual summaries

Another case from the Office of Research integrity

Data fabrication and falsification after patient medical record and case record form investigation

WAME policy statement on promoting global health

“Medical journal editors have a social responsibility to promote global health by publishing, whenever possible, research that furthers health worldwide..........”

A text mining primer for journal publishers

A useful summary on text mining (ie, data analysis of natural language works, using text as a form of data) by Roy Kaufman

National Library of Medicine issues new errata citation policy

Creating two way link between citations for the erratum notice and article

What's been happening at COPE

Principles of Transparency and Best Practice in Scholarly Publishing: revised and updated

In early 2014, COPE, together with Directory of Open Access Journals (DOAJ), Open Access Scholarly Publishers Association (OASPA), and World Association of Medical Editors (WAME), published a minimum set of criteria for journals and publishers to be assessed against when they apply for membership at one of our organisations. The Principles of Transparency and Best Practice in Scholarly Publishing were well received and have been instrumental in helping us to manage the increase in number, and quality, of membership applications we received.

The principles have now been revised and updated, and the full criteria can be seen here ( We encourage authors and anyone else who is unfamiliar with a journal or publisher to use these criteria in assessing a journal. Feedback is welcome.

COPE at 4th WCRI, Rio de Janeiro, Brazil

COPE was a sponsor of the 4th World Conference on Research Integrity (WCRI) which was held in Brazil, 31 May-3 June. A massive 600 people attended from more than 50 different countries and every continent. On the final day of the conference, COPE Vice-chair, Charlotte Haug, Council Member Muhammad Irfan, and former council members Behrooz Astaneh and Rose Shinkai gave a seminar with fascinating and novel presentations about COPE and about ethics in general. The theme was ‘ethical challenges in a globalised world’. The COPE team also led a workshop on day 1 of the seminar, with the kind of vibrant and stimulating case discussions that our members (and the wider community) has come to expect from COPE. 

From left to right: Muhammad Irfan, Rose Shinkai, Behrooz Astaneh, Charlotte Haug and Chris Graf.

Register for the COPE North American Seminar, 19 August 2015

Registration is open for COPE's 6th North American Seminar, which will be held in collaboration with ISMTE (International Society of Managing and Technical Editors), on Wednesday 19 August 2015, at the Sheraton Inner Harbor Hotel, Baltimore, Maryland, USA.

The theme of this year's North American seminar is “Understanding metrics in publishing: use and abuse”. Editors, publishers, authors and all those interested in publication ethics are welcome to attend.

The seminar will include invited talks, in addition to breakout sessions in the afternoon with discussion of cases, and an interactive workshop on "Designing a flowchart"..

The Seminar is free for COPE members, US$300 for non-members and US$150 for ISMTE members who are not members of COPE (and attending only the COPE seminar).

For more information and to register, see the COPE website: