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COPE Digest: Publication Ethics in Practice. April 2016 (Vol. 4, Issue 4)

Case of the month: Image manipulation as a general practice

Case #14-03

Every month we highlight a publication ethics case that has been brought to the COPE Forum, or a query posted to COPE council by one of our members.

A managing editor reported that within a 4 week period, they detected five manuscripts where photographs of either gels or plant materials were used twice or three times in the same manuscript. These manuscripts were immediately rejected. The journal was not convinced that these were cases of deliberate misleading but rather seemed that many laboratories consider photographs as illustrations that can be manipulated, and not as original data. The editor asked the Forum what can be done to ensure that all gels and all photographs originate from the experiment and that they should never be tampered with. 

Discussion and advice from the Forum

Letter from this month's editor

This month’s Digest offers lots of information about COPE activities that might be of interest to you. The case of the month involves the ethical issues associated with image manipulation as a general practice. Image manipulation has been widely discussed at COPE over the years. There have been many cases submitted to COPE; the associated advice from the forum discussions can be found in the cases database. The eLearning module on falsification also contains guidance on image manipulation.

The next COPE Forum, where we discuss cases submitted by members, is Friday 6 May 2016. Starting with the May Forum, COPE will host two Forum in one day – at 8am and 4pm (BST, British Summer Time) – so that the Forum is available at a convenient time for as many as our members as possible. Look out for the invite shortly and do sign up!

Several newsworthy issues include information about publishing tips for researchers in China, establishing a self-retraction system for honest errors and the meanings of peer review.

Upcoming events are also listed, and we encourage COPE members to participate in these events in your region.

Finally, we have recently hosted two webinars with our publisher members. Well attended and discussed, this activity was aimed at keeping publishers apprised of COPE activities, COPE’s strategic plan and future goals as the organisation moves forward and implements plans for growth and expansion. The strategic plan will be posted on the website shortly. 

Geri Pearson, COPE Co-Vice Chair

Communicating with authors and reviewers

Report from the COPE Education Committee

COPE's sample letters

A first step in all cases of misconduct brought to the attention of the editor is to contact the individuals involved for clarification. Normally this is done by a letter to the author (or reviewer), stating that a problem has surfaced and the editor is seeking further information about the issue. Writing such letters can be difficult and time consuming, so COPE has posted sample letters and some general guidance about how to accomplish this task. The case of the month in this issue of the Digest discusses figure manipulation, and COPE has a sample letter on figure manipulation for your use.

The most important point about constructing such a letter is to be polite, firm and clear about the situation. Editors should not accuse anyone of misconduct at this point. The purpose of the first letter is to lay out the facts know to the editor and ask for an explanation from those involved. Some of the key points to mention include:

  • Use the complete title of the paper and any reference numbers (such as manuscript number, issue, year, volume and page, or DOI) of the manuscript in question
  • Mention all appropriate dates
  • Provide as much detail as possible
  • Be very specific about the problem (eg, it appears that figure 1 has been inappropriately altered by removing a band from the blot in figure 1b)
  • Ask the authors to address the specific question by supplying original data, information about their process (such as enhancements with Photoshop) or anything to clarify what was done
  • Ask for a response by a specific date
  • Quote relevant portions of the journal’s author guidelines related to the problem

Another note about the letters is they are grouped by first, second and final letters. A critical point to remember is the editor must follow through on the investigation until a resolution has been reached, which may take more than two or three letters. Sometimes the resolution is to send the case to COPE for discussion at a Forum, which is only available to our members. Although every situation is different, keeping the general guidelines in mind and using the sample templates can save time for editors faced with communicating with authors or reviewers about ethical concerns.

In the news

COPE in the news: Publish or perish

COPE Chair, Virginia Barbour, wrote a blog on Publish or Perish - the wicked problem threatening academic publishing.
Wicked problem blog post

Five publishing tips for researchers in China

From the American Chemical Society
Tips for researchers in China

Interventions to prevent misconduct and promote integrity in research and publication

Cochrane systematic review finds the available evidence is of very low quality, so the effect of any intervention is uncertain
Effect of intervention in misconduct

Set up a ‘self-retraction’ system for honest errors

To make clear whether a retraction is due to mistake or misconduct
Self-retraction system

US Senators seek better conflict disclosures for scientific articles

Conflicts of interest in research to be apparent in journal articles
Conflict disclosure

Ex-professor found guilty of fraud and given a 2 year suspended sentence in a Brisbane court 

Research results on Parkinson’s disease falsified
Fraud conviction

Abstract removed at request of authors who were unaware of its submission

So who submitted it?
Authors' retraction

What does ‘peer reviewed’ mean?

Essentially, 'peer review' is an academic term for quality control says Priscilla Coulter from the American Public University System
What is peer review?

How can we keep science honest in a world of open data?

Concerns about misuse of data by Dorothy Bishop
Keeping reuse of data true


Registration open for COPE UK and North American seminars

A few places left! COPE Seminar 2016: An Introduction to Publication Ethics, 13 May

There are still places left for COPE's “An introduction to publication ethics” seminar in Oxford on 13 May 2016. This seminar is aimed at new or less experienced editors and editorial and publishing staff, who would like to learn more about COPE and publication ethics. The seminar will focus on the themes of plagiarism and authorship.

The seminar is being held at the Wiley offices in Oxford (9600 Garsington Road, Oxford, OX4 2DQ, UK), on Friday 13 May 2016, 10am–4pm.

The seminar will include an overview of COPE, two invited speakers, in addition to breakout workshop sessions. Registration closes 1 May 2016

Register now

Register now! COPE North American Seminar, 'Ethics in peer review', 10 August

Registration is now open for COPE's 7th North American Seminar, which will be held in collaboration with ISMTE (International Society of Managing and Technical Editors), on Wednesday August 10, 2016, at the Hilton Philadelphia City Avenue, Philadelphia, PA USA.

The theme of this year's seminar is “Ethics in peer review”. Editors, publishers, authors and all those interested in publication ethics are welcome to attend.

The seminar will include invited talks, in addition to workshop sessions in the afternoon.

Register now

Report from ISMTE Singapore meeting

COPE session at the ISMTE Singapore meeting

Report from COPE council members Helana Wang and Michael Wise

The inaugural Asia meeting of the International Society of Managing and Technical Editors (ISMTE) was held on 4–5 April in Singapore.  According to the organisers, approximately 104 participants from 17 countries attended the conference. 

The COPE session was the highlight of the first day of the meeting, according to three Lancet assistant editors when asked by the president of ISMTE, Michael Willis! The COPE session started with a presentation from COPE council member, Michael Wise, on COPE and publication ethics. There followed morning and afternoon COPE workshops with discussion of five COPE cases, chaired by Michael Wise and newly co-opted COPE council member, Helena Wang. The workshop discussions were very lively, with great engagement from participants . There were 20–30 delegates in each workshop, mostly editors and publishers.

COPE hopes to collaborate with ISMTE in their next Asia meeting in Beijing next year.

Michael Wise presenting a talk on COPE and publication ethics.

Delegates at the COPE workshop.

COPE is recruiting

COPE Ombudsman

COPE is looking to appoint a new Ombudsman to ensure that COPE carries out its stated mission in a fair, expedient, and transparent manner, and that its Council and Trustees are acting in the best interests of the organisation and its members. Applicants should not be a member of COPE.

Application for COPE Ombudsman