Anyone who’s been part of the rough and tumble of scholarly publishing could be forgiven for hoping that the end of 2015 would give them a chance to draw breath. But the respite won’t be long: it looks like the new year will be as challenging as the last.
Make no mistake—we live in fantastically exciting times in publishing. But with this excitement come new challenges. Some of the biggest ones have remained untackled for too long—of poor reproducibility, sloppy writing and research practices and, yes, outright fraud—and are coming to the fore in a way not seen before. What has also happened though in this past year it seems, is a better understanding from a number of perspectives of the pressures that lead to poor (or worse) practices; an increasing availability of tools to detect and manage issues identified; greater scrutiny via the internet of research (especially of what is openly available, as is increasingly the case); and finally, and probably most importantly, a real determination on the part of many who work in this area to do something about the issues identified.
That many groups and individuals are involved is one of the strengths and the challenges of this area. Unethical practices in publishing—and academia more widely—fit the framework exactly of a ‘wicked problem’—ie, one that is, as defined in Wikipedia, “difficult or impossible to solve because of incomplete, contradictory, and changing requirements that are often difficult to recognize”. As such, it requires collective action by many groups and also a shared understanding that the overall issue of poor, or worse, practices in publication by some individuals or groups may not be solvable in any neat sense. It’s unlikely we will ever live in a world where everyone behaves well all the time in publishing and there are no universally popular choices to be made to address such behaviours. We know, for example, that something so apparently good as requiring the registration of clinical trials before publication to reduce bias in the clinical literature was greeted, in the beginning at least, with considerable pushback and it is still not universally done. What does not work in such situations is endlessly berating those (such as journal editors in this case) who are trying to improve the situation, even in an incremental way, for not having solved it completely. We need to agree that everyone has their part to play and that we are working to a common goal.
Where does COPE fit into this?
From when it began with three editors in 1997, through its expansion to where it is now, with more than 10,000 members across 103 countries, and virtually every academic specialty and publishing model, COPE has specifically recognized and responded to the need for education, discussion among peers and support of editors who are facing publication ethics related issues. As a membership organization, it has a unique position in the publication ethics arena, and brings specific strengths to it. These strengths include a diversity of geography, discipline and publishing model among both the wider membership and, crucially, the volunteer council members. What this does mean is that in many discussions we may not necessarily agree among ourselves: open access publishing models, and whether or not peer review should be open are just two examples where council members and the wider membership have divergent opinions. But we see these divergent opinions as strengths and don’t suppress any of them. What we are united in is a commitment to do what each of us can individually to improve, even incrementally, publication ethics at the level of the individual editor, journal and publisher. It is all too easy to view issues from the outside and see simple solutions. But the complex publishing system we have requires action at every level, including those which COPE can influence (a word we deliberately use), through to those we cannot, but which are instead the responsibility of funders, research institutions and others that employ academics and, of course, academics themselves.
Our remit and our approach is thus firmly in the direction of influencing through better education, resources and support of editors and publishers, alongside the fostering of a professional debate. In this way we aim to move the culture of publishing towards one where ethical practices become part of the culture itself, not something imposed from outside. In doing this we are in alignment with other bodies who work in this area, such as the Nuffield Council on Bioethics, who in their 2014 report on the culture of science in the UK called for a change in culture among all who work in this area—specifically that there was a need for “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”. Note the use of the word “support” in this context.
This type of discussion is also in alignment with academic work that recognizes the complexity inherent in changing behaviour to improve outcomes in any common situation. Intense sanctions or ridicule for specific individuals alone will not cause large scale change; what is needed is a population level approach—for example, by ensuring that all journals and editors have access to the information and support they need. That is COPE’s core role.
But we recognize that publishing is increasingly a public activity via the internet, which has led to amazing opportunities for research dissemination and also for scrutiny of research after publication, in a way that was in fact unthought-of 20 years ago. While many welcome the move to being more open, at all stages of the academic lifecycle, with the opportunity it brings to make research more reliable, thoughtful commentators, including Stephan Lewandowsky and Dorothy Bishop have recognized that openness and transparency is not a simple good. What is also clear is that we have not yet as a community developed the principles for online forums, both pre- and post-publication, to ensure that they remain constructive and professional. We would echo calls, including from a meeting convened by the UK's Academy of Medical Science in 2015 that "A culture shift is needed where constructive [our emphasis] criticism is seen as a positive, so that researchers who comment effectively are given credit for this". For our part we are committed to engaging in this area in a constructive professional manner and we issued guidelines last year for editors on anonymous comments. In all the calls for trial by public opinion, we are concerned that it is often forgotten that allegations related to publication ethics may have profound effects on many individuals’ careers, not only of those accused but also of their collaborators, and on occasion has, tragically, led to people taking their own lives.
For its part, COPE won’t shy away from engagement with these issues more widely, but our focus is and will remain our members, who we engage with in a way that is unusually intense compared with similar membership organisations. The rest of the January 2016 newsletter gives an indication of some of our activities in 2015. Our core mission is to educate and support our members; however, all of our guidance and resources are available to all. In 2015, more than 176,000 people visited our website at least once; our resources were downloaded more than 37,000 times; 2015’s newsletters were read more than 12,000 times over the year; hundreds of people around the world attended either our online on in person meetings or talks. In addition, we surveyed all of our members and this survey will inform our 2016 strategy, which will be circulated to all our members and posted on our website in due course. In addition to these activities, we reorganized our governance structure to allow us to have more council members, while at the same time we separated the roles of the trustees and council to ensure a robust governance structure.
What else will COPE be focusing on in 2016? We believe it will be increasingly important to liaise with other organisations who work constructively in this area. In 2015 we have expressed support for, or participated in meetings with, among others, Transparency and Openness Promotion (TOP) Guidelines, Think, Check, Submit, EQUATOR, the REWARD Alliance and we will continue to work with like minded organisations in 2016. We will continue to produce guidance and discussion documents on topical areas and to support our members through our website resources, online forums and face to face meetings.
All who work on a day to day basis in this area know that addressing the issues of ethics in publication and research is poorly recognized, rarely rewarded, yet one of the most important issues of our time. Ethical issues in publishing may be a wicked problem, but that does not mean it is not worth attempting to solve. We look forward to working with our members on just that in 2016.
The officers of COPE