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COPE Digest: Publication Ethics in Practice. January 2016 (Vol. 4, Issue 1)

New year, new challenges: COPE in 2016 and beyond

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

Case round up 2015

A total of 17 cases were discussed at the quarterly Forum meetings in 2015. Our Annual General Meeting (AGM) in September at the Montcalm Marble Arch Hotel, London, was combined with a face to face Forum meeting; the three other meetings were held virtually via webinar. Thirty people came to London to take part in the Forum for a lively discussion on ‘Who “owns” peer reviews’ followed by discussion of 5 cases. Our March Forum by webinar saw members from 13 different countries (attendance 47), the June Forum reached members from 12 different countries (attendance 40), while in December we had 50 members from 13 different countries. Participation has been from countries as wide ranging as Australia and New Zealand, Canada, India, Qatar, Iran, South Africa, Japan, Pakistan, among others, as well as from all over Europe and the USA. For 2016, we plan to conduct three of our quarterly Forums in this way, with another face to face meeting in London, during the International Academy of Nursing Editors (INANE) conference in August. We also plan to meet with members face to face at meetings around the world.

Authorship issues were a common theme in 2015. The COPE Forum discussion topic in March 'Coming back from disgrace' discussed how editors would handle a submitted paper if they knew that one of the authors had previously been found to have committed serious research misconduct. A summary of the discussion and the comments can be found here. The following cases addressed other authorship issues: 15-02 Author disagreement blocks submission; 15-06 Authorship dispute; 15-08 Author disagreement regarding article corrections; 15-11 Inability to contact an author to obtain permission to publish; 15-12 Author impersonating corresponding author without knowledge of co-authors; and 15-17 Requesting authorship after publication.

Other cases covered topics such as patient consent (Case 15-09), fraud (Case 15-10), image manipulation (15-13) and plagiarism (15-04, 15-16). All of the cases from 2015 can be found on the COPE website.

The June Forum discussion topic on ‘Prior publication and theses’ provoked much debate, and COPE plans to produce a discussion document on this topic. COPE’s current consultation/guidance document on handling competing interests was the subject of the recent Forum topic in December. This competing interests guidance document is now published on our website.

If you have attended one of our webinars, we are always keen to receive your feedback. You can contact us here


Two new eLearning modules from COPE

Report from the COPE Education Committee

Two new eLearning modules have recently been finalised and released for our members (eLearning is a members-only benefit). The first of these is entitled ‘Selective reporting’, and takes about 15 minutes to complete. Selective reporting can include deliberate omission of unfavorable outcomes, non-publication of the entire study and insufficient reporting of detail in the methods or literature review to deliberately obscure information. This module has important information for COPE members in light of the efforts to promote the registration and reporting of all clinical trials. Recent reports in the financial press from the USA, UK and Canada ( claim that approximately half of the results from clinical trials have not been published. Of trials actually reported, over half are reported incompletely. This new eLearning module has useful suggestions on how editors can discourage the selective reporting of results.

The second module is ‘Redundant publication’. This module will take learners about 20 minutes to complete. This module aims to clarify the definition of redundant publication, especially as it pertains to different disciplines. For example, conference abstracts may be republished without problem in most disciplines, but papers published on pre-print servers will only be acceptable in select disciplines. There is also discussion about updates to systematic reviews, translations of previously published papers, republishing of blog posts and copyright issues that arise in republishing articles. The advice to editors is consistent with all of COPE’s advice: editors must post clear guidelines for authors regarding what is and is not acceptable in their journals. The highlighted resources for this module are the revised COPE flowcharts on redundant publication in a submitted article and redundant publication in a published article, which were among COPE’s earliest flowcharts

We would like to offer our thanks to Liz Wager who has been instrumental in helping COPE deliver this course.

In the news

The top 10 retractions of 2015

This list has some useful cases to consider

Continued citation of retracted papers

Editors need to ensure citations are appropriate and valid

National Science Foundation refuses future funding after investigation of alleged data falsification

Investigation concludes that the authors recklessly falsified research data, and that this act was a significant departure from accepted practices and that the authors are now ineligible for future NSF funding

Researchers wrestle with co-authorship

Interesting debate on social media: contribution, who is responsible for what, approval of final version and more

Confronting the suspicion (and misconceptions) of co-authorship

How co-authorship can be achieved

Publishers to require ORCID identifiers for authors

The American Geophysical Union (AGU), eLife, EMBO, Hindawi, the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE),  the Public Library of Science (PLOS) and the Royal Society will now require authors to use an ORCID identifier (iD)

ORCID survey

Shows different levels of support between disciplines and geographical regions

Anonymity of post publication peer review

Would open reviewing lead to reviewers shying away from negative comments for fear of upsetting authors who are also their potential future referees?

Peer-review fraud: hacking the scientific publication process

Former COPE Vice-Chair, Charlotte Haug, details the why, how and the unpicking leading to retractions

Paper on obesity retracted because of lack of correct ethical approval 

Retraction notice states that “although there is no implication that the data collection was carried out unethically, the retraction has been agreed to because the subsequent data analysis was conducted without the required approval of the university ethics board while the published paper incorrectly stated that Norwegian ethical approval had been obtained”

Dying for science: historical perspectives on research participants’ deaths

June 2016 will be 50 years since the publication of Henry K Beecher’s ‘Ethics and Clinical Research’ in the New England Journal of Medicine: reportedly the single most influential paper “ever written about experimentation involving human subjects”

US Common Rule allows use of non-identifiable tissue samples without consent

But it is now possible to identify 'anonymous' samples using DNA and link genetic information to donors and their families

Lake Superior State University produces 2016 list of 13 ‘banished words’

Lake Superior State University reveals its 41st annual list of words that should be banned due to misuse, overuse and general uselessness, such as so, conversation, problematic, stakeholder....

COPE in the news

What's been happening at COPE

COPE welcomes 6 new council members

One of the changes to COPE’s constitution at the AGM last September was to double the size of Council. Primarily to help increase our ability to support over 10 000 members globally, we also wanted to fill highlighted gaps in skills, experience, geography and knowledge. 

The Nominations Committee reviewed the gaps on Council, and following an extensive application and interview process, we are delighted to be co-opting six new members to Council. Emeritus Professor Gary Akehurst (UK) comes to Council with a background in social science and business journals; Vivienne Bachelet is based in Chile, helping COPE to understand some of the issues facing South America; Elizabeth Moylan is a senior editor for research integrity at BioMed Central and fills one of the gaps in representation of Council members in the UK; J Patrick Barron and Helena Hui Wang are based in Japan and China, respectively, and provide COPE with its first representation in East Asia; and Heather Tierney joins COPE from the American Chemical Society (USA) providing representation for the physical sciences.

The Trustee Board have also co-opted a new Trustee to the Board, Sally Weatherill, a solicitor by trade, Sally has vast experience in governance, particularly in the charity sector, and will be a huge asset to COPE ensuring our processes and procedures help us to remain true to our mission.

With more vacancies to fill, we will shortly be posting an open call among our members to apply for a position on COPE via our nomination and election process. Please do look out for this and do contact us in the meantime if you want to find out more about joining Council.  

COPE workshop at ISMTE meeting 4–5 April, 2016, Singapore

International Society of Managing and Technical Editors (ISMTE) is expanding their international presence to Asia. This spring, they are holding an Asian Conference in Singapore—Best Practices in Scholarly Publishing. Topics will include emerging standards as best practices; managing technology; platforms and vendor transitions; new ideas in scholarly publishing; best practices in peer review; ethics workshop. COPE will be running the ethics workshop.
Space is limited so click here for more details and to register

Updated COPE guidance: A Short Guide to Ethical Editing for New Editors

A revised and updated version of ‘A Short Guide to Ethical Editing for New Editors’ is now available on the COPE website. The guide aims to summarise the key issues for new editors and to provide links to relevant pages on the COPE website and to other organisations.

New COPE discussion document on competing interests

COPE has published a new discussion document ‘Guidance document on handling competing interests', especially those that come to light after publication’. This guidance has been drafted following a COPE Discussion Forum (9 December 2015). The aim of this discussion document is to encourage discussion and to capture a record of the issues around competing interests, especially when they arise after publication, to help inform and progress the debate, and to firm-up guidance where that is indicated.

As with all of the COPE discussion documents, we welcome feedback, and we encourage journal editors and publishers to comment (whether or not they are COPE members). Please email all comments to Natalie Ridgeway, COPE Executive Officer.

December Forum cases

The cases presented at the COPE December 2015 Forum, along with the advice given and updates on previous cases, are now on the COPE website to view.
New cases         
15-15 Attempt to suppress legitimate scientific results
15-16 Profusion of copied text passages
15-17 Requesting authorship after publication

15-06 Authorship dispute
15-11 Inability to contact an author to obtain permission to publish
15-12 Author impersonating corresponding author without knowledge of coauthors

COPE Forum Meetings 2016

The quarterly COPE Forum meetings, where we discuss cases submitted by members, will take place in February, May, August and November in 2016. The Forums will be by webinar, except for the August Forum, which will be a face to face meeting in London during the International Academy of Nursing Editors (INANE) conference.
3-4.30pm (GMT) Friday 12 February 2016 by Webinar
8-9.30am (BST) Friday 6 May 2016 by Webinar
2-3.30pm (BST) Wednesday 3 August 2016 (at INANE Conference in London)
8-9.30pm (GMT) Tuesday 8 November 2016