“Journals should have a clearly described process for handling complaints against the journal, its staff, editorial board or publisher”. This refers to COPE’s Core Practice #3 and it is good advice and might be the only advice you need if all human beings operated solely with agreed upon objective and rational principles and facts. But, as most editors will have experienced when violations of publication ethics arise, some cases involve passions, disagreements about the facts, allegations and counter allegations and, sometimes, too much bias and gossip. So, in such cases, how do editors separate the wheat from the chaff? What do you do when you are presented with a complex and awkward situation, query or complaint?
We hope that COPE stands as a resource for rational and principled decision-making through the various resources we provide to help members make decisions in a stepwise manner, based on the facts of the case.
Just the facts!
Perhaps we need to focus on what we ask of those submitting a complaint to COPE. In general, we urge anyone involved in authoring, editing or publishing scholarly manuscripts to carefully follow the journal directions about authorship, data management or other potentially problematic issues. In turn, we need to expect publishers and journals to give clear directions and boundaries to the authors who want to submit manuscripts.
It is essential that all involved in the publication process, and particularly in complaints, carefully stick to the facts of the situation, refer to standards and policies (eg, your own, community standards, COPE guidance), and follow established processes (eg, COPE flowcharts). This needs to be carefully documented and articulated to COPE at the time of the complaint. Know what you can decide upon and when to decide; and know what you can’t decide upon that requires decisions from other parties that you might then react or respond to (eg, institutions or publishers).
COPE recognises that complaints are often awkward, involving situations that are best handled by all parties sticking to the facts (as much as possible), avoiding being drawn into politics, and applying recognized standards and using established processes. All are encouraged to use peers and colleagues whenever possible (rather than dealing with the dilemma alone). COPE members can always use COPE for advice and support.
COPE will approach your complaint with systematic questions, clarifying the situation, and will attempt to help you understand and resolve your publication ethics problem. COPE is like Switzerland in its neutral, educational stance around complaints.