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COPE Education Subcommittee focus: Ethical Oversight

This month in our ongoing exploration of COPE’s core principles, we focus on Core Principle #6: Ethical Oversight. COPE’s general statement on this principle reads as follows:


“Ethical oversight should include, but is not limited to, policies on consent to publication, publication on vulnerable populations, ethical conduct of research using animals, ethical conduct of research using human subjects, handling confidential data and of business/marketing practices.”


This core practice reflects a professional consensus that publication ethics encompasses not only the integrity, reliability, and merit of published research itself, but also an underlying consideration and respect for the subjects of the research. This means that researchers must take adequate steps to safeguard the privacy, dignity, and safety of human subjects; observe proper care and treatment of animal subjects; comply with applicable laws and regulations governing the conduct of research; and ensure appropriate use of sensitive or confidential information.

In this area, as in many others, journal editors and publishers serve a vital role as gatekeepers for the scientific literature, and COPE provides a variety of resources to assist editors and publishers in meeting this obligation.

Journals must adopt and publish clear guidelines regarding ethical conduct of research. The COPE Code of Conduct and Best Practice Guidelines describes recommended practices for handling issues such as informed consent, institutional oversight, and compliance with international research guidelines. As many ethical issues are unique to the specific field of research, journals should consult the regulations and norms of their discipline to ensure that their policies reflect those standards. Nonethless,  COPE offers discipline-specific advice and discussion in areas such as consent for medical case reports and research issues specific to social science disciplines.

Journals must diligently review submitted work to ensure that it conforms with research ethics guidelines, a process which often involves grappling with questions surrounding the adequacy of consent, the need for ethical review, and other difficult issues. In cases that are problematic, journals can look to COPE’s published list of past cases and discussions on these topics:
Participant consent 
Consent for publication
Ethical review/approval 
Forum discussion: Fair play for researchers

If the way forward is still unclear, journals are invited to submit the details for discussion at the COPE Forum and/or to seek advice from the COPE Council.

Finally, journals must establish and follow a clear process for investigating concerns raised about  the ethics of any study that they have published. Journals with a suspected ethical problem in a submitted manuscript can consult COPE’s flowchart for guidance in addressing such concerns. COPE’s guidance document on cooperating with research institutions outlines a recommended assignment of roles for journals and institutions charged with investigating a research ethics complaint.

Tara Hoke on behalf of the COPE Education Subcommittee


Read COPE Digest newsletter for more advice and resources to support your ethical oversight policies and procedures, the case of the month 'Ethics of non-active management of a control group', details of our webinar on 'Creating and implementing research data policies', a Forum discussion document on Preprints and more.

Read June 2018 Digest: Ethical Oversight