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Letter from the COPE Chair: April 2020

COPE, like many organisations, is grappling with the impact of the coronavirus. There is worldwide concern over COVID-19 and its impact on our daily lives, both personal and professional. Journal editors may be unsure of what to do in this unprecedented situation. How is COVID-19 affecting editors and publishers?

Circumstances will differ for different regions, disciplines, journals and individuals. For some, COVID-19 brings more work while others find themselves with time to spare. Some journals will see increased submissions while others will see a drop. Many researchers may be operating almost normally; with more free time—often confined to home—researchers may take advantage to reflect on their work and may be busy writing and submitting papers. Some editors of health and social care journals are being called on for additional work duties and therefore have less time to run a journal. Outside the health field, the pressure may be lighter, but some will be struggling with adjustments in teaching and evaluation requirements. Some may find their time for journal work is constrained because they are parents of children who are now at home. Others are actively asking to receive more manuscripts as a distraction from COVID-19.

The important thing is to acknowledge the circumstances, and show understanding so that those who do have concerns will feel reassured. Simple acknowledgement can go a long way, followed by clarification that for many researchers worldwide it is close to business as usual. Fortunately, many editors can continue their job safely online, and now more than ever it is important to keep the scholarly community going, sharing knowledge, and ensuring papers continue to be submitted, reviewed and published. Some publishers have written a sensitive response to editors reflecting understanding and encouraging flexibility while, in turn, there are editors whose letters to authors have an attachment saying they understand that these are challenging times. It is important to have a sense of normality to the extent it is safe and sensible to do so.

Should editors relax reviewer deadlines? Review times are likely to be impacted to a greater or lesser degree. It is likely that many turnaround times will be extended. Editors may wish to alert authors to possible peer review delays and to let authors know that they understand if they need deadline extensions or additional time to complete revisions. Adjusting emails to reviewers so they can indicate if they need more time or cannot handle papers may be appropriate, acknowledging the possibility that some reviewers may need extra time to complete assignments. 

Are editors feeling under pressure to make rapid decisions about the COVID-19 papers they are receiving? Editors should stay true to their editorial policies, maintain high standards while being aware of their public health responsibilities. Peer review quality and transparency remain as important as ever. If a journal editor decides that usual procedures need to be amended temporarily, this should be declared in any affected manuscripts as an editorial note. Examples could be journals modifying their stated review policy for particular papers, such as those relevant to a health emergency so as to speed up the review process, relying on fewer reviewers, or relying more on the editorial board for the review process because of a lack of reviewer response on COVID-19 papers. In these circumstances, editors need to be mindful of following up post-publication responses and any corrections/retractions. If a journal makes a systematic change in how it does business, that should be disclosed transparently on the journal’s website and in the instructions to authors. The International Society for Medical Publication Professionals (ISMPP) have developed guidance related to authorship of peer-review publications and congress presentations in which author responsiveness has been affected due to COVID-19. We welcome information sharing and can support our cross discipline community by sharing information among editors, authors, researchers, publishers, research institutions and others, whose working lives touch issues around publication ethics. 

If, as a COPE member, you have a particular issue on your desk, please do submit your case for advice. Your case can be passed to COPE Council Members for comment and advice or you can submit your case to the next Forum, in June, where you’ll get a wider view from COPE members (including Council Members).

Ultimately, we are all dealing with unprecedented changes to the way we work but what is important is to maintain professional standards, find ways to support our colleagues—and to stay safe.

Best regards,

COPE Chair Deborah Poff



Read COPE's April Digest for new publication ethics cases which were recently discussed by members at the COPE Forum. We welcome new COPE Council members who bring a wealth of knowledge and experience to the positions, and call out for applications to help us in two newly created COPE Trustee posts. With a roundup of publication ethics news including articles on diversity and inclusion, preprints, research culture and coronavirus. 

Read April Digest: Publication ethics