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Letter from the COPE Chair: December 2020

Correction to December Digest (Vol 8 Iss.12)

In the December Digest Letter, we stated that “In May, arXiv, medRxiv, bioRxiv, and other preprint platforms adjusted their policies to not accept computational models so that the chances of misinformation or unhelpful information being posted would be reduced”.

The corrected text reads as follows: “In May, medRxiv and bioRxiv adjusted their policies to no longer accept manuscripts that make therapeutic predictions for COVID-19 solely on the basis of computational models. arXiv and ChemRxiv have enhanced their initial screening procedures for COVID-19-related papers to guard against poor-quality work."

We apologise for the incorrect statement in the original text.


Welcome to our final Digest of 2020, that has affected us all in many different ways. In my April letter, I addressed the COVID-19 situation as we faced it at the time, and during this year we have seen how people and organisations have adapted. In this letter, I will take a look back over the year and see what implications COVID-19 has had for the COPE community and publication ethics.

Speed of review has raised questions over the rigour of peer review being conducted on the many papers being fast tracked. An article in Nature Human Behaviour in June analysed PubMed data and found an average of 367 COVID-19 articles published per week, with a median time from submission to acceptance of just 6 days.

To support this high speed process, a cross publisher initiative, endorsed by the Open Access Scholarly Publishers Association (OASPA), was launched to provide a single overarching reviewer pool and portable peer review system, across journals and platforms, including Hindawi, eLife, PeerJ, PLOS, Royal Society, F1000 Research, and many more.

To further adapt to this increased speed, maintain quality, and offer recognition and support during the year, a wealth of materials were published. A Wiley article highlighted four interventions to help with finding reviewers and not overworking them; a statement on quality standards from EASE and a Neurología article calling for consideration for the role of editors during the pandemic, among many other initiatives.

In May, arXiv, medRxiv, bioRxiv, and other preprint platforms adjusted their policies to not accept computational models so that the chances of misinformation or unhelpful information being posted would be reduced; just one aspect that brought discussions on preprints to the forefront. In September, The Lancet changed their editorial processes to address the surgisphere controversy, adding stages to their peer review process to incorporate more systematic dataset reviews to increase the reliability of the data.

Despite it dominating the news, the year has not been exclusively about COVID, and I’d like to recognise some other achievements.

COPE has made progress with a series of new Forum discussions over the year. In March, we tackled editing of reviewer comments our editing of reviewer comments research). The forum discussed differences between  gender and diversity issues in peer review of arts, humanities, and social sciences compared with other disciplines in June, and in September we addressed the unethical production of articles-to-order of paper mills, At our next Forum in December, the discussion will be around predatory publishing and asks ‘where do we go from here?’.

We moved our COPE case workshops online with two very successful peer review sessions, and held a webinar on ‘Understanding text recycling’, with speakers from the Text Recycling Research Project (TRRP).

COPE representatives have been involved in events over the year. Most recently, Matt Hodgkinson spoke on behalf of COPE at the #ISMTEGlobal event on citation manipulation. Matt explored the ethics of citations, and how citation manipulation undermines research integrity, from excessive self-citation, to citation rings, coercive reviewers, and editors. How and why best practice gets subverted, how these behaviours can be countered, and what the consequences are were discussed.

In November, Howard Browman represented COPE over two days at ALLEA-GYA-STM round table meetings on the future of developing transparency, trust, and quality in peer review (ALLEA-the European Federation of Academies of Sciences and Humanities, GYA–the Global Young Academy, and STM–the International Association of Scientific,Technical, and Medical Publishers). The sessions involved around 30 representatives from academic, library, publishing industry, research, and open science backgrounds, discussing initiatives, technology, and perspectives that would support and coordinate healthy and productive peer review. We will share the report with you when it is issued by the organisers.

As an outcome of our participation with the Sloan funded project on retractions with the University of Illinois, I will be chairing a committee on developing a high level taxonomy on retractions beginning in January.

And that brings us to the end of 2020. On 15 December 2-3.30pm GMT we will hold our Forum discussion on the topic  'Predatory publishing: next steps and where do we go from here?' along with our usual case discussion. Hope to see you there.

We send all best wishes for 2021,

COPE Chair Deborah Poff



Read December 2020 Digest: the most read cases of the year, and peer review cases translated into Spanish. Plus our regular news and events roundup.