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In the news: December 2020

Publication ethics news December 2020

Each month, COPE Council members find and share publication ethics news. This month the news includes articles on diversity, peer review, predatory publishing, and more.


Karin Wulf editorialised in the Scholarly Kitchen about the importance of fact checking in scholarly publishing - books and journal articles - as well as in journalism. She notes that the "absolute truth may be elusive" given that the state of knowledge is consistently evolving but that we are obligated to reveal and refine the processes we use to work towards knowledge.  

Peer review

Shawna Williams explored the idea of compensation for peer review in "The Scientist". She describes some calls for some sort of compensation - monetary, academic acknowledgement, reduction in Article processing fees for University faculty and others as well as obstacles to developing these systems. At present, it seems that little is likely to change from a financial perspective in this regard.

In order to study the peer review process for papers being submitted to a computer science conference, a standard process for scoring and comparing scores between members of the review committee was established. The author, Hannah Bast, found that the system did relatively well in identifying the better papers, but was more random in the others.  She encourages the scientific community to attend to the problem of improving peer review.

Diversity, equity and inclusion

Katherine Wu discussed diversity in scientific publishing. During 2020, increasing calls for diversity among authors, editorial boards, and journal leadership have gained momentum. Wu reports that few of the publishers she contacted for her story collected demographic data on authors and that two that did so, cautioned that the data were unreliable due to low response rate by authors.
Comment from the Editor of Digest: as an editorial aside, I have struggled with this concept. There is persistent evidence of bias against authors from under-represented racial, ethnic, gender, and sexual identity groups in publications. How do we gain the trust of authors that providing this demographic information will be used to increase diversity, and not perpetuate the biases?

For researchers whose native language is not English there can be significant barriers to submitting papers for publication or presentation at meetings. Rodrigo Perez Ortega reports on ways the language barrier affects the researchers as well as limiting access to knowledge that is only published in non-English journals. Such papers are often not included in systematic reviews, or cited in other ways. Several alternatives are suggested, including steps that universities, publishers and researchers can take.

Research integrity

DeMing Chau describes how he and other members of the Young Scientists Network - Academy of Sciences Malaysia have been conducting interactive workshops about responsible research conduct, which are engaging and rooted in Malaysian history, culture and research environment. They use role playing, with case studies from Malaysia. To make the materials more available, they have published an educational module so others could extend this work as he estimates that the majority of researchers in Malaysia and southeast Asia are unfamiliar with this material. In order to "foster a culture in which integrity forms the bedrock of research", Chau asserts that research integrity and education about it must come from the top, down and must be institutionalised in southeast Asian research institutions.

Open access

To study the phenomenon of "vanished journals "- open access journals that disappear - Mikaek Laakso and co-authors consulted several major bibliographic indices and found 176 open access journals that vanished from the web between 2000-2019 from all major research disciplines and world regions. This highlights concerns about the integrity of the scholarly record.

Open science

The Confederation of Open Access Repositories (COAR) and TCC Africa in collaboration with AfricArXiv have signed a partnership agreement focused on strengthening capacity and infrastructure for Open Science in Africa. "The partnership will enable TCC Africa and AfricArXiv team members to engage in COAR discussions and issues related to repositories and open science, and enhance COAR’s understanding of the issues and challenges in the African context." 

A brief non-random survey of ecologists regarding the question of whether the original authors who shared their data (and code, if relevant) should be included as co-authors if others use that data resulted in a split decision - about 40% thought "yes", 47%" maybe or not sure and the rest, "no". More senior scientists were more likely to say "yes". Jeremy Fox, the author, offers several ideas about the poll results and why public sharing is important. Fox asked for feedback, and the comments section is lively as well.


Helen Kara and Su-ming Khoo edited 3 rapid response e-books about conducting research in the age of COVID-19. The contributions illustrate how researchers pivoted to digital platforms, such as WhatsApp tools, to reach subjects who lacked Skype or platforms; employed local mobilisers to reach community members, and addressed ethical dilemmas.

Predatory publishing

An anonymous author presents a case study of steps to take to identify a fake journal, which they describe as a type of predatory journal that impersonates a legitimate one. Authors should consider reviewing these steps when they are concerned about the legitimacy of a journal.


Given the rapid increase in scientific knowledge, readers must triage what they read. Traditional journals provide cues to their value and credibility, such as impact factor, peer review, titles, journal reputation. Soderberg et al. surveyed researchers to understand how they assess the credibility of preprints and found that open content and independent verification of author claims are important factors.

COPE Council Member and Digest Editor Nancy Chescheir