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In the news: May 2020

Each month COPE Council members gather and share publication ethics news. This month the news includes articles on authorship, data sharing, COVID-19, and more.

Pandemic and Publishing

The International Society for Medical Publication Professionals have proposed a modification of the ICMJE authorship criteria for issues related to non-responsiveness by some who should be co-authors, due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Authorship criteria

Further update on COVID-19 contingency planning. The REF team has written to heads of institutions to outline the UK higher education funding bodies’ current position in relation to contingency planning for COVID-19 for the Research Excellence Framework (REF) 2021.

The role of social scientists in understanding and responding to the societal impact of the global pandemic is explored by these authors who develop a strong argument for the importance of social science now.  At the same time, the pandemic makes it incredibly difficult to employ some of the tools of social science and for students and professionals to work.

From "Social Science for Emergency Response" a report of a roundtable at the Wellcome Trust in London, February 3, 2020 can be downloaded. The participants discussed appropriate social science and humanities inputs to help understand the pandemic, the global response, and to engage social scientists and historians to contribute to learning about this pandemic.

Possible results for journals from the pandemic include an increase in submissions for a while if researchers use time away from shuttered labs to write papers, followed by a lull when new researchers gear up. This may alter acceptance rates, decision times and other journal metrics.

CNN reported that a Chinese Ministry of Education Science and Technology department directive requires several layers of control for academic papers "about tracing the origin of the [SARS-Corona-19 virus" in order to strictly manage them. There are to be at least 3 layers of review at the University and state levels, to assure that they are of "academic value" and that publication timing would be acceptable. The document was not meant for public viewing, but was posted on the website of the Fudan University in Shanghai.

The managing editor for academic publications at the Royal Geographical Society, Phil Emmerson, suggests that the publish or perish ethos in the academy could benefit by incorporating for the long term some of the kinder and gentler approaches that journals are using during the COVID-19 pandemic.

The editorial time of Society and Space have chosen to "press pause" as they feel it unethical and untenable to continue with normal working practices. They hope that this modest nod to the crisis now can help point the way to a sustainable different ethos post-pandemic.

The dramatic surge of papers about COVID-19 on bioRxiv and medRxiv with some of it of dubious quality and intention, prompted those who manage these two preprint servers to increase the prominence of a flag on papers reminding readers that the papers are not peer reviewed and vetted, and then to put a limit on the numbers of papers on COVID-19 that could be uploaded. The use, and misuse, of preprint servers during a pandemic are being debated.

A survey of users of "Research Gate", a network for researchers to share papers, shows that the work being done by participants has shifted significantly since the pandemic.  

The European Network of Research Integrity offices published a statement reminding researchers of the need to follow strict research integrity practices.  One quote sums it up, "While fast results are clearly required in this critical situation, that is no excuse for bad research practices."

The French Ministry of Higher Education, Research and Innovation mandated that all "relevant" COVID-19 research be made publicly available, but the definition of "relevant" is unclear and causing controversy.  The Ministry has also stressed the need for scientists to adhere to open science principles.

In early April, a snapshot of where COVID-19 related papers was being published showed that the main sources were preprint servers (17%), and traditional biomedical journals. Not surprisingly, the bulk of the papers had Medical and Health Sciences topics, but other fields such as Psychology and Cognitive Sciences, Economics, Engineering, Mathematics, Veterinary Medicine, Studies in Human Society and Information and Computing Sciences, and Biologic Sciences were well represented. The authors note that researchers' behaviours around where to publish their work seems to be adapting rapidly.

Covid-19 is novel, fearsome, and global. Journal editors have had to accelerate their publication processes in order to rapidly publish papers that might result in lives saved. The authors of this article explore the need for balance between speed and rigour in the process of publications, as well as public discourse.

The Open Access Scholarly Publishers Association, a group of publishers and scholarly communications organisations, called on potential reviewers to volunteer to provide rapid peer review, to allow those peer reviews to be shared among publishers and journals, to work to identify important papers on preprint servers. They also called for authors to deposit their work on preprint servers and to make their work, including datasets and software, available for reuse. Publishers and editors are encouraged to be transparent and to embrace open science principles.


Honorary and ghost authorship remain prominent types of unethical authorship and the incidence remains high worldwide. The authors describe the most effective means to cope with these issues.


A review of retractions in medical sciences publications show that 65% result from misconduct, with plagiarism the most common type. Authorship and peer-review manipulation also contribute.

Data Sharing

In an effort to increase data sharing, BMJ Open did a randomised controlled trial offering an Open Data Badge to some authors if they agreed to share their data and did not do so for other authors. There was no difference in the low rates of data sharing in either group.


The UK Research Integrity Office (UKRIO) offers a variety of trainings for Research Ethics Committees and researchers that emphasise good practice for managers, administrators and investigators.

Predatory Journals

The authors of this blog post contend that predatory journals are adapting, to "look" more like legitimate journals. The use of peer review appears to be increasing. These authors sent a previously published journal article to over 600 journals, a mix of predatory, legitimate open access and subscription-based journals. The paper was rejected by about 95% of the journals, but only about half of these were for ethical concerns. They encourage a proactive defence against the evolving predatory journals.

Transparency and Reproducibility

The US National Academies of Science, Engineering, and Medicine hosted a workshop to discuss the transparency of reporting of preclinical biomedical research and ways to harmonise reporting across funding agencies and journals. The Proceedings of this workshop are now available for purchase.

COPE Council Member Nancy Checheir

Read COPE's May Digest to read the latest authorship cases brought to the COPE Forum and discussed by members. Our latest Forum discussion topic is "What peer review means in the arts, humanities and social sciences" and we welcome comments on our website.With a roundup of recent publication ethics news around authorship, data sharing and COVID-19.

Read May Digest: Authorship