Publication ethics: the editorial office perspective

February 24, 2014 Jason Roberts

To mark the forthcoming launch of Wiley Publishing’s second edition of its Best practice guidelines on publication ethics: A publisher’s perspective, 2ed., I have been asked to post an editorial office perspective on ethical challenges often encountered. After all, that standpoint is important (though not necessarily divergent from the publisher’s). Editorial offices are at the frontline in confronting all manner of unethical behavior, be it nefarious or individuals acting out of ignorance.

Back in 2007 I found the first edition of the Best practice guidelines to be a useful resource. At that time the Committee on Publication Ethics (COPE) was emerging as a renowned source of information, but for editorial offices the only other guide, couched in operational terms at least, was Irene Hames’ excellent (and still definitive) “Peer Review and Manuscript Management in Scientific Journals”.[1] Consequently, I welcomed the fact that a publisher was taking the matter so seriously that it decided to publish a resource for all stakeholders in the publication process. As a measure of increased interest and research in publication ethics, Wiley now feels compelled to provide an update to the Guidelines.

Challenges editorial offices face
Despite an emerging phalanx of resources and tools at the disposal of every editorial office, numerous challenges remain for editorial offices battling to keep on top of ethical issues. Liz Wager posited a notion of publication ethics as a sliding scale away from good behavior.[2] This summarizes aptly the dilemma many under-resourced, and over-stretched, editorial offices face: how serious is a particular ethical issue and how much effort is required to resolve it? Unfortunately, editorial offices are often not ideally positioned to give every potential ethical case the attention and depth of investigation it deserves, be it a resource issue or a simple lack of understanding of the issue confronting them. Some issues, such as fraud and plagiarism - and right there is an issue which itself has its own scale of dishonesty - clearly set alarm bells ringing. Others, such as dual submission or author contributorship, might not ruffle so many feathers. Resources and toolkits, therefore, can go some way to at least signposting the direction an investigation needs to take.

Apart from making judgment decisions on what constitutes unethical behavior, editorial offices, often with no training or prior experience, must learn how to: detect a problem; react to it sensitively (including using unerringly precise language in all communications on an ethical matter), and proactively educate their authors, reviewers, editors and readers on expected ethical standards. Problematically, ethical cases are typically unique and not “textbook”, and thus require much interpretation, research and continually discrete behavior. All of this is time consuming and, consequently, a challenge.

Other challenges a typical editorial office may face begin with simply encouraging authors and reviewers to take ethical matters seriously and not be so dismissive. More troublesome for an engaged editorial office is the passive obstructionism, or blatant disinterest, they confront when attempting to engage a particular party’s institution in more serious cases. Throughout my career, I have been confronted with habitual, and latent, institutional rug sweeping. Some authors are also guilty of playing for time, hoping that by dragging out an issue, even the most tenacious of journals will simply give up. You can add the plain old crazy people to that mix of challenges as well: the unreasonably litigious, the inveterate time consumer that attempts to grind you down and those seemingly displaying borderline personalities, by posting hate blogs/Youtube attack channels (yes, I have seen those!) Furthermore, as many offices will attest, there is no shortage of people ready to “advise” on the correct path.

Sadly, ethical issues are often political issues and, thus, unwittingly or otherwise, editorial offices, may find themselves dragged in to issues that are either beyond their control or a by-product of machinations being engaged in elsewhere (such as between powerful, rival, factions within a learned society). Editors may find themselves caught up in pressures to publish, pressures that compel authors to cheat, or external and often powerful financial/political interests intent on shaping the corpus of published, peer-review accepted literature in their favor.

Why address ethical issues in publishing?
Simply put, peer review and publication needs protective measures in place. Can readers trust your journal if you routinely waive content through to acceptance? To place faith in the literature we need to know steps were taken to validate data and corroborate authors and their claims. Otherwise, whole fields of study can be perverted by baseless, manipulative, or worse, false, claims. Furthermore, precious funding can be wasted and inappropriate elevation of evidence beyond its actual importance (lack of oversight during peer review, publication and then subsequent citation) can lead to distortions of the current understanding in a field of study. If institutions are incapable or unwilling to educate individuals consistently on good behavior, then this leaves journals no choice but to perform that role.

Why guidelines are needed
The best approach a journal can adopt is to devise and publish its policies on ethical issues with, at a bare minimum, a summary posted in their Instructions for Authors. Preferably, such an initiative should be supported by several questions posed to authors (and reviewers for that matter) within the submission system prompting stakeholders to consider a variety of ethical issues, of which conflicts of interest are the most evident. Shaping and informing such policies is, to me at least, a clear raison d'être for the Best practice guidelines. Such guidelines potentially enable more consistent policy setting across journals (which is ideal as authors in particular can get confused over variability between journals, one of the most evident of which is how long a conflict of interest is relevant). They can provide a framework for those offices unable to, or struggling with, bringing an ethics policy to fruition. They can serve as a simple educational manual to the many editorial offices lacking access to training. They certainly can serve as the basis of educational efforts for a journal’s author, reviewer and even editor constituents. Publicly accessible guidelines can be referenced by all stakeholders in the event of an ethics dispute, particularly backing up editorial offices that are unsure of themselves and under intolerable pressure to cave on their initially stated position on a matter. Wiley’s new Guidelines also account for the emergence of technological solutions, most obviously the text/content overlap plugin software accessible to most journals, and vitally important reporting guidelines (such as CONSORT for Randomized Controlled Trials) for detecting poor reporting standards and hidden bias in papers.

When it comes to publication ethics, editorial offices need to be vigilant, dogged and fair. Unfortunately, the more you look, the more you find. Furthermore, the processes for investigation that journals engage in should, to some extent, be transparent. Critically, editorial offices must remain resolute and not be coerced by outside interests. Wiley’s Best practice guidelines compiles information from a multitude of sources to create an easily digestible resource that should prove immensely supportive to most editorial offices. I know that with the publication of the Guidelines, I will now be prompted to refer back to my journal’s ethics policy manual and determine if updates are now required. I encourage other offices to do the same.

[1] Hames, I. Peer Review and Manuscript Management in Scientific Journals: guidelines for good practice. Blackwell Publishing, Ltd. Oxford, United Kingdom.

[2] Wager E. Ethical publishing: the innocent author's guide to avoiding misconduct. Menopause Int. 2007;13(3):98-102



About the Author

Senior Partner, Origin Editorial // Jason Roberts, PhD is a Senior Partner at Origin Editorial, an editorial office services organization. A Past-President of the International Society of Managing and Technical Editors, he is the long-standing, and intensely proud, Executive Editor of Headache: the journal of head and face pain, a journal published on behalf of the American Headache Society by Wiley.

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