When a group of three medical editors sat down in 1997 in BMJ house in London to mull over some sticky issues that had come to light at their journals, it’s unlikely they thought that just under twenty years later the organization would have more than 10,000 members across pretty much every discipline, and from every country from Algeria to Zimbabwe.
However, what they would recognize is the way COPE works – as a membership organization, where a group of peers get together regularly to discuss cases that arise and provide advice and support to each other.
But publishing has changed very dramatically over the past ten years and is now an increasingly complex ecosystem. Two specific areas of rapid change in the wider publishing landscape are the many different models of publishing in online and open access, and changing models of peer review.
When we look at the cases that have come to our forum (which is a subset of the cases our members handle, but probably represents the most tricky cases) between 1997 and 2012, we see a few patterns. For example, the incidence of cases relating to data handling has increased, and those relating to peer review have seen the biggest jump.
When we look at the wider picture something else becomes obvious; even though there are some very high profile cases of authors who have committed egregious fraud e.g. Joachim Boldt, the bigger issue is that with the pressure to publish, and especially the pressure to publish in specific journals, academics can be sorely tempted to cut corners. In a 2009 systematic review of surveys of fabrication or falsification by Danielle Fanelli 2% (95% CI 0.9-4.5) of authors had admitted misconduct themselves and 14% (95% CI 9.9-19.7) were aware of misconduct by others. This was confirmed by the Nuffield Council on Bioethics which found in its 2014 report that such pressures were leading to “scientists feeling tempted or under pressure to compromise on research integrity and standards”.
What we see at COPE is that publication ethics is part of research ethics more widely, and there are no “pure” publication ethics issues, even plagiarism, duplicate submissions, authorship issues, or reviewer misconduct. Every one of these issues arises because, ultimately, it is worth someone trying to game the system. The recent issue of fake reviewers is a good example in that it appears that it came about directly as a result of authors who needed to be published in certain journals, and who did not have the requisite skills themselves, subcontracting out the publication process to companies that submitted papers on their behalf and who then manipulated the review process. It is not clear how much these authors knew of the exact processes, but the incentive for them was clear: they needed, by any means possible, to be published.
So what’s next? We see a need for a better understanding of issues in publication ethics and how they relate to academic incentives as being crucial. At the same time, we will continue to do what our members need, which is to provide practical resources to educate and support them, such as our flowcharts and discussion documents and our in-person meetings. There’s clearly a need for a professional place for thinking about publication ethics as well and that, working with our members, is what COPE aims to do.