Helping editors cope with breaches in scientific ethics

March 25, 2004

Brussels, 24 Mar 2004

Bribery, coercion, cheating, lying… this is not the rap sheet of a hardened criminal but a summary of the cases submitted last year to COPE, a special committee founded to address breaches of research and publishing ethics.

The Committee on Publication Ethics released this month its annual COPE Report, which details the tactics used by less than ethical researchers to secure their name in the competitive world of scientific publishing. The committee investigated 29 cases covering a range of unethical behaviour, from serious bribery attempts to schoolyard stuff like copying.

The most common offence – seven of the 29 cases recorded by COPE during 2003 – was duplicate publication, where the same paper is accepted and printed in different journals. This is consistent with previous reports of scientists, for one reason or another, trying to increase their publication rates. Another problem rearing its head in the report was conflicts of interest, such as one article published on passive smoking by authors who failed to mention they had received funding from the tobacco industry.

The committee, which was formed in 1997, seeks to answer a number of pressing questions; in particular, what happens when an editor suspects false or fabricated findings but lacks evidence? What action should be taken? What, if any, sanctions need to be applied? Is there an enforceable code of conduct?

Good publication practice

For example, what should an editor who is offered a bribe to publish a particular manuscript do? And what would be the best course of action with cases involving medical misconduct, such as one study which admitted that taking blood samples from healthy babies for its control group would not normally be approved for research. In their report, COPE describes offences such as these in simple language, and it offers advice and discussion points as a guide for remedial action in each case.

In one extraordinary case, an author claimed to be affiliated to a research institution which, upon reading this in the journal, promptly denied the association. Meanwhile, the author claimed it was an "involuntary mistake". Here, the committee recommends, among other things, that the journal's editor should follow up by finding out whether the author had previously worked in the institution. If not, how could he have used the university's headed paper for submitting the manuscript.

Although originally set up to help editors cope with potentially falsified research, COPE has also received reports from authors alleging poor editorial practice, and from editors 'whistle-blowing' on their own kind with respect to possible editorial misconduct. The subject of scientific whistle-blowing and the idea of a 'conscience clause' designed to protect such alarm sounding is discussed in a feature story in the latest issue of RTD info, a European Commission magazine.

In fact, science and ethics is a major topic under discussion at the Commission, which has its own version of an ethics committee – the European Group on Ethics in Science and New Technologies (EGE) – guiding EU policy-making. The Commission also organised an event, 'Modern biology and visions of humanity' (Headlines, 4 March 2004), to encourage further debate on how the life sciences are changing perceptions of science in general and biotechnology in particular.

Source: COPE, Nature on-line


More information:


Guidelines on good publication practice (COPE)

Encounters of the modern biology kind (Headlines 4 March 2004)

RTD info (Issue 40)

Scientists behaving badly (Nature 4 March 2004

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