At Edanz Group seminars, I tell audiences that I volunteer as a Council Member of the Committee on Publication Ethics (COPE). However, when I ask who is familiar with COPE, so far only 4 of about 4000 people have raised their hand. This year marks COPE's 20th anniversary, so it is a good opportunity to take a closer look at publication ethics and COPE's role in developing international best practices in research publishing.
Offering guidance in ethics
As stated on the COPE homepage (www.publicationethics.org) and the About COPE page, COPE's mission is to promote integrity in research and its publication. The group was formed in 1997 to advise editors and publishers on publishing ethics. As part of that effort, COPE offers free website resources, including flowcharts for handling alleged misconduct, guidelines for best practice, discussion papers, and a newsletter. Some of the resources are for the benefit of not only the publishing community, but also authors and researchers. The website resources cover topics such as peer review, authorship, plagiarism, conflicts of interest, data manipulation, and corrections and retractions.
COPE is a professional membership organization and currently has about 30 Council Members and more than 10,000 members, who are mainly editorial and publishing staff. Members can ask for advice about specific, anonymized cases of possible research/publication misconduct or other ethical problems. The main platform for this process is a regular online COPE Forum, where members can discuss cases and receive advice and feedback from other COPE members. All COPE Forum cases are archived and searchable online, and now there are more than 550 of them for others to learn from.
Guidance is also provided for potential COPE members in the Principles of Transparency and Best Practice in Scholarly Publishing, developed in collaboration with the Directory of Open Access Journals (DOAJ), Open Access Scholarly Publishers Association (OASPA), and World Association of Medical Editors (WAME).
Outreach and education
COPE is active in creating and promoting educational programs and has an e-learning site for members in its website. It also holds live events and has just started offering educational webinars, the first of which I hosted in June 2017, about authorship. The webinar's three guest presenters spoke about the challenges, progress, and future in setting authorship standards. They also explained the concept of contributorship, adopting a "contributor roles taxonomy" (CRediT) to itemize who did what, and linking contributions to ORCID IDs. Read the summary in the July 2017 edition of COPE Digest and see the Twitter moments from this first COPE webinar.
In May 2017, I attended the 2017 Europe Seminar of COPE in London, and took part in a panel discussion session on current and emerging issues in publication ethics. The panel session ended a day of presentations and audience discussions on topics including data management/sharing, plagiarism, preprints, questionable journals, and role of institutions in ethics. A recurring theme during the day was the importance of recognizing differences in research and publishing practices when comparing the arts, humanities and social sciences with science, technology, and medicine. Read the summary of the seminar in the June 2017 edition of COPE Digest.
In March 2017, COPE held its first China Seminar in Beijing. At the seminar, I co-chaired an interactive session at the end of the day that was based on past COPE Forum cases. First, I presented summaries of case scenarios to the attendees, who comprised editors, publishers, researchers, and other professionals involved in publishing. I then asked the audience for their recommendations for resolving the cases and for preventing similar situations in the future. To conclude each case, I presented the actual COPE Forum advice and journal follow-up, and invited the audience to discuss the issues further. A summary of the day's event that I co-authored was included in the April 2017 edition of COPE Digest.
Examining past cases as a basis for learning, process improvement, and formulating best practices (case-based learning) is a well-known educational approach in disciplines such as medicine, law, and business. The approach uses relevant and recent scenarios to promote critical thinking, problem solving, and decision making, as well as applying theory to practice.
The six cases used at the 2017 COPE China Seminar are outlined below (with kind permission) to give you an idea of what journal editors must deal with and to improve your knowledge and skills as an ethical author, researcher, or editor:
- A co-author claims not knowing a paper had been submitted, but the author who submitted the paper says the co-author could not be found.
- After an article is published, a reader whose database had been used in the study asks the journal to be added as an author.
- An editor notices that peer reviewers who had been recommended by an author have suspicious email addresses and have all been giving quick, positive reviews.
- After a journal rejects a paper, the author tells the journal that the rejected paper will now be uploaded to the author's own website, together with the associated peer review comments.
- A submitted review article references some of the author's past studies but some paragraphs are plagiarized; however, when the editor contacts the author's institution, it says the author has already been transparent by referencing past work.
- A published article plagiarizes from a blog about a new method; the bloggers want the article retracted, but the authors say their study focuses on testing the method.
These six cases can be downloaded from the COPE website in pdf format in two parts. After downloading the case presentations, try solving each case by imagining you are the editor of the journal involved. Think about what ethical issues are involved and what you would do in each case. Then, download the case feedback file to find out what actually happened.
Happy problem solving!
Dr Trevor Lane
Education Director and Senior Publishing Consultant
Note: Edanz Group is a corporate associate member of COPE, and Dr Trevor Lane is an individual associate member and Council Member of COPE, as well as a member of WAME.