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At what point does an author’s behavior earn the label ‘unethical’? When does taking inspiration from another cross the line and become plagiarism? Deciding what constitutes research misconduct is never easy. In this article, Linda Lavelle, a General Counsel on Elsevier’s legal team, reflects on the challenges of defining and responding to these cases, while Publishing Director, Charon Duermeijer, focuses on the roles editors and publishers should play.

Dealing with ethics issues in journal publishing demands increasingly significant amounts of time and attention from scientific and medical journal editors. Our editors tell us that the seemingly ancillary responsibility of handling allegations of ethics breaches has become incredibly frustrating and time-consuming. In fact, when we host seminars for journal editors on a variety of publishing subjects, our ethics sessions (often titled ’Liars, Cheats, and Thieves‘) are consistently the best-attended presentations, and generally stimulate more discussion than any other publishing topic.

Why are ethics situations so challenging for editors?

Why are these cases so difficult for journal editors? Well, for one thing, some ethics issues fall into grey areas. While a situation involving data fabrication is clearly an ethics breach, cases such as disputed authorship or duplicate submission may be less clear. While uncredited text constitutes copyright infringement (plagiarism) in most cases, it is not copyright infringement to use the ideas of another.  The amount of text that constitutes plagiarism versus ‘fair use’ is also uncertain — under the copyright law, this is a multi-prong test that involves subjective analysis and balancing (in other words, guessing!) — so there is often not a clear answer as to when something does in fact constitute an ethics violation.

There are also widespread misconceptions about certain ethics issues, particularly in developing countries where education relating to publishing ethics may not be so freely available. We once had a situation where a young scientist insisted that the plagiarism allegation against him was unfounded. He told us that although most of the paper was in fact a word-for-word copy of an article authored by another scientist, his submission wasn’t plagiarism because he had changed the first sentence of every paragraph.

Sometimes ethics situations pose challenges because they arise from standards and rules that are different from journal to journal. For example, rules and practices relating to disclosing conflicts of interests, or what constitutes article authorship, may vary from discipline to discipline, or even from journal to journal — there are currently no uniform standards for conflict disclosure or authorship requirements that span all of scientific and medical publishing.

Another reason behind the difficulty in dealing with these situations is that editors are often not in a position to know what has really occurred. Does the person bringing the complaint to our attention have some personal bone to pick with the author who is being accused of the ethics breach? In one situation, we didn’t initially realize that the ‘complainant’ was the ex-wife of the ‘complainee’; in another, a professor falsely accused a former colleague who, it turned out, had not supported him for tenure. When there are complaints regarding who should be an author, or about unethical research practices, how can a journal editor know what really went on behind the scenes at the institution during the research and writing of the paper? An editor does not have resources to do police-like investigations, nor should that be the role of the editor in these cases. Nonetheless, the lack of information often puts the editor in a quandary when trying to decide the proper resolution.

One of the primary reasons that editors find these cases so frustrating is because these types of breaches deeply offend their personal conviction in the integrity of scientific publishing. And, of course, ethics breaches have the potential to damage the reputation of their journal, to which they have dedicated so much commitment and personal conviction.

For many publishers and editors, news of ethical misconduct invokes a strong response. Our first instinct may well be that it should not be tolerated and the authors involved should be punished. But is that appropriate? Is punishment always the answer? Once we start diving into the actual facts, we typically find that there are many shades of grey in allegations of ethical misconduct. This is exactly where the role of the editor comes in.

There are various ways that publishers and editors are alerted to a case. Often referees discover an issue while reviewing a paper and bring that to the attention of the editor. Subsequently, the issue is flagged with us, the publisher. At first, all concerned are disappointed that such a case has even happened and then in our journal! Personally, I feel thankful that a referee (or any other whistleblower) has helped the journal to rectify the situation and protected the scientific literature from any consequences of misconduct. It probably means that the editor has picked a very good and thorough referee.

As a first step in our systematic approach, we consult PERK (our Publishing Ethics Resource Kit) guidelines and point our editors in the right direction. Whatever the issue and final outcome is though, we as a publisher need the expert, in-depth knowledge of the scientific community, in this case the editor and referee; this is truly a team effort. Publishers are usually not equipped with the exact scientific background to understand the shades of grey. We have to rely on the scientific knowledge of true insiders which is why editors are ultimately responsible for the assessment of alleged misconduct.

If you are an experienced editor for one of our journals, you may have already dealt with one or more ethics cases and know the process well. Some of your fellow editors may be less experienced because they are new, or have just been fortunate that, until now, their journal has not been affected. The ethics cases we deal with at Elsevier are very diverse and you could say that some authors have become very creative in their actions! We had a recent case where a referee noted that the discussed results were remarkably similar to those produced by his PhD student not too long ago, when they were all happily working in the same group. As the investigations still continue, the editor is trying to find out what really happened and if this accusation is correct. As emotions can run high, it requires a lot of patience and persistence but mostly a neutral eye for the situation at hand. In another recent case, the corresponding author supposedly added co-authors with whom he may not have written this particular paper; the jury is still out on that one. The recently added invitation to all co-authors to add their ORCID ID to a submission in Elsevier's Editorial System (EES) is a first step to address such issues, as it alerts people that they have been listed as co-authors for a particular paper. Previously, co-authors were not consulted at all.

On occasion, editors can get understandably nervous about who is legally responsible for making the ultimate decision but rest assured, Elsevier can offer legal support and has insurance in the unlikely case of litigation. 

At Elsevier, we handle hundreds of publishing ethics cases a year. Investigations around the actual case have to be handled very carefully and it may take some time to come to a conclusion which is fair to all parties involved (in some cases even up to a few years). When the outcome of an investigation results in retracting a paper from ScienceDirect, the retraction may come to the attention of Retraction Watch or similar websites. It could very well be that you as the responsible editor will be contacted by a journalist for comment; please feel free to consult your publisher who can help you address this in a timely manner. In Part II of this Ethics Special (publication date November), our Vice President of Global Corporate Relations, Tom Reller, will offer some advice on dealing with these situations.

As you continue to grow into your role as an editor, you will likely become more familiar with the variations. And although we may all feel instinctively disappointed by the alleged offence, we constantly need to consider whether the punishment (if proven guilty) is appropriate and proportionate; we aim to not only be consistent within a journal but across all Elsevier journals. After all, there are many shades of grey….

Author bios

Linda Lavelle

Linda Lavelle
Linda is a member of Elsevier’s legal team, providing support and guidance for its companies, products and services. She is also responsible for Elsevier’s Global Rights-Contracts team, and is a frequent speaker on matters of publication ethics. Linda earned her law degree from the University of Michigan and also has an MBA. She joined Harcourt in 1995, which subsequently became part of Elsevier. Before that time, she served in a law firm, and held a number of positions in the legal, scientific, and information publishing industry.

Charon Duermeijer

Charon Duermeijer
Since Charon joined Elsevier in 2000, she has held various publishing roles for Physics. In close collaboration with many editors around the world, she has worked on improving and setting the strategy for various journals. She holds a PhD in Geophysics from the Utrecht University in The Netherlands. Prior to Elsevier, she worked at Kluwer Academic Publishers and Goldfields of South Africa. She is currently responsible for the Physics team and their journals.