When an ethics case arises on one of your journals, establishing who is responsible – and for what – may not seem clear cut. In truth, it isn’t; much will depend on the specifics of each situation including the type of case and its severity.

While creating a ‘one size fits all’ set of instructions may be a challenge, there are a few basic guidelines, which you will find outlined below. This article also highlights some of the resources Elsevier has available to support you when faced with ethical issues relating to journal articles.

Whose job is it anyway?

As Mark Seeley points out in his Guest Editorial in Part I of this Ethics Special, the journal editor plays a central role in resolving ethics allegations. The ultimate decision should be based on the editorial and scientific integrity of the article and the journal, and should not be swayed by business or legal concerns.  Elsevier also has a critical role to play in working through each ethics issue with the journal editor.  Elsevier’s role is to:

  • Guide - help the editor decide how to evaluate and investigate the allegation and provide the best available tools and resources.
  • Support – we can aid editors to implement editorial decisions.
  • Defend - stand behind the editor before and after the decision is made and implemented.

Elsevier has a variety of experts available to assist the editor in handling ethics disputes:

  • Journal publisher: The publisher provides first-line support on any journal matter, including questions relating to ethics.
  • Publishing ethics team: Elsevier has recently formed a small team of publishing ethics experts to support our journals. These experts will assist journal publishers and editors, expand the tools and resources available for identifying and resolving ethics issues, and support further author education aimed at preventing future ethics breaches.
  • Legal staff: Elsevier’s legal department is available to advise as needed with respect to issues of process and legal rules.
  • Corporate relations: Elsevier’s corporate relations team assists in handling media inquiries or other information requests related to ethics disputes and decisions. See Talking to the media – who is responsible? in this issue for further details.

In the end, the journal editor and publisher share a common goal: to resolve ethics issues in a way that upholds the reputation of the journal, ensures the integrity of the scientific record as reported in the journal, treats all parties fairly and efficiently, and effectively resolves the situation. Together, we will continue to do everything necessary to protect the record of science.

Importance of validating reviewers suggested by authors

There is one editor role in particular that we would like to take this opportunity to highlight. As part of the submission process for some Elsevier journals, authors are asked to suggest potential reviewers for their paper.  While this can be a great help in fields where editors struggle to find good reviewers, recently we have seen this practice lead to some unethical author behavior. There have been a few, rare cases of authors suggesting fictitious reviewers with fictitious email addresses. This ensures the authors receive the review request and gives them the opportunity to create their own reviews.

To help prevent this, it is essential that editors use Scopus to check the validity of reviewers suggested by authors.  Running through the checklist of questions below can also help to raise any potential red flags.

  • Is the institute listed against the reviewer’s name credible?
  • Is the email address provided that of an institute? A Hotmail email address, for example, may not necessarily be suspect but could be an additional alert if other information doesn’t add up.
  • Has a known reviewer suddenly switched from an institutional email address to another? It could be the case that the name is valid but the email address and reviewer account in EES are not.
  • Are there any indications of a conflict of interest? For example, a suggested reviewer having the same affiliation as the author?
  • Is the reviewer a subject expert? A quick check of the reviewer’s history in Scopus should answer this question.
  • Is the reviewer a regular co-author with the corresponding author? Again, a quick check of the reviewer’s history in Scopus should verify this.

Carrying out these simple checks will go some way towards ensuring fake reviewers are caught prior to being registered and invited.

How can Elsevier help editors when publishing ethics cases arise?

To assist our journal editors in handling publishing ethics cases and to safeguard the scientific integrity of our journals, Elsevier makes available a wide variety of tools and resources.

PERK (Publishing Ethics Resource Kit)

Elsevier’s online PERK resource provides journal editors with a roadmap to take them through the entire process of resolving a complaint of an ethics breach. It includes:

  • General process guidelines, including a description of decision-making process, due process for authors, when to involve the legal department, and discussions relating to potential remedies.
  • Decision trees for each type of ethics issue which guide the editor through the steps needed to resolve the ethics allegation.
  • Form letters to use in ethics-related correspondence.
  • FAQs re. ethics issues and processes.
  • Links to third-party ethics resources.
COPE membership

Elsevier has enrolled its journal editors in COPE, the Committee on Publication Ethics, an independent organization consisting of more than 8,700 editors of peer-reviewed journals.  COPE provides an opportunity for editors to discuss issues relating to the integrity of the scientific record, and supports and encourages editors to report, catalogue and instigate investigations into ethics problems in the publication process.  Other resources and benefits include:

  • A COPE Forum at which editors may receive individual advice on resolving specific disputes from a committee of the organization’s members.
  • A database of all cases considered by the COPE Forum listed by the category of ethics breach (for example, duplicate submission), the advice given, and the outcome of cases - an extremely valuable resource for editors when deciding what to do in similar situations.
  • Newsletters and seminars on special topics.
  • A self-audit tool for use with individual journals.

Enlisting our journal editors in COPE ensures that they have an alternative source to refer to when dealing with publishing ethics issues. In this issue, Chair of COPE, Dr Virginia Barbour, explains in more detail how the organization can help.

CrossCheck

Elsevier journal editors may choose to employ CrossCheckTM, third-party software provided by CrossRef® and Iparadigms (iThenticate), which is used to discover similarities between submitted manuscripts and previously published journal articles. This is a database of more than 38 million articles from more than 175,000 journals produced by more than 500 participating publishers.  Elsevier is working closely with the software vendor and other publishers on enhancements that will make CrossCheck an even more efficient and effective plagiarism detection tool for editors. You can read more about this valuable service in How CrossCheck can combat the perils of plagiarism in this issue.

Author education

As part of its commitment to help educate researchers and authors about scientific publishing issues, Elsevier has developed ethics training in collaboration with an independent panel of experts: the Ethics in Research & Publication program.  The program includes online education to teach the ‘ground rules’, as well as the consequences if they’re broken.  It also contains interviews, fact sheets, quizzes, and a Q&A.

In addition, Elsevier hosts more than 350 author and reviewer training workshops per year through the Publishing Connect program, as well as quarterly author webinars. You can find out more about all these projects in the article The importance of author education in this issue.

Author biographies

Linda Lavelle

Linda Lavelle

Linda Lavelle
GENERAL COUNSEL (NORTH AMERICA)
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.

Mihail Grecea

Dr Mihail Grecea
EXPERT IN PUBLISHING ETHICS
Mihail holds the role of Expert in Publishing Ethics in Elsevier’s STM Journals group. He joined Elsevier in 2011 and was a Managing Editor for our journal Physics Letters A before taking on this new role in May this year. Mihail has a PhD in Physical Chemistry from the University of Leiden and before joining Elsevier was a postdoctoral researcher at the Materials Innovation Institute (M2i) and the Dutch Institute for Fundamental Energy Research (DIFFER).