Falsification, fabrication and plagiarism — the unholy trinity of scientific writing
Tom Reller | Vice President and Head of Global Corporate Relations, Elsevier
“One of the greatest, and sadly all too common, challenges facing a contemporary medical journal editor is the adjudication of ethical integrity issues,” opens the lead editorial by Dr Anthony L Zietman, Professor at Harvard Medical School and Editor-in-Chief of what’s known in the field as “The Red Journal.” The International Journal of Radiation Oncology • Biology • Physics is the official journal of American Society for Radiation Oncology (ASTRO).
I was drawn to the article from a tweet by Dr Ivan Oransky, who tweeted that Dr Zietman had referenced the “somewhat addictive” editorial blog Retraction Watch,” and I agreed that interest in retractions is growing. As publishers, we spend a good deal of time managing interest in particular retractions and what they are revealing about the state of publishing ethics today.
No doubt, retractions are on the rise. Dr Zietman points out that “between 2001 and 2010, the number of manuscripts accepted by listed medical journals increased by 44%. The number of retracted papers over the same period, however, went up 19-fold!”
It’s generally understood that the Internet and increased readership has led to a rise in reported ethical issues, though it’s not quite clear if the violations themselves are increasing or just our ability to detect them.
Dr Zietman observes:
"There has always been pressure on investigators, but in a time of economic hardship these are amplified. The National Cancer Institute pay line, and that of granting agencies globally, is in sharp decline. The competition for the sparse funding that remains is intense and merit-based. Merit, however, is frequently quantified by numbers of publications, making this a vulnerable target for manipulation."
Then there is the question of how much time editors and publishers should spend investigating ethical inquiries. Dr Zietman outlines a realistic approach:
"If we were to go back in time and start retracting duplicate papers, we would have little time for anything else. We have, therefore, decided on a “statute of limitations” considering such behaviors conducted before 2004, when PubMed and the Web of Science brought cosmos to chaos, if not forgotten then, at least, forgiven. Duplicate publication after that date is grounds for a retraction."
He then describes the journals process for handling inquiries that fall within the statute: a series of steps provided by the Committee on Publishing Ethics (COPE).
"We are not, however, the Federal Bureau of Investigation, and there is only so close to the truth that we can reach."
He closes by stating prevention is the best cure, as it “is far better to prick the conscience of the miscreant before the manuscript is ever submitted than to seek retraction after publication.” To that end, he pledges to define these sorts of issues more clearly on the journal website at the time of submission.
This article first appeared in Elsevier Connect.
Read the editorial
“Falsification, Fabrication, and Plagiarism: The Unholy Trinity of Scientific Writing,” Andrew L. Zeitman, MD, FASTRO, International Journal of Radiation Oncology • Biology • Physics, 1 October 2013.