As Retraction Watch readers know, we cover Elsevier’s journals frequently, including a story just last week about their peer review system being hacked. And they’ve written about us, too. So we’re pleased to present a guest post by Elsevier’s Linda Lavelle, General Counsel-North America, about the publisher’s take on plagiarism and other unethical behavior — and what the company is doing to prevent it.
Protecting Good Science: Upholding Publishing Ethics
If a plagiarist plagiarizes from an author who herself has plagiarized, do we call it a wash and go for a beer? That scenario is precisely what Steven L. Shafer, MD, found himself facing recently. Dr. Shafer, editor-in-chief of Anesthesia & Analgesia, learned that authors of a 2008 case report in his publication had lifted two-and-a-half paragraphs of text from a 2004 paper published in the Canadian Journal of Anesthesia.
Wait. Stop. Does the preceding paragraph sound familiar? Chances are, no. But in fact, I lifted it, word for word, from a piece by Adam Marcus in Anesthesiology News, January 2011. (A similar post also ran here at Retraction Watch, with attribution.) Does this kind of cut-and-paste happen in research publishing today? Sadly, yes. According to Science (Vol. 324, May 22, 2009), an estimated 200,000 of 17 million articles in the Medline database may have been duplicates or plagiarized. One percent may seem like a relatively small incidence. But the sheer number is disturbing.
Plagiarism indeed remains the most prevailing kind of scientific misconduct. While the vast majority of researchers do behave absolutely correctly and appropriately, Elsevier has dealt with a myriad of cases of authors copying a substantial portion of another’s work without acknowledgment, misappropriation of data, text or images, and recycling content. Retraction Watch is replete with cases from across the globe.
Aside from the actual number and rates of proven cases, editors, publishers and the media have a nagging perception that plagiarism is rampant. Perception matters; it’s driven by an element of truth and undermines confidence. Ongoing high-profile cases of plagiarism in respected print and broadcast media – including science- and medicine-related stories – only fuels the ire.
Beyond plagiarism, other ethical breaches in publication remain high enough to sustain the level of article retractions and withdrawals year over year, we’ve found. Cases we’ve seen include duplicate submission or publication. Authorship disputes. Fabricating or falsifying data. Not to mention fraudulent research, limited peer review, self-citation or “guest/ghost” authorship (including or omitting the names of authors in a way that misrepresents their actual authorship).
Clear benefits of ethical publishing
Most scientists know why ethics in publishing are so critical to their work, but the reasons are worth emphasizing:
- It ensures scientific progress. Truth is the foundation of science and the progress of ideas. The scientific community thrives only when each participant publishes with integrity.
- It protects life and the planet. Publishing ethically ensures that we have trusted information on which to build future therapies, technologies, and policies. Published work based on fraudulent data can form inappropriate basis for follow up studies leading to waste of resources and harmful effects to patients, communities, or habitats.
- It promotes ethical behavior. Doing the right thing sets an example and reinforces our responsibility to our peers and society at large (who generally pay for our work). Believing our actions won’t make a difference or are above the law can lead those who don’t know better into believing the same.
- It’s good for one’s reputation. There’s nothing like getting published and being able to accept credit and accolades for a job well done. A published paper is a permanent record of a researcher’s work. Running afoul threatens to relegate a scientist to the minority that ends up with a retracted or withdrawn paper and a tarnished reputation.
- It’s the only way. A good reputation and acting with integrity open the door to opportunity. A researcher’s work represents not only that person, but the research institution, the funding body, and other researchers.
Certainly, no honorable, right-minded scientist needs to be lectured about ethics – individuals of reasonable sense and moral fiber recognize that breaches are not only wrong, but also highly risky. We’re all familiar with stories of work wasted, reputations ruined, careers ended, institutions embarrassed, public trust in scientific and medical research squandered, and even lives and health potentially jeopardized when shoddy science results.And when stories of brilliant scientists who succumbed to ethical errors go viral on the internet, it fuels skepticism among non-scientists and policymakers, threatening critical public investment in research. Everyone loses. Science and medicine are set back.
Why ethics go awry
Cynics may blame slipshod ethics solely on bad faith, laziness, greed or arrogance. A more generous view is that well-meaning people sometimes go awry under a myriad of pressures today, including competition for funding, advancement or tenure … the relentless force of “publish or perish” … the demand to demonstrate return on investment … or the lure of pharmaceutical/medical industry support that requires productive results.
But a more innocent culprit is sometimes at play: “I didn’t know it was wrong.”
It’s true: Some well-meaning scientists – especially the fresh crop of emerging researchers with little experience or historical knowledge – may not realize or understand the modern standards and requirements – the “rules of the road.” Or the gray areas between right and wrong are unclear to them. Or as research continues to go global, cultural norms may vary. I know of one instance where a researcher lifted material but believed that since he had changed the first line of every paragraph, it wasn’t plagiarism. (It is.)
Then there’s a fairly recent phenomenon: “The internet made me do it.” With the internet offering seemingly infinite content, does everyone know what is fair game for use without attribution? In another case I’ve heard about, the individual thought it was ok to copy text from the web because it had no copyright notice. Another thought that the public site of a major newspaper was fair game – only the paid site required attribution. (Wrong.)
Finally, there’s the challenge of ensuring that standards and guidelines are clear enough to prevent honest, objective researchers from publishing conclusions that are distorted by conflicts of interest.
All in all, how many honorable research scientists are tempted – or tripped up – because they did not know the terrain or see the landmines?
Today’s ethical conundrums lead to this conclusion: Education is essential. Ensuring everyone understands the rules of the road might not eradicate ethics violations, and some retractions and withdrawals do involve outright fraud. But many more may be due to the need for broad, clear understanding of the standards and guidelines to help well-meaning scientists avoid crossing the line and raising complaints. Clarity will also prevent those with slippery ethics from pretending they didn’t know any better, and even mitigate the impulse to use the rules as a weapon, e.g., filing frivolous ethics complaints, as retribution, or due to misunderstandings.
By the way, as the North American general counsel for Elsevier, I want to stress that the ethical issues affecting the scientific integrity of journals for the most part are not a legal matter – they’re primarily a matter of science. Lawyers can provide support if needed, including templates to help respond to ethical questions and potential breaches in the most appropriate way. And editors have to decide how to address an ethics matter or claim. But often it has to be the scientific community that takes action and makes decisions as to whether a breach has occurred. For example, an allegation of research fraud is best investigated – and sometimes can only be investigated – by the institution, not the journal editor. Editors often get stuck in the middle of a he said/she said dispute and often lack the ability to investigate what has gone on inside an institution.
One thing publishers can do to promote integrity is by ensuring those submitting articles know the standards and guidelines. We all want what we publish to be pristine. And as publishers, we also have the ability – and perhaps the responsibility – to promote the highest standards throughout the world of research publications. For Elsevier’s part, we established our Ethics in Research and Publication program, which you can find at ethics.elsevier.com. This robust website includes our Publishing Ethics Resource Kit, which Elsevier developed in 2008 and includes a wide range of tools and resources, including guidelines for editors to address ethics complaints and templates for letters and even a quiz to test how ethical you think you are.
It’s a shame when scientists decide to cut ethical corners. It’s a tragedy when scientists run afoul by accident, inadvertence or lack of knowledge. Not just for the harm it does to them, their peers, their institutions, their work and science at large – but also because the harm could have been avoided. Everyone should know the rules of the road – for themselves, their careers, colleagues, and institutions, and most of all for the research and knowledge that research science advances.