How is Elsevier promoting ethical publishing? A guest post

elsevierAs 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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. 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 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.

15 thoughts on “How is Elsevier promoting ethical publishing? A guest post”

  1. I give credit to Elsevier for this retraction. The problem was reported to Elsevier, they reacted promptly, and explained the process and how long it would take and drove a retraction over strong resistance. See PDF @ this for the details, including an attempt to blame a grad student (who was not even an author) and a plea to avoid the retraction by inserting a few citations..

    This good behavior by Elsevier is rather different than that in a related (same authors), but more extreme case by WIley, here or sections 4.6 & 4.7, Appendix A.3 here.. This one involved extensive plagiarism in 2 articles in their own journal by 2 of the 3 Editors-in-Chief. Finally, they quietly disappeared from masthead, but without comment by Wiley. I.e., it seems the editors were retracted, but without even one of the vague notices that RetractionWatch often shows.

    Anyway, just as criticism is sometimes due, so is praise.

  2. Thanks for this great post. I’ve found that it’s difficult to get some publishers to understand the ethical problems with self-plagiarism. In my conversations with predatory publishers, I sometimes point out instances of self-plagiarism in their journals. Their resoponse is usually something like, “What’s wrong with that? An author has the right to copy his own work.”

    I think if a researcher is able to understand organic chemistry, biology, plant science, etc., he or she should easily be able to understand the concepts surrounding plagiarism and self-plagiarism, which are much less complicated than hard science.

    1. Honestly speaking, I don’t see why duplicate publication is a serious problem as long as the second journal is aware of it and the copyright of the first is not being infringed upon.

      1. Under the bizarre circumstances postulated here, self-plagiarism or duplicative publication would only be a symptom of terminal mental lassitude.

        In the real world, if the second journal was aware of a prior publication, it almost certainly would not publish a duplicative paper. And if the second journal did go ahead and publish, the copyright on the first paper would almost certainly be infringed by duplication. And if publication occurred anyway, the self-plagiarizing author would wind up looking a lot smarter than he actually is; duplicative publication inflates CVs with hot air.

        It’s all a question of degree. Duplicating 10% of the words in your Methods section because you can’t think of a better way to describe something is trivial. Duplicating more than 10% of your words anywhere else in a paper suggests that you might be more comfortable working on a production line building widgets.

        Where does illegality begin? I don’t know….

      2. I agree with R. Grant Steen. The conditions proposed by Bernd hardly ever exist, and the problems with duplicate publication are inflation of CVs and confusion among researchers about how many reports there are of a particular scientific finding.

        The only situation in which I can see a valid reason for duplicate publication is when the paper is translated into another language so that a larger readership can benefit from it, with permission granted by the original publisher. An explanation should be prominently placed in the translated version notifying readers that this is a translation of a previously published manuscript, not a new report.

  3. Biologists/biomedical scientists should switch to organic chemists way to present the data. Average biological paper contains too many words for little reason. Thus, plagiarism will decrease significantly together with word usage.

  4. This post is notable for what it doesn’t say… No mention whatsoever of COPE. No acknowledgement that journals/editors should be preventing fraud by detecting it at the earliest stages (i.e. during peer review). No mention of detection software being rolled out universally at all Elsevier journals to accomplish this. No acknowedgement of the hard numbers in the menu bar over in the right hand column of this blog. Of 297 retractions listed by publisher, 121 are in Elsevier journals. This eclipses (by more than double) the next publisher down the list.

    So yeah, for all the huffing and puffing in this guest post, color me unimpressed. Let’s also not forget this is the same company that backed SOPA, and shoved a bunch of money at Caroline Mahoney (D-NY) to push the Research Works Act aimed at overturning the NIH public access policy. Elsevier has a LONG way to go before I’ll be convinced they give a fig about publishing ethics.

    1. I, too, am unimpressed with this post.

      The author writes, “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.” This writing is somewhat hard to follow, but it seems to conflate two very different crimes.

      One crime, a misdemeanor to me, is the theft of words. The other crime, which surely must be a felony, is the theft of data.

      I can imagine a situation in which a non-native English writer “borrows” words without malicious intent. But using someone’s data is a transgression that I cannot imagine could happen innocently.

      Data theft also makes it seem that work has been replicated, when it has not.

    2. Me, three. Yes, scientists bear lots of responsibility for poor ethics, but so do the publishers who profit by printing unethical manuscripts. Elsevier pulls in the bucks but it won’t check for plagiarism, it tries to ignore reports of ethical violations, and, when absolutely forced to retract a paper, it often doesn’t like to explain why. This only enhances the already strong incentives to cheat. Despite the pious verbiage, Elsevier is more interested in profit than in truth or science.

      1. Elsevier is a big organization, and people in in big organizations inevitably vary widely in the their knowledge and ability to execute policies, and of course, there may be real policies and policies for public consumption.
        Many responsibilities inherently belong to editors.

        SO, you’ve basically stated that Elsevier = bad in numerous ways. Can you give some specific examples, especially from firsthand experience. and perhaps compare them with, say Wiley or Springer?
        I only have one direct experience with Elsevier and it was pretty good, but one datapoint is not much.

  5. @ Mashey. I’ve published a few papers for a Springer journal (Analytical and Bioanalytical Chemistry). I think the journal is nice enough for a technical journal. However, it is almost…run by the Germans (specifically, the DFG uses it to award grants to their favorite researchers). ABC in particular has serious issues (from what I can tell) with its peer review process; the refs I had were way more concerned that I was citing their silly little articles to pump up their citation index that they were in critiquing my work. (I’m an American doing a German postdoc who did her chemistry degrees at Reed College and Stony Brook University, so this behavior makes me very …. angry; esp. after doing a 1st author JACS and middle-author of several other ACS journals for my PhD.) Which is why I’ve sent my manuscript with all of the brain cancer patient trail data to PLoS ONE (to the bafflement of a few of my Eastern German co-authors)— sure they may have a non-negligible retraction rate, but they’re British/USA based and have referees that actually read the damn paper and will let me know if I am being totally wrong about something. A lot of the for-profit journals really do not want to admit that they have been double charging academics for a while now to print inadequately reviewed research– and a lot of them have Editors who are also on the funding boards (the entire country of Germany is just one big conflict of interest case). Springer is actually reasonably OK for applied stuff like engineering; or very narrow fields where there are only 2 people in the world qualified to ref the paper. They get things done quickly and professionally (I’ve had to interact a lot with their secretaries who are lovely, hard working people)– meanwhile I have been waiting since Nov 1st for any word on my PLoS manuscript. I think PLoS could use Springer’s secretaries, and Springer could use PLoS’s (or the ACS’s) peer review guidelines…….

    1. antistokes, you are wrong in thinking that this is a “German problem”. I know that my German friends have exactly the same problem with British/USA based journals (i.e. referees only being interested in whether you cite their “silly little articles”).

      My guess is that you experienced this in a German based journal and not previously in British/USA based journals because you already cited the “silly little articles” of the “usual” referees for those British/USA based journals without even thinking.

      1. Citations are more a problem of the particular narrow sub-field I’m in than it is isolated to a particular country. And, it is nice for the refs to catch me if I have missed an actual important study; but that seemed to be ALL they were focused on (have they cited MY important work??). A lot of the people in my sub-field are German, although not necessarily in Germany anymore (a lot of basic researchers are fleeing the country right now), and it does strike me as a particularly German mentality rooted in their older academic traditions (I am assured by the German PhD students that the younger PIs don’t think this way as much). I did do a thorough lit review, and I had left out the publication the ref wanted me to cite since it was a bit older and the material had been covered in a newer review article (which was fine for the JACS refs, but I did my PhD in a different field than my postdoc….).

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