It’s official: When journals behave badly, there could be some punishment

Geri Pearson
Chris Graf

Here at Retraction Watch, we constantly receive emails from readers who are frustrated with a particular journal — perhaps it has ignored obvious problems in a published paper, performed only a cursory peer review, or takes months (or years) to take action on a problematic article. Many whistleblowers bring their concerns to the Committee on Publication Ethics (COPE), which provides guidelines for best practices in publishing. But sometimes, those same whistleblowers complain to us that there aren’t adequate punishments for journals that ignore allegations or maintain improper practices — and COPE, though an important standard-bearer for the industry, lacks teeth. Did you know COPE can revoke a journal’s membership if it doesn’t uphold the organization’s ethical standards? This has always been possible, and a recently released COPE statement about its sanctions policy has tried to clarify its position. We spoke with COPE co-chairs Geri Pearson and Chris Graf about this and other recently announced changes.

Retraction Watch: Why did you change “Code of Conduct” to “Core Practices?”

Geri Pearson and Chris Graf: COPE’s remit is to support and advise editors of scholarly journals and publishers/owners. The Core Practices include the core tenets of the Code of Conduct, but have been simplified and better reflect current practice. Additionally, the new framework will make it easier for members and the wider community to find COPE’s continuously updated resources as new issues arise.

RW: COPE, along with other organizations, has already specified that organizations can lose their membership if they don’t meet certain expectations. So why establish a specific sanctions policy?

GP and CG: COPE has always had the ability to remove membership from a member if it was felt they were not abiding by the standards of ethical publishing practice that we uphold. However, it was not a formalized and transparent process; this sanctions policy clarifies this. As a membership organization with a commitment to ethical publishing practices we believe it is important to have a transparent process in place for the rare event that a member journal or publisher did not abide by those standards of ethical publishing practice.

RW: Has COPE ever sanctioned or revoked a membership?

GP and CG: To date, COPE has not had cause to revoke membership.

RW: Will you announce when a publication has been sanctioned or removed from COPE?

GP and CG: All actions will remain confidential within the COPE organization until it is ascertained what level of sanctions might be imposed. Each instance will be handled on a case by case basis.

RW: A post on Scholarly Kitchen raised a good point: The three reasons for expulsion include somewhat vague language. Given that so many unique issues arise frequently in publishing that don’t have specific COPE guidelines, it may be hard for members to know when they’re violating “COPE principles.” How can this be addressed?

GP and CG: We believe the COPE principles, as outlined in the Core Practices are clearly defined. For example, “All peer review processes must be transparently described and well managed”. This is true for all disciplines. Where “should” is used (“Clear policies (that allow for transparency around who contributed to the work and in what capacity) should be in place for requirements for authorship and contributorship as well as processes for managing potential disputes”), this has to be relevant to the discipline. COPE will take the norms of the discipline into account when reviewing whether a principle has been ‘violated’.

RW: Can you adapt the guidelines to fit institutions’ needs? And will they also be at risk of sanctions?

GP and CG: COPE is currently engaging in a pilot with a small number of universities and we are in the process of exploring what benefits COPE might bring any eventual institutional members and what institutional members will gain from formal COPE membership. Institutions cannot now become members of COPE. We’re in the process of working out what they need that COPE might provide. If we find that there’s something COPE can help with, then we’ll work out the details of membership.

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4 thoughts on “It’s official: When journals behave badly, there could be some punishment”

  1. Make your complaints on the internet. Retraction Watch, Pubpeer…

    PeerJ. 2014 Apr 3;2:e313. doi: 10.7717/peerj.313. eCollection 2014.
    Internet publicity of data problems in the bioscience literature correlates with enhanced corrective action.

    Link to article.

    Brookes PS1.
    Author information
    Department of Anesthesiology, University of Rochester Medical Center , Rochester, NY , USA The author wishes to emphasize that the data collection for this research was conducted outside the boundaries of his position as a University of Rochester faculty member. The author assumes full responsibility for this work, and his affiliation with the University of Rochester does not represent an endorsement of this work by the institution.

    1. What would you recommend if an EIC produced within a short time two reviews on the same version of your manuscript with opposing opinions, and COPE said it was within his rights?

  2. Print media of research reports will be obsolete in a decade, which equals the length
    of time it takes to get even the most egregious report retracted. So, its an academic issue that the elite dinosaurs can lament about while the world moves toward more honest and open content on the internet.

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