Elsevier leads academic media battle vs. endless array of ethical challenges

Most if not all B2B editors believe they have their hands full with ethical challenges.  However, those woes amount to peanuts when matched against the endless array of issues confronting academic journals.  For the latter group, the incidence of plagiarism, fabrication and necessity to issue retractions is imposing.  In fact, several academic publishers recently have created full-time ethics director positions to contend with the flow of mishaps.

An example of taking the ethics fray seriously is reflected in the efforts of Elsevier which, among other accomplishments, has developed a Publishing Ethics Resource Kit (PERK) for use by its journals.

Another example of concern was noted by Elsevier general counsel Linda Lavelle.  She explained that education efforts directly responded to editorial feedback “that the seemingly ancillary responsibility of handling allegations of ethics breaches has become incredibly frustrating and time consuming.”

In an article appearing in an issue of Elsevier’s Editors’ Update (more about that later), Lavelle described the ongoing educational program available.  “In fact,” she said, “when we host seminars for journal editors on a variety of publishing subjects, our ethics sessions (often titled ‘Liars, Cheats, and Thieves’) are consistently the best-attended presentations, and generally stimulate more discussion than any other publishing topic.”

Elsevier also invests in author education initiatives, including Ethics in Research & Education, an interactive program and website for early career researchers, and Publishing Connect. The latter program involves training workshops held at institutes worldwide, as well as the bite-sized webcasts that supplement the program.

Elsevier’s most current evidence of editorial support is publication of a special report – Ethics Special Part 1 – appearing in the September issue of Editors’ Update.  Published quarterly, Update contains articles designed to support Elsevier journal editors in their role.

“Articles may focus on practical matters such as tips and tricks to lighten workloads or improve publication speeds,” Editors’ Update editor-in-chief Linda Willems told Ethics News Updates.  Wider issues such as retractions and coerced citations are also covered, she says.

According to Willems, Elsevier “works in partnership with global science and health communities to publish more than 2,000 journals and close to 20,000 book titles.”

Special issue addresses hot topic

Once a year, Editor’s Update publishes a special edition “which puts a hot topic under the microscope.”  In 2013, a two-part Ethics Special was launched; Part II is due to be published in early November. At various points, Ethics Special content provides hard-hitting quantitative examples of why ethics diligence must be never-ending.

A column contributed by Elsevier senior vice president & general counsel Mark Seeley offered this telling estimate:

“One can make the argument that the level of ethics issues has not significantly increased, but is simply more visible now.  However, I think the better view – one more consistent with the evidence on the number of retractions – is that we are seeing an actual rise in volume.  The number of formal retractions as recorded on Elsevier’s ScienceDirect platform has more than doubled between 2004 and today – in fact, for 2013 it looks as if we will have close to 200 retractions, which could be five times the number we had in 2004.”

Seeley says the increase “is due to the ramp up of the pressure to publish and occasionally the pressure to take short-cuts – and I believe this pressure is increasing across the board, including in the rapidly-developing countries of the world where scientific pressure is increasing.”

In a separate article, Applied Surface Science editor-in-chief Henrik Rudolph offered this comment:

“Close to 10% of the papers we receive show some sign of academic misconduct, but since the total number of submissions is increasing, the absolute number is also rising.  The most common issue we see is too large an overlap with previously published materials, i.e. plagiarism.  These submissions are most often divided between self-plagiarism and regular plagiarism.”

Ethical ‘Constitution’ Created

Until 2005, Willems explained, most Elsevier journals had their own set of ethical rules.  “While recognizing that separate scientific fields do have their own culture,” she said, “we wanted to create a single ‘constitution’ that could be applied consistently.

“With input from the scientific community as well as our colleagues in our legal and publishing teams, we created the ‘General Journal Ethics Policy’ which gave us the basis to provide easy-to-use tools like our Publishing Ethics Resource Kit (PERK).

“Having a clear policy allows us to approach each case in a consistent way and prevent us from jumping to conclusions.  In ethical cases, issues are complex, emotions can run high and careers are at stake.  Therefore, getting the ground rules straight is imperative.”

As an online resource to support journal editors in handling publishing ethics issues, PERK is a single point of access for information and guidelines.  Several “decision tree” links have been developed in close cooperation with COPE (Committee on Publishing Ethics).

(Editor’s note:  COPE’s Web site describes the organization as “a forum for editors and publishers of peer reviewed journals to discuss all aspects of publication ethics.  It also advises editors on how to handle cases of research and publication conduct.”)

PERK provides flowcharts to guide editors step-by-step through different ways to handle abuse of publishing ethics. Furthermore, it includes form letters to adapt and use for various situations, as well as Q&A information.

Decision tree categories include authorship complaints; plagiarism complaints; multiple, duplicate, concurrent publication/simultaneous submission; research results misappropriation; allegations of research errors and fraud; research standards violations; undisclosed conflicts of interest; reviewer bias or competitive harmful acts by reviewers.

(Editor’s note: Reactions to this article will be included in an upcoming “Ethics Mailbag” summary.  Send comments to ethics@asbpe.org.)