Written evidence submitted by the Committee
on Publication Ethics (COPE) (PR 34)|
The Committee on Publication Ethics (COPE) is a UK
registered charity that promotes integrity in research publication
and advises journal editors how to handle cases of research and
publication misconduct. It provides a forum for editors and publishers
of peer-reviewed journals to discuss specific, anonymised cases.
Summaries of these cases, together with a wide range of guidance
material, are freely available (to members and non-members) via
its website: http://publicationethics.org.
COPE currently has nearly 6,500 members from around
the world and from all academic disciplines. Membership is open
to editors of peer-reviewed scholarly journals. COPE's main source
of funding is from publishing companies paying for their journals
to join. All members of COPE are expected to follow a Code of
Conduct for Editors and we have recently developed a complementary
Code of Conduct for Publishers. COPE will consider complaints
against members alleged to have broken the code. However, COPE
does not undertake any other investigations into allegations of
research or publication misconduct. COPE publishes guidance documents
including a series of flowcharts advising editors how to handle
ethical problems such as plagiarism and reviewer misconduct. We
are currently developing a distance learning programme for editors.
This submission focuses on the use of peer review
before publication by scholarly journals.
1.0 Does peer review work?
Peer review is the process by which reports of, or
proposals for, research are scrutinised by other researchers.
It is widely used by journals to determine what to publish and
by funding bodies to determine what to fund. Peer review has been
used for at least 300 years, and records of the Royal Society
show that it was used in the 17th century to decide which work
would be presented before the Society. Although peer review is
well-established, evidence of its effectiveness is inconclusive.1,2
However lack of evidence of efficacy is not the same as saying
there is evidence that it does not work. Peer review is difficult
to study, partly because its functions have not always been clearly
defined.3 However, the general consensus among editors
and publishers is that peer review is useful and is probably the
best system currently available for assessing the quality of submissions
to journals and ensuring the quality of material published. Most
researchers also acknowledge that, while peer review has some
shortcomings, it is generally a useful system.
2.0 Can peer review be abused?
Peer review relies, to a great extent, on trust between
authors, editors and reviewers. All have obligations and responsibilities
but journal editors and reviewers occupy a privileged position.
Editors have a duty to ensure that peer review for their journal
is carried out in a fair and efficient way. Items for publication
should be selected on the basis of the quality, originality and
relevance of the work and its suitability for the journal. However,
peer review may be affected by bias (for example if editors are
biased towards the work of friends and colleagues or against the
work of competitors) and misconduct (for example if reviewers
steal ideas or data from other researchers).
3.0 Steps to reduce bias
It is probably impossible to eliminate all bias from
peer review but good editors endeavour to minimize it. Since reviewers
are selected for their knowledge and experience in the field being
studied, and most will be active in that research area, it is
rare to find a completely disinterested reviewer, but editors
must seek individuals who are well-informed yet can produce an
objective review. Editors need to be aware of financial conflicts
of interest, academic rivalries, personal animosities and sometimes
political or religious views that might affect objectivity. Studies
have suggested that reviewers may be biased towards or against
authors from well-known institutions, from other countries, or
of a particular gender. However the evidence is not clear-cut
and, in some cases, is contradictory.4
3.1 Blind (masked) peer review
Some journals use blinded (or masked) peer review
in an attempt to reduce reviewer bias. This involves removing
the authors' names and institutions, and sometimes other identifying
features such as references to their own work, from the manuscript
before it is reviewed. However, at least in the medical literature,
the evidence of whether blinded review is practicable or reduces
bias is contradictory. A summary of published studies concluded
that, in the absence of conclusive evidence, editors should judge
which system was best suited for their journal.5
3.2 Open peer review
An alternative approach to reducing bias is to use
open peer review and this has been adopted by some medical journals.
In open peer review, not only are the authors' identities revealed
to the reviewers, but the reviewers' sign their reviews so their
identity is disclosed to the authors. (Note: the term "open
review" is sometimes also applied to systems where articles
are posted for public comment either before or after publication
- this is obviously different from open peer review as described
here.) Proponents of open peer review suggest that it may improve
the quality of review, reduce personal attacks and help uncover
biases and undisclosed competing interests. Opponents fear that
individuals may be unwilling to act as reviewers if their identity
is revealed, or may be too guarded in their comments. Studies
comparing open and conventional review are inconclusive and have
failed to demonstrate that one is superior to the other.5
4.0 How common is misconduct by reviewers
Misconduct by reviewers and editors is probably rare
but can have serious effects on those affected and is recognised
as a form of academic misconduct. Although it is hard to tell
how often abuse occurs, even low levels of misconduct can reduce
trust in the system and are therefore important.
4.1 Cases brought to the COPE Forum
The Committee on Publication Ethics (COPE) considers
cases submitted by its members (journal editors) to its Forum
for discussion and these provide some information on this question.6
COPE does not adjudicate on the cases, but simply provides informal
advice, so it is also important to realise that not all cases
labelled as concerning a particular type of misconduct actually
involved misconduct. Also, since COPE produces guidance for editors
on how to handle the most common types of misconduct, cases brought
to the Forum are likely to represent the most complex cases, or
those that fall into grey areas rather than clear-cut cases of
misconduct. However, in the absence of other data, analysis of
the COPE cases indicates journal editors' concerns. Since it was
established in 1997, COPE has considered 419 cases (all of which
are summarized on the COPE website)6. Of these, 17 (4%) involved
possible reviewer misconduct and 29 (7%) involved unethical behaviour
by editors. (For comparison, cases involving the most common types
of author misconduct, namely multiple submission and plagiarism,
were brought to COPE 41 and 43 times respectively.)
4.2 International survey of science journal editors
A survey of 231 science journal editors7
run by Wiley-Blackwell found that most believed that reviewer
misconduct in general, and, more specifically, failure by reviewers
to disclose competing interests occurred only rarely in their
journals. The average ratings were 0.8 and 0.94 respectively on
a scale of 0=never, 1=rarely (less than once a year), 2=sometimes
(more than once a year), 3=very often (at least once a month).
The editors stated that the frequency of such problems was stable.
Out of 16 possible ethical issues identified, these two were rated
8th and 5th respectively in terms of their seriousness.
5.0 How should editors respond to suspected
COPE recommends that editors should follow the steps
set out in its flowchart if they suspect that a reviewer has appropriated
an author's ideas or data .8 The flowchart recommends
that the editor should review the evidence to determine whether
the author's allegations are well-founded and, if they are, should
discuss them with the reviewer. If the reviewer cannot provide
a satisfactory explanation, or does not respond, the editor should
contact the reviewer's institution and ask for an investigation.
Another flowchart provides guidance on how editors should handle
cases of suspected plagiarism (which may result from reviewer
6.0 What safeguards are in place to prevent
and detect misconduct by journal editors?
COPE requires all its members to follow its Code
of Conduct10 and will consider complaints against those
alleged to have broken the code.11 COPE also provides
advice to members through its quarterly Forum meetings and from
members of its staff and Council between meetings. COPE also occasionally
contacts its members to discuss issues informally. COPE encourages
journals and publishers to have systems in place for handling
complaints about editorial misconduct (and will only consider
complaints itself once such procedures have been exhausted).
7.0 How can misconduct by reviewers and editors
COPE membership has grown dramatically, starting
from about a dozen editors of UK medical journals in 1997 to almost
6500 journals from all academic disciplines today (of which about
750 are journals published in the UK). We have been particularly
encouraged that several major academic publishers, including BioMed
Central, Emerald, Elsevier, Oxford University Press, Springer,
Taylor & Francis, Wiley-Blackwell and Wolters Kluwer, have
signed up many or all of their journals (and this has contributed
to the rapid increase in COPE membership in recent years). However,
by no means all UK publishers or journals are COPE members. COPE
is a registered charity and raises funds entirely from membership
subscriptions which are set on a sliding scale depending on journal
frequency or turnover. However, COPE provides membership at no
or reduced cost to journals from developing countries and others
that cannot afford the regular subscription. We would welcome
public endorsement of COPE's policies and their inclusion into
national (and international) standards for publishing.
8.0 How can editors and publishers prevent
bias and misconduct?
Editors are responsible for the way in which peer
review is organized at their journal, although this may also be
influenced by systems and resources provided by the publisher.
There are many minor variations in the way peer review is conducted
across different journals but no clear evidence that one system
is better than any other. However, journal systems play an important
part in reducing bias and misconduct. COPE therefore advises and
educates editors about best practice in this area. COPE produces
a Code of Conduct for editors10. The Code states that
"Editors' decisions to accept or reject a paper for publication
should be based on the paper's importance, originality, and clarity,
and the study's validity and its relevance to the remit of the
A description of peer review processes should be
published, and editors should be ready to justify any important
deviation from the described processes." The latest version
of the Code (in press, at the time of preparing this submission)
also states that "Editors should require reviewers to disclose
any potential competing interests before agreeing to review a
8.1 The COPE Code of Conduct for Editors states
that "editors should strive to ensure that peer review at
their journal is fair, unbiased and timely" and that they
"should have systems to ensure that material submitted to
their journal remains confidential while under review". Journals
should also "have systems for managing their own conflicts
of interest as well as those of their staff, authors, reviewers
and editorial board members". Each journal should also "have
a declared process for handling submissions from the editors,
employees or members of the editorial board to ensure unbiased
review". The Code also states that "Editors should provide
guidance to reviewers on everything that is expected of them including
the need to handle submitted material in confidence". COPE
is working with several major publishers to audit their journals'
adherence to the Code and advise them about how they might improve
their policies and processes. We are also developing a distance
learning package for editors and publishers which we hope to launch
9.0 ROLE OF
Journals should not be solely responsible for preventing
and handling misconduct by reviewers. Academic institutions (and
other organizations that employ researchers) should promote good
peer review practices, recognize that acting as a reviewer is
an essential part of academic work, and provide training in research
integrity and publication ethics to all researchers. Institutions
should also be responsive to well-founded requests from journal
editors to investigate suspected misconduct by reviewers. If an
institution finds that a researcher has abused the peer review
system (eg by stealing another person's ideas or data during peer
review) this information should be shared with the editor of the
journal (or the funding body) concerned. However, judging from
cases presented to COPE, editors do not always find institutions
to be responsive or willing to share results of inquiries into
misconduct. Problems have been encountered in communicating with
both UK and overseas institutions and COPE therefore plans to
work towards improving cooperation and dialogue between editors
and institutions. One important step would be for all UK institutions
to appoint a research integrity officer who would act as a point
of contact and coordinate investigations.
FROM COPE FOR
10.1 Academic institutions should recognize the
importance of peer review to the dissemination of scientific research
findings and therefore allow researchers time to act as reviewers.
All reviewers should be prepared to act as reviewers as part of
their academic role on the understanding that others will do the
same for their work. Skills of critical appraisal necessary for
peer review are also applicable to other activities (for example
in the application of evidence-based medicine) and should be properly
taught. Institutions should also provide training for junior researchers
in research integrity and publication ethics.
10.2 UK research institutions should be required
to identify a Research Integrity Officer (as is done in America).
This person would act as a point of contact (eg for journal editors
to raise concerns about possible research misconduct) and coordinate
investigations as required.
10.3 Editors of scientific journals should be
encouraged to join COPE and follow its guidance on best practice.
UK publishers should be encouraged to support the editors of their
journals in joining COPE.
The Committee on Publication Ethics is a registered
charity (number 1123023). Membership is open to editors and publishers
of peer-reviewed scholarly journals and those interested in publication
ethics. It obtains funds from subscription fees. Many of COPE's
guidance documents are freely available (to non-members) on its
COPE is run by an elected Council, members of which
are also trustees of the charity and are all unpaid. COPE has
one full-time employee and three part-time contractors.
About the author
Dr Elizabeth Wager is the Chair of COPE. This is
an unpaid position. She developed the COPE flowcharts and was
involved in drafting or revising some of the COPE documents referred
to in this submission. She works as a freelance trainer and consultant
providing courses on writing, medical publishing and publication
ethics to doctors, researchers, writers and other employees working
in academic institutions, healthcare institutions, pharmaceutical
and medical device companies, communications agencies, and publishers.
She is the author of a book on publication strategy ("Getting
Research Published" 2nd edition, 2010, Radcliffe Publishing).
She has worked as a consultant to Wiley-Blackwell and the BMJ
Group coordinating publication ethics audits and a survey.
This submission has been approved by COPE Council
(7th March 2010) and represents the views of COPE.
1 Jefferson T,
Alderson P, Wager E, Davidoff F Effects of editorial peer review:
a systematic review. JAMA 2002;287:2784-6
2 Jefferson T,
Rudin M, Brodney Folse S, Davidoff F Editorial peer review for
improving the quality of reports of biomedical studies. Cochrane
Database of Systematic Reviews 2007; Issue 2. Art No MR000016
3 Jefferson T,
Wager E, Davidoff F Measuring the quality of editorial peer review.
JAMA 2002;287: 2786-90
4 Godlee F, Dickersin
K Bias, subjectivity, chance and conflict of interest in editorial
decisions. Chapter 6 in: Godlee F & Jefferson T (eds): Peer
Review in Health Sciences 2e, BMJ Books, London, 2003.
5 Fletcher RH,
Fletcher SW The effectiveness of journal peer review. Chapter
4 in: Godlee F & Jefferson T (eds): Peer Review in Health
Sciences 2e, BMJ Books, London, 2003.
6 COPE cases.
7 Wager E, Fiack
S, Graf C, Robinson A, Rowlands I Science journal editors' views
on publication ethics: results of an international survey. J
Med Ethics 35:348-53
8 COPE flowchart.
What to do if you suspect a reviewer has appropriated an author's
idea or data. http://publicationethics.org/files/u2/07_Reviewer_misconduct.pdf
9 COPE flowchart.
What to do if you suspect plagiarism in a published article. http://publicationethics.org/files/u2/02B_Plagiarism_Published.pdf
10 Code of Conduct.
11 COPE flowchart.
How COPE handles complaints against editors. http://publicationethics.org/files/u2/08_Editor_complaint.pdf
Committee on Publication Ethics (COPE)
8 March 2011