Ethics Policies in the Editorial Office: What Every Journal Needs to Know
Take Home Points:
- It is critical for journals to define their ethics policies.
- Ethics policies and workflows should be outward-facing – sharing your process allows for transparency for all stakeholders.
- Follow through with clear resolution for any ethics issues or cases.
The textbook definition of “ethics” is: the rules of conduct recognized in respect to a particular class of human actions or a particular group, culture, etc. Ethics as they govern publishing have taken on a larger and broader scope throughout the course of my 28-year career, extending beyond the more traditional forms of ethics policies. Ethics historically focused on figure manipulation and plagiarism – but now we have moved into an era of paper mills and AI-generated reviews and manuscripts. How you handle ethics in your editorial office is extremely important to all stakeholders involved in the peer review process; therefore, having a firm grasp on exactly what your policies are and how you enforce them is paramount.
The Committee on Publication Ethics (COPE) established its initial guidelines in 1997 and evolved into the cornerstone of best practices for editorial offices to help manage ethics for journals. It’s hard for me to believe that it has been over 25 years since the inception of COPE. The standards provided in the COPE flowcharts, cases, and guidance documents have made a significant contribution to our field. If your journal follows the COPE guidelines, uses the flowcharts, and leans into these practices, you should acknowledge that fact in the section dedicated to ethics policies in your instructions to authors. For example, you can include the following statement: [Journal name] is a member of the Committee for Publication Ethics (COPE), and applies the principles of publication ethics outlined in the COPE Core Practices. To learn about becoming a member of COPE, visit the “Become a Member” section of their website.
Your ethics policy will help you to manage issues such as:
- Ethical issues for Peer Review/Reviewer/Editor
- HIRB and animal subjects
- Patient images and information and consent
- Conflict of Interest
- Artificial intelligence, such as chat GPT
- Diversity, equity, and inclusion
I envision there will be more ethics issues on the horizon; the above list is meant to serve as an example and is exhaustive. I advise you to consider your content and the researchers in your field when crafting your ethics policies. While ethical challenges can be common across disciplines, there are circumstances where specific challenges apply more to some fields than others. You should take this into consideration as you write, revise, and re-write your policies to suit your journal’s needs.
Basic ethics policies should include the following:
- State if you are a COPE member and if you follow their guidelines.
- Include if you follow the International Committee of Medical Journal Editors (ICMJE) recommendations, the Good Publication Practice for Communicating Company Sponsored Medical Research (The GPP3 Guidelines), or the Declaration of Helsinki, established by the World Medical Association to protect the rights of human subjects, any institutional review board (IRB) requirements or any other organization governing the discipline of your journal that may play a role in ethics.
- Share if you are using any plagiarism- or image-manipulation-detection software and your standard practice for their usage.
- Have a clear policy detailing how you handle ethics cases. COPE recently issued excellent guidelines for management of ethics concerns.
Your general policy can be one paragraph in your information for authors stating you will consider each ethics case as they are presented. The Royal Society has provided such language on their website:
The Society is committed to promoting the highest ethical publication practices across all our journals. Allegations of misconduct will be investigated fully, as outlined on the relevant pages below, and as per the Committee on Publication Ethics (COPE) guidelines. Complaints against a journal, its staff, editorial board or publisher should be directed to the editorial office or alternatively firstname.lastname@example.org.
Your policy can then additionally contain more robust information with categorized information detailing the specifics of ethics circumstances such as conflict of interest, retractions, authorship disputes, etc. The Royal Society also provides this information on their website in the above link.
Another example you can follow is to provide headers for ethics for authors, editors, reviewers, etc. This method is employed by the American Institute for Physics.
The below resources are ones I have found useful when considering an ethics policy.
Taylor & Francis’s Ethics for Authors
This infographic embodies the highlights for editorial offices and authors to consider. This is an easy way to convey information to authors while being visually appealing.
Elsevier Publishing Ethics Module
This training module can provide you with ideas on how to present your ethics information.
Wiley’s Best Practice Guidelines on Research Integrity and Publishing Ethics
These comprehensive guidelines are regularly and, most importantly, are dated to show that update!
Your ethics workflow should support your ethics policy. It should be fully documented and stored in a shared space that is accessible by anyone on your team. There should be clear guidelines on implementation and a focus on resolution. There has been a lot of discussion on the length of time ethical investigations are taking and how long they should take. Each case is unique, but should progress in a timely fashion to a resolution. It’s a good idea to provide all stakeholders of an ethics case routine updates. Such updates should follow a pattern (monthly, quarterly, weekly). Cases often linger due to non-response, and while this may not seem to be an update, the non-responsiveness is the update. If you meet regularly with your staff, editor, and/or publisher, you should have a standing agenda item of ethics. Your workflow does not need to outwardly detail every step that you follow to bring a case to resolution (but your internal workflow should!). Journals should provide a contact email for ethical issues and should state that you have a workflow within your editorial office that will be followed upon the creation of a new ethical case. How much more you would like to outwardly share will be a journal-by-journal decision and your entire editorial team should be involved in that decision-making process.
Ethics workflow following a standard path for all ethics cases brought to journal.
Your ethics policy should be clearly accessible on your website and should contain all information that is important to your journal’s field of study. A good example of an all-encompassing ethics policy is the extensive policy at IOP Publishing.
A good rule of thumb when developing and maintaining ethics policies for your journals is to collaborate, document, and update:
Collaborate: Your policy should be written with input from all members of your organization.
Document: You should document all steps during the process of writing your policy and have a workflow to underpin the policy.
Update: You should undertake an annual update of your policy and workflow to ensure you are upholding the standards of your workflow. This is also a good time to capture any changes or modifications. These will be done on the fly at times, but setting aside dedicated time to review is beneficial.
Having a clear policy and workflow documentation takes the guess work out of handling an ethics case. The transparency of sharing your policy alleviates the concerns of the parties involved. Following the policy and workflow allows for consistency in your editorial office and will reduce confusion.
We cannot predict where publication ethics will head in the future. One step that many organizations have taken is to onboard an Ethics Manage or Integrity Officer they have the means to support such a position.
An Integrity Officer role would require both project management and effective communication skills, and would oversee publications ethics and might also be involved with advancing diversity, equity, inclusion practices.
The time and effort that ethics cases have taken from editorial staff, editors, publishers, reviewers, and even authors is measurable. If you have a lot of ethics cases at your journal, you should include time spent on these cases as part of the documentation. Having an infrastructure to support your editorial staff must be an integral part of your program.
Retraction Watch is an excellent resource that provides you a window into the process of other journals. If you routinely read this blog, you will gain insight into how other organizations are handling their ethical issues within their editorial offices.
Whatever form ethics takes in the future it is important that we develop our programs to include policies and workflows that will support ethical activity in the future. Being as transparent as possible, while upholding the highest possible standards, will set our journals up for success as we move forward in our efforts to publish the best possible science in an ever-evolving and expanding industry.
Conflicts of Interest:
None to declare