Michael Farthing

In the world of biomedical publishing, many editors like myself are part-timers. Our experience of journal editing and publishing may be extremely limited before we take on the job, yet we have a major responsibility as custodians of the biomedical literature. We bring our academic expertise, our experiences as authors and peer-reviewers, and some may have edited books and other publications, but as a group we are vulnerable. We have to learn our trade from other editors, short courses and personal experience. I felt most vulnerable, however, when I had to deal with dishonesty, namely publication and research misconduct.

I became editor of Gut, a specialist journal for gastroenterology and hepatology in 1996.1 In my first year we detected redundant publication, "salami slicing" (publishing a study piecemeal when a single, high quality paper would have been preferable), outright plagiarism, and papers being submitted without the knowledge or consent of co-authors. Compared with the major cases of fraud that have come to light in recent years, these were relatively minor offences and all were detected prior to publication. Retractions were therefore not required and no author faced public disgrace. However, they raised important questions for me as an editor and I hope for the individuals concerned when their actions were discovered. I found it difficult, for instance, to know how far to go in investigating the alleged misconduct. When a reviewer drew my attention to serious plagiarism in an article submitted to the journal, should I have carried out an extensive examination of the author's other publications to determine whether this was a habit or a one-off? Should I have reported this to anyone? Should I have discussed the problem with another editor or the appropriate regulatory agency for the country concerned (this was not a paper from the UK)? Should I punish the authors in some way such as by refusing to consider further papers for the journal say for a period of three years, or should I reject the paper, just forget about it, and do nothing more?

There is a feeling amongst editors and some investigators that research misconduct has become more frequent during the last two decades. It is difficult to be certain whether this perceived increase is a true increase in the number of misdemeanours committed, but there is no doubt that the number of serious cases of research misconduct that have been detected has increased during this period. Stephen Lock, a past editor of the British Medical Journal, has documented known or suspected cases of research misconduct in the UK, USA, Australia, Canada, and in other countries.2 In the UK many of the cases involve fabrication of clinical trial data most commonly by general practitioners although hospital clinicians have been guilty of similar offences. Fraud in laboratory experimentation appears less common, although there have been a number of notorious cases in the USA and UK when the results of laboratory experiments have been fabricated, falsified, or misrepresented. Thus the climate has changed. The days are gone when an editor can ignore publication and research ethics. Merely rejecting a suspect paper is no longer acceptable. Editors must fully engage with the world of biomedical science by ensuring that they fulfil their duties at all levels of editorship.

It was these demands on editors and the lack of an advisory group or independent agency to deal with alleged cases of research misconduct that resulted in the establishment of the Committee on Publication Ethics (COPE) in 1997.3 This informal group of editors has grown and now represents a substantial proportion of biomedical journals in the UK. Although its function is purely advisory, it has considered more than 100 possible cases of research and publication misconduct and has produced guidelines on Good publication practice (see Appendix). The working of the committee will be discussed in more detail later in this chaper.

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