Tuesday, 2 April 2013

Publishing malpractice – time for universities to act

The following is the text of an opinion piece submitted to Times Higher Education and due to be published - in an edited form - on 4 April 2013:

Publishing malpractice – time for universities to act

Universities operate rigid systems for vetting the quality and costing of research which is conducted under their auspices.  Likewise, they insist that this research adheres to the highest ethical standards and establish ethics committees to review relevant proposals.  However, universities do not operate systems for vetting the probity of research outputs.  We argue that they should.

As the webpages of the Committee on Publication Ethics demonstrate, publishing malpractice continues. Issues of inappropriate authorship and academic fraud are evident with one of the main problems being similarity between manuscripts. Of course, some of this is due to better means of detection by journals as part of the submission process, leading to the detection of plagiarism and duplication.  Furthermore, similarity does not, automatically, mean either plagiarism or duplication, but extensive similarity sometimes leads to the detection and subsequent admission of malpractice. These instances are potentially disastrous for the author’s career—but such conduct may also reflect on the institution—and in today’s world of trial by media, university’s may want to think about protecting their reputations.

Universities do provide systems for similarity detection for students and provide copious and specific guidance and threats regarding malpractice.  It is a reasonably safe assumption that academics understand the issues at stake, but a decreasingly safe assumption that academics always adhere to the highest ethical publishing standards. 

The main responsibility for avoiding malpractice rests with authors and the vast majority are good citizens.  The main responsibility for detection lies with publishers, who also have a responsibility to inform authors about good practice and to administer systems for similarity detection and to have systems for reporting the outcome of malpractice which can include retraction of published papers.  However, is this sufficient and should universities and other public and commercial bodies from which publications emanate not take a more active role?

It is hard to understand, in an age of research assessment—essentially a system of publication assessment—that universities are so rigorous about the inputs to research: proposals; funding; and ethics, while virtually ignoring the quality of the outputs or establishing processes whereby the integrity of publications are vetted.  Dissenters will complain about an additional tier of scrutiny; publications are already peer reviewed, why add a pre-review process?  However, the same applies to research proposals which are refereed externally to the university but for which most universities provide for pre-submission review as an obligatory step to accepting and administering the funding. Furthermore, peer review cannot, usually, address issues such as authorship, fraud or even similarity.

What steps could be instituted to improve the probity of research outputs by universities?  The very least that universities should insist on is that, prior to submission to a journal, there should be scrutiny for similarity; this will help to avoid plagiarism and duplication.  All publications should be read by a cognate colleague, simply to help improve the quality of the writing but also to see if any insights into the necessity for and originality of the paper can be gleaned; this may also uncover some aspects of academic fraud such as data fabrication, and where co-authors inside and outside the university are involved, then statements of agreement to the contents of the final submitted version should be obtained and filed.  Given that none of this happens—to our knowledge—at the moment in any university then it represents a start; at the very least it may deter potential wrongdoers from doing wrong; on the whole it will help people who have little experience of publishing and may make genuine mistakes.

Another growing area of publishing malpractice is authorship. Universities could play an important role in checking that all authors on a paper merit being there. There are clear guidelines as to what constitutes authorship in journal guidelines; these should be checked by the institution. An additional measure would be the development of institutional publishing codes of practice. Some universities do this and it should be more widespread. It can help deal with the issues of PhD supervisory input on publications, guest authorship by senior faculty and also the order of authorship.

Data management processes, including the deposition of data with databanks and journals for scrutiny by referees and future researchers, should help reduce fraudulence and fabrication of data.  These are not new but they are becoming more common and will soon be obligatory.

We enter the public domain when things go wrong, such as ‘Climategate’ when University of East Anglia academics were accused of manipulating data.  How much more often will this happen as research outputs become more freely available and the impact of research comes under increasing scrutiny?  Procedures for ensuring that academics are honest in their publications should help to keep us in the public eye for the right reasons.

Roger Watson and Mark Hayter are Editors of Journal of Advanced Nursing, both are Professors at the University of Hull.

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