-2010 edition

I.  Ethical conduct by authors

A.  The manuscript review process begins with the submission of a manuscript on-line by the authors.

B.  Most journals require authors to submit a letter certifying the following:

1. The manuscript is not in review at another journal, will not be submitted to another journal until the first review process is completed, and has not been published previously.

2.  All authors have read the manuscript and agree to the submission.

3.  Most journals now require a conflict of interest statement.

C.  The key to ethical conduct by authors is honesty.

1.  Do not plagiarize data or text from published papers.

2.  Do not fabricate data.

3.  Provide requested information open and honestly.

4. Do not republish your own data unless there is a clear understanding with the editor. If previously published results are necessary in a new paper, the author must include a sentence saying that permission to use text or a figure has been obtained from the copyright holder.

D.  Authors will be instructed to sign a publishing agreement with the owner of the journal.  Some journals require the signature of each author whereas other journals allow the senior or corresponding authors to sign on behalf of all authors. Both parties are expected honor the agreement.

E.  Most journals allow authors to suggest the names of potential reviewers and to list the names of persons whom they do not wish to review their manuscript.  Usually the latter are competitors or individuals with known conflicts of interest.

F.  Honorific authorship.  In some countries it is considered unethical and in others, it is perfectly fine.  This is an example of how ethics can be different internationally.

II.  Ethical conduct by Editors

A.  The next step in the process is the assignment of an editor, usually done by the Editor-in-Chief at small journals or his/her staff at large journals.

B.  The most important task of an editor is to assign reviewers, usually two. It is unethical for an Editor to knowingly appoint a reviewer who is:

1.  Biased against any of the authors or biased against the research area being reported.

2.  Not knowledgeable in the research area under consideration.

3.  While not strictly an ethical issue, it is undesirable for an editor to appoint reviewers who are habitually late or unresponsive in returning reviews (see reviewer ethics below).

C.  The second most important task of an editor is to evaluate the reviews and to reach a decision on suitability of the manuscript for publication.  The choice of decision is usually accept as is, minor revision, major revision or reject.

1.  It is unethical for an editor to knowingly accept previously published, plagiarized or false text or data.  In effect, the editor is the watchdog for the integrity of the published literature.

2.  Editors may also have conflicts of interest that would require an editor to turn this function over to a fellow editor.  The most common conflict of interest is that the editor is also the corresponding or senior author on the manuscript.  Some journals go further and do not allow a person named anywhere in the author list to also be editor of the manuscript.

III. Ethical conduct by Reviewers

A.  A reviewer should not accept a review assignment if the reviewer has a conflict of interest.

1.  An example of a conflict of interest would be that the reviewer is working on essentially the same problem using similar experimental approaches in his/her laboratory.

2.  Another example is that the reviewer may be an editor of a competing journal.  This situation creates a perception of conflict of interest at the least.

3. A reviewer must not be an author on the manuscript under review.

B.  Reviewers are typically asked to keep the content of a manuscript under review confidential.  If a reviewer wishes to discuss a manuscript with a colleague, the editor’s permission should be obtained first.  It is unethical for a reviewer to violate confidentiality. Some journals like PLoS now publish the names of reviewers with their permission.

C.  It is unethical for a reviewer to fail to report to the editor the discovery of fraud or plagiarism.

D.  It is unethical for a reviewer to delay the submission of a review in order to use information in the manuscript to his/her own benefit.  This is commonly called ‘sitting on a manuscript’.  A good editorial team will not let this happen.

Reader beware: the ideals of peer review are not always achieved. A possible reason is that both reviewers and editors are too busy. In my experience, knowingly unethical conduct is rare. A romantic idealist might say that scientists are basically honest and ethical, whereas a pragmatic and more pessimistic view is that scientists realize that they may get caught for dishonesty and unethical conduct.

“While there will always be a need for authoritative oversight, the responsibility for research integrity ultimately lies in the hands of the scientific community. Educators and advisors must ensure that the students they mentor understand the importance of scientific integrity. Authors must all commit to both the novelty and accuracy of the work they report. Volunteers who agree to provide peer review must accept the responsibility of an informed, thorough, and conscientious review. Finally, journal editors, many of whom are distinguished scientists themselves, must not merely trust in, but also verify the originality of the manuscripts they publish.”

Long TC, Errami M, George AC, Sun Z, Garner HR (2009) Responding to Possible Plagiarism. Science 322:1293-1294