Publication misconduct: changing the conversation

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Research Publishing
By: Suzanne Farley, Sun Nov 4 2018
Suzanne Farley

Author: Suzanne Farley

Research Integrity Director

I hope I’m out of a job sooner rather than later. Having only been in my current role leading the small Springer Nature Research Integrity Group for about 2 months, it may seem strange to have redundancy as my aim. But wouldn’t it be amazing if there was no longer any research or publication misconduct to prevent or detect?

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Unfortunately, that’s not going to happen anytime soon. The pressures on authors, editors and reviewers are as intense as ever. New types of misconduct continue to emerge. Old ones become more sophisticated and, therefore, more difficult to detect. Plagiarism, stolen intellectual property, fake data, authorship-for-sale, article mills, fake decision letters and proofs, fake reviewer reports, citation cartels, identity theft - just some of the scams I’ve dealt with in my 15-odd years in academic publishing. And then there are the honest mistakes. The line between the two is often blurrier than you’d think.

Plagiarism, stolen intellectual property, fake data, authorship-for-sale, article mills, fake decision letters and proofs, fake reviewer reports, citation cartels, identity theft - just some of the scams I’ve dealt with in my 15-odd years in academic publishing.

In the first half of this year, my team received about 500 requests for advice from both in-house staff and external editors. As many experienced editors at Springer Nature deal with relatively minor issues themselves, this is just a portion of the total number of integrity-related queries. Of those 500 queries, most originated in the medical and life sciences portfolios. Only 10% concerned books or book chapters, and about half of the problems were detected after publication. Plagiarism, duplicate publication, and problems with authorship, data or the peer-review process were the main categories, and most cases involved a single article or book.

Less frequent but perhaps more concerning are the cases that play out on a massive scale; thousands of manuscripts, and hundreds of authors, editors and in-house staff across multiple legal jurisdictions, languages and time-zones. Completing a thorough investigation can take months. Agreeing actions can take even longer. It’s resource-heavy work that hits obstacles at every turn. And instead of generating revenue it generates retractions, corrections and notifications to authors’ institutions.

It’s no surprise that there’s such a ‘negative vibe’ around these types of issues. Being caught has serious repercussions for the individual. Failing to prevent and detect misconduct can damage the reputation of employers, funders and publishers. And even admitting that it happens at the scale that it does is not something that all stakeholders are prepared to do. Throw in some lawyers, and these are extremely tricky waters to navigate. Everyone involved feels twitchy and uncomfortable.

my more realistic, shorter-term goal is to help create an environment - first at Springer Nature, but then more broadly - in which addressing integrity issues is a normal, non-confrontational part of what we do.

So, my more realistic, shorter-term goal is to help create an environment - first at Springer Nature, but then more broadly - in which addressing integrity issues is a normal, non-confrontational part of what we do. Let’s use retractions to illustrate the concept. Retractions happen for myriad reasons, both honest error and deliberate misconduct. Why, then, are retractions inevitably regarded as a blot on the authors’ record? Shouldn’t authors who detect honest errors in their own work and initiate correction of the scholarly record be applauded? Why do many retraction notices provide readers with such scant information about the reason for retraction? Is the label ‘retraction’ so loaded that we should replace it altogether? Should retractions be used as ‘punishment’ for misconduct? Is dispensing punishment the role of the publisher or the employer? How should ‘whistleblowers’ be protected? Who should decide all these things?

So many questions! And - as yet - not a lot of answers. But there are many more conversations happening on these topics than in the recent past. There have been some improvements; for example, more-informative retraction notices, speedier resolution of issues, and heavier investment in resources by some publishers. But these improvements are patchy. Most stakeholders are only now realising the scale of the problem and taking their first steps towards building mechanisms to address it.

There have been some improvements; for example, more-informative retraction notices, speedier resolution of issues, and heavier investment in resources by some publishers. But these improvements are patchy.

As well as addressing issues when they arise, we need to do more to prevent them happening in the first place. I hear from many authors and reviewers that they receive zero training in this area from their employers, and that many publishers provide very little guidance on what is and isn’t acceptable. When guidance is provided, it often differs between publishers for no apparent reason. How much does someone have to contribute to qualify as an author? Which third-party services are OK to use? Where are the lines between quotation, paraphrasing, text recycling and plagiarism? How does license type affect these parameters?

Sharing resources and working towards common standards are two ways in which publishers can move things forward. I’d love to hear from any of you that are interested in working on this together.

Suzanne Farley

Author: Suzanne Farley

Research Integrity Director

Suzanne Farley has a degree in Environmental Science and a PhD in plant physiology and molecular biology from the University of Newcastle, Australia. 

She joined Nature Publishing Group in 2003 where she spent 10 years in the Nature Reviews Division and 5 years at Scientific Reports (firstly as Executive Editor and then Head of Publishing) before joining the Springer Nature Research Integrity Group as Research Integrity Director in August 2018. 


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