Understanding publication ethics
There are a number of different topics that come under the heading ‘publication ethics’, all of which have to do with how researchers present their work to the wider scientific community. In this post, we will talk about a number of behaviours related to publication ethics.
What is Plagiarism?
One of the most well-known violations of publication ethics is plagiarism. As we have talked about before, plagiarism is presenting someone else’s ideas or work as your own, without clearly citing the source. Text plagiarism is the most common form of this violation, and involves taking text directly from another source (a published scientific article, a website, a textbook, or some other source) and using it in your own paper without clearly indicating that it was written by someone else.
But text is not the only thing that can be plagiarized: using images from another source without clearly indicating said source is also a form of plagiarism. For example, if you download an image from a website and use it in one of your figures, without obtaining permission from the creator and citing the website in the figure legend, this gives readers the impression that you created the figure yourself.
One form of plagiarism that can be harder to detect is presenting someone else’s ideas as your own. For example, let’s say you attend a conference and hear an inspirational talk by another researcher who proposes an entirely new way of understanding a signaling pathway. If you then write an opinion piece or review article about this signaling pathway describing this new perspective as if it was your idea, this counts as plagiarism.
In all of the examples mentioned above, the ideas or work belong to someone else; but what if you wrote the original text or made the original figure? The situation is no different: if you have previously published a paper containing the text or image, then it is considered self-plagiarism to reuse these materials without citing the source. In many cases (for example, if you publish in an open access journal), you own the copyright to your own published material, but this does not mean that you can use it without citing the original source. Citing the original article preserves the integrity of the publication record and helps ensure that other researchers clearly understand the progression and timeline of your research and publications.
What is unethical figure manipulation?
Another relatively common concern in publication ethics is the manipulation of figures in research articles. For example, you may be tempted to crop a gel image so that it shows only lanes that support the conclusions drawn in the paper, and not lanes that show contradicting data. Or, you may consider adjusting contrast and color settings on a microscopy image so that a subtle change appears more striking or significant. Both of these are examples of unethical figure manipulation, as they represent cases in which the data are altered to make them appear differently to the reader than they did prior to your manipulating them.
Some well-known cases of unethical image manipulation have involved researchers modifying a single image in multiple ways (such as inverting it, enlarging it, and/or cropping it) to create several different figures for a single paper. These altered images are then presented as if they came from different experiments, and are used to support a series of separate conclusions. This is a clear example of unethically altering an image to make it seem to support an ‘invented’ conclusion that is not actually based on data.
Best practice in scientific publishing is to use original, unaltered images for each figure in a paper. If the image would benefit from minor cropping to make it easier to interpret (for example, it is common to crop the marker lane off of a gel image), then it is advisable to include the entire uncropped image as a supplemental figure, for full transparency.
Somewhat more difficult to detect than figure manipulation is data fraud, which involves altering or even fabricating data to support a conclusion that differs from what the actual data show. For example, it can be tempting to remove an outlier from a collection of data points so that statistical differences are more dramatic. In extreme cases, some researchers have been known to invent data (such as answers to questionnaires, or specific values) that agree with the conclusion or finding that they want to make.
Clearly, modifying or manufacturing data goes against the fundamental basis of scientific research, which is objectively assessing the evidence and drawing logical conclusions. Recording and presenting data accurately is crucial to the scientific process, and an integral part of publication ethics.
Beyond considering what you include in your paper and where it comes from, who you give credit to is also an important aspect of publication ethics. Questions of authorship can be complicated, and it is important to clearly understand what constitutes an author of a scientific paper and how to report this accurately.
According to the International Committee of Medical Journal Editors, to be an author on a paper, an individual must satisfy all four of the following requirements:
- The individual must have made a substantial contribution to the study;
- The individual must have drafted or reviewed the paper;
- The individual must have approved the final version of the paper; and
- The individual must have agreed to be held accountable for all aspects of the study.
Listing anyone as an author who does not satisfy all of these conditions is considered unethical. Common examples of this include gift authorship or ghost authorship:
- A gift authorship is listing someone as an author who did not substantially contribute to the work; for example, you may be tempted to list your department head as an author in the hopes of positively influencing a promotion decision.
- A ghost authorship, in contrast, is not listing someone who did contribute substantially; for example, if a junior graduate student performed most of the experiments, but is only mentioned in the Acknowledgements (or not at all).
In many cases it is a good idea to discuss authorship before you start writing your paper, or even before you start performing the study. This can help avoid arguments and disagreements later that could lead to violations of publication ethics, whether intentional or not.
In addition to concerns related to preparing your paper for publication, publication ethics also apply to journal submission practices. Some common forms of unethical journal submission include:
- Duplication submission - this means submitting your paper to more than one journal at the same time, or resubmitting a paper that has already been published to a new journal as if it were an original work.
- Overlapping/redundant papers - this refers to papers that are extremely similar, though not identical, such as two papers that analyze the data from a single database to investigate two very closely related questions.
- Salami slicing - similar to overlapping/redundant papers, ‘salami slicing’ is an attempt to create a ‘minimal publishable unit’ by breaking a study down into its smallest findings and attempting to publish each of them as a separate paper.
An important feature common to all of these practices is that they waste the time and resources of the scientific community: it is unethical to ask reviewers to review the same paper (or very closely related papers) more than once, and also consumes the time of editors and editorial staff. In addition, engaging in one of these unethical publication practices, such as salami slicing to inflate your citation index, benefits only you as an individual researcher, and not the scientific community as a whole.
Publication ethics are an integral part of scientific research and publishing, and we offer a number of webinars and workshops to help you better understand this important topic.