Ethics and Authorship Policies: Best Practices for Journals

by | Jun 1, 2018 | 0 comments

Editor’s Note: This article is part of an ATG Special Issue on author support

Ben Mudrak

By: Ben Mudrak, PhD, Strategic Partnerships Director at Research Square

With the growing number of scholarly journals, there is more and more potentially life-changing research being shared. Unfortunately, there is also temptation among researchers in a“publish or perish” culture to stretch the truth to create a compelling research “story” or to get a paper that may not be entirely publication-ready out the door. In addition, time constraints faced by authors when preparing manuscripts can tempt some toward unethical behavior such as plagiarism or copying figures.

As a journal editor, you can’t possibly guard against every single unethical behavior; some researchers could simply invent data out of thin air, and no amount of careful review would catch that. However, you should clearly articulate your expectations for ethical behavior on the part of authors to put your community on notice that you will be adhering to a high standard and to give authors the information they need to check the ethics of their submissions. Generally speaking, most authors will want to ensure that they are following your journal’s ethical guidelines, and mistakes made by authors can often be somewhat accidental in nature. In order for authors to follow ethical publishing practices journals have to support them by providing clear manuscript and article preparation instructions and dos and don’ts. Below are areas in which you should establish ethics policies for authors and what to include to make them clear.

Plagiarism and originality

One of the most well-known ethical issues in scholarly writing is plagiarism, the practice of copying others’ words and thoughts and passing them off as one’s own. While the vast majority of researchers will inherently know this practice is wrong, there are cultural differences in how plagiarism is defined and perceived. As such, it’s best to be crystal clear that your journal expects submitted work to be completely original, not copied, and that all ideas and conclusions made by others should be properly cited or attributed. If you use iThenticate or another plagiarism detection service, be sure to note that in your journal’s guidelines.

Beyond traditional types of plagiarism, research authors must also take care to avoid the practice of “self-plagiarism.” Self-plagiarism is the practice of copying text from one’s own previous writings for a new paper. While this is generally considered to be better than taking from someone else, it can still create issues when writing a research paper. For one, readers expect each piece of scholarship to be a new contribution to the literature unless otherwise noted. Secondly, the original text may actually be under copyright at the previous journal, creating a legal issue in addition to a moral one. Finally, the entirety of a research paper, including figures, results, and data, should be original. Most journals require the corresponding author to affirm that the results have not been published elsewhere. Likewise, authors should certify that images and figures they use are original or that they have secured permission for their use and acknowledged the original source.

Image manipulation

Alongside copying of previously published figures, more and more authors are engaging in manipulation of images that is indicative of fraud. While a great number of these cases are likely due to author error or inexperience, you should be on alert if you publish a journal with figures that include gels, blots, and microscopy images.

Lay out your expectations for images, and mention that you reserve the right to inspect any images and request original files at any time. If authors cannot (or will not) provide original, unaltered files, their paper could be subject to rejection or retraction.

The Journal of Cell Biology is an industry leader in this area, having carefully examined their own submissions for evidence of improper image manipulation. They offer some best practices in this area. Here are some general guidelines that you can give authors:

  • Authors should not enhance, alter, move, delete, remove, or obscure any specific feature within an image. All adjustments (for example, brightness or contrast) should be made linearly across the entire image.
  • Images from different original sources should be clearly identified within a figure (for example, by using dividing lines or whitespace), not simply spliced against each other.
  • Duplicate images should be acknowledged and used only when necessary (for example, a single control cell image that is used in multiple figures).

Conflicts of Interest and funding disclosure

Because the roles that researchers play at their university and in society can be complex, it is important to acknowledge the potential for conflicts of interest. Ensure that each author considers whether he or she has a potential conflict of interest. If there are no perceived conflicts, the authors should attest to that fact, as well.

Possible conflicts of interest include having financial ties to research, such as being a paid member of the board of a pharmaceutical company, owning stock in a product used in the paper, or receiving honoraria from a corporation whose work is being reviewed or evaluated. For this reason, most journals require the disclosure of all funding sources for the work, or a written attestation that no outside funds were used.

Conflicts of interest are not always financial. For example, an author may have a relative working at a company that is central to the research, or may know a former student who owns the patent to a product the research evaluates. Both of these situations could be perceived conflicts. In short, any relationship which might predicate the authors toward a favorable (or unfavorable) treatment of the research at hand should be disclosed. Most importantly, conflicts do not have to be true to be listed. Even if a behavior could have the potential of creating a conflict of interest, readers should be alerted to it so they can make their own final judgments. You should include a comprehensive conflicts of interest section in your author guidelines and/or publishing instructions.

Ethical approval for research

Research conducted on human subjects or animal subjects should always have prior approval from the appropriate regulatory body. For humans, this is frequently an Institutional Review Board, or IRB. For animals, this approval is provided by the Institutional Animal Care and Use Committee (IACUC) in US institutions. Make clear to authors that approval for research on humans or animals should be noted in the text of the manuscript, alongside specific protocol numbers and identifying information, where appropriate.

Other resources on ethics

COPE, the Committee on Publication Ethics, is perhaps the best-known resource regarding ethical questions that arise in the process of publishing scholarly articles. COPE offers a wealth of free resources, and journals that are members can also bring their specific questions to COPE’s forum for advice.

There are also a few organizations with goals that center on promoting the development of journal editors and providing helpful resources. The Council of Science Editors (CSE) provides a large number of resources that are broadly applicable to journal editors in all disciplines, including a white paper on journal ethics. The International Society of Managing and Technical Editors (ISMTE) focuses broadly on all editorial office staff and likewise shares a number of best practices on running a journal.

Depending on the subject of one’s journal or your location, two other organizations worth investigating include the World Association of Medical Editors (WAME) and the European Association of Science Editors (EASE).

Why you need to have a policy defining authorship

It’s also imperative for academic journals to develop authorship policies so that they have a process for assessing lengthy author lists as well as guidelines for dealing with authorship disputes. This is especially true today, with research projects that are more massive than ever bringing together hundreds or even thousands of researchers (like an article on the Large Hadron Collider at CERN, which had over 5,000 authors).

Gratefully, such author list extremes are rare, but even the average number of authors on biomedical papers in Medline has now reached 5.5, which is quite enough to worry about. It is well worth taking the time to define your authorship criteria and to develop a plan to handle authorship disputes.

How to define authorship

The prevailing standard for defining authorship in scientific publishing comes from the International Committee of Medical Journal Editors (ICMJE). These standards are broadly applicable in journals across disciplines and are a great place to start when creating or iterating on your authorship policy. According to the ICMJE, an author is someone who meets all the following criteria:

  1. Substantial contributions to the conception or design of the work; or the acquisition, analysis, or interpretation of data for the work
  2. Drafting the work or revising it critically for important intellectual content
  3. Final approval of the version to be published
  4. Agreement to be accountable for all aspects of the work in ensuring that questions related to the accuracy or integrity of any part of the work are appropriately investigated and resolved

In short, each author should have made an important contribution that enabled the study to be completed, be aware of how the results were presented, and be willing to stand up for the final manuscript. Beyond your policy for inclusion, it is also best practice to indicate authorship practices that you consider unethical, such as

  • Guest/honorary authorship: inclusion of someone who did not contribute in order to capitalize on their name recognition or out of a sense of obligation
  • Ghost authorship: omission of a rightful author from the final list

To guide the corresponding author to carefully consider whether someone qualifies for authorship, consider asking him or her to indicate the contributions that each author has made to the paper. The recently defined CRediT taxonomy has been used by several journals as a way to clearly demonstrate each author’s role on a given paper.

Presenting the CRediT taxonomy criteria (or a version of them that is appropriate for your journal) front and center keeps your authors on the same page as you. Authorship is incredibly important to career advancement for researchers, so it is important for journals to take it seriously and apply fair and consistent standards to all published works.

Author order

In a handful of fields, authors are listed alphabetically. (These are the easy ones!) However, in many others, the order in which authors are listed has implications for the authors. The first author is generally considered to be the primary contributor, and the last author may be seen as providing general oversight and direction (as the head of the lab, for example). Authors in the middle have contributed sufficiently to be listed on the paper, but perhaps in more limited ways than the primary authors.

To prevent what can be a long, protracted dispute later, it is best to ensure that author order is correct when you first receive a manuscript. The ICMJE recommends getting confirmation from every author listed on the paper that they contributed to the work and agree with the order in which they appear on the author list. Even if this is not possible or practical, be sure to require the corresponding author to confirm that they have verified the final author order with all other authors.


Researchers, or anyone else who has contributed to a paper in a meaningful way, who fall short of the requirements for authorship should still be recognized for their work if possible. Often this takes the form of an “Acknowledgments” section. Although contributorship does not have the career implications that authorship does, it is still a public recognition of work that contributors will appreciate and can benefit from.

Some examples of contributorship include the following:

  • General oversight of a research group
  • Administrative or technical support
  • Writing and editing assistance
  • Assistance in conducting research or analyzing data, but without substantially affecting study design or interpretation (e.g., transcribing survey results)

Outline all ethical expectations

We’ve covered a range of ethical areas that journals should outline for authors. Publication ethics is an area that editors are very familiar with and may assume authors will understand too, but it’s important to keep in mind that authors will have varying levels of publication ethics knowledge. Fulfilling ethical requirements is one area where journals rely heavily on authors and where authors can struggle if they’re not sure of policies or expectations. For this reason, all journals should focus on providing authors comprehensive ethical guidelines.

This article contains ideas outlined in the Guide to Author Management, a free resource for journal editors from Scholastica, Research Square, and American Journal Experts.


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