The quality of the research record in the form of peer-reviewed journal archives is a reflection of not only the quality of the research publication and correction process, but also the quality of the underlying knowledge creation process. Key to the integrity of the research record are honesty and accountability from all parties involved in governing, performing, and publishing scholarly work. A concerted effort is needed to nurture an ethical research publishing culture by promoting ethical practice, relevant training, and effective systems for responding to allegations of research or publication misconduct. The Committee on Publication Ethics (COPE) is a membership organisation that aims to promote integrity in research publishing, for example, by developing and encouraging best practices to ensure that research is reported ethically, completely, and transparently. COPE uses the Principles of Transparency and Best Practice in Scholarly Publishing as part of its criteria when evaluating publishers and journals as members. Researchers can also make use of these guidelines to assess a journal's quality and to gain insights into what peer-reviewed journals expect from authors. The present article outlines and discusses these guidelines to help life science researchers publish ethically, as well as to identify ethical journals as readers, authors, and reviewers.

Introduction

Scholarly publication in peer-reviewed journals requires that all stakeholders uphold the highest ethical standards. The Committee on Publication Ethics (COPE) is a membership organisation that promotes ethical practice as an integral part of publishing culture by facilitating debate and offering advice and education [1]. COPE membership is cited by the Think-Check-Submit initiative as a sign of a trusted journal [2]. Furthermore, adherence to the Principles of Transparency and Best Practice in Scholarly Publishing [3], co-authored by COPE, the Directory of Open Access Journals, the Open Access Scholarly Publishers Association, and the World Association of Medical Editors, is a criterion for journal indexing by Medline [4]. The 16 principles, which form part of the membership criteria of the four named scholarly organisations, highlight expected business and publishing practices of high-quality peer-reviewed journals. Some of the principles also reflect what quality journals expect from authors. The guidelines were revised in January 2018 to account for the rapidly evolving publishing landscape [3]. In keeping with COPE's mission of assisting all stakeholders in promoting integrity in research and its publication, each of 16 principles is summarised below (in italics) with commentary to help life science researchers publish ethically and identify ethical journals.

Principles of transparency and best practice in scholarly publishing

Website

Does the journal's website and its text demonstrate that care has been taken to ensure high ethical and professional standards?

Researchers should assess website structure, functionality, design, and language. There should be unique international standard serial numbers (ISSNs) for print and electronic versions of the journal, as well as clear ethics policies, author guidelines, and journal details, including aims/scope and that it is peer-reviewed and does not accept submissions that are being reviewed elsewhere or have already been published.

Name of journal

Is the journal's name unique and not misleading?

Researchers should beware of similar-sounding names and ‘hijacked’ journals (fake websites of legitimate journals) and should verify claims of inclusion in indexes such as Medline, Web of Science, Scopus, Directory of Open Access Journals, and COPE.

Peer-review process

Does the journal's website clearly explain the peer-review procedure, without guaranteeing acceptance or very short review times?

Journals should say which article types are peer-reviewed, what peer-review model is used, and (unless review occurs on a public platform) that the process is confidential. Authors should familiarise themselves with current peer-review practices — for example, some journals link published articles to peer-reviewed reports, with or without reviewers' names [5]. Journals may allow authors to recommend people without known conflicts of interest as reviewers or to nominate people who should not be reviewers. However, journals are not bound to adopt those recommendations, and authors should not contact reviewers without the journal's permission.

Ideally, journal websites should provide comprehensive guidelines for peer-reviewers. Such guidelines offer an opportunity for authors to understand what reviewers will assess and to improve manuscripts before submission. In addition, researchers who are invited by a journal to review material should familiarise themselves with the journal's review processes and policies, as well as with general responsibilities of reviewers and ethical peer-review practices [6,7].

Journals should never guarantee acceptance or short review times. Average review times are sometimes displayed, and review times can be estimated if articles show the dates of submission, revision, and acceptance. Peer-review quality should be evaluated by confirming that articles are indeed relevant to the journal's aims/scope and are acceptable in terms of academic quality, logic, language, and ethical oversight (e.g., articles contain statements on ethics approval for human/animal studies and informed consent for human research).

Ownership and management

Is it clear who owns and/or manages the journal?

Researchers should check that journals are owned and/or managed by a reputable society, company, or publisher, any financial relationships are clearly stated, and the editor is given editorial independence.

Governing body

Are full names and affiliations given for members of the editorial board or other governing body, and is their expertise relevant to the journal?

Editorial board composition should reflect the stated geographical and topical scope. Authors and readers could check researcher profile pages on institutional websites to confirm editorships.

Contact information

Are the full name and affiliation of the journal's editor/s provided, as well as full contact details of the editorial office?

Readers and authors should be able to contact the journal and its publisher by telephone, email, and mail.

Copyright and licensing

Does the journal have a clear policy on who owns article copyright and/or if a licence to publish and Creative Commons (CC) user licence are needed? Are copyright and licensing indicated in both HTML and PDF articles? Which version of an article may authors upload to online repositories?

If authors are allowed to retain copyright, the journal should be clear whether it requires an exclusive or non-exclusive licence to publish. Journals should also be clear on how authors can reuse material from their articles for academic purposes and if they may publish under institution or funder open access mandates. A mandate for ‘gold’ open access requires that authors retain copyright and make the article immediately available for free access and reuse, usually under a CC BY attribution licence [8]. Under a ‘green’ open access (self-archiving) mandate, the original submitted version (preprint) or accepted manuscript (postprint) may be uploaded to an open access repository depending on the publisher's policy. Open access postprints may or may not have a CC licence and may be subject to conditions set by the publisher such as an embargo period before upload, added declarations, and linking to the final published file (version of record). Self-archiving and copyright policies of many journals can be found on the SHERPA/RoMEO database [9].

Author fees

Are there any author fees and are they clearly explained?

If authors are charged a fee, they should know the amount and purpose, when it is due, and payment method. For example, a submission fee might be charged to cover desk review and peer-review administration, print journals may require page or colour charges to cover the cost of printing, and online journals may require an article processing (or publishing/publication) charge to be paid after article acceptance for open access publishing. Authors should beware of journals claiming that a fee covers all procedures including copy editing and artwork but then charge additional fees for those services or coerce authors to use specified paid services.

Research misconduct

Does the journal state that it takes reasonable steps to identify and prevent publication of studies where misconduct has occurred and that it handles allegations of research misconduct by following international guidelines such as those of COPE [1]?

Journals may use software to screen for plagiarism and may ask to inspect raw data, original images, and documentation of digital editing, especially in response to allegations of misconduct before or after publication. Researchers should follow local laws, institutional regulations, and guidelines for the responsible conduct of research and not engage in misconduct (falsification, fabrication, and plagiarism) or other unethical practices such as peer-review manipulation or excessive self-citation. Authors should contact the editorial office if they suspect coerced citation — that is, if a journal editor or reviewer requests or requires authors to cite articles that seem to be irrelevant or unnecessary.

Publication ethics

Are there policies on the following?

  • i)  Authorship and contributorship: Researchers should discuss and agree on authorship early in a project based on accepted criteria such as those of the International Committee of Medical Journal Editors [10], list the contributions of each author, and name non-authors in the Acknowledgments.

  • ii) Handling complaints and appeals: Journals should name a contact person and follow international guidelines, such as those from COPE [1], for handling complaints and appeals about editorial decisions and processes, including if authors suspect that a reviewer has appropriated their material [11].

  • iii) Conflicts of interest/competing interests: Journals should have conflicts of interest policies for authors, editors, and reviewers. Researchers should declare potential financial and non-financial conflicts of interest, funding sources, and any role of a funder in the research, analysis, or reporting.

  • iv) Data sharing and reproducibility: Researchers should have a data management plan and keep good research records [12] and may be required to declare if and how data can be made available. Some journals require raw and/or processed data to be uploaded to an open access repository [13] that follows FAIR (findable, accessible, interoperable, and reusable) principles [14]. To discourage practices such as publication bias, incomplete reporting, cherry picking of data, fishing expeditions (data dredging, p-hacking), or hypothesising after the results are known (HARK or HARKing), journals usually require clinical trial preregistration [15], may require the use of reporting guidelines [16], and may invite ‘registered reports’ before study results are known [17]. Authors may also be encouraged or required to share materials, code, protocols, and dataset descriptions [18].

  • v) Ethical oversight: Authors should adhere to international, journal, and institutional ethical guidelines related to human/animal research, handling confidential data, informed consent for study participation and publication of personal data, and research/publication on vulnerable populations and endangered species.

  • vi) Intellectual property: To avoid allegations of plagiarism or redundant or duplicate publication, authors should declare if some or all of the work reported in their manuscript has been previously presented at conferences, published in the same or a different language, or submitted elsewhere, or if they have posted a preprint version. They should understand issues around preprints [19,20] and text recycling [21], and check what a journal views as prior publication and plagiarism. They should cite and reference sources and obtain copyright permission to reproduce their or others' previously published material. Some investigative tools (such as questionnaires and scales) also require permission before use.

  • vii) Post-publication discussions and corrections: Authors should respond to post-publication reviews in a timely and appropriate manner, request corrections or retractions if they identify errors in their published articles, and co-operate with journals and institutions in any investigations.

Publishing schedule

Is the journal publishing frequency stated?

Authors should also check that the current journal issue is on schedule.

Access

Does the journal's website state how readers can access articles and whether a subscription or pay-per-view fee is charged?

Archiving

Does the journal's website state how it backs up content and preserves online access to articles if publication ceases or the website stops operation (e.g. via CLOCKSS, Portico, PubMed Central, or a similar platform)?

Revenue sources

Does the journal state its business model/s or revenue source/s (e.g. author fees, subscriptions, advertising, reprint sales, sponsorship) and that publishing fees and waiver applications are processed separately and do not influence editorial decisions?

Advertising

If the journal accepts print or online advertising, does it have clear and sound policies on what and how advertisements are accepted, and is advertising independent from editorial decisions?

Direct marketing

Is any direct marketing (e.g., solicitation of manuscripts) appropriate, unobtrusive, and honest?

In particular, emails should be professional, clearly state conditions (e.g., peer review, fees, and open access publishing charges payable after acceptance), and not guarantee immediate publication. Researchers who are requested to join an editorial board or submit or review manuscripts [6] should check that their expertise is relevant to the journal and that the journal is legitimate according to the 15 other principles.

Further resources

To be accepted by COPE, a journal must also adhere to the 10 COPE Core Practices and their related guidance and resources [22]. COPE also endorses guidelines and initiatives for improved research reporting, including the Recommendations for the Conduct, Reporting, Editing, and Publication of Scholarly Work in Medical Journals of the International Committee of Medical Journal Editors [10], EQUATOR Network guidelines [16], Good Publication Practice for Communicating Company-Sponsored Medical Research: GPP3 [23], Sex and Gender Equity in Research guidelines of the European Association of Science Editors [24], Responsible Research Publication: International Standards for Authors position statement [25], Contributor Roles Taxonomy (CRediT) [26], and Open Researcher and Contributor ID (ORCID) [27].

Abbreviations

     
  • CC

    creative commons

  •  
  • COPE

    Committee on Publication Ethics

Acknowledgments

Dr Howard Browman, a COPE Council Member, critically reviewed a draft of this manuscript.

Competing Interests

T.L. is an Education and Engagement Consultant for Edanz Group and volunteers as a Council Member of the Committee on Publication Ethics (COPE).

References

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