COPE in 2012

When three British medical editors sat down in London in 19971,2 to consider thorny ethical problems that they were seeing at their journals, they probably did not know that they had just started something that 15 years later would have more than 7000 members around the world and in every conceivable discipline—from medicine to mathematics to dance studies to police negotiations. The primary purpose of COPE (the Committee on Publication Ethics, remains the same as in 1997—to be a group of peers who provide advice and education to editors and publishers on all aspects of publication ethics and, in particular, how to handle cases of research and publication misconduct. Although the original purpose remains, much else has changed. COPE has changed its logo (from a rather Orwellian red eye to an abstract representation of a bookshelf); overhauled its Web site three times; organized itself to have officers, dedicated staff, and an elected global council3 ; run almost 60 forums on three continents (mostly in the United Kingdom) at which more than 400 cases have been discussed; run more than 20 seminars on three continents (this year will have them on a fourth); and dealt with hundreds of inquiries. It has developed 17 flowcharts4 (the brainchild of my predecessor, Liz Wager, and COPE’s most popular resource), which are available in 12 languages, and a number of guidance and discussion documents. It has participated in the development of ethical guidelines in a number of settings.5 COPE is now a professionally run, closely overseen organization that is constituted as a company and a charity in the United Kingdom and takes enormous pride in the services that it provides to its member editors and publishers. What is behind the expansion? Has the world of publishing, perhaps driven by the transforming nature of the Internet, become in 15 years a corrupt place where papers cannot be trusted and editors need an armory of tools to defend themselves against scheming authors? Although electronic publishing has contributed to the ease of both perpetrating and detecting ethical issues, I would argue that COPE’s expansion is a reflection of the essentially human nature of the publishing world and reflects changes in both editors and publishing more broadly. Where does COPE fit into this world? There is a misconception that COPE is a regulatory body, but it is not. Rather, it is an organization with a voluntary membership (although many journals are now signed up en masse by publishers). It does not investigate individual cases but encourages member editors and publishers to ensure that cases are investigated appropriately. In addition to the flowcharts (which cover a variety of topics from plagiarism to reviewer misconduct) and guidance documents (for example, on retractions), it provides an online e-learning course6 (new in 2011), a quarterly newsletter,7 and a blog on publication ethicsrelated issues. It is active on Twitter (@ C0PE) and on Facebook and Linkedin. To raise standards in publication ethics, it has developed codes of conduct for journal editors and publishers. All COPE members are expected to follow the codes, and COPE considers complaints that members have not followed them. It has probably never been harder to be an editor. Authors, driven by the need to secure funding and by requirements from their institutions, are increasingly desperate to publish. In many fields, scholarly work itself is becoming more complex and involves multiple collaborators. Two of the first three editors who came together to form COPE were professional editors, with Lancet and BMJ), and the third was the editor of Gut, but the vast majority of current editors are not professional editors, and may have had little (if any) exposure to publication ethics issues before taking up their posts. What seems evident in the editors who come to COPE forums and seminars is a desire to learn about those issues and to do the right thing. It is hoped that that this desire can become part of a larger movement, also driven by organizations like CSE, toward a recognition that scholarly editing, even if done part time, is a professional endeavor, one in which specific skills and knowledge are essential, and one in which knowledge of publication ethics is crucial.


  1. Committee on Publication Ethics. History of COPE.
  2. Committee on Publication Ethics. Ethical Editing: 15 years of COPE! Vol 4, No 1, Spring 2012.
  3. Committee on Publication Ethics. Council members.
  4. Committee on Publication Ethics. Flowcharts.
  5. Committee on Publication Ethics. International standards for editors and authors.
  6. Committee on Publication Ethics. eLearning.
  7. Committee on Publication Ethics. Ethical editing newsletter.

GINNY BARBOUR is chief editor, PLOS Medicine; medicine editorial director, PLOS; and chair, COPE