EASE Conference Report: Integrity in Science Communication

Editor’s note: The European Association of Science Editors (EASE) held its 10th General Assembly and Conference, “Integrity in Science Communication”, 16–19 September 2009, in Pisa, Italy. The following report on the conference is reprinted, with permission, from European Science Editing, the EASE journal. Dario Sambunjak (DS) is senior editor of the Croatian Medical Journal, and Richard Hurley (RH) is a technical editor at the BMJ. The report originally appeared in the November 2009 issue of European Science Editing (35(4):98–100). It has been lightly adapted to suit Science Editor.

Dario’s View

On a very wet day in September 2009, a number of editors had foregathered at Pisa and the particular occasion was a kind of symposium on integrity in scientific communication, held in the middle of one of Italy’s most beautiful towns. We sat in a hall while discussion raged on the application of the terms integrity, copyright and misconduct; the rain and the wind like the discussion, waxed in intensity, and under the unusual superincumbent weight, whether of mere flesh and bone or of intellect, the surface of the hall was slowly sinking until we were all half-way up to our knees in questions.

Something Odd

Some readers may have sensed that there is something odd with the first paragraph of this report. Perhaps the language is a bit old-fashioned? Or is the style unusual for conference reports? The peculiarity of the introduction actually relates to the fact that the first author of this report, a poor nonnative English speaker, was given the formidable task of writing a draft of the report from the 10th General Assembly and Conference of the European Association of Science Editors. The poor author did not know how to begin, so he just used a piece of text he found in a recent issue of The Write Stuff, the journal of the European Medical Writers’ Association, and modified it slightly. He did not provide a reference, because he felt that would be unusual in a conference report. Moreover, the original text was written back in the 1930s and the editor-in-chief of Science Editor would probably not be very impressed with such an outdated reference, so the first author of this report decided that there was no point in referencing. The second author, an experienced native English speaker, did not have time to carefully look at the first paragraph before the report was submitted to this journal, so he failed to notice anything suspicious.

This small vignette exemplifies the kind of problems that were discussed by the participants of the 10th EASE conference, held in Galileo’s home town. The inaugural speaker, Ele Ferrannini from the University of Pisa, reminded his fellow editors that they serve as traffic lights between the author and the public, both lay and expert, who rightly expect research to be responsibly conducted and reported. Kirsty Meddings from CrossRef presented a helpful tool (CrossCheck) to detect possibly plagiarized bits of text, such as the one in the introduction of this report.

Just Cultural Differences?

But what if the author stands up and exclaims that he has done no wrong when he used the words of an illustrious predecessor writer? Do different cultures interpret the words scientific integrity differently? This question was discussed at an afternoon session on the second day of the conference. Eric Lichtfouse, the editor of the French journal Agronomy for Sustainable Development, presented his experiences in dealing with authors from what he called the “north” and “south” worlds, without being able to draw a clear geographic line between the two. Listeners might have concluded that there is a bit of both “worlds” in every country, perhaps even in every researcher. Lichtfouse said that a smart editor should be familiar with various cultures and adapt their communications to authors’ origin.

Nevertheless, there are some universally accepted standards and rules of scientific publishing, and Karen Shashok, a freelance author’s editor from Spain, explained how she used the AuthorAID concept to bring those standards to researchers in Iran. She pointed out that the goal of AuthorAID is to empower inexperienced authors, rather than just help them publish a manuscript.

A similar mission was undertaken by the Journal of the International AIDS Society (JIAS), as we heard from Shirin Heidari. By providing a costfree, open-access publishing platform and training and mentoring to authors, JIAS is working to overcome the ethically dubious but still prevalent underreporting of research from low- and middle-income countries.

Scientific publishing seems to be prone not only to biases related to the level of economic development or geographic position. The findings presented by Amber Budden from the US National Center for Ecological Analysis and Synthesis show that the bias can also be gender related. Budden emphasized the importance of making and publishing journal statistics regularly, so that such biases can be identified.

Another possible threat to the integrity of scientific publishing is related to undisclosed conflict of interest. Thomas Babor from the journal Addiction proposed a common standard for disclosure of conflict of interest and suggested that nonfinancial conflict of interest, such as academic rivalries or political and religious beliefs, may be equally important to disclose.

Crime and Punishment

With all the potential and real breaches of scientific integrity, a question naturally arises: how to punish the wrongdoers? In a soccer game, unfair play and rule-breaking can be dealt with by sending the player out of the game. Perhaps inspired by their nation’s admirable soccer history, two French PhD students, Claire Ribrault and Thomas Julou, have developed Scientific Red Cards, a Web site listing scientific publications for which misconduct has been assessed by legitimate institutions (www.scientificredcards.org). In the same session, Paul Evans from Elsevier explained how red cards work in the business world: employees involved in a recent scandal with Elsevier journals were fired, he said. Afterwards, Christiaan Sterken, professor of astronomy at the Vrije Universiteit Brussel, showed some examples of how poor supervision in academe can lead to scientific misconduct. The audience felt that the business model of red cards (“getting fired”) should sometimes also be applied in academic institutions.

On the last day of the conference, the presentation by David Vaux from La Trobe University, Australia, was almost like a cold shower. He showed several examples of obviously falsified figures published in various biomedical journals, which could have been detected before publication if anyone had taken the trouble to look more closely. Vaux’s presentation was literally, as one participant commented, “an eyeopener”.

Richard’s View

“As theories age they become prejudice,” cautioned the world-renowned professor of internal medicine Ele Ferrannini, in the first plenary, reflecting on his 4-year editorship of Diabetologia. He illustrated his point with Rembrandt’s painting The Anatomy Lesson of Dr Nicolaes Tulp: only one of the seven students is watching the surgical teacher demonstrate the action of the forearm’s tendon; the others are looking at a textbook (tinyurl.com/yz9g27j).

And so started the 10th annual Conference of the European Association of Science Editors, in Pisa, Italy, on 16 September. In the shadow of the famous tower, which convinced Galileo Galilei to challenge the scientific beliefs of his time, more than 100 delegates from 14 countries met for 4 days to question the dogma that surrounds the communication of science. Most delegates were from Europe, but some came from as far as Australia, China, Iran, Russia, and South Korea to attend sessions on the theme of integrity in science communication.

Ferrannini, from the University of Pisa, went on to explain how the current information overload is the result of super-specialization in science and the pressure on journals to publish highly citable papers to raise both impact factors and the chances of appeal to a sensationalist lay press. He said that increases in openness, such as publishing authors’ disclosure of conflicting interests and full data sets in medical science, represent a loss of privacy for authors—and patients.

Kirsty Meddings, from CrossRef, talked about the CrossCheck system for identifying plagiarized material, making use of Tom Lehrer’s song: “Plagiarize/Let no one else’s work evade your eyes/Remember why the good Lord made your eyes/So don’t shade your eyes/But plagiarize, plagiarize, plagiarize/Only be sure always to call it please ‘research’.”

Parallel Sessions

In the first parallel session, Christiaan Sterken, from the Vrije Universiteit Brussel, spoke about the peer-reviewed Journal of Astronomical Data, founded in an attempt to solve the problem of non-publication of full data sets in astronomy (www.vub.ac.be/STER/JAD/jad.htm). Without such attempts, data are lost when researchers die or the storage media become obsolete. Linus Svensson went on to ask whether journals should insist on submission of full data with papers, citing advantages of data security but disadvantages of cost—and should it really be up to journals anyway?

Amber Budden talked about bias in peer review, specifically bias related to the sex of researchers. She presented evidence that double-blind peer review can reduce this bias. Thomas Babor, associate editor of Addiction, outlined the attempts by the International Committee of Medical Journal Editors (ICMJE) to introduce a common form for authors’ reporting of potential financial and non-financial conflicts of interest, to encourage a consistent standard among journals. This might reduce the phenomenon of authors’ shopping around for a journal with less stringent policies. Babor’s editorial on this has been recently published and is supported by several commentaries, all freely available (see Addiction 2009;104:1777–8, doi:10.1111/j.1360-0443.2009.02768.x).

In a further parallel session, Linus Svensson asked delegates to reflect on what makes an author and whether the concept of authorship is obsolete. The record number of authors for a single paper may be 2512, in the discipline of particle physics (Physics Report 2006;427:257-454). A move to a statement of contributorship may be one solution, but would researchers accept a move away from the traditions of first and last authors? Lorna Fay, from Pfizer, talked about improving transparency in peer-reviewed publications from her perspective in industry. Guest authorship (naming an author who does not meet the authorship criteria) may affect as many as one-fifth of articles. Ghost authorship, where an individual who meets authorship criteria is unnamed, may affect as many as one-tenth of published articles. Pfizer is committed to following ICMJE guidelines on authorship, she said. Elise LangdonNeuner went on to explain how authors disagree on what constitutes authorship and that guidelines that give a veneer of transparency but without enforcement are merely paying lip service. She went on to propose that ghostwriters should be named and that their pay should be published in the papers to which they contribute, because some astronomical sums suggest work that must go beyond writing and edit ing. Delegates who work for medical communications companies expressed unease at having their fees disclosed.

Reme Melero, Paola De Castro, Sylwia Ufnalska, and Françoise Salager-Meyer put on a little show to illustrate the problems of communication between speakers of different languages, and their parallel sessions went on to promote integrity through use of the Vancouver style for references and a project to standardize common editorial guidelines through translation.

In one of the last parallel sessions, on public perception of science, John Joyce of the Marine Institute, Dublin, Ireland, explained how researchers and journals can get the lay media’s attention with his talk about scientific storytelling. Using the lay media to publicize scientific research can influence public opinion and funding. The hook is the catchy opening, which grabs the reader’s attention; the line is the bulk of your article, including quotes for color; and the sinker is a strong ending.

Outside the Sessions

Illustrating a theory: Rembrandt’s The Anatomy Lesson of Dr Nicolaes Tulp.
Illustrating a theory: Rembrandt’s The Anatomy Lesson of Dr Nicolaes Tulp.

Outside the sessions, delegates enjoyed the pretty town of Pisa, the coffee and pastries, and the sumptuous conference dinner, with a menu chosen by Paola De Castro. The conference wouldn’t have been the same without Sammi Jeffrey’s working around the clock to deliver each day’s conference newsletter, Editorre Indipendente. And many thanks and all best wishes to Sheila Evered, the powerhouse behind the conference, who announced that she is stepping down. The presenters’ slides, subject to their approval, are being posted at www.ease.org.uk.

The Italian media reported the conference in print, online, and on local television (Telegranducato and Canale 50). See the “Rassegna stampa” section of the Web site of the Municipality of Pisa (www.comune.pisa.it), www.pisanotizie.it/index.php/news/agenda_20090911_congresso_editoria_scientifica.html (tinyurl.com/yfd8hnr), eccolatoscana.myblog.it/archive/2009/09/16/pisa-editoria-scientifica.html (tinyurl.com/yjgj5eu), and www.universy.it/universita/appuntamenti/i_professionisti_dell_editoria_scientifica_si_incontrano_a_pisa_al_convegno_internazionale_dell_ease-1673.html (tinyurl.com/ylhdd34).

Contributions: DS wrote the first draft of the report waiting at the airport on his way back home from the conference, while RH was still enjoying the sunny weather in Italy. Afterwards, RH had to use all his editorial skills to figure out what DS actually wanted to say and to make the article intelligible for native English speakers (while making it unintelligible for nonnative English speakers, says DS).

Conflicts of interest: DS and RH are members of the EASE Publications Committee and had to attend the committee meeting in Pisa under most difficult weather conditions. They got their travel expenses reimbursed, but their mental anguish and physical suffering were not remunerated.

They also received no honoraria for all the effort invested in the writing of this report, so don’t even think about complaining about its quality.

Acknowledgments: We did not ask permission to paraphrase a piece of text from RL Praeger’s 1937 book “The Way That I Went: an Irishman in Ireland” (Dublin: Allen Figgis; 1980) that we found in The Write Stuff, 2009, vol. 18, No. 2, p. 101. Still, we hope that our friend and colleague Elise Langdon-Neuner, editor of The Write Stuff, will not take any legal actions against us.

Apologies: We sincerely apologize to all the conference speakers that we failed to mention in this report. This failure is only due to our poor writing abilities, not to their presentations.