Streamlining the Handling of Allegations of Ethical Misbehavior

Allegations of ethical misbehavior on the part of scientific authors are nothing new.1 In some instances, the allegations are brought to a journal office’s attention by a reviewer or editor during the peer-review process. In others, they are made after an article’s publication. Allegations can be categorized in many ways but generally are considered under the following headings:2

  • Mistreatment of research subjects.
  • Falsification or fabrication of data.
  • Piracy or plagiarism.

With the advent of plagiarism and image-scanning software and in an environment of growing awareness, the number of ethical issues being reported to journal offices seems to be on the rise, and journals are spending increasing amounts of time and money to review them. However, journal offices and publishers can take several actions to lower the tangible costs (such as costs of staff time, forensic tools, expert opinions, and legal advice) in an attempt to promote ethical behavior among authors and reduce the number of allegations that require followup.

Establish clear policies and make them readily accessible to authors.

A journal’s instructions for authors are an excellent means for communicating acceptable journal standards and policies to authors and giving them mechanisms for contacting the journal office with allegations of suspected misconduct. It can be as simple as including a few paragraphs about journal policies or letting authors know that the journal follows the ethics policies of a committee, such as the International Committee of Medical Journal Editors ( or the Committee on Publication Ethics (COPE,, or the material can be as detailed as a formal conduct policy, such as that published in the Journal of Clinical Oncology author instructions (, that advises authors not only about journal policies but about the mechanism for investigation of allegations and about sanctions for authors who violate journal policies. In addition to publishing editorial policies in its instructions for authors (, the American Physiological Society makes an ethics poster available online to its authors ( The poster provides a list of ethical issues that authors may encounter when preparing a manuscript and recommendations for avoiding them.

If your journal screens manuscripts by using plagiarism-detection or images canning software, a statement about this can be included in your instructions for authors. It will encourage authors to go back and review their work carefully before submission to make sure that all citations are in order and that the journal’s policy on image preparation has been adhered to.

Another way to ensure that authors are aware of journal policies is to have them attest to these policies at the time of submission (either original or revised submission). There are several ways to do that, such as requiring an attestation statement in the cover letter that accompanies the manuscript (in which case the submitting author would be attesting on behalf of all authors), including questions about specific policies on submission forms, or having each author complete an electronic disclosure form stating that he or she is aware of journal policies and acknowledges that the manuscript was prepared and submitted in accordance with these policies.

Educate editors and reviewers and engage them in the process.

It is important to communicate journal policies to editors and reviewers and to ask them to look for potential violations during peer review and report them to the journal office. They can be advised of the policies at Editorial Board meetings, during conference calls, in e-mail messages that ask reviewers to evaluate manuscripts, or in training materials provided to new editors or Editorial Board members. The Council of Science Editors (CSE) and COPE both provide some guidelines for editors and reviewers to consider.2,3

Specific questions regarding journal-policy compliance can also be included on reviewer forms and editor decision forms. For example, if a journal has a policy regarding image preparation (such as no splicing and uploading of original gels as supplemental data), the forms can ask whether in the editor’s or reviewer’s opinion the policy has been followed.

Establish consistent policies about handling of allegations.

Although a journal may not be responsible for undertaking a formal investigation into allegations,4 it is important for it to decide how allegations will be treated so that they can be handled consistently. For example, will all allegations be acknowledged by the journal office, even if they are sent anonymously? Will the editor-in-chief or a specific journal staff member (such as a managing editor or publisher) be the point of contact for allegations? What sanctions will be imposed on authors who have not complied with journal policies or have been found guilty of misconduct by their institution or funding body? The Endocrine Society and the American Society for Clinical Oncology journals provide links to their sanction policies in their instructions for authors ( and

If the journal office determines that an allegation may have merit and that it may be necessary to contact an author, what language will be used in communicating with the author? In communicating with authors, consistency of correspondence is necessary and will save time and effort on the part of the journal office. The correspondence should point authors to journal policies provided in the instructions for authors or to attestation statements that were provided by the authors on submission or during peer review. Letter samples are available on the CSE Web site ( Using template correspondence helps to streamline the process by avoiding the need to “reinvent the wheel” each time it becomes necessary to contact an author.


Processing of allegations of ethical misbehavior requires a good deal of work on the part of a journal office. However, handling such allegations appropriately is necessary to protect the integrity of the scientific literature. By establishing policies for dealing with allegations and making sure that all parties involved in the peer-review process (authors, reviewers, and editors) are aware of the policies, a journal can promote ethical behavior, reduce the number of allegations made against its authors, and streamline the process when followup is necessary.


  1. Babbage C (1830) Reflections on the decline of science in England and on some of its causes. In: Campbell-Kelly M, editor. The Works of Charles Babbage. London Pickering.
  2. Scott-Lichter D and the Editorial Policy Committee, Council of Science Editors. CSE’s White Paper on Promoting Integrity in Scientific Journal Publications, 2012 Update. 3rd Revised Edition. Wheat Ridge, CO: 2012.
  3. A short guide to ethical editing for new editors, 2011 Update. United Kingdom: Committee on Publication Ethics.
  4. Wager E, Kleinert S on behalf of COPE Council. Cooperation between research institutions and journals on research integrity cases: guidance from the Committee on Publication Ethics (COPE). March 2012.

KELLY HADSELL is assistant director, editorial systems and managing editor, American Association for Cancer Research, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.