Before the late ’90s, nobody had ever taken the time to establish a universal code of standards—let alone a committee—for the academic publishing industry. Sure, editors were able to identify isolated instances of misconduct, and most—publishers, authors, peer reviewers, etc.—could discern between right and wrong, but until 1999, no concrete ethical practices had ever been set in stone.
Living in an age where almost all of life's questions can be answered with a quick Google search, it seems difficult to envision an entire industry being so disconnected, forcing editors to handle misconduct independently, on a case-by-case basis, with little to no input from the outside world. However, that's just how academic publishers operated for a long, long time.
Today, let's discuss COPE, the industry's foremost reference on proper, ethical conduct.
COPE (The Committee on Publication Ethics) first met in April of 1997 as a casual collective of editors that had experienced misconduct in their respective fields. Right away, it became apparent the group shared similar concerns – why is publishing misconduct so prevalent, and what can be done to clean up industry ethics?
In 1999, the committee first defined unethical practice while giving advice on how to investigate cases of misconduct. Those details were issued in COPE’s second report, which included Guidelines on Good Publication Practice. These initial guidelines led to an official code of conduct, The Code of Conduct for Editors, which was posted on the committee website in 2004, establishing “the minimum standards to which Editors should strive to adhere.” Core Practices replaced the Code of Conduct in 2017.
Since its inception, COPE has offered additional resources/tools, such as flowcharts, eLearning courses, and webinars, to help editors and publishers maintain ethics within the academic publishing industry. As a nonprofit organization, committee affairs are overseen by its Board of Trustees, who remain responsible for COPE’s day-to-day operations.
The committee’s most noteworthy resources are its cost-free conduct guide, Core Practices, as well as the members-exclusive ethics audit tool.
Two previous codes of conduct were consolidated back in 2017 to form, essentially, the Ten Commandments of ethical publishing, also known as Core Practices. These Core Practices provide academic editors with steps, alongside accompanying resources, to uphold integrity “through policies and practices that reflect the current best principles of transparency.”
Here is a summary of those 10 policies/practices:
- Publications should implement procedures to field and handle claims of misconduct.
- Transparency must be ever-present as to who contributed—in what capacity—to a manuscript.
- Publications should establish how to field complaints, both internal and external, against staff or constituents.
- Conflicts of interest must be clearly defined and reported accordingly.
- Publications should encourage researchers to register and report studies based on their field’s standard practices.
- Policies must exist to address common ethical oversights – such as how to keep data confidential.
- Intellectual property rights—copyright licenses, for example—and publishing fees should be made known to prospective authors.
- Publications must maintain strong infrastructure.
- Peer review services should be well-defined and addressed up front.
- Publications must allow for on-site debate, revising and retracting work as necessary.
COPE also offers an ethics audit tool.
Members can access this resource online and use it to conduct in-house audits on their own editorial policies. This tool makes it simple for editors to comb through their publication’s current procedures, picking out areas that may benefit from further revision or attention. While the committee does appreciate feedback, it isn’t necessary for audit results to be reported to COPE.
Reporting Cases of Misconduct
Members are able to submit noteworthy—unorthodox—cases of misconduct.
Cases, when submitted in advance, become eligible for review at one of COPE's Forum events. The committee welcomes all members to attend or phone-in to its Forums held quarterly in London, UK.
Approved cases will be discussed during these Forums, with all confidential details blinded to allow for in-depth analysis and, as a result, practical advice. Those on the receiving end must then keep COPE and, indirectly, other members updated on how their case turns out post-feedback.
Qualified candidates can apply online to become a member of COPE. To be eligible, applicants must fall under one of three categories – “editors of peer-reviewed academic journals,” “companies that publish peer-reviewed academic journals,” or “individuals or companies . . . who are interested in publication ethics and are working in or associated with the publication of peer-reviewed scholarly journals.”
Subscription rates, which vary based on organization size and output, are made available within the “Membership” section of the committee website. Fee waivers are also made available to select candidates, predominately for publications based in developing countries.