|Year : 2017 | Volume
| Issue : 2 | Page : 101-103
Publication explosion and ethics: A cause of concern
Department of Health Research, Indian Council of Medical Research-National Institute of Traditional Medicine, Government of India, Belagavi, Karnataka, India
|Date of Web Publication||30-May-2017|
Department of Health Research, Indian Council of Medical Research-National Institute of Traditional Medicine, Government of India, Belagavi - 590 010, Karnataka
Source of Support: None, Conflict of Interest: None
|How to cite this article:|
Roy S. Publication explosion and ethics: A cause of concern. Indian J Health Sci Biomed Res 2017;10:101-3
If there is a currency in the “business” of academic research and scholarship, it is ought to be “publications.” The value of each publication, just like a currency note or coin, is different and varies on a number of factors. Academic publications generally describe articles which distribute research and scholarship most often done as a journal article, book, or thesis. The part that is not formally published but merely printed and distributed or posted on the internet is referred to as “gray literature.” Most scientific and scholarly journals and books are based on some form of peer review or editorial refereeing to qualify texts for publication. Peer review quality and selectivity standards vary greatly from journal to journal, publisher to publisher, discipline to discipline, and even time to time. As with the conduct of any research study, there are moral principles that set the standard for publications of the results of a given study. These moral principles or values, when applied to publication process and review, are called publication ethics.
Publication ethics is all about ethical behavior in writing and submitting a scientific manuscript for publication, typically in a peer-reviewed journal. Therefore, the moral principles that govern a researcher's activity and publication of the results thereof are of prime importance. Readers trust the authors and it is this trust on their findings that guide further research and scholarship across the world. This trust stems from a chain consisting of the professor's/scientist's trust on research scholars, trust of the universities/institutions on their professors/scientists, trust of the peer reviewers on the authors, trust of the editors on the reviewers, and finally trust of the publishers on the editors. Any act resulting in breach of this trust amounts to scientific misconduct. The most commonly encountered breaches of such ethical principles in publication are concerned with the originality of the work, reproducibility/authenticity of data, plagiarism, conflict of interest, confidentiality, and authorship.
It is expected that all published articles should provide clearly written, transparent descriptions of how the research was carried out, results were obtained, and conclusions were drawn based on the use of appropriate methodology and analysis tools. It therefore follows that reporting of such research would be truthful, unbiased, and provide enough details on the methodology so as to allow others to replicate the work. Since information from medical research in general and clinical trials in particular often influences decisions regarding patient care and health policy, it is imperative to ensure that lack of transparency, clarity, or completeness in the writing of a report arising from factors such as individual biases, competition for funding, interest in career advancement, and for drug companies, profitability, does not compromise publication ethics.
The onus of ensuring the minimum standard of publication ethics is not only limited to the authors, but also to the funders of the work (including government, foundation, and industry sponsors), the host institutions, and to journal editors and peer reviewers, who carry out the final check on the quality of the research before it is published. Most reputed journals have ensured higher quality research by stipulating specific requirements for authors, for example, requiring registration of clinical trials and requiring adherence to published guidelines for reporting certain types of medical studies. Most journals have policies in place for dealing with scientific misconduct or ethical breaches. Unfortunately, transparency has often been found lacking. To address this issue, several initiatives have been taken by various groups.
The Committee on Publication Ethics (COPE), established in 1997 by a small group of journal editors in the UK, has at present over 10,000 members worldwide that include editors of academic journals and others interested in publication ethics (https://publicationethics.org). COPE not only provides advice to editors and publishers on various aspects of publication ethics, but it also advises them on how to handle cases of research and publication misconduct. Although COPE does not investigate individual cases, it serves as a forum to discuss these cases and encourages editors to ensure that each case is investigated by the appropriate authorities.
A joint meeting of the Berkeley Initiative for Transparency in the Social Sciences, Science magazine, and the Center for Open Science (http://cos.io) in November 2014 resulted in the creation of a set of guidelines using several categories of openness as requirements for publication which is referred to as the TOPS guidelines, an introduction to which, authored by a group of researchers, journal editors, funders, and society leaders, was published on June 26, 2015 in Science.
The Enhancing the QUAlity and Transparency of Health Research (EQUATOR) Network, an international initiative launched in 2008, is a resource for scientists, editors, and institutions wanting to define the best practices in reporting of medical research (www.equator-network.org). EQUATOR offers design-specific guidelines for scientific reporting to editors, authors, and educators. Developers of EQUATOR guidelines took special consideration of issues arising out of nonreporting of negative studies, selective reporting of outcomes in studies, omission of information in describing research methods and interventions, inadequate reporting of adverse events, and misleading presentations of results and data, all of which led to a potential “spin” in the medical literature., The reporting guidelines for the main study types include CONSORT for randomized clinical trials, requiring a checklist and prospective trial registration; STROBE for observational studies; PRISMA for systematic reviews; STARD for diagnostic/prognostic studies; and CARE for case reports, along with their extensions.
Over the past few decades, the number of active, peer-reviewed journals has increased manifold to an estimated 28,000, collectively publishing more than 1.8 million articles per year. While most of these journals were available only on paper till the mid-1990s, they are now mostly accessible online, often through subscription. Online dissemination not only increased the reach, but it also served as an impetus for the open-access movement witnessed in the recent years. However, as a result of rapid growth of the scientific publishing business, predatory journals have mushroomed, primarily with the intent of earning quick money through “publication charges” and/or “page charges.” Most of these journals are not even indexed in well-accepted abstracting services and reputed indexing agencies. While some may have some sort of peer review process, their adherence to guidelines and publication ethics has always been questionable. At present, the menace of fake journals has taken such a large proportion that predatory journals have been likened to “academic pollutants.” Publications in these journals are not only pulling down the quality of publications, but are also effectively damaging the quality of research and research ethics worldwide.
India found a place among the top six countries contributing the most in scientific publications in the last decade. India along with China are in fact the only two developing countries in the top six. Unfortunately, India also features among the major contributors of articles published in poor-quality, predatory open-access journals. In a recently published study, it has been reported that, during a 6-month period from September 2015 to mid-February 2016, private/government colleges in India contributed about 51% of articles in predatory journals, followed by private universities that contributed 18%, state universities contributed 15%, and national institutes 11%. Among the national institutes publishing in the predatory journals, ICAR contributed 17%, CSIR contributed 15%, NITs contributed 11%, IITs 9% while ICMR accounted for 6%. More importantly, in the same study conducted on 480 authors of these articles, 20% claimed that they were unaware of the fact that they were publishing in predatory journals. Almost 10% admitted to have published in these journals knowingly. As much as 70% of respondents were not willing to answer the question. This particular study points out to gaping issues in ethics and publication-related education among researchers. The study also opens up several questions on the circumstances that forced the 10% researchers to knowingly publish in these journals and why the 70% researchers declined to answer the question. While academic pressure and lack of stipulated and/or uniform ethical standards of publication in Indian institutions might be important contributors, answers to these questions are urgently needed to devise strategies to plug in these gaping wounds in research publication from India.
Guidelines on publications and its ethics thereof need to adapt and change with the fast-changing socioeconomic and academic environment. While the onus of setting standards for academic publishing is on funding agencies and statutory/governing bodies/authorities of educational and research establishments, individuals, scientists, professors, students, and other academicians must ensure that they are vigilant on the issue and do not compromise on the ethical standards of research.
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