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Good Practices

A guide to handling accusations

Daniel BuenoWhat should a science journal do when it receives an accusation that an author or editor has engaged in misconduct? The Committee on Publication Ethics (COPE), a forum on research ethics for science journal editors, has tried to answer this question by proposing a guide with recommendations pertaining to this kind of situation. According to the discussion document, signed by COPE council member Tara Hoke and by Heather Tierney, of the American Chemical Society, any complaint about alleged ethics violations must necessarily be taken into consideration, even if the complainant has previously made weak or baseless allegations; what matters is the consistency of the accusation, not its source. “Notwithstanding this principle, COPE also finds that investigations of vague, superficial, or unsupported complaints can be wasteful of journal resources and harmful to the scholarly publishing community,” the authors of the document say.

COPE also recommends that all journals have clear, publicly known criteria for handling complaints, accessible in print or online; they should also have internal processes that can address complaints swiftly. One or more individuals should be assigned to review any allegations received. A threshold of evidence that must be met before opening a formal investigation should also be defined. In determining whether this threshold has been met, the first consideration is identifying a specific act of professional misconduct that occurred during research or the publishing process. Differences of opinion or personal or collective disputes do not constitute grounds for opening an investigation, says COPE. The volume and nature of submitted documentation are crucial in evaluating whether there is due cause for investigating the allegation. The accusation should be shelved if it involves matters that were resolved during the review process. If it involves papers published quite some time ago, an investigation should only be opened in very serious, extraordinary cases, given the challenge of locating both people and proof when it comes to very dated facts. In the case of an anonymous accusation, editors should encourage the complainant to identify him or herself, so that the merit of the allegation can be judged.

The COPE document suggests that when an investigation is not opened, complainants should be clearly informed of the reasons. If the complainant persists without offering any new evidence, the journal should reiterate its position. If the person still perseveres with a groundless accusation, the case should move towards application of legal sanctions against defamation. The complainant’s institution should also be notified. The authors of offensive or threatening complaints should be advised that allegations in such language will not be reviewed.