Challenges in publication ethics

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Some editors are failed writers, but so are most writers.TS Eliot (1888-1965)Have you ever wondered what medical journal editors do? Most editors in the medical field are unpaid and the work is part of the wider culture of service provided by so many in the medical profession.Together with the editorial board and the publisher, an editor will decide the direction of the journal. For instance, decisions are made about what sort of material should be published. One of the most common tasks, however, is the daily screening of manuscripts submitted for publication, many of which are rejected without peer review owing to poor quality, redundant material or the subject of the article being beyond the scope of the journal.After deciding which peer reviewers to send an article to, the editor must make a final decision on a manuscript, which may not necessarily concur with the advice given by the reviewers. With this comes a huge amount of personal responsibility and one to the organisation the editor represents.Take the example of George Lundberg, the editor of JAMA: The Journal of the American Medical Association, who was fired from his position after 17 years with the alleged faux pas of rushing to publish an article to coincide with the Clinton impeachment hearings ‘to extract political leverage.’ Lundberg published research showing that 60% of college students surveyed in 1991 did not think that engaging in oral sex was classed as actually ‘having sex.’1 While neither the methods used in the survey nor the results were disputed, the timing of the publication at an awkward political juncture was. Extrapolating this, editors are therefore not just responsible for the content of what is published but also the impact of publications in the wider arena.Editors must also handle a great deal of correspondence, including author queries and complaints, and respond to them in a timely manner. Communication with the team, the publisher, authors and readers is a vital skill.Finally, the editor needs to deal with the journal’s ethical policy when examples of plagiarism, author disputes or other forms of misconduct are evident. Breaches of publication ethics are forms of scientific misconduct that can undermine science and challenge editors, many of whom have little formal training in this field. In this respect, the Committee on Publication Ethics (COPE), founded in 1997 as a voluntary body, has become a central player. COPE provides a discussion forum and advice as well as guidelines for scientific editors with the aim of finding practical ways to deal with forms of misconduct. The Annals is a member of COPE and follows its code of conduct for journal editors.2 It is a privilege that the current chair of COPE, Dr Barbour, and her colleagues have written this final article in the medical publishing series about challenges in publication ethics.I hope you have found this series useful and enjoyed reading the range of articles we have published from many experts in their fields.JYOTI SHAHCommissioning Editor

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