How to avoid misconduct in research and publishing

A new program and interactive website educates early-career researchers about their role in advancing science with good ethical standards

Ethics in Research & Publishing website

Ethics in Research & Publication is Elsevier's new program for early-career researchers.

When Mary Kate Donais was asked to review a manuscript as a research student at a government laboratory, she noticed the introductory paragraph was taken from a grant proposal she had submitted months earlier.

"It wasn't even original research; it was definitely a lazy attempt at trying to do something," recalled Dr. Donais, now Associate Professor of Chemistry at St. Anselm College in Manchester, New Hampshire. "It was an eye-opener that there are people who would make a poor decision like that."

Plagiarism, authorship disputes and research fraud are just a few of the forms of misconduct young researchers encounter, often without the skills and guidance to deal with them. Some researchers unknowingly cross ethical boundaries themselves because they don't know what the boundaries are. Students and young researchers may not be aware of what constitutes a breach and how just one violation — even through lack of knowledge — can affect their career and society at large. Scientific research is used to make decisions about everything from medical treatment to government spending on infrastructure and the environment.

Despite growing awareness and focus on the issue of ethical misconduct in research and publishing, more and more cases are being detected. And although publishers are introducing new and effective tools to detect plagiarism and duplicate submissions, better prevention strategies are needed to teach those new to the scientific community what to avoid.

With this need in mind, Elsevier colleagues formed an internal team to figure out how best to add to the resources that are already in place. Employees with expertise in publishing ethics, author communications, editor and librarian relations gathered to share their perspectives, brainstorm, and assemble an independent advisory panel of experts well-versed in current ethical issues and the evolving approaches to solving them. This Ethics Advisory Panel vetted ideas and materials for the site, presented workshops, and will also be hosting live webinars for young researchers as the program rolls out.[note color="#f1f9fc" position="right" width=400 margin=10]

Ethics Advisory Panel

Dr. David Rew, Medical Subject Chair, Scopus Content Selection and Advisory Board and Consultant General Surgeon with Southampton University Hospitals, UK.

Professor Alexander T "Sandy" Florence, Editor in Chief, International Journal of Pharmaceutics and Emeritus Professor of Pharmacy, University of London.

Ole Gunnar Evensen, Assistant Director, University of Bergen Library, Norway.

Professor Margaret Rees, Secretary of the Committee on Publication Ethics (COPE), UK Editor in Chief of Maturitas, Emeritus Reader in Reproductive Medicine in Oxford.

For more on the panel, visit the website's Experts' Corner.[/note]

The result of this collaboration is Ethics in Research & Publication (, an interactive program that emphasizes the individual researcher's contribution to advancing science through integrity and good ethical standards. It also highlights the impact misconduct can have on the science community as a whole and on one's career.

The overarching program message is "Make your research count. Publish ethically."

To make this message resonate, the team looked for creative ways to address the concerns of young researchers while conveying the wisdom of those who have been in their shoes.

The website features:

  • An interactive quiz to test your ethics IQ
  • A toolkit with downloadable fact sheets and materials that answer the question, "What should you do to avoid misconduct in specific situations?"
  • A poster: 'Top 5 Reasons to Publish Ethically

At the heart of the program are interviews and personal viewpoints from researchers who have witnessed or been victims of misconduct. One of them is Mary Kate Donais, whose story can be found in the From the Community section on the website.[note color="#f1f9fc" position="right" width=400 margin=10]

What's your story?

Have you ever experienced ethical misconduct?

If you have a story you would like to share for possible publication on the Ethics in Research & Publication website, you can submit it via the Connect link.

To submit a story idea to Elsevier Connect, email Editor-in-Chief Alison Bert (

And please feel free to continue the conversation in the comment section below.[/note]

Another researcher who was interviewed, now an assistant research professor in California, recalled the time when he was a post-doc in a foreign country. "I was suggesting experiments, and the host/Principal Investigator (PI) said they were a waste of time, but I was convinced they were a good idea," he said. "Against the will of the PI, I pursued the idea and showed and proved with first preliminary data that this was worth following up."

Eventually the project was approved. That's when the trouble began.

"All of a sudden in a lab meeting, I see this manuscript shifting from one of the researchers who was now in charge of the project to the PI," he recalled. "I was completely baffled because I hadn't been consulted on what was, in my eyes, my project. … When I asked to see the manuscript I was told 'not to worry about it.' When I said I do need to worry about it because it is my project, I was told it wasn't my project.Ole Gunnar Evensen and Catriona Fennell

Ole Gunnar Evensen with Catriona Fennell at the Euroscience Open Forum conference in Dublin[/caption]

After a "heated exchanged," he was eventually listed as the third author, he said, although he was prohibited from giving input, and the manuscript was submitted without his recommendations. The full interview is on the program website.

"Ethical issues are a shared problem for all involved in research and publishing," said Catriona Fennell, Director of Publishing Services for STM Journals at Elsevier and one of the main drivers behind the program. "We felt our strongest impact would be in providing the tools to help researchers learn the 'rules' and how to comply with them."

The program was launched with a series of workshops at the 2012 Euroscience Open Forum (ESOF) in Dublin, given by advisory panel member Ole G. Evensen. In Evensen's words: "Our goal is simple: to educate students on publishing ethics so well that no one can ever claim 'I didn't know better.'" Mary Kate Donais

When asked about what impact her own experience has had on her career today, Dr. Donais said: "I use it as a lesson with my students. … I talk to them about what's involved and the honesty and ethics behind it — whether it's borrowing some phrasing for an introductory paragraph or something more significant, like tweaking data a little bit to make it look better, or discarding data just because it doesn't fit with the rest of the data. I reinforce that they have to be honest with their laboratory work and their written work."

The Ethics & Research in Publication website will be continuously updated with expert commentary, real-life stories, and new tools. If you have a story you would like to share or a question about ethics for one of our experts, please let us know by using the "connect link" on the program's website.

Why publish ethically?

Here are some thoughts from members of the research community:Saima Memon

"Telling the truth is not necessarily a guarantee that one will get appreciation but it will surely contribute to the advancement of science in (the) right direction." — Saima Memo, Assistant Professor, Institute for Advanced Research Studies in Chemical Studies, University of Sindh, Pakistan

"Truth and reliability are the keystones of academic research. If the ethical bounds are breached, then you get a false sense of progress which will do much more harm than good in the long run." — Norm Hutcherson, Librarian, California State University, Bakersfield, USA Samuel Flaxman

"Graduate students and even many post docs often enter the world of scientific publishing without much guidance about ethics in publishing. Sometimes, they find out the hard way that their expectations aren't considered "ethical" by established scientists. Crystal clear, specific guidelines about publishing ethics would be a welcome addition to the training of the majority of graduate students, and, if effective, would minimize a lot of mental anguish and wasted time." — Samuel Flaxman, Assistant Professor, University of Colorado at Boulder, USA

For more comments, visit the From the Community section of the program's website.[divider]

The Authors

Inez van Korlaar

Linda Muskat Rim As Director of Project Management for STM Journals Marketing at Elsevier, Inez van Korlaar is responsible for the global marketing projects for the STM journals department, which includes outreach to researchers in their role as an author. She is based in Amsterdam.

As a consultant to Elsevier, Linda Muskat Rim worked with the team to develop the Ethics in Research & Publication program. She is principal of LMR Marcom, a communications consultancy specializing in STM publishing, health advocacy and pharmaceutical public relations. She is based in New York.

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6 Archived Comments

Philippe September 29, 2012 at 10:45 pm

It is quite difficult to be ethical when the job market is not ethical whatsoever. What counts nowadays is the number of publications, not their quality and the higher impact possible. I see many people that got ahead of me because they had a long list of articles and when I look carefully to the papers they are basically 3 or 4 papers rewritten 5 times in different journals. Being in a precarious position (Post-doc) doesn't give you much choice sometimes and does not encourage to be methodical and careful.

I have been ask already a few times to publish results which were preliminary results and were not checked. So far it turns out they were OK.

And the question is why should I care? When I don't manage to get a permanent position because other people have more publications than me? why should I care when I see people publishing papers with 'tweaked' results and getting projetcs founded thanks to these papers? why should I care when people use my work as their own because I am just a non-permanent member of staff so officially I am not allowed to be put on proposals? Why should I care about being ethical when the more ethical I am the less are my chances to continue in research?

I'd like someone to answer my questions....

Alison Bert October 3, 2012 at 7:03 pm

Philippe, thank you very much for your comment. I showed it to my colleagues who are involved with this program. There is a lot to consider here, but they are working on a response and hope to post it soon.

Inez van Korlaar October 16, 2012 at 8:46 pm

Hi Philippe,

First of all, let me apologize for the late answer and thank you for your very important question. It raises an issue many post-docs today wrestle with in regards to the pressure to publish.

The short answer, as cliché and unfair as it may sound, is that by acting ethically, we can impact the world and our own lives for the better. When we don't care and we don't act ethically--particularly when it comes to research and publishing misconduct—there may be severe repercussions. Your peers who cut corners to get published may get rewards now, but there is no guarantee that their actions won't come back to haunt them. Just because the repercussions aren't evident now, doesn't mean there won't be any.

There are some very serious consequences of unethical behavior on a global scale, even if not felt immediately. Submitting duplicate manuscripts for publication, salami slicing, and tweaking data are all forms of misconduct that ultimately cost us.

The value of a good reputation through integrity cannot be overestimated. The fact that you haven't followed in your peers' footsteps speaks volumes. As you state, the "job market is unethical", but that doesn't mean we shouldn't care about doing the right thing. The consequences on all levels are simply not worth the risk.

All the best in your career,


Inez van Korlaar December 21, 2012 at 8:19 am

Dear GC

Thanks very much for your thoughtful comments. I agree there should be clear guidelines for authorship, which is often a grey area in publication ethics. While there is no universal definition of authorship, an “author” is generally considered to be an individual who has made significant intellectual contribution to the study. I would recommend you to have a look at the following website, which provides good guidelines: Uniform Requirements for Manuscripts Submitted to Biomedical Journals: Ethical Considerations in the Conduct and Reporting of Research: Authorship and Contributorship. Available at:


GC December 20, 2012 at 3:36 pm

Discussing these matters early in projects is crucial. A former Ph.D. student of mine wished to "hop on a paper" and tried to fake information, even though the project was clearly being done by two other people in the lab. Thankfully the ombudsman saw through this conduct and did not allow it.

Keeping clear labelled and dated lab books and informatic data is crucial as that will allow one to prove who did the work.

It must be said that one major problem are the vastly differing attitudes between MD and PhDs when it comes to what merits authorship. Many doctors consider that being in the same department merits authorship and are comfortable with being a co-author for having done nothing.

Guidelines should be clearly communicated and adhered to.

GC December 20, 2012 at 3:40 pm

In my opinion, it all boils down to personal values. You know if you faked data and by not doing so, you are doing the right thing. When other researchers cannot replicate those findings, those who faked data will be exposed at one time or another. Researchers read papers in order to add to their knowledge and further a research domain, this will not be achieved by such practices which means time and money was wasted.