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Legal guide for editors concerning ethics issues

Your responsibilities as an editor of a journal include vetting and reviewing articles submitted by authors. In most cases this process will be straightforward. However, in some cases, ethical issues may emerge either during vetting and reviewing, or after publication when a complaint is raised. Ethical problems you may encounter include, among others:

  • Plagiarism

  • Allegations regarding author contributions

  • Duplicate submission/publication

  • Research standards violations

  • Manipulation of the peer review process

  • Allegations of inappropriate duplication/alteration of images

These guidelines are intended as a general guide to the legal aspects of misconduct claims, prepared by attorneys who specialize in issues of publishing law. Some journals may have somewhat different individual policies suitable for their disciplines or aligned with a governing society’s policies or procedures.  You may also want to refer to Elsevier's general guidelines on ethics in journal publishing.

Types of misconduct


Plagiarism is committed when one author uses another work (typically the work of another author) without permission, credit, or acknowledgment. Plagiarism takes different forms, from literal copying to paraphrasing the work of another. In judging whether an author has plagiarized, the following definitions may be instructive:

Literal copying

Reproducing a work word for word, in whole or in part, without permission and acknowledgment of the original source. Literal copying is obvious plagiarism and is easy to detect by comparing the papers in question.

Substantial copying

Reproducing a substantial part of a work, without permission and acknowledgment of the original source.In determining what is “substantial,” both the quantity and the quality of the copied content are relevant.

Quality refers to the relative value of the copied text in proportion to the work as a whole. Where the essence of a work has been reproduced, even if only a small part of the original work, plagiarism may have occurred. For example, a relatively short extract from a piece of music may be instantly recognizable and may constitute a substantial part.

In addition to judging the quantity and quality of the copied content, you should consider the following question: Has the author benefited from the skill and judgment of the original author? The degree to which the answer to this question is “yes” will indicate whether substantial copying has taken place.

Copying without literal or substantial copying: Paraphrasing

Copying may take place without reproducing the exact words used in the original work. This type of copying is known as paraphrasing, and it can be the most difficult type of plagiarism to detect.

To determine whether unacceptable paraphrasing has occurred, you should apply a test similar to that for substantial copying: Look at the quantity and quality of what has been taken and also at whether the second author has benefited from the skill and judgment of the first author.  If it seems clear, on a balance of probabilities, that the second author has taken without permission or acknowledgment all or a substantial part of the original work and used it to create a second work, albeit expressed in different words, then such use amounts to plagiarism.

Allegations about author contributions

It is important that every author contribution be credited appropriately. It is equally important that a person not be named as an author when they are not. A “ghost author” is a person who has been omitted from an authorship list despite qualifying for authorship. A “guest” or “gift author” is a person who is listed as an author despite not qualifying for authorship.

Authorship is not a clearly defined concept. To be an “author” one must have responsibility for a particular aspect (that is not minimal) of the research or preparation of the work, that is, must have made a significant contribution to the conception, design, execution, or interpretation of the reported study, and must have approved the final form of the work. As a test of authorship, an author must be prepared, and have the ability and responsibility, to publicly defend the work.

A trivial contribution would not be sufficient to confer the status of author. Lesser contributions to a work can be recognized by clearly crediting the person as a “contributor” rather than an “author.”

An author submitting an article is required to identify all co-authors and any other contributors (and to obtain consent from them for the publication of the article). Where necessary, you should seek clarification from authors and contributors to establish exactly who has done what in relation to the article and the research. You should require that all those who satisfy the test of authorship outlined above are in fact credited as co-authors.

Duplicate submission/publication

Articles submitted for publication must be original and must not have been submitted to any other publication.

Except in very unusual circumstances (and then only with your agreement as the editor), authors are expected to submit articles that are original and have not been submitted to any other publication. Occasionally, authors may disregard this requirement, submitting the same manuscript to multiple journals or submitting multiple manuscripts based on the same research. As with plagiarism, duplicate submission may take several forms: literal duplication, partial but substantial duplication, or even duplication by paraphrasing.

Many journals have editorial policies that prohibit or discourage the publication of numerous papers based on the same research. In such cases, an objective judgment of whether duplicate submission has taken place, based on your knowledge of the area of research, must be made. In difficult cases, you may need to seek guidance from other specialists in the field of research.

It is important to be aware that Elsevier does not view publication as an electronic preprint to be a prior publication. However, where an author publishes a conference or university meeting paper/abstract/poster, or paper in a (non-English) journal of local circulation, and then submits another version to an Elsevier journal, you may decline to publish a paper of this kind if you feel that this is prior publication that compromises the publication of the article. If it is the journal’s policy to publish some papers of this kind, and you feel it is appropriate to do so, you may agree to publish the paper provided:

  • Full disclosure has been made to the editor of all previous publications.

  • A full and reasonably prominent note, usually in the form of a footnote on the title page that records the prior publication, accompanies the new version of the paper.

  • All necessary consents have been obtained from the previous publisher of the paper and from any other person who might own rights in the paper.

See also: Publishing Ethics Resource Kit: questions and answers.

Research standards violations

Research standards violations may occur when authors do not comply with certain regulations governing the performance of some specific experiments and research; when for example, compulsory approvals and informed consent were not properly obtained for research on human subjects, or in cases when animal protection protocols were not followed.

It is somewhat more difficult to determine whether there has been a violation in the case of animal protection, as different countries (e.g., USA) and geo-political regions (e.g., the European Union) have different standards from official organizations such as the World Health Organization (WHO).

If doubt exists whether the research was conducted in accordance with the relevant national or international guidelines, authors must explain the rationale for their approach, and demonstrate that the relevant review body explicitly approved the study. When reporting experiments on animals, authors should be asked to indicate whether the institutional and national guide for the care and use of laboratory animals was followed.

If you become aware of a research standard violation or data privacy violation you should immediately notify your publishing contact.

Manipulation of the peer review process

As part of the submission process for some Elsevier journals, authors are asked to suggest potential reviewers for their submission. Unfortunately, these suggestions may be susceptible to bias or manipulation and even genuine reviewers suggested by authors are more likely to make positive comments about a manuscript than those not suggested by them. In rare cases, authors may suggest fictitious reviewers with fictitious email addresses such that the authors themselves receive the review request and provide their own reviews.

In order to identify whether the peer reviewer is legitimate you should check the reviewer information provided by the author using Scopus and reviewer’s alleged institutional website.

In addition, the following may be considered potential red flags:

  • No institution listed against the reviewer’s name

  • No institutional reviewer email address is provided (combined with other red flags)

  • A sudden change of email address for a known reviewer (the name may be valid, but the email address of the account may not be)

  • Any indications of a conflict of interest e.g., a suggested reviewer having the same affiliation as the author(s) or having co-authored with the author(s).

  • Note: Elsevier’s Reviewer Recommender supports conflict of interest checks. If the connection with the authors is very close (author-suggested reviewer that has co-authored with any of the submission authors within the last three years), the tool excludes the person from the suggested reviewers. If the connection is less close (candidate reviewer that has co-authored with any of the submission authors within the last three years, or is at the same institution or in the same country as any of the submission authors), the tool flags the candidate as having a potential COI and the editor decides whether or not they would be an appropriate reviewer.

  • Language of the report provided being vague or non-typical for the field

  • Similarity in reviews provided by the same reviewer or by other reviewers suggested by the same corresponding author

  • Reviewers accepting invitations very quickly

In selecting reviewers, editors should take note of the guidance on peer review available under “Duties of editors” here.

Allegations of inappropriate duplication/alteration of images

It is considered fraud where data or conclusions were not generated by experiments or observations, but by data manipulation or invention.

One example of these situations is image manipulation. This conduct is now on the rise because of the advancement in techniques that allow the digital adjustment or modification of images. This manipulation can occur by enhancing, obscuring, moving, removing, juxtaposing, duplicating, or zooming an image or other figure to make it present a different result or data.

If you become aware of potential image manipulation or receive a claim in this regard you may want to start the investigation by getting a second reviewer opinion. Other actions may include comparing the controversial image/s with other figures from other articles published by the same authors and asking authors to provide the underlying data. It can also be useful to pass the images through programs specialized in detecting image manipulation/duplication. Your publishing contact will support you with this analysis.

How to deal with issues if they arise

When suspicion or allegations arise regarding any of these issues, you should follow the guidelines listed below:

General guidelines

Ideally, such issues should be addressed after submission and prior to publication. It is crucial that you play the leading role and be the central point for all communications. Although you should inform and coordinate with the publisher of any issue that arises and all subsequent developments, it is primarily your responsibility to investigate suspicions and any allegations made and to reach a conclusion on the basis of those investigations. When necessary and useful, the publisher will provide further support and assistance.

When you suspect that an ethics violation may exist in relation to an article submitted or when you receive an allegation concerning a submitted article, please take the following steps:

  1. It is essential as a matter of due process that you raise the issue with the corresponding author of the complained-about article, and in some cases with a specific co-author(s) whose actions are complained about. You should seek an explanation and, where necessary, the provision of evidence supporting that explanation.

  2. Be careful to gather information while imparting as little information as possible about the suspicion or accusation. To assist with information gathering, sample letters to use in investigating claims of unethical behavior are available at You should keep the identity of complainants confidential unless their identity is required to be disclosed as part of the case (e.g., if the complainant is asking for their inclusion as an author of the article) or if they wish their identity to be disclosed.

  3. You should also seek an explanation from and the views of any complainant, together, where necessary, with evidence supporting that explanation.

  4. You should seek the complainant’s views on any explanation and evidence provided by the authors of the complained-about article. Similarly, you should seek the views of the author of the complained-about article on any explanation and evidence provided by the complainant. At this point in the investigation, you may be satisfied that there has been no ethical violation. If not, however, you should continue to investigate the matter.

  5. If the authors are unable to satisfy you on a balance of probabilities that there has been no violation, then in some cases you should carry out further investigation. The depth of the investigation will vary from case to case, but may include the following steps:

  • Further investigating any allegations made by third parties

  • While being mindful about the confidential nature of the information you disclose: - Speaking to colleagues of any author - Speaking to officials at any institutions where the research in question was (allegedly) carried out - Speaking to funding agencies that (allegedly) supported the research in question - Speaking to officials at any professional body or institution of which any author is a member - Speaking to other leading experts in the field of research in question or from the country where the research was carried out

  • Speaking to members of the Editorial (advisory) Board of the journal

  • Working with any professional body with an investigative mission such as the Committee on Publication Ethics (COPE)

Please remember that your role is not to make a final definitive finding of whether a violation has occurred. You need only investigate to a point sufficient to satisfy yourself that, on a balance of probabilities, after having made reasonable and diligent inquiries, there either is or is not, prima facie, an issue.

Caution regarding defamation claims

In carrying out any investigation, you should take care to act fairly and objectively and not to defame any author (or complainant), which could give rise to legal liabilities, including damages. To avoid defamation claims by authors, you should bear in mind the following guidelines in your investigation:

  • Inform authors if possible, and on the understanding that such communication will not affect the course of the investigation, of your intention to contact external institutions or organizations directly or indirectly related to the complaint. This is explained in Form Letter A1: To author.

  • Make any inquiries of an author’s institution in terms of an “alleged” or “apparent” violation. The inquiries should clearly state the facts and the allegation without premature judgment of the author’s culpability.

Practical consequences of findings

If you decide that, prima facie, there is no issue, publication may proceed, or remain in the case of a published article. You should inform the complainant and the author(s) of the complained-about article of your decision.

If, prior to publication, you decide that there has been unethical practice, you may reject the article. If unethical practice is discovered after the article has been published, you, with support from Elsevier, should consider whether retraction of the article or, in very exceptional cases, removal is appropriate. See Elsevier’s policy on article withdrawal, removal and retraction: There are a number of alternatives to retraction as well, such as the publication of expressions of concern, corrigenda, letters to the editor, editorial statements, and the like. See:

Legal consequences of findings

In the case of plagiarism (to certain extent in the case of duplication too), there may be an infringement of copyright and, possibly, also moral rights. Moral rights include the right of an author of a work to be identified as such, as well as the right of an author to prevent changes to his or her work that are of a derogatory nature.

In the case of allegations regarding author contributions, there may be an infringement of the moral rights outlined above, but also infringement of a person’s moral right not to have a work attributed to him or her when not the author. For that reason, it is important that authors confirm that they obtained authorization from every co-author to be included as such in the manuscript.

In the case of research standards violations, the information contained in the article could represent a violation of laws governing research on human or animal subjects, including failure to obtain proper patient consent or the required permission from authorities to perform a particular piece of research.

In all cases of ethical misconduct, there is likely to be a breach of contract by the author, who will have contravened the terms of his or her publishing agreement with the publisher or the relevant instructions to authors.

You should keep the Publisher promptly and regularly updated if any ethics violations are suspected. If necessary, and particularly where there may be legal liability, the Publisher may wish to seek legal advice internally or externally.

Ethics issues in other journals/publications

When a paper has been published in another journal or other publication and it appears that this paper (1) plagiarizes a paper published in the journal you edit, (2) contains research results that are not original to its author but are original to the author of a paper published in the journal you edit, or (3) has already been published in whole or in part in the journal you edit, please observe the following procedure.

  • As a first step, contact the editor of the publication in which the offending paper appears, seeking a full explanation. The editor of that publication should take steps similar to those recommended herein.

  • You should be extremely careful with the information disclosed to the editor of the other journal avoiding any statement that could be considered as defamatory, basing your allegations on facts, and respecting the confidentiality of the information. COPE guidelines for sharing information between editorsopens in new tab/window should be followed.

  • If that editor fails to investigate the matter properly or is not able to satisfy you on a balance of probabilities that there is no issue, then you should follow the steps recommended when the suspected offending paper appears in your journal. That is, you should investigate the suspicion or allegation by initially contacting the author(s) of the offending publication for an explanation and continuing the investigation to its necessary conclusion.

Updated November 2022