Publishing ethics examined in Berlin

The Academic Publishing Europe conference considered the ethics of publishing, covering everything from Peer Review to Piracy. Marydee Ojala reports.

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It's cold in Berlin in January but that doesn't deter the publishing industry, with a smattering of librarians, from flocking there for the annual Academic Publishing Europe (APE) conference (, the brainchild of Arnoud de Kemp. In 2017, the conference's 12th year, organisers chose publishing ethics as the theme. Delegates were asked to consider two questions:

• Are we doing the right thing?

• Are we doing things right?

They're interesting questions and no definitive answer surfaced during the two-day conference, although the overall tone was positive.

In his introduction, Michiel Kalman, newly installed as the president of IPA—he assured us IPA was the acronym for International Publishers Association not India Pale Ale—and an Elsevier SVP, set the stage for conference discussions by citing success factors for European STM (Science, Technology, Mathematics) publishing. He cited innovation in Big Data, social media platforms, and improved workflow, followed by an emphasis on quality and improved diversity in the scientific ecosystem.

Protecting Trust

Ethics stems from trust; transparency and integrity fuel trust. IJsbrand Jan Aalbersberg, SVP Research Integrity, Elsevier, asked, I assume rhetorically, if we can still rely on science. With trust in science eroding and the number of retractions growing, what is the impact on truth and trust? He noted the trend toward retracting papers rather than publish corrections. Why retract? It's not always clear since 14% of retractions give no reason for why they're being retracted. "Publisher misconduct" accounts for an astonishing 35% of total retractions.

Aalbersberg then asked, and this was not rhetorical, what publishers need to do to protect trust in scientific publishing. For him, it comes down to training. New researchers must be educated about statistics, ethics, funding, and image manipulation if they are to produce worthwhile research papers. Frequently, new researchers aren't even aware they are distorting results, particularly when they try to make images look "pretty," which can convey the wrong information inadvertently. He recommended the Equator Network ( for guidelines about writing on health research.

Will Schweitzer, Director, Product, AAAS/Science, asserted that readers demand transparency because it equates to trust. Schweitzer thinks publishers are deluded to think that their brands are golden, calling that "an outdated belief." When readers come to publisher sites from Google, Bing, and Baidu—and that's now the majority—they don't linger on the site. They want to grab an article and leave. Schweitzer's recommendation is for publishers to make an ethics statement and a declaration of conflict of interest that encompasses authors, peer reviewers, and editors.

Mirjam Curno, Council Member and Trustee of COPE (Committee of Publication Ethics), gave a talk that focused squarely on ethical challenges. One concern is the pressure to be first to publish in high impact journals. Echoing Schwietzer, Curno identified lack of training and education as the most important issue. The ethical landscape is becoming more diverse, but she worries that the discussion of ethics is too Western-centric. Does the discussion impede publishing from non-Western countries? Does this have political motivations?

Ethics of Peer Review

Peer review came in for a lot of attention—several delegates thought it came in for too much attention. Rachel Burley, Publishing Director, BioMed Central (BMC) started off the conference saying that peer review determines the validity, significance and originality of STM articles. However, it wasn't intended to detect misconduct but to advise editors on suitability for publishing. Consensus on what to expect from peer review is not set in stone. BMC's StatReviewer’s automated peer review could streamline the peer review workflow process and make it more efficient.

Speakers agreed that acknowledging and rewarding peer reviewers and setting up mentoring programmes enhance the process and many see a shift from journal-centric to author-centric. Post-production peer review, which is not the same as commenting on a published paper, may have a place. Transparency and data sharing underlie the PEERE Cost Action program ( Peer review is the right thing to do but doing it right is challenging. 

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