International – Committee on Publication Ethics (2004)

A code of conduct for editors of biomedical journals, produced by the Committee on Publication Ethics (COPE), 2004.

Editors of biomedical journals should be responsible for all their journals contain. They should strive to meet the needs of readers and authors, constantly improve the journal, ensure the quality (that is fitness for purpose) of the material they publish, maintain the integrity of the scientific record,  preclude business needs from compromising intellectual standards, and always be willing to publish corrections, clarifications, retractions, and apologies when needed.

Any deviation from this code of conduct could be misconduct and should be reported to the Committee on Publication Ethics.

Quality and correcting the record
Editors should take all reasonable steps to ensure the quality (fitness for purpose) of the material they publish, recognising that journals and sections within journals will have different standards.

Peer review processes should be published, and editors should be ready to justify any important deviation from the described processes. Journals should have a declared appeal mechanism.

Whenever it is recognised that a significant inaccuracy, misleading statement or distorted report has been published, it must be corrected promptly and with due prominence.

An apology must be published whenever appropriate.

If after an appropriate investigation articles prove to be fraudulent or contain major errors that are not apparent from the text then they should be retracted-and the word retraction should be used in the title of the retraction (to ensure that it is picked up by indexing systems).

Cogent critical responses to published material should be published unless editors have convincing reasons why they cannot be. Authors of criticised material should usually be given the opportunity to have a response published.

Standing by decisions made
Editors should not reverse decisions when authors have been told that their papers will be published unless serious problems are identified with the papers.

When new editors take over journals they should not change decisions on papers where decisions had been made by the retiring editor to publish the paper unless serious problems are identified with the papers.

Ethics committee approval
Editors should ensure that research material they publish conforms to internationally accepted ethical guidelines, including, for example, the Declaration of Helsinki. The research should where appropriate have been approved by an ethics committee. Editors should recognise that this approval does not guarantee that the research is ethical.

Consent for publication
Editors must protect the confidentiality of information on patients obtained through the doctor-patient relationship. It is therefore almost always necessary to obtain written informed consent from patients described in case reports and short series as ensuring anonymity is almost impossible. It may be possible to publish without consent if the report is important to public health, consent would be unusually burdensome to obtain, and a reasonable patient would be unlikely to object to publication (all three conditions must be met).

Confidentiality of submitted material
Editors should have systems to ensure that material submitted to their journal remains confidential while under review-unless they have an open review system that is declared to authors.

Guidance to authors
Editors should publish comprehensive guidance to authors on everything that is expected of them and on all the policies of the journal. This guidance should be regularly updated and should include a copy of this code.

Pursuing misconduct
Editors are often the first recipients of reports of studies that may involve misconduct. If editors suspect misconduct by authors, reviewers, editorial staff, or other editors then they have a duty to take action. This duty extends to both published and unpublished papers.

Editors should first seek a response from those accused. If the editors are not satisfied with the response then they should ask the employers of the authors or some other appropriate body (perhaps a regulatory body) to investigate. (In the case of their own editorial staff then they must conduct the investigation themselves.)

The editors should make all reasonable efforts to ensure that a proper investigation is conducted, and if this doesn’t happen for whatever reason the editors must persist in obtaining a resolution to the problem and a correction of the record if it is needed. This is an onerous but important duty.

Relationship to publishers, owners, and advertisers
The relationship of editors to publishers and owners is often complex but should in each case be based firmly on the principle of editorial independence. Notwithstanding the economic and political realities of their journals, editors should make decisions on which articles to publish based on quality and suitability for readers rather than for immediate financial or political gain.

Editors should have declared policies on advertising in relation to the content of the journal and on processes for publishing supplements.

Conflict of interest
Editors should have systems for managing the conflicts of interest of themselves, their staff, authors, and reviewers. Readers should be informed on who has funded research and on the role of the funders in the research.

Ways to complain
Editors should respond promptly to complaints and should ensure that there is a way for dissatisfied complainants to take complaints further. Ideally this mechanism should be made clear in the journal.

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