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J’accuse!  Members of the prestigious Institute of the Physics of the Globe of Paris (IPGP) are in hot water after being discovered that they acted as editors for journal manuscripts submitted by their peers.  “Le scandale éclate” made a full-page story in the French newspaper, Le Monde, and is reported by both Science and Nature.

The scandal uncovers possible conflicts of interest and favoritism for French researchers and their articles.  The offending articles were published between 1992 and 2008 in Earth and Planetary Science Letters, a journal published by Elsevier.

Commenting on the Nature article, geologist Wladyslaw Altermann writes:

Reviewing papers from one’s own institution should run against any respected journal’s ethics policy.

The Committee on Publication Ethics (COPE), of which Elsevier is a full member, acknowledges that conflicts of interest exist, but state in their Code of Conduct that:

Editors should have systems for managing their own conflicts of interest as well as those of their staff, authors, reviewers and editorial board members.

In other words, publishing articles in a journal which you edit is acceptable but the conflict of interest needs to be addressed in some way.  This could mean commissioning editorial and peer-review to another editorial group.  One could also avoid the potential conflict of interest altogether by simply finding another outlet for one’s work.

Publishing articles in one’s own journal is not uncommon.  In my field, the editor of the Emerald journal, Aslib Proceedings (a member of COPE), routinely publishes the work of its editor, David Nicholas.  Since he took the editorial reins in 1996, Nicholas has published 75 of his own articles, and members of his CIBER research group routinely publish in Aslib.   No one in the library science field has batted an eyelash.  Meanwhile, the editor of Chaos, Solitons & Fractals, was relieved of his editorial responsibilities when it became apparent that he was short-cutting the peer-review process and publishing his own work.

For similar editorial conflicts of interest, one event leads to a national scandal, another to an early retirement, and the last to, well, business as usual.  It appears that publishers are quick to enforce rules when the public questions their integrity, but turn a blind eye when no one is watching, or indeed, cares.

To the publishers who read this blog, how do you deal with editorial conflicts of interest?

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Phil Davis

Phil Davis

Phil Davis is a publishing consultant specializing in the statistical analysis of citation, readership, publication and survey data. He has a Ph.D. in science communication from Cornell University (2010), extensive experience as a science librarian (1995-2006) and was trained as a life scientist.

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2 Thoughts on "Peer-Review Scandal Shakes French Geologists"

Phil – This is only an issue in journals that have a single, all-powerful Editor-in-Chief (there are numerous other drawbacks to this beyond conflict of interest).

The simple solution is to have Associate Editors empowered to make decisions independently and make it policy that they handle any submissions for which the Editor-in-Chief would be conflicted. The hard part is dealing with potential fall-out that can ensue – but that is all part of being a wise publisher who picks responsible Editors.

Our process is described by Richard Sever, with the additional twist that I assign the paper to an Associate Editor without letting the EIC know which one (all correspondence is channelled through the office to maintain the blinding). The Associate Editor can then make an adverse decision without risking any fallout.

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