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Draft code of conduct for medical editors

BMJ 2003; 327 doi: (Published 30 October 2003) Cite this as: BMJ 2003;327:1010
  1. Smith Richard
  1. BMJ

    The Committee on Publication Ethics (COPE) is trying to produce a code of conduct for editors to help them regulate their conduct and to prevent abuses of editorial power.

    This is the first draft. The committee would welcome comments, which should be sent as rapid responses.


    • This is very much a first draft and “work in progress”

    • To produce this first draft I have used the code of the Press Complaints Commission, the statement on responsibilities of editors from the World Association of Medical Editors, and my own ideas

    • We will need feedback and “real cases” to arrive at a useful and workable code

    • The code will continue to evolve

    • I've deliberately made the statements positive rather than negative

    • This is very much a “lower common denominator” document—because it would seem pointless to propose a code that only a handful of editors currently meet

    • I've tried to begin with an aspirational—but necessarily non-specific—statement

      It's been an odd experience to write a book of rules. I'm more into breaking rules than creating them. I also think that I have a high chance of being the first editor to be complained about

    Editors of medical journals are responsible for all that their journals contain. They should strive to meet the needs of readers and authors, constantly improve the journal, ensure the accuracy of the material they publish, maintain the integrity of the scientific record, ensure that business needs do not compromise intellectual standards, and always be willing to publish corrections, clarifications, retractions, and apologies when needed.

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

    Accuracy and correcting the record

    Editors should take all reasonable steps to ensure the accuracy of the material they publish.

    Peer review processes should be described, and editors should be ready to explain any important deviation from the described processes.

    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 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. (Journals are advised to create electronic means of responding so that “lack of space” is no longer a convincing reason for not publishing a response.)

    Ethics committee approval

    Editors should ensure that research material they publish has been approved by an ethics committee. They should satisfy themselves that the research is ethical as they can be held responsible for publishing “unethical” research even if it has been approved by an ethics committee.

    Protecting the confidentiality of human subjects

    Editors must protect the confidentiality of information on patients obtained through the doctor-patient relationship. As ensuring anonymity is almost impossible this must usually be done through obtaining written consent for publication from patients.

    Pursuing misconduct

    Editors are often the first recipients of studies that may involve some element of misconduct. If editors encounter misconduct on the part of authors, their staff, or other editors then they have a duty to take action. If the misconduct is by authors or other editors then editors will need to ask their employers or some other appropriate body (perhaps a regulatory body) to investigate. The editors have a duty 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 the economics of journals

    The relationship of editors to publishers and owners is often complex and should pay attention to the tradition of editorial independence. Editors clearly have to accept the economic realities of their journals, but decisions on which articles to publish should be based on grounds of quality and suitability for readers rather than for immediate financial gain.

    Conflict of interest

    Editors should have systems for managing the conflicts of interest of themselves, their staff, authors, and reviewers.

    Ways to complain

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

    Living by the code

    1. All editors who are members of COPE will be expected to abide by the code, tell their readers that they do so, and provide readers with access to copies of the code.

    2. COPE will consider complaints from anybody about editors who are members of COPE breaching the code. Such complaints should be made in writing with supporting evidence to the chairman of COPE.

    3. The editors who are complained about will be asked to respond to the complaint in writing. The chairman of COPE will attempt to resolve the complaint.

    4. If this is not possible, then the council of COPE will consider the case on paper. Both the editor and the complainant will see all the correspondence and have a chance to respond in writing.

    5. Both the complainant and the editor will be informed of the judgment in writing.

    6. If the council of COPE finds that the editor has breached the code then the editor will be required to publish the adjudication in full in the journal. The editor will have the opportunity to respond to the facts of the adjudication, and the council of COPE may correct the piece to be published. The complainant will see the adjudication before publication and also be given a chance to correct any factual errors.

    7. In the cases of serious breaches of the code then the council of COPE may decide to notify the owners of the journal, expel the editor from COPE, or both.

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