Coping with scientific misconduct

BMJ 2011; 343 doi: (Published 20 October 2011) Cite this as: BMJ 2011;343:d6586
  1. Elizabeth Wager, chair, Committee on Publication Ethics
  1. 1Princes Risborough, UK
  1. [email protected]
  • Accepted 5 October 2011

Research misconduct can have serious implications, but getting it investigated is not always straightforward. Elizabeth Wager examines some of the difficulties

Editors have a duty to act if they suspect misconduct by an author.1 However, since they are not equipped to investigate misconduct allegations or impose punishment they must rely on the author’s institution.2 The Committee on Publication Ethics’ (COPE) code of conduct states that “Editors should make all reasonable efforts to ensure that a proper investigation is conducted.” However, the code also hints at the difficulties editors may face, stating: “if this does not happen, editors should make all reasonable attempts to persist in obtaining a resolution to the problem. This is an onerous but important duty.”1 I have used the COPE database of cases (box) to show the difficulties editors may face when they try to alert institutions to possible cases of research or publication misconduct.

Committee on Publication Ethics (COPE)

  • COPE was founded in 1997 as a “self help” group for journal editors faced with ethical problems

  • It has over 6000 members worldwide working in all disciplines

  • As well as providing advice on publication ethics to editors and publishers, COPE hears complaints from members of the public who believe that a member has not followed its code of conduct

  • COPE holds a quarterly forum at which members can discuss anonymised cases. The cases, advice, and follow-up information (if provided by members) are entered into a database (available at

Cases presented to COPE cannot be used to estimate the frequency of problems. Members probably bring only their most troublesome cases to the COPE forum, and so the database is likely to over-represent cases where the response from institutions has been unsatisfactory. Furthermore, COPE hears only the editors’ side of the story.

COPE cases

I identified 155 cases discussed by COPE …

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