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Ethics and “Such studies taking these factors into account may eventually lead to our better, comprehensive understanding of the association between the”

COPE - Committee on Publication Ethics - extract from a flowchart
COPE – Committee on Publication Ethics – extract from a flowchart

“Such studies taking these factors into account may eventually lead to our better, comprehensive understanding of the association between the” is a phrase that features in no less than 30 different papers indexed in Google Scholar . I was alerted to this particular shared  neologism by an article subtitled “An investigation into some scientific papers finds worrying irregularities”  in Scientific American. As its author Charles Seife points out,  the “better, comprehensive” phrase is an awkward construction. I would certainly edit it as an author, and would expect that better English-language and perhaps copy-editors would also modify it. It certainly raises questions in my mind about the originality of the work and its interpretation, and perhaps the significance and novelty of the “association between” that is reported. But what should one do about it when found in a paper – published or submitted? The phrase is certainly widely applicable to the conclusions of gene-phenotype studies, and does the reuse necessarily reflect poorly on the quality of the results presented?

There is a new exception to UK copyright law came into effect in June this year: anybody with access to a copyright work can make copies of that work to perform text and data mining for non-commercial purposes. Such automated studies are a situation where repeated use of phrases, or indeed paragraphs, may be helpful to readers. From the factors-association phrase, text mining would be able to pick up more than 20 gene-disease associations reported in refereed literature. Particularly for Materials and Methods sections of papers, it is helpful to have a quick summary even if identical to a previous, cited, manuscript! And, although less interesting and stylish to read, it might actually be easier to understand (and mine) that Figures 1, 2, 3, and 4 are all ‘showing’, rather than in turn ‘revealing’, ‘demonstrating’, ‘illustrating’ and ‘presenting’.

While I am happy to see the data-mining exception enshrined in law, like most people who think about it, I have no idea what the strange phrase ‘non-commercial’ means. Indeed, when we were ensuring this was explicit (rather than the previously implicit situation) in the Annals of Botany’s terms, I asked for the ‘non-commercial’ to be removed. Is everything I do automatically non-commercial because I work for a public University? I am only a research-and-teaching provider, not unlike most companies or private Universities, and win funding for both activities which then pays me, while I hope my work has impact outside academia and hence will be profitable. In fact, the non-commercial phrase is part of the actual data-mining legislation so could not be removed from the terms, but we did some time ago remove the non-commercial phrase from the open-access permissions, and I removed it from my own www.molcyt.com website and slideshares for review lectures.

Annals is a member of COPE, the Committee on Publication Ethics, which promotes integrity in research publication. It has many useful guidelines (and flow-charts, as illustrated above) for the complex issues that may come up, and we do occasionally use their guidelines. The end-of-year review from the COPE chair considers how ethics in publication is becoming more central, with “a crystallisation of understanding from groups across the spectrum of academia of how core publication ethics is to research integrity more widely”. Fortunately, as yet Annals has not needed to refer a case to COPE, nor retract any papers, but such serious situations must be worries that are in every editors thoughts. Where there are scientific disagreements, we can publish Viewpoints to allow both sides to discuss a position. Many disputes are related to authorship – but here I am clear that neither the names of authors nor the names of their institutions are taken into consideration in the review process. We now are even more explicit that the corresponding author takes responsibility for authorship and institutional attribution – yet another increase, I’m sorry to say, in the length of the small-print on submission of an article. I’m not looking forward to the first complaint from an institution who either does or does-not wish to be associated with a publication from a current or former researcher, student or staff member.

It is good to see consideration of ethics in research and its publication coming to the fore: integrity is critical to science, but scientific endeavour is easily undermined by misconduct. So I’ll end my piece in the spirit that I started, not with “Such studies … lead to our better, comprehensive understanding” but with another useful, unarguable, conclusion that sounds wise but says nothing: Things can’t go on like this forever.

Editor Pat Heslop-Harrisonhttp://www.annbot.org
Pat Heslop-Harrison is Professor of Molecular Cytogenetics and Cell Biology at the University of Leicester. He is also Chief Editor of Annals of Botany.

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