Insights into Publication Ethics: An interview with Professor Michael V. Dougherty

In cooperation with its community of authors, editors, and peer reviewers, Brill safeguards the quality and integrity of its publications. We recently corresponded with Michael V. Dougherty, Professor of Philosophy at Ohio Dominican University and publication ethics expert, as part of our ongoing effort to deepen our understanding of publication ethics and of some of the most pressing challenges faced by the publishing community today.

Please tell us about your interest in publication ethics, the professional path that led you to becoming a leading voice on these matters, and the current direction of your work.

While writing a book on medieval ethics in 2009, I noticed the verbatim identity between a well-regarded journal article and portions of an older, somewhat obscure Finnish dissertation by a different author. I was in a bind: citing the article would commend fraudulent work to readers, but ignoring it would make my book appear unengaged with the relevant published research. I decided that I had a professional obligation to seek a retraction. Since then, with several colleagues, I have been requesting retractions for plagiarizing books and articles in philosophy and related disciplines. These requests have generated dozens of retractions, and some have been covered by the journalists at Retraction Watch. I have come to understand that this kind of work is unusual, so I wrote a book on post-publication responses to academic plagiarism in humanities disciplines. Right now, I am finishing a book on disguised forms of plagiarism. Some varieties of plagiarism are extremely subtle, so I am setting forth a typology with case studies that I hope will be useful to researchers, editors, and publishers.

What are the most urgent ethical concerns facing authors, editors, reviewers, and publishers today?

There are so many challenges to maintaining a reliable body of published research! My focus has been entirely on post-publication problems facing the research community. Here are three that worry me. The first is the Authority Problem. Finding someone who will make an authoritative determination of research fraud is not always easy. Some academic editors at journals want to defer to publishers, and some publishers in turn want to defer to other parties (e.g., the research integrity office at the home institution of the academic malefactor). The deferral of responsibility leaves many retraction requests in a perpetual limbo.

Even when things go well and a publisher issues a retraction, the retraction often fails to follow the article across the various portals through which researchers access the article. This is the Platform Problem. The retracted status will be registered on the publisher’s proprietary electronic portal, but not on contracted venues (e.g., JSTOR) nor on many free-standing venues (e.g., a university repository, Academia.edu, etc.). Similarly, the retracted status often will be unregistered in research databases and electronic bibliographies. The failure to promulgate the retracted status of articles means that researchers will continue to read them as if they are trustworthy. This practice damages the reliability of the downstream research literature.

A third concern is the Book Problem. Journals can publish retraction statements in future issues, but the publication of a book is usually a one-time affair. The typical response by a publisher to a demonstrated case of plagiarism in a book chapter is to silently put the book out of print. But simply stopping sales is not by itself a correction of the research record. The best book publishers will issue retraction statements online, but the practice is rare. This problem is particularly harmful in humanities disciplines where books are a major vehicle for disseminating research.

Are there particular fields in the humanities and social sciences especially at risk of publication ethics violations? If so, what might be some contributing factors?

My work has focused primarily on works in philosophy and in related disciplines (e.g., theology, history, and communications) that plagiarize. Just because a field has issued many retractions does not mean that it suffers from a greater number of publication ethics violations, however. The field might have more whistleblowers or possess a greater commitment to correcting fraudulent research literature. The prevalence of retractions is a sign of health; researchers should be concerned about fields that never or rarely issue corrections. Since the shelf life of articles in humanities disciplines can be much longer than research in other areas, unretracted fraudulent articles in humanities can have a devastating effect on the downstream research literature as they continue to accrue citations.

How do the internet, social media, and emerging technologies complicate or disrupt the publication ethics landscape? How can these same tools be used to prevent or resolve publication ethics concerns?

In an earlier age, reporting evidence of suspected research misconduct was typically a private, confidential process between whistleblower and editor. Those days are long gone. Evidence now often shows up online first in public venues. Journal editors and publishers do well to pay attention. For example, Twitter is full of examples where cases of substantial research fraud have been first revealed. Similarly, the post-publication peer review website PubPeer allows anonymous users to post evidence of suspected violations of research misconduct and for others to comment on the strength of the evidence. Although the majority of postings on PubPeer concern articles in the natural and bio-medical sciences, the representation from humanities and social sciences is slowly increasing. PubPeer is DOI-based, so journals that either do not use DOIs or have not yet assigned DOIs to their older articles cannot have their articles discussed there. Online venues for disclosing evidence of suspected research misconduct encourage a culture where all members of the research community—not just editors and publishers—participate in maintaining the reliability of the published research literature. Another important resource is the Retraction Watch Database, which now lists over 20,000 retractions.

What new challenges do you foresee developing in the next decade as both technology and academic publishing continue to evolve?

Academic malefactors will likely have more tools in the future. For example, advances in paraphrase software and translation tools will make plagiarism even more difficult to identify. On the positive side, text-matching software continues to improve. For the social sciences, researchers James Heathers, Nick Brown, and others have developed and publicized valuable techniques for detecting irregularities in reported research data (1, 2).

What other hurdles (e.g., institutional, cultural, commercial) do participants in the publication process now face that might impede awareness of and adherence to publication ethics?

Much of the work on research and publishing integrity is done from the perspective of the natural and biomedical sciences, rather than from humanities or social sciences. The excellent COPE flowcharts, for instance, work best for cases of suspected research fraud involving journal articles, rather than for books, since articles are the preferred medium for disseminating research in the natural and biomedical sciences. It will take some time for the humanities and social sciences to catch up and to find solutions to research integrity problems that are particular to these fields.

Please say a few words explaining the importance of such tools as Crossref Similarity Check and Crossmark for publishers in the humanities and social sciences.

The use of text-matching software is widespread, but not universal, among major publishers. Journals that do not use such software as part of a standard pre-publication process are likely going to need to issue retractions for plagiarism. It is important to remember that the use of such software is limited; the similarity reports need to be interpreted by a competent editor. That a given manuscript scores well is not a guarantee that it is reliable; there are subtle forms of plagiarism that are largely immune to standard text-matching software (e.g., translation plagiarism). Crossmark allows researchers to check whether the version of record of an article has been changed by a retraction, erratum, corrigendum, or other correction, but its utility requires (1) that the publisher update the metadata for each article and (2) that the article possess a DOI. Many older (but still relevant) articles in the humanities lack DOIs, and not all publishers issue DOIs for book chapters.

What are the best methods and tools available to publishers to educate authors, editors, reviewers, and staff about publication ethics?

The Committee on Publication Ethics (COPE) offers an abundance of resources and guidance. Apart from referring to COPE’s resources, what should publishers be doing independently to educate staff and our publishing partners and to promote compliance? Would you recommend that publishers create their own training modules and webinars?

The two places where authors could profitably encounter a publisher’s views on publication ethics are (1) the manuscript submission portal and then, after acceptance, (2) the publication agreement or contract. These gateways are excellent opportunities for a publisher to affirm its commitment to research integrity. (These gateways are not avoidable in the way a training module or webinar might be.) A publisher should use these gateways to remind potential authors that its stewardship over a published work will not cease once it is published, and that the publisher is committed to issuing retractions, errata, corrigenda, etc. for all works later shown to be fraudulent or substantially unreliable. These gateways could also be places where publishers indicate their resolve in addressing the Platform Problem by declaring a commitment to ensuring that corrections will appear also on contracted third-party platforms.

I encourage editors to publish editorials in their journals in which they explain to readers that the issuance of retractions and other corrections is a positive, public sign of a resolve to provide the most reliable research to the scholarly community. Retractions are still seen in some quarters as something embarrassing, rather than as an important indicator of a commitment to publishing integrity. Discussing these issues directly with a journal’s readership is a good start.

Brill intends to establish a publication ethics committee to address cases of suspected or verified violations. It will involve representative members from both the Brill staff and the external academic community. Do you have any recommendations regarding the composition of this committee?

This sounds like an excellent and important venture. As noted above, some publishers defer to external institutions to investigate cases of suspected violations of research integrity, but doing so often leaves the cases unresolved in perpetuity. Publishers should view suspected cases of fraud with urgency; the longer it takes to retract an article, the greater the time in which the article will be cited in the downstream literature. My recommendation: reach out to researchers who spend much of their time on the problem of fraudulent research literature.

Please share any additional insights and recommendations that you would like to bring to the attention of the publishing community.

Maintaining a reliable body of published research is not just the responsibility of editors and publishers but involves all members of the research community. Examining evidence of research misconduct takes skill in addition to a major time commitment. In the short term, it may be tempting to ignore the problem of fraudulent research, but in the long term, institutions that go that route will lose credibility. Editors and publishers who fail to correct the scholarly literature leave to their successors the problem of cleaning up their failures. Those who are tempted to do nothing—on the belief that issuing retractions will reflect badly on their tenure—might do well to consider how those same retractions will appear after they leave office and are issued by their successors. Over the last decade, I have seen a slight positive shift in the way editors and publishers on the whole respond to retraction requests. The situation is slowly getting better, but there is much work to be done.

Michael V. Dougherty holds the Sr. Ruth Caspar Chair in Philosophy at Ohio Dominican University (USA). He is author of Correcting the Scholarly Record for Research Integrity: In the Aftermath of Plagiarism (Springer, 2018) and Moral Dilemmas in Medieval Thought: From Gratian to Aquinas (Cambridge University Press, 2011). He has edited Aquinas’s Disputed Questions on Evil: A Critical Guide (Cambridge University Press, 2016) and Pico della Mirandola: New Essays (Cambridge University Press, 2008). His research interests include research ethics and the history of ethics.