New Committee Addresses Rise in Ethics Complaints
Editor’s note: Peggy Mason is the chair of the new SfN Ethics Committee, established by the SfN Council in 2012 as part of SfN’s enduring commitment to responsible scientific conduct and ethics. This article is the first in an occasional series focusing on questions of responsible conduct and ethical “best practices” in research.
Allegations and findings of scientific misconduct at The Journal of Neuroscience and other biomedical journals are on the rise. In 2008, SfN received an average of less than one complaint every other week. Last year, SfN received 34 complaints, for an average of one case every week and a half. In the first five months of 2013, SfN has received an average of more than one case each week (see chart).
Prior to March 1, ethics cases at The Journal were referred to the Scientific Publications Committee, and the burden of evaluating complaints fell primarily on the chair of the committee and The Journal editor-in-chief. In the age of open access and diminishing resources, scientific societies and their journals face a myriad of challenges and the rising number of ethics cases has demanded increasing attention and focus.
SfN Council created an Ethics Committee in order to relieve The Journal leadership of the ethics-related workload. Council also used the opportunity to broaden the scope of duties beyond handling allegations of scientific misconduct and has charged the Ethics Committee with “ensuring consistency in the treatment of ethics issues across the spectrum of Society activities.”
Review of Ethics Complaints
Beginning March 1, new cases of alleged scientific misconduct have been sent to the Ethics Committee for evaluation and recommendations for action. Allegations come from authors, editors, readers, and reviewers. Although the vast majority of complaints concern alleged misconduct in an article or manuscript for The Journal, the Committee has also had the opportunity to advocate for authors whose published work in The Journal is plagiarized or misrepresented in other journals.
The Ethics Committee takes every allegation seriously. Cases are evaluated using SfN’s policies and guidelines as reference, which can be found in the Member Center area of SfN.org. The Ethics Committee recognizes that being on either end of an ethics allegation is difficult personally and professionally and therefore has designed an approach that seeks to protect confidentiality and ensure due process.
When an allegation is not supported by close examination, the complaint is dismissed. Resolution of many additional cases is straightforward and can be quickly and easily accomplished. For example, a manuscript may include a small amount of previously published data without the necessary explicit statement disclosing the previous study. In this case, the authors are educated, the manuscript corrected, and the case closed.
Complaints that are not dismissed or easily resolved are examined in further detail by the Ethics Committee. The first step is always that the target of the allegation is afforded the opportunity to respond, potentially providing an explanation or documentation that resolves the case. Nonetheless, additional information is often needed and, in such instances, the home institution is usually asked to perform an investigation that ideally includes both analysis of original data and lab notebooks and interviews with involved scientists.
In cases involving articles or manuscripts with serious errors, the committee takes actions designed to ensure the accuracy of the scientific record and reprimand those who have failed to adhere to SfN’s policies on responsible conduct. Intent is immaterial. The accuracy of the scientific record must be protected. Serious errors in articles or manuscripts must be either corrected or removed through article retraction or manuscript rejection. Those responsible for these serious errors, either directly through their actions or indirectly through inadequate or negligent oversight, are sanctioned. Sanctions preclude participation in SfN activities (submitting manuscripts or abstracts, speaking at the annual meeting, serving as reviewers or editors), typically for a period of 1-3 years. Sanctions are not made public. Nonetheless, SfN intends that sanctions deter repeated offenses and promote a wider appreciation of the importance of research ethics.
An Ethical Way Forward
The Ethics Committee endeavors to serve the SfN membership. While the details of individual cases remain confidential, the approach taken by the committee should be transparent and open to all. The committee therefore invites you to write to firstname.lastname@example.org with your comments and questions. Further information about dealing with allegations of unethical scientific conduct can be found in the Member Center area of SfN.org.
The public paints scientists with a broad brush. Misconduct by a single scientist, even in a field we perceive as distant, diminishes the public’s faith in all scientists. Thus, any broach of ethics not only harms scientific progress but also damages the public perception of science and scientists in all fields. Since our work ultimately depends on the public for support, it behooves us to earn the public’s respect and commitment.