Authors: Renee Hoch, Managing Editor, PLOS Publication Ethics Team; Emily Chenette, Editor in Chief, PLOS ONE PLOS and other publishers have recently…
New policies address paper mills and unprofessional conduct
Author: Renee Hoch, Managing Editor of the PLOS Publication Ethics Team
On February 1, 2023, PLOS introduced two new policies: one addressing manipulation of the publication process and the other outlining standards for professional conduct. Here, we provide brief excerpts and information about the policies for which the full text is on our journals’ Ethical Publishing Practice pages.
Manipulation of the Publication Process
“PLOS will reject or retract articles suspected of any manipulation of the publication process.”
Manipulation of the publication process encapsulates a variety of issues currently vexing the publishing industry, such as fabrication and/or sale of content, peer review, or authorship (e.g. via “paper mills”) and peer review manipulation. Each of these cases can involve 100s of submissions/articles across publishers, posing a large-scale threat to the integrity and reliability of the published record and demanding extensive editorial resources to address. If the problematic content is published, it can have deleterious effects on active research and those affected by applied research, and can also harm public trust in science.
PLOS is taking multiple approaches to strengthen our internal processes so as to better prevent, identify and address these cases. Our new Manipulation of the Publication Process policy represents one aspect of this work. It provides authors information about practices and services that should be avoided, states that PLOS will reject or retract articles suspected of any manipulation of the publication process, and explains that we may not disclose details about specific concerns in these cases. These measures are needed to safeguard the integrity of our publications, maintain confidentiality required in multi-manuscript cases, and ensure that bad actors do not obtain information that could be used to evade our checks.
Importantly, this policy supports our teams in taking a hard line in cases where we suspect manipulation of publication cases, even if we do not have concrete, indisputable evidence in hand. We apply editorial judgment in determining whether the cumulative evidence, including circumstantial, supports concerns to a degree that per our internal standards warrants editorial action. We are aware of the serious implications that retractions can have for researchers’ careers, and we do not take these decisions lightly. While notices we issue in these cases may be brief, they represent extensive bodies of investigative work and careful consideration by our Publication Ethics and journal teams.
Standards for Professional Conduct
“PLOS is committed to open scientific communications and professional conduct. We expect that all interactions with PLOS through any medium of communication … will be courteous, respectful, and adherent to high standards of professionalism.”
PLOS works with an expansive network of contributors around the globe, including our internal and external staff, authors, and volunteer editors and reviewers who support peer review. In our publishing activities, we do not always deliver positive news. At times, authors, readers, and other stakeholders may be disappointed by a decision or frustrated by aspects of our processes.
We welcome feedback and questions, and our journals have dedicated appeal processes by which decisions can be challenged. However, we expect all communications to adhere to high standards of professionalism regardless of the circumstances. Unfortunately, this expectation is not always met. In a minority of cases, our teams receive communications that go beyond what can be considered acceptable, for example including personal threats or abusive messages. We have also encountered situations wherein excessively repeated inquiries or resubmissions detract resources from our core publishing functions.
Our new Standards for Professional Conduct policy underscores that such behaviors will not be tolerated, and that PLOS will take steps as needed to support our contributors and resolve these situations. It provides transparency as to PLOS’ standards for interactions with our teams in the context of their work for PLOS, provides examples of behaviors that we consider unacceptable, and outlines actions we may take in response. While communication and language norms vary around the globe, we consider the expectations of respect and professionalism set in this policy to be universal.
As a publisher, we have a duty to ensure the papers we publish are scientifically valid and adhere to the highest standards of research and publication ethics. We take this responsibility very seriously. PLOS has had a specialized publication ethics team since early 2018, and over the past five years we have resolved >1500 cases, publishing ~900 notices to address integrity issues. Policies such as those outlined above are integral to supporting this work, and in line with PLOS’ commitment to openness the policies also provide transparency as to our standards and the approaches we take to address concerns.
If you have concerns about non-compliance with these policies, please contact the relevant journal office for Standards for Professional Conduct issues, or the PLOS Publication Ethics team for Manipulation of the Publication Process issues.