The process of investigating and resolving an allegation of misconduct often takes months and sometimes years. There are many reasons for this. When an allegation is made, questions need to be asked, information gathered, expert opinions sought and points and processes checked and verified. This may require the coordinated efforts of more than one organisation. It takes time to navigate through these processes, even when there are clear guidelines in place on the process to be followed.
Sometimes the process is delayed further because legal challenges are made in response to the allegations. Sometimes the authors against whom an allegation is made need time to respond to requests for information, clarification or raw data. Sometimes an institution needs to become involved and they too need time to conduct their investigations.
When an allegation is made, questions need to be asked, information gathered, expert opinions sought and points and processes checked and verified.
These delays may leave journal editors and publishers with no choice but to take limited action, such as the publication of an expression of concern rather than a retraction. But, another important reason for delays is that editors and publishers may not have any experience of investigating alleged misconduct and lack expertise in this area within their organisation.
There are some commonly occurring issues that can prolong an investigation and the resolution of an allegation.
Here are some of those recurring issues.
Different views on what constitutes research misconduct
This is when an editor and author have different views on what is considered bad practice. Plagiarism and authorship changes are the top areas where there can be this type of misalignment. Without a clear point of reference (usually editorial policies shown on the journal website) on what is expected of authors, an investigation can become derailed as arguments ensue about what is and is not considered misconduct.
The absence of clear processes to manage research misconduct
When there is no predefined process in place for handling an allegation of misconduct, the editor investigating the allegation may miss important steps. This can lead to an escalation rather than the resolution of an issue.
Delays may leave journal editors and publishers with no choice but to take limited action
Unclear roles and responsibilities for editors and publishers
There is the principle of ‘editorial freedom’ that dictates that the editor is responsible for making decisions about the content of their journals and that the publisher should not interfere with these decisions. This is a very good principle to follow during the day-to-day management of a journal. However, an editor who has little or no experience of managing research misconduct issues may become out of their depth when handling an allegation of misconduct. The publisher may be reluctant to assist either out of reluctance to encroach on the idea of editorial freedom or because they don’t see the management of allegations of research misconduct as part of their role.
The perceived burden of managing research integrity cases
Even when there is a team dedicated to advising editors on what they need to do when allegations of misconduct are made, the tasks of writing to authors or institutions, keeping track of responses and communicating the details to colleagues often has to be done around the usual day-to-day work of running a journal. The investigation of an allegation can become deprioritised as the daily demands of routine editorial work become more pressing.
As a journal editor or a publisher, it is possible to pre-empt and prepare for these issues even if you have never dealt with an allegation of misconduct before.
The Research Integrity Strategy Foundations Course
As a journal editor or a publisher, it is possible to pre-empt and prepare for these issues even if you have never dealt with an allegation of misconduct before
That’s why I created the Research Integrity Strategy Foundations Course. It is for journal editors and editorial publishing staff who support journal editors.
It aims to provide a basic understanding of the role of editors and publishers in maintaining research integrity. It provides practical advice on how to avoid the pitfalls that delay and sometimes even derail investigations, and it covers how to implement a strategy to streamline the process of investigating an allegation of misconduct with tips on how to improve editor publisher collaboration.
The course is CPD certified and is available in a live interactive webinar format or as an online course. Click here to find out more.