APS News

Board Approves New Ethics Guidelines for Journals

By Pamela Zerbinos

Last year, in response to the ethics violations that infected the physics community, the APS modified its guidelines for ethical and professional conduct [see APS News, January 2003]. At its February meeting, the APS Executive Board has taken the further step of approving a revised set of guidelines for the handling of allegations of research misconduct related to the APS journals.

"These have been in place for some time," said APS Editor-in-Chief Martin Blume, "but they have been sharpened up and made more explicit."

Because of the large number of articles that get submitted, it isn't possible for APS to examine each for evidence of misconduct. Instead, the Society relies on everyone involved in the editorial process to safeguard its integrity.

"Before investigating," Blume said, "we have to have some indication from someone that something is wrong. That someone can be an editor, or it can be whoever's reading the manuscript at an early stage."

Allegations usually involve plagiarism, duplicate submissions, referee misconduct, improper credit assignment, or false or fabricated data.

"For some of those cases," Blume said, "there is no way in which we can carry out an appropriate investigation. For example, the fabrication of data. That's the sort of thing that is the responsibility of the institution.

"In some cases, the institution might be unwilling or unable to carry out an investigation, and then it comes back to [the APS]." This happens primarily because of the international nature of the APS journals and the fact that there are no international standards for conduct of research or for institutional response to allegations.

"In other cases where we have to do the primary research," Blume said, "such as cases involving plagiarism or referee misconduct, ultimately the punishment is our informing the institution of that misconduct." APS also carries out the main investigation in cases of duplicate submission.

"The primary point," Blume said, "is that when an allegation is made, we must do something about it. But we're rather like a district attorney's office. We may decline to prosecute if we don't find sufficient evidence to do so."

The new guidelines are careful to respect the rights of the accused, and if the APS doesn't find evidence of misconduct, the institution won't be informed.

"We're not going to an institution if somebody makes a pie-in-the-sky accusation," Blume said. "But if somebody makes an accusation, they have to expect that accusation and the name of the individual making it will ultimately find its way to the accused."

Blume said he hopes the new guidelines, which were discussed at the February 8 Executive Board meeting, are only the beginning.

"The journals need to have uniform policies on this," he said. Blume, who chairs the International Union of Pure and Applied Physics' Working Group on Communication in Physics, has just received IUPAP's approval to have an international gathering of journal editors and publishers to discuss how journals can work together to facilitate better handling of allegations.

"I hope that journals will recognize that we have reason to take common cause in this," Blume said. "One example is, when there is suspicion of plagiarism. The journal from which the article is plagiarized ought to be notified and they should work together."

Blume does not expect this meeting to be held until late this year or possibly next year, but he said that the APS procedures might be refined once it takes place.

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Editor: Alan Chodos
Associate Editor: Jennifer Ouellette