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Many of the public debates over ethics in scholarly journals focus on such questions as conflict of interest by biomedical researchers. And various federal regulations (and journal codes of conduct) attempt to prevent conflicts.

Now some journal editors -- primarily in the social sciences but extending to other fields -- are trying to use a new code of conduct to address ethical issues that arise in fields beyond the biological sciences (though there, too), but that also have the potential to tarnish the image of the research enterprise. In the past few months, 88 journal editors have signed on to the principles outlined by 5 other journal editors, and 71 associate editors have signed on.

The principles, in condensed form, of the new code are:

  • "Refraining from coercive citation practices."
  • "Encouraging my journal, its staff, and its sponsors and publishers to keep marketing strategies separate from the peer review process (if applicable)."
  • "I will, whenever possible and appropriate given the scope of my journal, encourage: a) data transparency including identifying potential conflicts of interest, b) citing of archival data sources properly, and for one-off data collections, describing the full set of variables and other publications emerging from the data sample under review; c) to consider publishing theoretically/methodologically-relevant null results; d) to support substantive and important replication efforts; e) and to discourage opportunistic and atheoretical  post-hoc hypothesizing."
  • "Communicating these and other relevant ethical standards to my associate editors and board members, and to conveying these principles within appropriate public forums."

Two professors/journal editors kicked off the effort: Deborah Rupp of Purdue University (editor of the Journal of Management) and Steven Rogelberg of the University of North Carolina at Charlotte (editor of Journal of Business and Psychology).

In an interview, Rogelberg said that he has thought for years about the need to promote better ethical standards. But he said that an article in the journal in Science in February about coercive citations convinced him that there was an immediate need. Coercive citations are those that editors seek to add to authors' pieces not because they are needed, but to make various journals appear more influential. Many people use various measures of journal influence that are based on counting how many times journals' articles are cited -- so extra citations yield a more influential journal.

Rogelberg said that he has seen this with some of his own submissions elsewhere, and that the phenomenon is real -- and irresponsible. He said that he believes editors who take a public pledge not to engage in that practice and other questionable practices will be more likely to edit with ethics.

Further, he said editors signing the pledge can offer support to academics who come to them with cases of less scrupulous editors. And there is a public shame factor too: The ethics code has a portion of its website where people can report violations.

There are of course other codes of ethics for journal editors. The Council of Science editors, for example, has a White Paper on Promoting Integrity in Scientific Journal Publications. That document is more detailed, and more science focused than the new ethics code. And members of the council do not need to sign it.

Rogelberg said signing was important for the new code. "With a pledge, people affirm something," he said.

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