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Ethical issues also arise from unjustified authorship, conflicts of interest, breaches of confidentiality, duplicate publications, simultaneous submissions of manuscripts, citation bias and misrepresentations. Editors are responsible for safeguarding the journal’s ethical standards and will readily act against research misconduct. To reduce contentions, many journals have developed editorial policies which require authors to justify authorship, declare potential conflicts of interest, and state the journal’s right of access to research data for verification, and the right to forward the manuscript to appropriate authority for investigation of misconduct.

The power of peer review

How can researchers be held accountable for what they do? Developing guidelines for ethical practice is one thing.  Can it be ensured that researchers follow them? Modern society has fallen upon the power of peer review to define and enforce the standards expected in professional practice. In medical practice, peers have evolved a Code of Professional Conduct to ensure that doctors bear moral, ethical and professional responsibility for their patients. In biomedical research, studies involving human subjects are expected to undergo peer and public review by an independent Ethics Committee (Institutional Review Board) to ensure that they are conducted in accordance with ICH-GCP Guidelines, and the Declaration of Helsinki. The Ethics Committee should consist of a reasonable number and mix of medical/scientific professionals and non-medical/non-scientific members who collectively have the qualifications and experience to evaluate the scientific and ethical aspects of the research project. The main objectives of the Ethics Committee are to safeguard the rights, safety and well-being of human research volunteers, provide timely, comprehensive and independent review of the ethics of proposed studies and ensure that there is due regard to existing laws, regulations and community attitudes. The Ethics Committee has the authority to not only approve, require modification or disapprove a study (and its amendments), but also to monitor, suspend or terminate previously approved studies.

The International Committee for Medical Journal Editors have defined the common breaches of publication ethics.4 Most editors will not publish clinical trials that do not have Ethics Committee approval. Editors also depend heavily on peer review to not only judge the scientific worth of submitted manuscripts but also help detect author misconduct. Journal reviewers, being experts in their fields, can usually detect fraudulent and plagiarised articles quite readily. Such papers are rejected outright. Often the authors are also “blacklisted” by the Editorial Board. The authors may also be reported to the Head of the Institution in which they work.

Developing an ethical culture

The Committee on Publication Ethics, founded in 1997, provides a forum for scientific editors to deliberate on possible breaches of research and publication ethics. A summary of cases discussed over a 6.5 year period revealed that common causes of research misconduct were (in rank order) duplicate publication, authorship issues, lack of ethics approval, inadequate informed consent, falsification of data, plagiarism, unethical experimentation and conflicts of interest.5 It is clear that greater awareness needs to be propagated among researchers and reviewers of these common ethical breaches. Principal investigators of clinical studies should undergo training in ICH-GCP Guidelines.  Along the same vein, training for reviewers and editors on how to detect and deal with breaches in publication ethics can help raise publication standards. Editors can also enforce ethical standards by firm editorial policies, including retraction of published work found later to be unethically composed. Finally, the standard of ethical practice in any community is dictated by the expectations of peers.  We are what our peers think of us. Our reputation is our greatest asset, and a tarnished research reputation can mar a whole research career.


  1. World Medical association. Declaration of Helsinki: Ethical Principles for Medical Research Involving Human Subjects. Updated 2004. [HTML] [PDF]
  2. Riis P. Perspectives on the Fifth Revision of the Declaration of Helsinki. JAMA. 2000;284:3045-6 [PubMed]
  3. Malaysian Guidelines for Good Clinical Practice. Ministry of Health Malaysia. 1999 [PDF]
  4. Uniform requirements for manuscripts submitted to biomedical journals: Writing and Editing for Biomedical Publication. International Committee for Medical Journal Editors. Updated 2006 [HTML] [PDF]
  5. Kleinert S. Common ethical and editorial dilemmas of author misconduct: how should we respond? [HTML]

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