Liz Wager: Follow the rules—as soon as we’ve written them

Liz WagerOne of my most vivid schoolday memories is of being told off for doing something I didn’t know was forbidden. My crime was “running in the school corridors” which seemed perfectly reasonable behaviour to me (as I was late for a lesson), but which apparently was against the school rules. I can still remember my burning seven year old fury at such injustice. So I sympathise with authors who are accused by editors of breaking “rules” they didn’t know existed.

One area where authors are entitled to feel bemused is the definition of what constitutes publication. With the explosion of blogs, wikis, and various repositories, opportunities to broadcast research have also burgeoned. Before electronic publishing, one or two bound copies of a PhD dissertation might be deposited in the dusty depths of a university library, but nobody thought this would prevent publication in a journal. Nowadays, the dissertation may be available on a university website. Similarly, in the days of paper, a report to a funder might have been circulated to a dozen people then archived in a filing cabinet: these days, it may be posted on the funder’s website. Should this posting prevent publication in a journal?

Physicists may post pre-prints onto the Arxiv repository and later publish their findings in a peer reviewed journal. Apparently this is acceptable for many physics journals, but not for medical journals.

Another innovative form of publication which demonstrates the inconsistency of journal policies is a repository for conference posters, such as F1000Posters. F1000 provides a list of journal and publisher policies which range from having “no problem with prior deposition,” to viewing deposition as “prepublication,” via some intermediate positions such as the BMJ Group’s which is that researchers can publish a journal article so long as it contains “enough extra information” that wasn’t on the poster—which sounds reasonable, but raises the question of what is “enough” and who decides.

This range of policies suggests they are being made up as we go along. And if something is acceptable to one publisher but forbidden by another, with little or no explanation, it’s hard to formulate any helpful principles to guide authors who want to do the right thing. It also makes me uncomfortable to include such conventions under the heading of “publication ethics” because clearly there is no consensus about what is ethical. Instead of publishers inventing policies on the hoof, wouldn’t it be better to discuss general principles (like what harms might arise) and then work towards consensus, or at least guidelines that make sense within different disciplines? Otherwise the rulings will seem arbitrary and authors will continue to flout them, either out of ignorance, or annoyance at the inconsistency. Perhaps we could organise a mass run along the publishers’ corridors to protest?

Liz Wager PhD is a freelance medical writer, editor, and trainer. She was the chair of the Committee on Publication Ethics (COPE) (2009-2012).