In my capacity as Editor-in-Chief of Nurse Education in Practice I receive the COPE Newsletter. COPE (Committee on Publication Ethics) sets recommended standards for academic publication and most major reputable academic publishers such as Elsevier, who publish my journal, contribute to COPE and adhere to its standards. It provides advice to authors, editors, publishers and reviewers and its activities mainly revolve around core practices related to publication misconduct such as plagiarism, fabrication, falsification and conflicts of interest. The COPE newsletter advertises forthcoming international events such as the COPE Forums and reports on cases that have come to its attention (COPE does not arbitrate but may offer advice to editors and publishers). The newsletter is also a forum for consultation on policies and guidelines.
The COPE Newsletter of October 17th 2022 contained an item headed: “Survey: Author Behavioural Misconduct” with the request to: “Share your experience of issues around author behavioural misconduct and what guidance would be most helpful. We’d be pleased to hear from editors, authors, researchers, publishers, university administrators, and anyone who has encountered this type of issue.” Followed by:
Increasingly, journals and publishers are being asked to act when authors, or others involved in the publication process, are accused or convicted of crimes or various forms of “behavioural misconduct”, such as abuse or harassment. A COPE working group, with industry members and members of COPE, has been formed to identify the publication ethics issues posed by such cases and to recommend steps journals and publishers could take in response. Thank you for helping us understand more about the issues you have encountered and what guidance would be most helpful by sharing your views on author behavioural misconduct.
This is a worrying development. Whether being convicted of a crime should have any bearing on an academic’s ability to publish research or even on his or her archive of published work is uncertain and may well depend on the crime. However, for editors and publishers to have a view on the extent to which “‘behavioural misconduct’, such as abuse or harassment” should have an influence is far less certain. Quite apart from the fact that innocence should be assumed until guilt is proven – especially where there is no potential physical danger to others – over misconduct, the fact that abuse or harassment may be taken into account by editors and publishers could easily provide another weapon in the war against free speech generally. More specifically, this could be weaponised against specific academics who do not toe the line over accepted norms of speech or thought; for example, those who question the woke agenda.
After all, there is ample evidence that guilt in the case of alleged abuse or harassment can be assumed on the flimsiest of grounds. Someone may claim to be abused or harassed based on being upset by someone whose beliefs or comments contravene theirs. Thus, expression of subjective feelings often outweighs objective facts or the ability to prove that abuse or harassment has taken place. This could be a charter for any number of student snowflakes or academic colleagues to have someone investigated with adverse consequences on their ability to publish and, thereby, adverse consequences for their careers. The person may not be dismissed but they may have the brakes applied to their career for a period pending investigation. As things stand, if implemented, this could prevent a future Dr. Neil Thin at the University of Edinburgh and Professor Kathleen Stock at Sussex from publishing. Even if cleared by their employers, as Dr. Thin was, there may be a lag before publishers decide to lift any sanctions.
I have responded to the survey asking for greater clarity on whether guilt is to be assumed and if free speech issues around, for example, Covid orthodoxy related to lockdowns and vaccine passports, or gender critical feminist views would be grounds for consideration if a complaint were raised. I urge fellow editors to respond to this very carefully and to make sure that we ourselves are not going to be used as obstacles to free speech.
Dr. Roger Watson is Academic Dean of Nursing at Southwest Medical University, China. He has a PhD in biochemistry.