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Publication Ethics and Biomedical Imperialism

March 24, 2014 1279

Human testingResearch in the social sciences and humanities has suffered a good deal from the assumption by many biomedical scientists that they are uniquely capable of identifying ethical problems and devising regulatory solutions. During the last half century, this has led to global attempts to impose prior review by institutional review board-style committees (IRB), in the belief that these will improve research ethics, to demands for the universal development of investigative agencies, in the belief that these will promote research integrity, and, most recently, to pressure on international scientific publishers to adopt a particular model of publication ethics, in the belief that these will sanitize authors’ behavior. The Committee on Publication Ethics (COPE) has been an important contributor to all of these, but is particularly associated with the last.

The problems created for the social sciences and humanities from interventions in respect of research ethics have been abundantly documented. Many commentators have noted the irony that disciplines which have long recognized the importance of moral sensibility in their research have been handicapped by policies developed in disciplines with a long history of abusing human subjects. There is, of course, a further irony in the resistance of the biomedical world to learning anything from those social science disciplines that have created a substantial body of theory and empirical work on effective regulation.

Proposed Revisions to the Common Rule report cover

In the United States, the “Proposed Revisions to the Common Rule” workshop report looked at ethical standards for treating with human research subjects.

Nevertheless, the complaints from the social sciences and humanities have been increasingly acknowledged within the policy community. Recent examples include amendments to the Tri-Council approach in Canada and the US National Research Council report on possible revisions to the Common Rule, which is the foundation of the IRB system. These complaints seem to have prompted a more cautious approach to the issues of research integrity, although that may also reflect the costs of setting up policing systems on any scale.

Publication ethics, however, is another front. Here, COPE has successfully campaigned to persuade most major scientific publishers to commit all their journals to its position statements. COPE has certainly done a great deal of useful work in identifying ethical problems, and suggesting ways to deal with them. Nevertheless, until very recently, it was simply a self-selected group of biomedical journal editors. Although membership has now broadened, other voices are not strongly reflected within the association. Some COPE positions are widely thought by social science and humanities journal editors to be fundamentally inappropriate. This concern is reflected in a new edition of the Best Practice Guidelines developed by Wiley for their journals, which emerged from a genuinely multi-disciplinary consultation process – I should declare an interest as one of the reviewers involved.

Two examples of the flexibility introduced by this revision relate to the manipulation of images and to duplicate publication.

Many commentators have noted the irony that disciplines which have long recognized the importance of moral sensibility in their research have been handicapped by policies developed in disciplines with a long history of abusing human subjects.

There is a genuine concern in scientific journals about image manipulation, associated with questions about research integrity. In the social sciences and humanities, however, image manipulation may be essential to protect the identity of research participants and to explore details of visual artefacts that would otherwise be invisible. An art historian, for example, may need selectively to enlarge a section of a painting or to manipulate the filters on various imaging technologies to explore what lies beneath the surface of a work.

Duplicate publication is a more difficult issue. Where a discipline makes extensive use of systematic reviews, publishing the same results twice may mislead reviewers about the weight of evidence on a topic. In the social sciences and humanities, however, interdisciplinary work may require substantial amounts of duplication in publications directed to different audiences. The actual papers are unlikely to be identical, because they will need to be tailored to the readership – duplicate publication in the most narrow and literal sense remains unethical. However, the Wiley statement acknowledges that there can be legitimate reasons for extensive recycling. This should avoid one situation I have encountered, where a graduate student rapidly published a brief account of some findings in a journal directed to professionals in the field being studied, as payback for their assistance. As a result they were then refused an opportunity to publish a more fully evidenced and better theorized version for other social scientists by a health studies journal signed up to the COPE position.

There are, of course, areas where the Guidelines do not fully meet my own concerns. One is the question of prior review by an institutional ethics committee. COPE have pressed journal editors to make this a condition of publication. However, some major developed countries do not consider this essential for their well-established social science research communities. Prior review is very limited in Germany and France and unknown in Italy, for example.

Institutional approval does not, however, guarantee ethical research – and its absence does not make research unethical. Where a national research community has not thought it necessary to introduce a regulatory regime of questionable relevance to the social sciences and humanities, it is surely not for a journal editor to ban their publications. Doing so would be a hegemonic act that is profoundly disrespectful to the right of different countries to make their own decisions about such matters. Of course, editors retain the right to ask authors to account for their ethical decisions but this is a matter for professional judgement rather than institutional structures. The Guidelines introduce some flexibility by advising journals to ensure that ‘all necessary… approvals have been obtained’ but without explicitly acknowledging that there may actually be no ‘necessary approvals.’

Another concern is the Guidelines’ silence on the question of auto-ethnography, of using one’s own life as data. This has already provoked jurisdictional conflict between social scientists and IRBs. For an editor, the troubling issue is less that of self-exposure than of the implications for others who have found their way into the auto-ethnographer’s account. If the ethnographer self-identifies as the author, it may not be difficult to work out who the others are.

Some years ago, for example, I received a paper from a distinguished medical sociologist about problems in a recent encounter with their doctor. This provoked a conversation about the limits of responsibility to protect the doctor’s identity, although the paper was eventually rejected on other grounds. When I subsequently wrote on some unfortunate medical experiences of my own, I chose to use a pseudonym to limit the potential for exposing the agents of this poor treatment. Was this right? Should I have used my background as a medical sociologist to challenge the hospital involved? Would other patients benefit more from a less personal but more analytic approach? Nearly 10 years after the events in question, is it acceptable to ‘out’ myself as the author? It is not clear that there is yet a consensus on life-as-data to which editors can appeal, although the approach has many attractions as a way to gain access to some contexts and experiences that would otherwise be difficult to achieve.

It is unlikely that any set of recommendations would fully satisfy every critical reader. These Guidelines are a great improvement on any previous statement about publication ethics in their treatment of the social sciences and humanities. Our challenge now is to continue that process of improvement.


Robert Dingwall is an emeritus professor of sociology at Nottingham Trent University. He also serves as a consulting sociologist, providing research and advisory services particularly in relation to organizational strategy, public engagement and knowledge transfer. He is co-editor of the SAGE Handbook of Research Management.

View all posts by Robert Dingwall

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