COPE Report Explores Publication Issues in HSS

Plenty of academics do not like to be confined by their respective disciplines. And when attempting to further general human knowledge, interdisciplinary thought is a must.

That said, comparing and contrasting disciplines can always give us interesting insights — and it can be fun to learn more about how each discipline stands in position to each other.

A new report offers an intriguing way to look at the differences between academic disciplines: what do journal editors routinely identify as struggles? Social science journal editors, for example, rate the following challenges the ones they have most difficulty dealing with: “intellectual property and copyright issues,” “data/image fabrication issues,” and “fraudulent submissions.” Journal editors for the physical sciences report similar challenge with issues of data fabrication. Business, finance, and economics journal editors cite self-plagiarism as a top concern.

The Committee on Publication Ethics (COPE) is a non-statutory body which aims to provide practical publication ethics guidelines for journal editors working in various research disciplines. With the support of the publisher Routledge, COPE commissioned primary research to better understand the publication ethics landscape for editors working on journals within the arts, humanities, and social sciences. The executive summary reports COPE was inspired, in part, because of perceptions that COPE members outside of the physical science, technology, and medicine disciplines might not consider the organization to be relevant to their publishing experiences.

The research was conducted earlier this year over two stages: first, the issues were explored qualitatively via two online focus groups, 20 issues were identified, then an online survey was disseminated to journal editors in the arts, humanities, and social sciences. The survey received 656 admissible responses. Below, COPE’s report will be summarized.


The report highlights 20 different publication ethics issues in the arts, humanities, and social sciences, categorizing them in terms of severity, breadth, frequency, and confidence.

The most serious issues that journal editors face: “detecting plagiarism and poor attribution standards,” “dealing with fraudulent submissions,” and identifying “data and/or image fabrication issues.”

Unfortunately, two of the most serious issues are also issues which journal editors are least confident in their abilities to deal with: identifying “data/image fabrication issues,” and “dealing with fraudulent submissions.” In more poor news for journal editors, it turns out that the other most serious issue, “detecting plagiarism and poor attribution standards,” is also one of the most widespread and most frequently grappled with issues.

As far as other issues go, journal editors identified “addressing language and writing quality barriers while remaining inclusive” to be one of the most widespread and most frequent issues faced. Journal editors also identified “recognizing and dealing with bias in reviewer comments” as widespread, and “issues around the way in which authors receive and respond to criticism” as a frequent issue. Journal editors claimed to be the least confident in their ability to deal with “intellectual property and copyright issues.”

In categorizing the issues in terms of severity, breadth, frequency, and confidence, the report asked journal editors four questions. For severity: “Which of the issues listed do you consider to be most serious in ethical terms?” For breadth (widespreadness): “Which of the following have you encountered or heard about in your role as a journal editor?” For frequency: “Which five issues arise most frequently in your role as a journal editor?” For confidence: “Which of these issues listed do you feel the least confident about dealing with?”

Respondents could select a maximum of five of 20 publication ethics issues. Here are the results of the survey (and a nicely formatted summary of what was just covered):

Needs and Gaps

A question of immense importance at this point: Did respondents raise issues which COPE’s existing resources already address? In other words, is COPE being underutilized, or ought COPE adapt better to meet the needs of arts, humanities, and social science journal publishers?

The report notes that COPE’s existing resources were often praised, and that many journal editors felt that COPE appeared to meet their needs. Not using COPE seemed largely attributable to a lack of awareness or a lack of perceived need, as opposed to a failing in COPE’s resources.

That said, there are gaps, and while some newly added resources appear to attempt to fill some gaps (in issues around inclusiveness and language, a podcast on diversity in the peer review system was recently released as a COPE resource), more could be done, for example, to produce case studies in publication ethics specifically for those in the arts, humanities, and social sciences.

Irrelevance of COPE to a specific editor’s role (3 percent) or discipline (2 percent) was rarely cited as a cause of non-engagement with COPE, which may suggest that COPE’s services do cater effectively to the arts, humanities, and social science editors that use them. COPE’s resources were consulted by 57 percent of those surveyed, and 18 percent considered them to be an extremely important resource.


Of the respondents, 28 percent were completely unaware of COPE. The report notes that the first step in COPE’s goal of supporting arts, humanities, and social sciences in the ethical challenges they face is to address the lack of exposure.


There are a number of publication ethics issues that arts, humanities, and social science journal editors report as being both serious and prevalent. COPE’s resources seem to be of use in plenty of these cases. However, current awareness of COPE’s resources seems to be low. COPE appears to be respected by those who are familiar with it, with guidelines and flowcharts found to be extremely useful by many.

With this in mind, here is a comparison between the issues faced by journal editors in the arts, humanities, and social sciences, and journal editors in the sciences:

It seems as though the publication issues trend towards similar things, but there are key differences. For this reason, the report concludes that there are ways in which COPE could respond or dedicate resources such as to adapt for the arts, humanities, and social sciences. Here is a diagram showcasing some of the ways in which COPE may think about the publication ethics issues facing arts, humanities, and social science journal editors.

The report provides a detailed set of appendices which, both interestingly and usefully, shows how different journal editors from different disciplines rank the issues that they face. It also provides links to useful COPE resources that may address some of the issues raised by journal editors (that journal editors may have been entirely unaware of!).

For access to the report and these interesting appendices: click here.

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Gus Wachbrit

Augustus Wachbrit (or, if you’re intimidated by his three-syllable name, Gus) is the Social Science Communications Intern at SAGE Publishing. He assists in the creation, curation, revision, and distribution of various forms of written content primarily for Social Science Space and Method Space. He is studying Philosophy and English at California Lutheran University, where he is a research fellow and department assistant. If you’re likely to find him anywhere, he’ll be studying from a textbook, writing (either academically or creatively), exercising, or defying all odds and doing all these things at once.

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