COPE: Nothing more than a useless trade association

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again – COPE (the Committee on Publication Ethics) is nothing more than a trade association / lobby group for the publishing industry.  Its real job is to provide a feel-good excuse for the multi-$bn publishing industry to say “hey look we’re doing something about ethics”, in return for subscription fees. In the same way that being listed in Who’s Who appeals to vain individuals, being listed as a COPE member buys journals a semblance of ethical credibility.

What if that credibility counts for nothing?  As reported yesterday by Neuroskeptic, a new study by Morten Oksvold found a shockingly low rate of response from journal editors when confronted with blatant evidence of data irregularities in over 40 papers spread across 3 journals.  The response rate?  Zero. Zilch. Nada. Niente. Nil.

Guess what? All 3 journals are COPE members! The COPE Code of Conduct specifically tells editors to respond stating what they plan to do in such cases. Ignoring such communications is a definite no no.

From my own experiences, this is a common outcome.  Just about every journal or major publisher is a member of COPE, and yet time-and-again we see COPE guidelines being openly flouted. In one of the cases listed in that post (J. Neurosci. paper) I’ve been waiting over 2 years for the publisher to get their proverbial feces together. Last fall the case was raised to the level of a formal investigation by the ethics committee of the Society for Neuroscience, but they’ve stopped responding to my emails, despite me CC’ing COPE. The burden for ensuring that alleged data problems are dealt with in a timely manner falls firmly at the feet of the journals and their so-called trade association. It should not require Herculean efforts on the part of bloggers.  We know how to do this stuff properly – it just requires lazy editors to do their damn jobs!

What are the consequences for a journal or editor, if a breach of the COPE guidelines occurs?  Well, based on the Cell case I outlined in that previous post, there were none. The editor still has her job. There was no formal public announcement that the COPE guidelines had been breached. No indication that the person or persons behind the blatant conflict-of-interest suffered any negative effects whatsoever. A simple email to me (the complainant) stating that “procedures will be reviewed and improved”, and we all move on pretending this is fixed, and won’t happen again.

The underlying issue here is that COPE doesn’t have any teeth. All of the power is held by the journals, and COPE is their obedient little lap dog. When journals screw up, COPE could threaten to rescind their membership, but who in their right mind is going to challenge a multi-$bn giant such as Elsevier?

As scientists, we need to be frank about the reality of the relationship between the publishing industry and COPE.  If we want ethics cases to be handled properly, squealing to a pay-to-play vanity club is not the answer. COPE has consistently proven that they don’t have the power to change deeply entrenched behavior by editors. In contrast, taking matters into our own hands by using social media and sites such as PubPeer, continues to be an effective strategy to get results.