April 21, 2020

The ethics of authorship and preparation of research publications


Part of a journal editor's responsibility relates to ethical issues associated with the articles published in the journal. While the majority of authors who submit articles to the Journal of the World Aquaculture Society (JWAS) adhere routinely to high ethical standards of authorship, there always are a few exceptions. In some cases, the behavior in question appears unintentional, caused by either a lack of understanding of the issues involved or students and young scientists who lack understanding of publishing ethics. In other cases, however, the unethical behavior is deliberate. Whether deliberate or unintentional, however, the consequences for research misconduct from unethical behavior are intolerable and can be severe. This editorial is written to provide clarity about what constitutes ethical and unethical practices related to publishing in scientific journals and to encourage authors to adhere to them when submitting to JWAS.

Graduate students around the world are commonly required to take classes on research ethics that include content related to the ethics of authorship. Scientific journals have established formal policies on the ethics of authorship that are often readily accessible to authors on journal websites. In attempting to avoid ethical problems, the manuscript submission process of many journals requires the submitting author to check boxes in response to a series of statements that attest to adherence to key ethical considerations. Authors of articles with decisions to accept must also sign a copyright agreement, a legally binding agreement with the publisher designed to clarify publishing rights and prevent ethical mishaps. Given the stated precautions, it is frankly difficult as an editor to understand why there continues to be so many instances of unethical behavior on the part of authors who submit manuscripts to scientific journals.

The issue of the pressures today on young scientists to focus on the number of articles published and not necessarily the quality is a longstanding topic (Arlinghaus, 2014; Siegel & Baveye, 2010). There is no question that systems which evaluate research scientists exclusively on the number of articles published fuel the competition to publish as many articles as possible, regardless of how small a contribution an individual article makes to the scientific literature (Engle, 2018). Ultimately, however, each scientist is responsible for his/her own actions in response to such existing pressures, and each scientist must personally reflect on whether his/her actions are right or wrong and whether they violate ethical standards. Unethical behavior by research scientists is a form of misconduct that can lead to serious consequences that may include termination of employment. The following issues describe several types of unethical behaviors related to publishing. The final section provides guidelines designed to consistently adhere to high ethical standards when publishing scientific articles.


2.1 Plagiarism

Do you really know what constitutes plagiarism? In the ethics lexicon, plagiarism is a form of stealing in the sense of taking credit for someone else's ideas or seeking some sort of benefit from copying previously published work. Most people have been warned and understand that directly copying and taking credit for someone else's writing, data, and results are unethical and constitute research misconduct.

While nearly all educated individuals have been taught that plagiarism is wrong, problems of plagiarism are increasing in scientific publishing. The following are three forms of plagiarism that some authors seem to be unaware of: (a) verbatim copying of text in a manuscript with the reference cited in parentheses, (b) self‐plagiarism, and (c) translation plagiarism.

Writing is the process of putting one's thoughts into words. Thus, copying verbatim what someone else has written is a form of stealing another person's thoughts and ideas, an infraction addressed in copyright agreements that prohibit copying published text without expressed permission. Simply adding a reference to text that has been copied verbatim is entirely unacceptable. Text that has been copied verbatim must be placed in parentheses, along with the reference cited. Clearly, an introduction, review of the literature, or discussion section that is full of parentheses is not a well‐written piece. While some refer to this trend as laziness in scholarship, it is nonetheless a form of plagiarism, which constitutes research misconduct.

Some authors attempt to argue that self‐plagiarism is not plagiarism in that the writing is “theirs,” and they are not stealing the ideas of another. Such comments ignore the fact that those authors signed a copyright agreement with the publisher of the original article in which the publishing rights belong to the publisher, not the author. To reuse text, tables, or figures that were previously published requires explicit permission from the publisher, often accompanied by a fee. It is astonishing that authors who self‐plagiarize have never thought about the significance of the tabs that say “Request permissions” that are located prominently in the online listings of the original published articles. Do self‐plagiarizing authors simply not read the copyright agreements that they sign to have their articles published, or do they blatantly ignore the agreements signed? As a matter of record, some of the lowest (meaning least similar) scores from the plagiarism‐checking tool used by the JWAS are those that originate from some of the most prolific authors whose laboratories have conducted similar analyses for decades. These authors commendably write each article as a new piece of research and do not conveniently cut and paste text from previously articles.

Translation plagiarism is of increasing concern. The Committee on Publication Ethics considers translation plagiarism a form of research misconduct, defining it as “disguised plagiarism” that occurs when “someone …republishes the work of someone else, but in a different language” (COPE, 2020). A 2020 article in Science Magazine (Chawla, 2020) summarized a report by a commission of the Russian Academy of Science that investigated translation plagiarism and text recycling that led to duplicate publication. The report has been characterized as a “bombshell,” resulting in more than 800 scientific articles retracted.

2.2 Duplicate publication

There are two types of duplicate publication. The first type occurs when an author publishes text, tables, and figures verbatim from a published work (particularly one for which the author has signed a copyright agreement) without permission from the publisher of the original publication. All authors that have an article accepted must sign a copyright agreement before the article is published. It should be obvious that a signed “agreement” is a legally binding document that behooves educated persons such as research scientists to read before signing. A person of high moral character would also then seek to abide by the terms of the agreement that has been signed.

The second type of duplicate publication violation occurs when an author simultaneously submits the same manuscript to two different journals. Most journals require authors to formally attest that the manuscript has not been submitted to another journal. Checking that box and then submitting the same manuscript to another journal is an act of dishonesty. Dishonesty, or lying, is one of the three major components of immoral behavior, as in “lying, cheating, and stealing.”

Both types of duplicate publication actions are unethical. Why take the risk of either form of duplicate publication? Scientists are expected to act in accord with fundamental tenets of honesty in their science and its publication. While, undoubtedly, some individuals who engage in unethical behaviors have not been caught, many examples exist of those authors who have been caught. Their names rarely appear in the public news media, but the aftermath leads to long‐term consequences that adversely affect the authors involved. Other scientists often refuse to continue collaborations with such individuals; editors take note of such activities; and word spreads quickly, especially in smaller academic fields such as aquaculture.

2.3 Guest authorship, ghost authorship, “brokered authorship”

Collaborative teams of interdisciplinary researchers are essential for the future growth and development of aquaculture (Engle, 2016). Inclusion as an author on a scientific article means that each individual has made a “substantive intellectual contribution” to the work presented in the publication. Substantive contributions include the conception and design of the overall study, as well as the ultimate content, presentation, and completion of the manuscript. All individuals who have made a substantive contribution to the content and preparation should be included as authors.

Individuals who have not made a substantive contribution to the work reported, however, should not be included as authors. Thus, it is unethical to: (a) include names of authors who have not made substantive contributions to the work (guest or gift authors) or (b) omit the name of an author (ghost author) who did make a substantive contribution to the work reported.

The race to publish the greatest numbers of articles possible (to receive positive annual evaluations, for promotions, for nominations to receive awards and recognitions) has promoted guest and gift authorship. Adding the name of one's supervisor, when that individual did not make a substantive contribution to the work reported, is to engage in guest/gift authorship. Doing so intentionally to put a researcher in good stead when it comes time for raises and promotions is an unethical practice. Informal groups of colleagues who put each other's names on articles in a quid pro quo‐type of relationship (when those individuals did not make a substantive intellectual contribution to the study reported) also constitute an intentional strategy founded on guest/gift authorship. Such publishing cabals or “brokered authorship” groups (COPE, 2018, 2020) are becoming more common. The Committee on Publication Ethics considers these groups to be dishonest, fraudulent, and engaging in a relatively new form of misconduct (COPE, 2018).

2.4 Not getting permission from all authors

It can be frustrating, particularly for students and young scientists, to wait to receive feedback from all authors on a manuscript, make revisions, and have to wait for final approval of all authors prior to submission to a journal. Nonetheless, most journals require some statement whereby the corresponding author attests that all authors have approved submission of the manuscript. When a corresponding author fails to heed this requirement, that individual is misrepresenting the desires of those coauthors who have yet to give their permission. Such misrepresentation is unethical and generally leads to a variety of problems for the corresponding author. Coauthors, typically collaborators, who find out that an article was submitted without their knowledge and approval often seek reprisal by insisting that the article be withdrawn or even rejected out of hand prior to review. Exercising patience will avoid the risk of alienating important collaborators.

2.5 Lying by omission

One of the core tenets of the scientific process is that the work reported is repeatable. Thus, it is incumbent upon the author of a scientific article to accurately and completely describe the materials and methods used in the study. Rush to publish or perhaps simple lazy oversight in manuscript preparation may explain a number of instances of incomplete methods reported in scientific articles. However, when the omission of important details is deliberate, to perhaps obscure deficiencies or errors in experimental design, data collection, or laboratory analyses, then this misconduct is dishonest and unethical.

Lying by omission includes not citing relevant literature. In some cases, an irresponsible researcher may not have devoted sufficient time to the all‐important detailed literature search phase of the research project and is unaware of relevant literature. In other cases, however, citation of relevant work is omitted deliberately to avoid revealing to reviewers that the work presented has already been the subject of thorough investigation, and the study they are seeking to publish would be a nominal contribution to the overall literature. Perhaps more egregious is the deliberate omission of references to studies that contradict results of the study being reported. Such omissions are dishonest, unethical, and a form of research misconduct.

Citing irrelevant literature or citing references that do not contain the information that the reference purportedly documents is yet another form of lying by omission. One example is to cite an article (often by a well‐known author) that does not contain the content being referenced. Another example is to use a citation to imply proven results when the statement referenced was not a result of the study but an introductory or speculative statement in the article referenced.


Ethical behavior is following a code of acceptable conduct, a commitment to do the right thing in the right way. It begins with a strong dedication to the process of discovering new truths about the world we live in. Intentional lying, cheating, or stealing ideas from others results in poor and faulty science, demeans the discipline of aquaculture science, breaches the trust of the research community, and generates a negative reputation of the author who engages in these practices. Other researchers and stakeholders take heed of those who engage in unethical behaviors even if no one says anything; correspondingly, they also notice who consistently practices and adheres to ethical behaviors and thereby develops a positive reputation in his/her discipline.

The following sources of guidance will help ensure that research and its publication conform to high ethical standards. University and research laboratory directors and administrators may wish to consider the following for inclusion in introductory packets of guidance provided to new graduate students and faculty.

  • Invest time in thorough literature searches prior to initiating new research.
  • Talk with those knowledgeable about a new area, including aquaculture producers and other researchers, to identify truly new areas of important problems for aquaculture. That way, one does not have to exaggerate or lie about the importance of the problem under study to receive funding or convince reviewers and editors of the value of the work done.
  • Run preliminary trials to gain experience with a new species, production system, or new topic and hone your powers of observations that lead to the development of insightful hypotheses for testing.
  • Get feedback on experimental design from colleagues and collaborators to think through all important variables to be measured and compared.
  • Take scrupulous notes on every phase of the study, including noting any and all problems and deviations from the initial experimental design.
  • Do not cut studies off too early. Conduct them for a sufficient period of time to fully understand the implications and know whether results are likely to disappear later on, that the fish die after an arbitrary cutoff point, etc. If results appear useful in laboratory settings, follow up with a trial under commercial farming conditions through to market size to see if results will be meaningful on commercial farms before making recommendations to aquaculture producers.

In preparing to submit a manuscript to a journal:

  • Be certain to develop a thorough summary review of the literature that identifies the key problem or knowledge gap that the study has addressed.
  • Include sufficient detail in the methods section so that another researcher will be able to repeat the study.
  • Explain any problems with the study up front in the article but also offer a reason why the results should be published in spite of the problems encountered. Reviewers know that most studies have some sort of unexpected problems. In a similar vein, negative results may be insightful, and there is nothing wrong with reporting data that represent a lack of success.
  • Do not make claims in the article that are not directly substantiated by the results. For example, do not claim that some variable was “different” from another if it was not statistically significant. Do not claim trends in the absence of statistically significant difference among a group of variables.
  • Discuss any studies that contradict results of the work being reported and what conditions may have led to those differences.
  • Rewrite, rewrite, and rewrite the manuscript to ensure that each section is very clear and complete. Rewrite once or twice more from start to finish. Hard multiple rewrites of an article to achieve a seamless flow to the end is the best way to avoid issues of plagiarism because the article ends up being written in your own words and expresses your own thoughts.
  • If seeking to publish a manuscript in a language other than the first language of the author, consider having the manuscript (that has been written in your own words) edited by a professional scientific editing service prior to submission. These services are surprisingly good value (and lower cost than many authors expect). This practice removes the temptation to cut and paste well‐written text from articles published by other authors.
  • Develop a relationship with a very critical reviewer who will spend the time to provide very critical feedback.
  • Ensure that all coauthors have reviewed the manuscript, provided feedback, and approved it for submission.
  • Double check that the manuscript meets all formatting criteria for the journal where it is to be submitted.
  • Be honest about all attestations when submitting the manuscript.
  • Never simultaneously submit the same manuscript to two different journals.
  • If rejected, always revise the manuscript before submitting to another journal. The lack of an attempt at revision before resubmission to another journal is an ethical violation because it is a breach of trust of the scientific community, founded in those individuals who have consented to review the manuscript. Moreover, it is common for a second journal to send the manuscript to one of the same reviewers who previously recommended rejection.
  • If there is a reason to publish a popular article related to results of the journal article, be certain to request appropriate permissions and/or consult the editor of the journal where it was published originally to ensure that there is no duplicate publication.

Do the right thing in the right way, and in the long term, you will earn the respect of your peers and be successful.

For greater detail on publication ethics, authors are encouraged to consult the Committee on Publications Ethics (https://publicationethics.org), an organization of scientific journal editors. Author Guidelines for the Journal of the World Aquaculture Society are available at: https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/page/journal/17497345/homepage/forauthors.html

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    About Carole R. Engle

    Former JWAS Editor in Chief - Carole Engle has devoted more than 35 years to aquaculture research, extension, and teaching. In addition to publishing more than 110 scientific articles, four books, and more than 80 extension publications, she has a combined 49 years of editorial experience, including serving as Editor-in-Chief of Aquaculture Economics and Management. She has been honored with numerous awards from the U.S. Aquaculture Society, the National Aquaculture Association, the Catfish Farmers of America, and the Catfish Farmers of Arkansas. Engle was on the faculty of the University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff (UAPB) for more than 27 years and, as Director of the Aquaculture/Fisheries Center and Chairperson of the Department of Aquaculture and Fisheries, led it through a period of rapid growth, development, and expansion.

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