Avoid Ethics Issues in Science Publishing with These 5 Questions

May 10, 2018

You’ve worked hard for months (maybe years!) and finally, your experiments have yielded exciting results. Congratulations! Next, how can you ensure that you write the best report possible?

As you start organizing your data into a cohesive and publishable story, ask yourself these 5 questions:

Who Is an Author?

ASM journals follow the International Committee of Medical Journal Editors (ICMJE) guidelines for authorship.  Briefly, an author is someone who:

  • helped design or conduct the experiments, or with the analysis and interpretation of the data AND

  • helped write or revise the paper AND

  • approved the final version of the paper AND

  • all authors agree to accuracy of the data and conclusions.

ASM journals encourage authors to attribute their work and the contributions of their colleagues, appropriately, in the manuscript. Technicians or rotating students who were in the lab when an experiment was done are generally not considered authors; neither are reagent providers.

Is All the Text Original?

Most know not to plagiarize others, but did you know you can be penalized for reusing your own previously published text? ASM uses the CrossCheck software by iThenticate to detect potential overlap of text. We evaluate reports and consider:

  • the percent overlap.

  • how many sources.

  • which manuscript section contains overlap.

Self-plagiarism, or “text recycling,” refers to reusing a significant portion of a previously published paper. Scientific papers should present novel material and contribute new findings to the field. Recycling text or data falsely marks it as novel and a new contribution to the field. Authors should also rework the paragraphs of the introduction between papers so they are not exactly the same across publications. This will avoid potential violations of copyright rules between different publishers.

Hint: The materials and methods section is less concerning, because descriptions of methods and protocols are generally standardized.

Do the Figures Accurately Represent the Original Data?

A good blot and a bad blot - note the clear demarcation of where the gels were spliced togetherWhich panel do your gels look like? All splicing should be clearly marked and indicated in the figure legend. 

All accepted manuscripts have their images screened by ASM image specialists. The image specialists examine each figure to:

  • detect spliced images and erasures.

  • detect subtle changes like those made with the  Photoshop “blur” tool.

  • detect adjustments to backgrounds or removal of image elements.

  • compare suspected duplicate images.

You should keep underlying data used to generate figures for a minimum of 6 years after the paper is published. If there is suspected image manipulation, you must have the data to clearly show how the figure was prepared.

Hint: Unacknowledged splicing is one of the most frequently encountered concerns flagged by ASM staff.

Have You Addressed All Important Details?

Many of the potential figure concerns detected after publication can be attributed to sloppy science and inadvertent mistakes such as:

  • duplicating loading controls in Western blot panels.

  • forgetting to swap out a “place-holder” image.

  • claiming a novel finding without thorough literature search.

Until the mid-to-late 1990s, researchers had to submit hard copies of gels or images, but now it is easier to make ‘copy and pasting’ errors when making figure panels.

Hint: Properly label files for a complete experiment and include the file names in your laboratory notebook!

Have You Used All Possible Resources?

There are many free online resources available to help you:

ASM also encourages authors to deposit their underlying data in an established, publicly available, data type-specific repository such as:

Did you follow all the guidelines and still publish an error? That’s OK; an Author Correction is a perfectly acceptable course of action. There shouldn’t be a negative stigma associated with correcting the scientific record!

Author: Amy Kullas, Ph.D.

Amy Kullas, Ph.D.
Amy Kullas is the ASM Ethics Director.