Do journals' instructions for authors pay enough attention to ethical issues?

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Do journals' instructions for authors pay enough attention to ethical issues?

This post summarizes the findings of an article published in the July issue of Learned PublishingYang, WU; Zou, Qiang, The ethical issues in instructions for authors of Chinese biomedical journalsLearned Publishing, Volume 28, Number 3

With the rise in instances of misconduct in the academic publishing industry, everyone is aware that authors, journals, and editors have a joint responsibility to ensure ethical publication. Journals should provide clear instructions to authors so that authors are sure about what they should do and what they should not.  Authors should also understand and follow ethical publication guidelines. Journal editors should ensure compliance on all the ethical issues. To ensure good publication practices, journals’ instructions for authors play a very important role; however, sadly, author instructions are often ignored by journals.

I came across a recent study published in the July issue of Learned Publishing that surveys the instructions for authors provided in Chinese Biomedical journals. Today, China ranks second globally in terms of research output. Editors of international journals have been overwhelmed by the increasing flow of submissions from China.  However, at the same time, there have been a lot of discussions about problems in manuscripts written by Chinese authors. What is more, it has been found that Chinese authors, intentionally or unintentionally, do not follow ethical guidelines properly; for example, plagiarism is a common problem in manuscripts written by Chinese authors.

Many researchers publish their papers in regional journals before they start writing manuscripts in English for publication in international journals.  As a result, their idea of publication ethics is, to a large extent, based on the ethical requirements of these regional journals. Therefore, it would be interesting to examine the instructions for authors provided by Chinese biomedical journals and see if they meet international standards. Here is a summary of the study.

The ethical issues in instructions for authors of Chinese biomedical journals

Sample: 229 biomedical journals

Data collection

  • All data have been manually collected.
  • For 26 journals, data have been collected from the journal website.
  • For 137 journals, data have been collected from the print edition (2014).
  • For 66 journals, data have been collected from older print copies.

14 ethical issues have been checked in the study (based on ICMJE, WAME, and COPE recommendations)

  • Authorship
  • Duplicate submission
  • Privacy and confidentiality
  • Integrity of data
  • Protection of human subjects in research
  • Redundant publication
  • Rules for peer review
  • Retractions
  • Conflicts of interest statements
  • Plagiarism
  • Secondary publication in multiple languages
  • Registration of clinical trials
  • Protection of animals in research
  • Respect for authors’ confidentiality

Study limitations

  • Other ethical issues like image manipulation, commercial funding, and ghostwriting have not been assessed in this study.
  • Data has been collected from the author instructions section only, but journals may have provided guidelines in other sections; these have not been considered in the study.
  • Only Chinese journals have been studied. Chinese publishers also publish many English journals, but these have not been included in this study.


  • The top 3 ethical issues mentioned are authorship (85.6%), duplicate submission (83%), and privacy and confidentiality (62.4%).
  • The least mentioned areas are registration of clinical trials (11.3%), protection of animals in research (10%), and respect for author confidentiality (9.6%).
  • CMAPH and non-CMAPH journals show significant difference. Authorship has been mentioned equal number of times by both groups, while protection of animals in research has been rarely mentioned by both.
  • Additional findings
  • Authorship: 84 of 196 journals have authorship guidelines that refer to ICMJE guidelines (49 are CMAPH journals).
  • Clinical trial registration is requested by 26 journals only, and 23 of them require the CONSORT statement.
  • Only one journal requires description of methods used for locating, selecting, extracting, and synthesizing data in line with the EQUATOR Network.
  • The other 12 ethical issues are mentioned in one or two lines without any further explanation or guidance.


  • 30% of the journals do not update instructions for authors regularly. There is one journal in which the author instructions have been the same for the last 10 years.
  • More than 50% of the journals discuss authorship, duplicate submission, privacy and confidentiality, and integrity of data.
  • None of the journals updated the author instructions based on the latest authorship guidelines provided by the ICMJE (2013).
  • Though clinical registration should be done before the first patient enrollment, as suggested by the ICMJE more than 10 years ago, merely 11.3% of the journals include this point in the author instructions.
  • CMAPH journals are standing out better in the analysis, but still do not pay enough attention to publication ethics.

The result shows that Chinese biomedical journals do not pay enough attention to publication ethics. Although international guidelines are available, only some of them adopt these guidelines in their author instructions. What’s more, many issues are addressed very briefly, and authors have no clear idea about how to follow these guidelines. This not only makes Chinese authors pay less attention to publication ethics, but also makes it difficult for them to understand what exactly is expected of authors at the global level.

While it is true that authors are not following good publication practices, we also need to examine if journals/publishers provide clear guidelines and update them regularly. This is required to ensure that authors are aware and clear about the expectations regarding publication ethics and best practices.  


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Published on: Sep 11, 2015


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