Ethics and publishing

Published in volume 20, issue 4, November 2010

This issue has two papers with unusual author lists: Roger T. Alexander, Jeff Offutt and Andreas Stefik for the first; and Jane Huffman Hayes and Jeff Offutt for the second. Both papers were submitted before I became EiC and both were handled by Associate Editor Rob Hierons. Effective and sufficient controls were in place to ensure there was no conflict in their handling.

It is important to emphasize three points:

  1. These papers were submitted before I agreed to become Editor-in-Chief of STVR (EiC). Moreover, they are primarily the work of the first authors (Hayes and Alexander); I was just their helper.
  2. Even after becoming EiC, the privacy and authentication controls that our online submission system, ManuscriptCentral, blinded me from all aspects of the reviewing process ... just as with any other author.
  3. When I became EiC in 2008, I made a commitment to not submit more papers while serving as EiC. While it's a sacrifice to not publish in the main journal in my research area (and somewhat unfair to my students), I strongly feel that is the ethical thing to do. Even if we could define a process that was completely fair and unbiased, the mere appearance of a conflict would be bad for the journal.

As an aside, this was a personal decision, not required by the publisher. Editors of other journals have made a different choice, and I do not criticize those decisions.

The broader issue of ethics in publishing concerns me a lot, as I'm sure it concerns every journal editor. And yes, the journal has several problems every year.

The most obvious problem, of course, is plagiarism. A recent example is a submission that was more than 80% copied from a paper published in the 1970s. The problem was identified by a reviewer; we immediately rejected the paper, informed the authors, the authors' Department Chair and the authors' Dean. These authors were also placed on a list of individuals who are not welcome to submit future papers to STVR.

Another recent case concerned a paper that had substantial overlap with a previous research proposal. Ironically, the author of the proposal (which was not funded) was invited to review the paper. The evidence of word-for-word equivalences was overwhelming. These are clear cut cases of plagiarism, and everybody in the world would recognize this behavior as unethical.

A more subtle issue that occasionally comes up is that of authorship. Who is listed as authors on the paper, and in what order, is ordinarily a matter for the authors to decide, and editors seldom question their decisions. But the general question of who belongs as author of a paper and how to order those authors is a question that many of us wrestle with. A few years ago I was involved with a strange case on another journal, where the third author on a paper raised a complaint after a revision was submitted. The third author (who I will call Gamma) was a former student of the first (who I will call Alpha), and claimed that Alpha, in effect, stole the paper. Gamma did all the research and wrote the paper alone, and then Alpha heard about the paper and insisted that Gamma add Alpha to the author list as payback for advising Gamma's PhD studies. The first submission's author list was "Gamma and Alpha," but Alpha insisted on submitting the revision, taking the opportunity to change the author order and add an additional author before Gamma's name! Gamma was able to provide early drafts of the paper, and numerous records documenting the research, whereas Alpha clearly did not understand the research. Eventually the paper was not published, but the big loser, of course, was Alpha, whose reputation was irreparably damaged.

Another ethics problem is when someone publishes the same results twice. Most journals welcome the process of expanding a conference paper to a journal paper with substantially more results. However, this area has a lot of gray ... the common "30% rule" is hard to measure. And is it okay to republish in English a paper that was published in a less widely used language? An STVR reviewer recently accused an author of plagiarizing from his own technical report (there is nothing wrong with that, as I clearly expressed to all involved). I was once accused of plagiarizing a result from a journal paper, when in fact, that result had appeared in my prior technical report and in a rejected conference paper. Worse, an author of the paper where the result appeared was on the conference committee that rejected my previous paper.

Another gray area is when an author copies and pastes large parts of the background or literature review ... that is, the key results are not plagiarized but parts of the paper are. This is most common with authors whose English is really bad. Should this situation be treated the same as the above problems, or do we extend some sympathy to those who struggle with writing in this crazy language with which we are all stuck?

Editors must constantly be on watch, as do reviewers and readers. Science can only flourish when we have openness and honesty, and although we will never reach that ideal, we continue to try. It is our responsibility to teach each new generation of scientists the expectations and rules of our community.

Finally, I hope you read these two papers. Testing coupling relationships in object-oriented programs, by Alexander and others, offers a technically deep and complicated analysis of problems that can arise when using inheritance and polymorphism, and adapts data flow criteria to design tests to find these problems. If nothing else, the possible coupling sequences in Figure 5 should scare any programmer who uses polymorphism. Recognizing authors: An examination of the consistent programmer hypothesis, by Hayes with some help, presents an analysis technique that can help identify which programmer wrote a particular piece of software. This has potential applications in identifying the authors of viruses and other malware.

Jeff Offutt
8 November 2010