Imagine if Amnesty International sold memberships to nations. For, say, $1 million, a country could subscribe to the group’s services, ensuring it would receive professional and confidential advice on delicate human rights matters. It could even put the Amnesty International logo on its website. A lot of good would come of such a system. Countries with strong human rights records would benefit by the service, while countries with passable records would be educated and inspired to do better. And Amnesty International would receive an important, regular revenue stream to help it do its important work.
But there would be a problem. Dictatorships would surely trade on the group’s good name, exploiting their membership to suggest that they were more just, more transparent than their critics gave them credit for.
Although the analogy is clearly exaggerated – editors aren’t dictators, plagiarism ain’t torture – it is still surprising that this is the dominant model in the handling of scholarly journal ethics matters today.
I found this out the hard way, when I became engaged in a dispute with a journal about an essay of mine that had been accepted and then pulled. The journal’s publisher eventually took over the matter, and ultimately announced that it was submitting the matter to the Committee on Publication Ethics (COPE).
COPE was established in 1997, when a number of British medical journal editors identified the need of a forum to discuss issues around scholarly ethics. One of the founders wrote that “We will be delighted if it is made unnecessary” by virtue of the international scholarly community producing ethical guidelines and practices on its own. But instead, COPE experienced tremendous growth, to the point that today it is the leading scholarly ethics body in the world, with over 10,000 journal and press members in more than 100 countries.
It is easy enough to understand what they find attractive about COPE. Glass half full: it offers them access to a central body devoted to the ethics of scholarly publishing. Glass half empty: it allows them to subcontract ethical issues to a seemingly neutral party. COPE’s annual membership rates currently range from £158 for individual journals to £54,579 for the largest publishers ($278 to $98,025 CAD).
I was initially encouraged that my case was going to COPE because, as the publisher told me, “The journal is a member of COPE and we are therefore bound by their guidelines and suggested remedies….” I subsequently learned this is not actually true. COPE is a membership organization, not a regulatory one, so the only thing that binds a member to follow the ethics body’s advice, ironically, is the member’s own sense of ethics.
Moreover, when a member takes a case to COPE, individual scholars have no standing. That meant I never saw how the publisher framed the issue to COPE. I never saw COPE’s judgment. In fact, I never saw any evidence the publisher took the matter to COPE at all. And COPE would not tell me. It treats as confidential all communication with its members – including whether communication has actually taken place. I waited for months to hear what would come of a process I was not entirely sure was even taking place.
My worries seemed baseless when the publisher informed all parties that, on the advice of its lawyers and COPE, the journal must publish my essay. I agreed to the terms of the publisher’s resolution, signed away copyright, and my essay was published. However – and without getting into the weeds of the dispute – I subsequently learned that the journal, with or without its publisher’s knowledge, violated the terms of its publisher’s resolution. I contacted them both; no response. So I contacted COPE to complain about its members’ actions.
I admit, I took the matter to COPE in part out of curiosity. How would it react to a violation on the part of its members? Would it prove to be fundamentally a members’ body or an ethics body? And I wanted to better understand its workings. Here was a global scholarly body that has experienced year-over-year growth for at least a decade, and its registered office, rather comically, was a rowhouse in the suburbs of a tiny British town. Although COPE is a largely virtual organization, it is difficult to find out much online about its day-to-day workings.
Unfortunately, my experience with COPE was just as opaque as that with the publisher had been. Consider:
- COPE’s website describes the process for launching a complaint, but does not describe how the complaint will be handled. And COPE never did, even when I asked directly.
- COPE requires the complaint be limited to a 500-word summary of the issue. Beyond that, the complaints subcommittee never contacted me with questions or follow-up. In fact, the only person I ever dealt with was the COPE administrator, who at varying points stated that the subcommittee and a member of that subcommittee was reviewing my case. I was never given the name of any human being dealing with my complaint.
- By comparison, COPE did contact the publisher once, asking for information, and cc’d me. But when the publisher ignored the request for details, there was no follow-up. When I asked COPE whether the publisher had responded to it separately, it would not say – because communication between COPE and its members is, of course, confidential.
- My complaint sprung from a matter the publisher had presumably taken to COPE previously. It occurred to me to ask COPE: Would you confirm that, in reviewing my complaint, you were not in fact reviewing actions you had advised your member to take? COPE never answered.
Seven months later, COPE came down with its decision, siding with its member. Its prose was brief and guarded, offering little to explain its reasoning. More problematic, it got one of the issues glaringly, factually wrong. Still more problematic, it stated that an issue of intellectual property and copyright was beyond its scope, because these are legal matters. But COPE asks complainants to connect complaints to its code of conduct, and the code deals with intellectual property and copyright. Complainants should not be left for months deferring legal action, hoping they might find satisfaction through the COPE complaints process, when COPE – and presumably its members – know all along that this will not be the case.
The Committee on Publication Ethics is run by scholars and members of the scholarly publishing industry who presumably have been drawn to their work by a commitment to ethical scholarly practice. But they would do well to notice that the organization’s highly successful business model does nothing to prevent what might be called “ethics laundering.” A member journal or publisher can say it is acting to COPE’s code of conduct, if challenged say it will take the case to COPE, decide if and how it heeds COPE’s advice, and even claim COPE’s authorization of its action, confident in the knowledge that all communication it has or doesn’t have with COPE will be confidential. For COPE to work as it is supposed to requires that its members act ethically – but the difficulty or unwillingness to be ethical is why an ethics body is required in the first place.
As an ethics body, COPE’s first loyalty is to ethics. But as a membership body, its first loyalty is to its members. Since individual scholars who approach the Committee on Publication Ethics will always do so in relation to the actions of one of its members, COPE will always be conflicted. And scholars will not know whether to trust its actions and judgments.
Alan MacEachern is a professor of history at Western University.