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A failure to COPE: One academic’s experience with the Committee on Publication Ethics

As an ethics body, COPE’s first loyalty is to ethics. But as a membership body, its first loyalty is to its members.


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.

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  1. Donald Forsdyke / February 21, 2018 at 15:19

    To cope with ethical and other issues arising at the interface between authors and journals, with the support of various publishing house I, a laboratory researcher, established Bionet.journals.note in 1994. For several years it played a useful role, especially in supporting Steven Harnad’s quest for open access publishing. Unable, because of other pressures, to monitor postings, it was pleasing to see the functions of Bionet.journals.note progressively taken over by COPE (1997) and The Scholarly Kitchen (2008), under the aegis of the Society for Scholarly Publishing (established 1978).

    However, as Alan MacEachern notes, these bodies seem to serve journals and the publishing industry more than authors. To be credible they must evolve to serve a wider constituency than their formal fee-paying members. To assist this process, authors and their readers should engage in Scholarly Kitchen discussions and not hesitate to test COPE practices in similar fashion to MacEachern.

    Regarding his personal dealings with COPE, I would only add that its website states that individual authors, who first fail to gain satisfaction from editors and publishers, are then free to submit details of their complaints to COPE at that site.

    • Alan MacEachern / February 23, 2018 at 12:19

      Thank you. Regarding your final paragraph, the 2nd half of my article concerns my experience taking the complaint to COPE.

  2. Kellogg Booth / February 23, 2018 at 16:28

    What are we supposed to learn from this article if there are no details of what the issues were that COPE was asked to resolve, or what the author claims was subsequently not done that should have been done?

    For example: Was the author initially given a reason for his essay being pulled? What was the issue that COPE got glaringly wrong? What was the violation of the publisher’s resolution that the author alleges the journal committed?

    These details are not the ‘weeds.’ They are the very essence of whatever the dispute is that the author is trying to explain to us.

    • Alan MacEachern / February 27, 2018 at 10:23

      The details, and my specific dispute, are beside the point. I wrote this because I was in the unusual and unwelcome position of having experienced COPE’s processes for handling two of its core dealings – issues brought by its members and complaints brought against its members – and thought it worth sharing that experience with the scholarly community.

      Because here’s the key point: COPE did not act as it did on my complaint because it immediately intuited I was in the wrong (that was presumably what the process was to determine). Rather, it acted as it did because it was following its standard process.

      So if a scholar launches a complaint with COPE, she should prepare for an experience something like mine. Having submitted her maximum 500-word complaint, she will not be informed of the subsequent process or told timelines. She will not know when, how often, or to what length the member of whom she complained (which pays COPE up to $98K/year) is in contact with COPE, or what it says in its defense. And months later, she will receive a decision having had no contact whatsoever with the subcommittee that made it.

      Whether COPE made the right decision in my case is important only to me. Whether the world’s leading scholarly ethics body has processes that are ethical and appropriate should be important to all scholars.

  3. Daniel T. Kulp / March 6, 2018 at 13:43

    Though we appreciate the fact that Dr. MacEachern’s opinion piece expresses his personal experience with COPE, we do feel that some points need to be clarified and corrected.

    COPE (Committee on Publication Ethics) is a member organization committed to integrity in research and its publications (more on its governance structure can be read on our website here: We seek to promote and preserve the integrity of the scholarly record by educating and advising editors and publishers on how to handle cases of research and publication misconduct. COPE’s role is not to adjudicate complaints; rather its focus is to facilitate the resolution of disputes through the application of COPE’s Core Practices.

    COPE does not sell memberships. Prospective members apply and are evaluated against the Principles of Transparency and Best Practice in Scholarly Publishing that were developed in collaboration with the Directory of Open Access Journals, the Open Access Scholarly Publishers Association, and the World Association of Medical Editors. Current members are expected to consistently and transparently demonstrate their commitment to these principles, and those that do not can be sanctioned. COPE offers members a forum to discuss cases. There they can share experiences and give advice; however, this advice is not binding and does not serve as a judicial hearing. The ultimate decision on handling the case lies with the member editor and/or publisher.

    COPE continues to grow and evolve. In particular, we recognize that some frustrations existed in the handling of complaints – a lack of clarity about the remit of the subcommittee that handles such cases and the process by which complaints are handled. In November 2017, after a lengthy review, the Trustee Board agreed a series of changes to the complaints process that saw the group that handles complaints become the Facilitation and Integrity subcommittee. This is to better reflect its role to bring parties together to openly discuss the central issues that are of concern. We have also outlined the expectations of all parties in the process and developed a flowchart to clarify the complaints procedure that, we hope, will lead to greater transparency.

    Though there is ongoing pressure for the organization to act in a regulatory role, COPE remains an organization focused on educating its members, and hopefully the wider community, on publication ethics. Within this role, COPE works to draw together the collective experience of all of its members through case studies and forums and then diffuses this knowledge to the benefit of research and its publications.

    Ethical issues are frequently complex and people of good faith often disagree. Disagreement does not mean that one party is a moral failure although this is often the opinion of complainants when COPE disagrees about substantive matters concerning a particular issue or case.

    Daniel T. Kulp
    COPE Treasurer

    • Alan MacEachern / March 8, 2018 at 11:32

      Thank you for making no attempt to dispute anything in my description of how COPE has handled complaints generally or mine specifically.

      I am glad to see that COPE recognized that there were problems with its process, and has taken steps to improve things. (For interested readers, COPE’s new process is at To my eyes, the substantive and welcome changes are
      • describing, via flowchart, how cases will be handled,
      • explaining that the case is first assigned to a member of the subcommittee and then considered by the entire subcommittee,
      • committing to update the complainant every 4 weeks, and
      • adding to the subcommittee’s remit the power to recommend sanctions against the COPE member.

      However, the new process is still silent on two important issues:
      • Will COPE continue to treat as confidential all communication with its members throughout the process? The new process states that if the member does not respond to the complaint put forward, “COPE will follow-up with the member separately” – but does not say that anything it is told will be shared with the complainant. So on one side of a dispute, we have a complainant limited to a maximum 500-word statement that may be shared with all. On the other side, we have a COPE member who may provide any amount of information, not open to refutation, only to COPE. How can COPE be said to conduct “a fair and objective review” under such terms?
      • Does COPE consider cases that deal with intellectual property or copyright, or that might have a legal dimension generally? In my case, COPE said at the very end of the process that it did not. If this is still COPE’s practice, why does the new process not inform potential complainants upfront?

      Having worked for greater transparency as to its process in the abstract, COPE might also demonstrate transparency as to how it has worked in practice:
      • In what percentage of past cases has the subcommittee sided with the complainant?
      • In those cases, how often has the member complied with COPE’s resolution?
      • Has COPE ever sanctioned a member or withdrawn membership for not complying with its resolution?

      I do commend COPE for moving toward a more transparent process. I wish such a process had been available to me.
      Alan MacEachern

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