There are two forms of ethical codes of conduct over which journals should exercise vigilance and provide information: research ethics and publishing ethics.
A high quality journal will provide details of the ethical standards they expect authors to comply with in the conduct and reporting of research.
The Committee on Publication Ethics (COPE) is the definitive body on publishing ethics. Many journals are members of this organisation and will display badges or statements from COPE on their websites. This should reassure you that the journal intends to conduct itself to a high standard, to give readers the information on how to report anything that appears suspicious in the journal, and give you as an author a means of complaint should you feel your paper has been unethically treated during review.
COPE provides many resources for authors which you should familiarise yourself with if you are new to the submission process or have not visited their website before: https://publicationethics.org/
You should look around the journal’s website for evidence of proactive ways in which the journal identifies and deals with ethical issues. This information is usually provided in a section of websites under headings such as ‘Policies’, ‘Ethics’, ‘Resources for Authors’. Publishers of multiple journals may standardise their ethical guidance information and provide details in a centralised place away from individual journals.
As a reader, this will reassure you of the integrity of the research you are reading. As an author, this can inform you of procedures and protocols you should comply with when conducting research and when submitting. These may include details on areas such as:
Does the journal include statements or requirements about its expectations for authors to provide evidence that they have taken appropriate guidelines to obtain permission to use human or animal participants in their study? This can include:
Journals and publishers are becoming increasingly better at identifying fraudulent or manipulated data. Look for statements to reassure you that the journal take this seriously, and for information on how they might check for problems in this area.
Plagiarism defines attempts by an author to use another’s work as their own original work without permission or acknowledgment of the original author as the source of these materials.
Many journals use platforms such as iThenticate to check the texts of submissions against existing publications for text similarity. These text-matching tools provide a percentage rating to indicate the level of similar text between documents. Similarity scores above a certain level are often investigated further to determine the cause of the similarity.
Journals which do not use automated tools may describe their process of checking and dealing with text similarity and suspected plagiarism.
The journal may require author contribution forms to be completed, or refer to established author roles for being included on the title page. Authorship of papers should accurately reflect each individuals’ contribution to the work in accordance with subject-area norms. For example, the ICMJE definitions of author roles and responsibilities are a widely agreed upon standard in medical research.
The criteria for ordering author names may vary between subjects or specific journal requirement, for example, some may prefer alphabetical order, and others dependent on the roles performed by authors, but in all cases it is essential that every author named on a paper has been involved in the research and writing process of the manuscript in some direct form.
All authors of a paper should take responsibility for the submitted version, and many major journals and publishers will stipulate that all authors should have seen and agreed to the submitted version. In some cases, all listed authors may be sent emails from the submission system to which they will have to respond to confirm their involvement with, in order for the submission to proceed. This is to ensure that no authors are added against their knowledge, to reduce the potential for authorship disputes further along the publication process.
The Acknowledgments sections of manuscripts should reflect the contributions of third parties or external contributors to a manuscript, and proper acknowledgement of all sources of cited or reused works. Individual journals may have their own requirements and guidelines for the constitution of acknowledgements.
Declarations of conflict of interest may also fall into this category. It is ethically necessary to know whether the reporting of research may have been influenced by third parties, or whether any non-disclosures risk compromising the manuscript in any way.
The journal may also provide information about the overall roles and responsibilities it expects of its editors, reviewers and authors. These may include reference to COPE guidelines, or detailed in the journals’ own words. This information may be associated with the ethics and malpractice statements, or may be provided in separate sections of a website. In addition to the instructions for authors and information about the peer review process, it can give you extra insights into the processes the journal follows.
Details of the ownership and management of journals will enable you to confirm who the publisher is. As noted in the predatory journals section of our guide, a lack of information, or unconvincing information, can be a useful signifier of a disreputable publisher.
Presentation and evidence of ethical policies and conduct of a journal, and the papers it publishes, make up one of the key criteria for inclusion in established indexing databases such as FSTA, Clarivate Web of Science, Scopus and the Directory of Open Access Journals (DOAJ).
As you can see, convincing policies and processes can form a vital part of your assessment of the suitability of a journal for your paper.