Initial Publication Date: May 20, 2014 | Reviewed: July 6, 2017

Ethics in Publishing

Cindy Palinkas, University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science


This collection of case studies deals with ethics involved in publishing research in peer-reviewed scientific journals. Often, graduate students learn about these ethics informally as they go along and are often unaware that individual journals often have their own formal policies. This activity is intended to present students with some scenarios of "what would you do?", as well as guide them to find and read ethics policies of at least 2 scientific journals.



This activity is targeted toward 2nd- or 3rd-year graduate students - i.e., students who are actively engaged in research and beginning to think of preparing a manuscript for publication. It may also be appropriate for advanced undergraduate students, if they are similarly actively engaged in research and are at least a contributing author on a manuscript being prepared for publication.

Class size: 15-30

Skills and concepts that students must have mastered

Students should be familiar with scientific literature and the process involved in publishing research in peer-reviewed journals.

How the activity is situated in the course

The activity is intended to be part of a seminar on scientific writing and would be the focus of one class meeting. After students learn the nuts and bolts of writing a manuscript earlier in the seminar, this activity would discuss the publication process and associated ethical issues. However, it could also be a stand-alone activity, perhaps a 1-hour roundtable discussion.


Content/concepts goals for this activity
The goals for this activity are to introduce students to all the thorny issues related to publishing their research in peer-reviewed journals: authorship (what does it take to be an author and would should be the order of authors?), submission (obtaining permission to submit from all authors), reviewing manuscripts (professionalism and constructive criticism), manuscript revision and response to reviewers (strategies for professional and thoughtful responses). We will also explicitly discuss the trust placed in researchers to self-police with respect to accurate reporting of results and proper citations and credit for thoughts originated by others.

Higher order thinking skills goals for this activity

Other skills goals for this activity
Manuscript submission and professional handling of peer reviews (both as reviewer and author) are key to students' success as scientists. This activity allows them to explicitly consider some of the ethical issues inherent in the process early in their careers.

Ethical Principles Addressed in this Exercise

We will focus on the central ethical principles involved in publishing: accurate reporting of results, authorship, and reviewing manuscripts.

Description and Teaching Materials

Throughout the seminar course, students will be actively engaged in scientific writing. They will produce a writing sample that will be circulated among the students for comment before this class meeting. Students would come to the class meeting armed with these reviews.

Class would begin with a discussion of authorship - what does it take to be an author, and how is the order of authors determined? - stimulated by the case studies below.

Next, students discuss their peer reviews, focusing on writing and receiving peer reviews. The instructor should have recent paper reviews on hand to stimulate discussion (I have some of my own that highlight the good, bad, and ugly of peer reviews...).

Lastly, the class will discuss the inherent trust placed in scientists to accurately report results. Students will be directed to find and review the ethical policies of at least 2 peer-reviewed journals.

Case Study Scenario

Case Study #1 (provided by George Kumi and used in his ethics training for REU students):

You joined Prof. Boss's lab at the beginning of a summer REU program, and you were instructed by Prof. Boss to follow experimental procedures from the lab notebook of last summer's REU participant, Jane. However, Jane's notebook was so badly written (e.g., missing important pieces of information, hard to read) that you were unable to use it. Upon showing the notebook to Prof. Boss at the beginning of the summer, you saw firsthand her surprise, disgust, and anger about the state of the notebook. Prof. Boss explained how to re-do the work, and she put together a scientific paper based on your results at the end of the summer. She has just emailed you the first draft of this paper for your comments, and you notice that Jane's name is not listed as an author on this paper.

  1. List any actions/inactions that seem (from your perspective) to be a cause for concern. Put differently, what actions/inactions could be unethical?
  2. Explain why each action/inaction is a cause for concern (i.e., who/what may be adversely affected and how?).
  3. What are some of the courses of action you would consider? Be sure to specify the possible consequences of each action to you or anything/anyone involved.
  4. Are there laws/written regulations that may apply to this situation? What additional information would you seek to help you revise or implement your suggested solutions?
  5. What would you suggest to prevent this situation from happening again?

Case Studies #2 and #3 (from Committee on Publication Ethics website):

New claim to authorship of published paper:

Paper submitted for publication without consent of co-authors:

Teaching Notes and Tips


There is no formal assessment of this activity; students will incorporate what they have learned during submission of their next manuscript.

References and Resources

Ethical Guidelines for Publications from GSA:

AGU's policy on Scientific Integrity and Professional Ethics (includes section on publishing):

Committee on Publication Ethics (forum for peer-reviewed journals to discuss ethical issues):