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Open Access Research article

The publication of ethically uncertain research: attitudes and practices of journal editors

Carla Angelski15*, Conrad V Fernandez2, Charles Weijer3 and Jun Gao4

Author Affiliations

1 Division of Pediatric Emergency Medicine, University of Alberta, Edmonton, AB, Canada

2 Department of Hematology and Oncology, Dalhousie University, Halifax, NS, Canada

3 Roman Institute of Philosophy, Western University, London, ON, Canada

4 Surveillance and Epidemiology Unit, Cancer Care Nova Scotia, Halifax, NS, Canada

5 Stollery Children's Hospital, Edmonton Clinic Health Academy, 11405-87 Ave, Edmonton AB, T6G 1C9, Canada

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BMC Medical Ethics 2012, 13:4  doi:10.1186/1472-6939-13-4

Published: 11 April 2012

Abstract

Background

Publication of ethically uncertain research occurs despite well-published guidelines set forth in documents such as the Declaration of Helsinki. Such guidelines exist to aide editorial staff in making decisions regarding ethical acceptability of manuscripts submitted for publication, yet examples of ethically suspect and uncertain publication exist. Our objective was to survey journal editors regarding practices and attitudes surrounding such dilemmas.

Methods

The Editor-in-chief of each of the 103 English-language journals from the 2005 Abridged Index Medicus list publishing original research were asked to complete a survey sent to them by email between September-December 2007.

Results

A response rate of 33% (n = 34) was obtained from the survey. 18% (n = 6) of respondents had published ethically uncertain or suspect research within the last 10 years. 85% (n = 29) of respondents stated they would always reject ethically uncertain articles submitted for publication on ethical grounds alone. 12% (n = 4) of respondents stated they would approach each submission on a case-by-case basis. 3% (n = 1) stated they would be likely to publish such research, but only with accompanying editorial. Only 38% (n = 13) give reviewers explicit instruction to reject submissions on ethical grounds if found wanting.

Conclusions

Editorial compliance with the Declaration of Helsinki in rejecting research that is conducted unethically was difficult to ascertain because of a poor response rate despite multiple attempts using different modalities. Of those who did respond, the majority do reject ethically suspect research but few explicitly advise reviewers to do so. In this study editors did not take advantage of the opportunity to describe their support for the rejection of the publication of unethical research.

Keywords:
Editors; Ethics; Publication ethics