When you open this journal and start reading, you expect to find information that is accurate, understandable, and original. The process of peer review and revision is in place precisely to help authors improve accuracy and readability. “Original” is based on our assumption that the author followed some basic ethical principles in constructing the manuscript before it was submitted to the Journal of Midwifery & Women's Health (JMWH). In addition, the author's signature on our transfer of copyright form is the legal attestation that these principles were adhered to. Unfortunately, the number of “ethical lapses” noted in manuscripts submitted to biomedical journals is increasing,1 and JMWH has not been immune. The editorial board recently approved editorial policies for authors, which are available on the JMWH Web site.2 Although we recognize that most errors are unintentional, we want to highlight the importance of prevention and attention.
Every aspect of the research and writing process is guided by ethical principles, and thus, the list of possible ethical transgressions is long. The breaches of publication ethics seen most often are plagiarism, duplicate or redundant publication, and more rarely, failure to obtain consent or ethical approval for research that reports data from human subjects.2,3
Plagiarism is usually the result of a combination of misunderstanding and inattention. Plagiarism is a “sin” everyone believes they understand. Yet it happens easily and often.4 The Internet, scanning, and word processing have exponentially expanded the resources available to authors. A few simple keystrokes that “copy and paste” can transfer these resources into a personal document. In addition, carelessness in referencing, which is quite common, can result in plagiarism, albeit unintended.4 It is not acceptable to copy a passage of text and then change a few words or reverse the order of sentences. Nor is it acceptable to paraphrase without referencing the source.
Duplicate or redundant publication is the term applied to a manuscript that overlaps significantly with another manuscript already published elsewhere. This practice can result in double counting or inappropriate weighting of results from a single study. It is a wasteful use of limited and costly print space. Dividing different parts of a study into separate articles is challenging. A dissertation or a research project is a cohesive unit and frequently a single entity, yet academic pressure to publish is increasingly pushing authors to divide their work into the “smallest publishable unit.”5,6 Some graduate programs are asking students to produce three papers for publication in lieu of a dissertation. This will be a benefit to the profession only if faculty committees assume responsibility for role modeling and/or teaching ethical writing procedures. We ask authors who submit manuscripts that are subreports of a larger study to inform us of related publications and include a copy of those related publications with their submission.
Data collected from patients or students for routine purposes may subsequently be useful for research or publication.7 Institutional review board or ethics committee approval (or granted exemption) for research that uses human subjects is well established. The requirement that authors obtain approval and describe a consent process that is consistent with the Helsinki Declaration8 is an established academic and research principle.
The use of data routinely collected from students in subsequent educational research is more ambiguous. Educational research is particularly important in midwifery. Data may be originally collected for evaluation or tracking without specific consent. If this information is subsequently found to be useful for publication, a retrospective dilemma of informed consent exists. Some have argued that consent is unnecessary in this situation because potential harm to students from publication of individual data is not as serious as the potential harm to patients from publication of individual data.9 However, the profession of midwifery is not as large as nursing or medicine, and individual confidentiality is not as easy to ensure. Manuscripts submitted to this journal that include student data must describe the process by which the student was offered informed consent.
Because ethical transgressions are being seen more often in manuscripts submitted for publication, editorials addressing the topic are increasing in frequency as well.10–12 The usual ending of these editorials is a summary paragraph on the editorial actions against authors whose manuscripts contain one of these problems. If any of the items that the author has attested via signing the JMWH copyright transfer form do not exist, are discovered in fact to exist, editorial action will be taken. However, this editorial is not going to belabor that point. In keeping with midwifery's time-honored commitment to prevention versus cure, we offer the following best practices and encourage all authors submitting manuscripts to review the manuscript and make sure it is congruent with each of these practices … before you send it to us.
- 1Avoiding plagiarism: Anytime you cut and paste text from another source, highlight the pasted text in color, or place quotes at either end when it is initially pasted into your document, even if your document is a worksheet and not the actual manuscript. In addition, include the author's name(s) and date of publication with the text you are using for reference. To avoid plagiarism when paraphrasing, verbalize what you want to write out loud, write it down, and then edit from there. Your paraphrased text must include a citation of the original source. A final check mechanism is to return to the original document to be sure your new text both reflects the author's idea and is substantially different.
- 2Avoiding redundant publication: If the manuscript you are submitting has any of the following relationships with another manuscript submitted for publication or in print, the manuscript you are submitting will be considered duplicate or redundant publication: 1) same or increasing sample and same results, 2) same sample and different results that are not substantially different and/or clinically significant when compared with the other manuscript, and/or 3) subsample and results that are not substantially different and/or clinically significant compared with the other manuscript. When you submit a manuscript that is related to another manuscript in press or print, refer to the previous publication and reference it in any area of the manuscript that has overlap with the other article (often this is the methods section). Include a description of the difference between the two manuscripts in your cover letter and include a copy of the related manuscript in the materials submitted to JMWH.
- 3Requirements for ethics approval: If the goal of your manuscript is to report knowledge that is generalizable, it is defined as research, and therefore by definition, you need approval or exemption from a standing institutional review board or ethics committee. We recommend that education programs notify students that routinely collected data may subsequently be used for research purposes and allow students to “opt-out” or decline to have their individual data used. This can be an ideal opportunity to introduce students to the research process and model the process.13
Plagiarism, duplicate publication, and inappropriate use of data from human subjects are three breaches of the ethical principles that underscore the integrity of scientific writing. Other potential problems are failure to disclose potential conflicts of interest and inclusion of authors who have not contributed significantly to the manuscript. We all need to be alert to the possibilities of inadvertent ethical transgression, in our own work, and that of our students. Prevention and attention must be the watchwords.