• Open Access

Moral standards and scientific integrity in journal editorship


  • Jeanne Daly,

  • Priscilla Robinson

London's burning, London's burning.
Look yonder, look yonder.
Fire fire, fire fire!
Pour on water, pour on water

In August we could only look on in disbelief as, over yonder, London, Liverpool, Birmingham burned. ‘Flash’ mobs of young hooded rioters responded to messages on social media, set the place alight and looted stores for upmarket merchandise. Demands to send in the water cannons were unmet. Finally, an overwhelming police presence restored order. Blame attached to the individual rioters (criminals, welfare bludgers), to their parents (where are they?), to the police (too few, underprepared). Parents and schools were accused of failing to inculcate moral values: the young rioters lacked a moral compass. Prison was the answer.

The idea of a moral compass based on integrity, responsibility, compassion and forgiveness is widespread. In market-based economic theory it is invoked in programs to strengthen corporate culture. Politicians call on government leaders to get a moral compass and reverse offensive programs. Others use the term to express the more traditional view that shared moral values underpin a cohesive society. In other words, unlike the magnetic compass which always points North, the moral compass can be used to point in different directions, for a variety of purposes. This can be confusing.

If we employ the moral compass from the London riots to analyse the marches and demonstrations that precipitated the Arab Spring, the needle swings through 180 degrees. These marches (not riots) were also organised through social media but they are seen as civil resistance, pro-democracy. If we keep the moral compass pointing in this new direction, we can see that the London riots may also have been inspired by dissatisfaction with government and alienation from those with power and wealth. In contrast with the focus on the moral deficiencies of the young rioters, it validates the argument that the cost-cutting of successive British governments undermined social support programs and that this increased social inequality and undermined social cohesion.

The advantage of the narrow focus on the individual's lack of moral integrity is that the solution is simple and punitive – prison. If we reverse direction and focus on the dangers of cost-cutting in social programs it sounds an international warning, but the solution is not readily to hand. Many Western governments aim to both reduce taxes and achieve a balanced budget and can only do this by cutting the cost of services, or the services themselves, putting the onus on individuals to take responsibility for their own lives. Smaller government is the aim. This model fundamentally opposes central administration of essential services paid for by taxing income. Public health needs an informed critical analysis of the values underlying these policies.

Editorial decision-making at this Journal also needs a moral compass but in which direction should it point? Public health has areas of intense debate and dispute and these can challenge us, and raise the temperature of readers and authors alike. Some authors hold very strong views that are based on what we see as questionable evidence. While our preferred approach is to cover all sides of current public health debates, when there are entrenched opposing views we need to draw a line and decline further contributions but where should this line be drawn? Ethically, we all need to commit to the slow process of transferring skills from researchers to Indigenous communities but where does our responsibility lie if papers written by community members do not pass blinded peer review? What should happen when powerful community advisory groups dominate the research agenda and research articles seem focused on their views rather than the more circumspect views of the community? How do we address authorship issues raised by junior authors who feel exploited? What do we do about overlap with web-based publications? How do we deal with articulate authors whose work fails peer review but who then argue that peer review is an outdated, restrictive procedure that serves largely the interests of those in powerful academic positions?

Clearly, our publication moral compass must be able to point in various directions. We need to be able to focus on individuals and their moral responsibility but we must ensure that this does not obscure the more challenging focus on the social, political and economic context of health. We need to engage with intriguing and novel ideas and approaches but we must also ensure that these are presented in well-thought through and justified arguments.

Fortunately for editors, at the same time the London riots were occurring, the British House of Commons published a report on peer review in scientific publications.1 This Report, lengthy and detailed, considered many of the issues that bother us. It endorsed scientific integrity as the basis for editorial judgements. We take this to mean that we need to be alert to moral and ethical issues but our task is to publish trustworthy evidence for public health practice and policy. While the authors of the report acknowledge that the peer review process is far from perfect, and we agree, it does provide an important filter for research quality. Editors are also responsible for ensuring that the process is fair and that fraud, misconduct and redundancies are excluded as far as possible. The authors of the report emphasise that editors and researchers need training in peer-review processes but recognise that this is usually done on-the-job.

It pleased us to read that journal Impact Factors are not a proxy for the quality of an article; there is no substitute for actually reading an article when assessing a researcher's career achievements. We are well aware of the pressure on academics to ‘publish or perish’. In part, this pressure accounts for the growing number of academic journals. As articles are recycled through journal after journal, editors have to assess increasing numbers of papers, some of them clearly too weak to pass peer review. One response could be to increase the number of papers that we publish in this Journal. Our preference is to raise the bar in terms of methodological rigour and contribution to public health knowledge.2 In assessing academic stature, our hope is that promotion committees and funding bodies will focus on the quality of papers written by an academic and not just on the metrics of the number of publications, Impact Factors and citation rates.

As Editors, we have made public and invited comment on key aspects of our editorial decision-making. We are fortunate in the range of distinguished reviewers who contribute to this Journal and we try to nurture new reviewers by sending reviewers all reports on an article once a decision on publication is reached. We welcome further suggestions for conducting the editorial task in an academic, fair and balanced way.