Is it wrong for Norwegians to hunt whales? Is it unethical to do research on Minke whales killed for sale? If a researcher submits an article building on such data, is it wrong for an editor to publish it?
How can a journal editor decide? Are there structures in our publishing system that could be changed in ways that would help?
These are some of the questions raised in the story below. It’s a story about scientific publishing. But the context for the story is commercial whaling — and that makes it more complicated.
Is it professional for editors to refuse articles on the basis of their personal ethical views, on the basis of their perception of what is a widely held view, or even on the basis of a single expert?
A DNA register for whales
Information from Norway’s commercial whale hunt is entered into an official DNA register. Not surprisingly, this presents interesting research possibilities.
Initial publishing attempts
Before publishing with PLoS ONE, Grover inquired about submitting the article to the prestigious journal Biology Letters. He described the research results and noted that they are based on Norwegian and Japanese sources.
A week later, Publishing Editor Fiona Pring sent a terse reply. “After consultation with the editorial board, we feel that Biology Letters should not publish papers that use data from the Japanese or Norwegian whaling programs.”
The correspondence continues, as described in (and available via) Good ethics or political and cultural censoring in science? Ole Torrissen — the first author of this article — took over the correspondence with Biology Letters after Grover’s initial query.
Torrissen proposed publishing a letter to the editor with a discussion of the principled issues but was denied that opportunity because, according to Publishing Editor Charlotte Wray, Biology Letters does not publish, well, letters.
Wray elaborates, noting that the journal limits itself to only a few genres, including “opinion pieces” and “comments.” In the face of this, Torrissen let himself be provoked and replied with an accusation that the journal practices political censorship typical of “authoritarian regimes.”
Our hopes for a collegial solution wane.
A difference of opinions about the ethicality of commercial whaling is the occasion for this story, but it’s not the heart of it. No, this story is about editors’ ethical standards and how they affect the process of scientific publishing.
Journal editors must call out unethical research when they see it. By doing so, they play a role a keeping scientists ethical.
Researchers and editors must accept formalized ethical standards, such as The European Convention for the Protection of Vertebrate Animals Used for Experimental and Other Scientific Purposes or COPE’s Code of Conduct and Best Practice Guidelines for Journal Editors.
In this story, however, the editors of Biology Letters, don’t appeal to any codified ethical guidelines. And they aren’t consistent in the appeals they do make.
Editor Brian Charlesworth first appeals to “widely held” ethical principles. “Our policy is indeed not to publish research based on whaling programmes. This has nothing to do with politics, as you suggest, but on a widely held view [sic] in the scientific community and beyond that these programmes are unethical.”
When Torrissen presses Charlesworth, the editor changes his story, appealing to the ethical views of one unnamed scientist. Our policy, Charlesworth now claims, “is based on advice from a highly respected marine mammal expert.”
The ethical dilemma
Although it may be widely held that whaling is unethical, it is apparently less widely held that research on whale DNA from a preexisting register is unethical. Indeed, PLoS ONE wasn’t held up by this issue and as a new, open access journal, the editors of PLoS ONE have to be particularly careful about their reputation, even if their impact factor (4.4) is higher than that of Biology Letters (3.7). (Impact factors can be manipulated, as discussed in How journals manipulate the importance of research and one way to fix it.)
Editors differ in their ethical evaluations. Surely that’s no surprise. But is it a problem?
Would Biology Letters publish research based on the DNA of farmed chickens? (Google it.) Would it be acceptable if a vegan editor refused to publish any animal research at all?
We could make up ethical questions all day long, but they all would point to this one: Is it professional for editors to refuse articles on the basis of their personal ethical views, on the basis of their perception of what is a widely held view, or even on the basis of a single expert?
That’s the heart of the matter. An editor thinks some submitted research is unethical and s/he therefore declines to consider it for publication.
What structures in the publishing process could be changed to make a difference?
Even an editor who declines an article on such grounds can see that there is disagreement within the scholarly community. And they know perfectly well that the fallacy of argumentum ad populum is lurking just around the corner.
Maybe there are changes in the system that could help. Maybe a system with different structures could spare individual editors the task of resolving ad hoc ethical dilemmas, without leaving them feeling that they’ve abandoned their principles.
There are at least two relevant developments of late. Let’s debate these two along with your ideas in the comments section below.
New possiblities with internet based publishing
The story I’ve told here is not an argument for open access publishing per se. There is no necessary difference between the editorial procedures of open access journals and traditional ones.
However, open access publishing is often net based, which can facilitate new approaches to reviewing, discussed in greater detail in New approaches to quality control in publishing.
One recent development involves enhanced reviewing. Articles could be put up on a website for discussion prior to publication, as part of the reviewing process. Alternatively, a journal could start with traditional review, but also facilitate post-publication review, garnishing more feedback on the article.
Either of these approaches would put an ethically controversial article in front of the community for debate. The research results would become known, but the methods would also be debated. In the case of enhanced pre-publication review, the editor sees a nuanced discussion before making a decision. With post-publication review, the discussion stays with the article, available for all future readers to see.
The second development involves an enhanced symbiotic relationship between journals and social media. Remember the #arseniclife debate last year? (It’s discussed in Arsenic gives aspiration: Twitter and open access publishing.) In that case, an article was put on a website prior to journal publication. It was heavily debated — on Twitter! And when the article was published, part of the Twitter debate was also published.
Greater use of these developments could help to clarify complicated ethical debates, and they would address both the scientific results and the ethical issues in the methodology. Editors could satisfy their ethical qualms, confident that the issues would receive lively discussion. But scientists would still be able to see the research and to build on the discoveries of their peers.
Ethics and professionalism are in principle not in conflict. Yet well-intentioned and intelligent scientists can disagree. The passions brought to discussions of whaling illustrate this unambiguously.
As a result of debates on ethically challenging topics like whaling, new tools might emerge — tools that can help us get our ethical and professional concerns re-aligned.
For it surely is true, as Herman Melville wrote, that “of all tools used in the shadow of the moon, men are most apt to get out of order.”
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