Frustration with the United Kingdom's lack of policies on scientific misconduct has spawned a grassroots effort to deal with the problem. The editors of nine prestigious British medical journals have decided to form a Committee on Publication Ethics (COPE) to help each other deal with fraudulent papers submitted to their journals. "We often consult each other over the phone, so we decided to formalize the process," says Richard Smith, editor of the British Medical Journal.
According to Smith, the formation of COPE was sparked by the experience of Michael Farthing, dean of medicine at St. Bartholomew's Hospital in London, who in his first year as editor of the journal Gut has already had to deal with four cases of apparent misconduct. "It's getting harder to say this is just the occasional nutter," says Smith. "It ain't going away," adds David Sharp, deputy editor of The Lancet.
Because the United Kingdom has no formal mechanism for investigating research fraud, journal editors often don't know how to deal with papers that appear to contain fraudulent data. COPE's main function will be for editors to present the details of alleged fraud cases to the committee anonymously and seek advice on how to handle them. Britain's libel laws would not allow the committee to carry out any kind of investigation. The committee may also draft guidelines on investigating complaints, promote research into publication ethics, and perhaps provide training in good practice.
Smith says the group may also campaign for the setting up of a more formal body, involving funding agencies and scientific societies, to advise on misconduct cases or even investigate them itself. "If we don't do something, there will be heavy-handed regulation eventually," Smith says.