Strengthening research integrity: The role and responsibilities of publishing

Occasional paper by Michael Barber

An essential purpose of scientific publishing is: “to make the evidence on which a scientific truth claim is based, accessible to scrutiny by peer review and post-publication analysis so that method and logic can be validated or invalidated, conclusions scrutinized, and any observations or experiments replicated.” This process is the foundation of the ‘self-correction of science’ that, in turn, is a bedrock of the integrity that underpins the public value of science and ultimately trust in science and the scientific method.

Research Integrity is weakened by practices that range from sloppy research methodology through poor data handling and analysis and unethical practices to plagiarism and deliberate fraud.   The ultimate responsibility for such breaches lies with the researchers involved. However, the act of publishing and the processes involved can—Indeed should—play an essential role in detecting their possible occurrence and thus acting as a significant deterrent.  Unfortunately, there is increasing and compelling evidence that publishing is not fulfilling this role as well as it could.  While significant changes in culture and expectations of both publishers and researchers are necessary, modest reforms are feasible and warranted.

This paper, designed to spur discussion, suggests that focusing on two modest reforms while pursuing a more significant reform of scientific publishing would be beneficial.

It is part of a series of publications from the International Science Council as part of the Future of Scientific Publishing project, exploring the role of publishing in the scientific enterprise, and asking how the scholarly publishing system can maximize benefit to global science and to wider audiences for scientific research. Previous publications include the Occasional paper ‘Business Models and Market Structure within the Scholarly Communications Sector and the report Opening the record of science: making scholarly publishing work for science in the digital era‘.

Michael N. Barber is Emeritus Professor, AO, FAA, FTSE, and a member of the Steering Committee for the International Science Council’s project the Future of Scientific Publishing.