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Table of Contents
Year : 2019  |  Volume : 2  |  Issue : 4  |  Page : 186-195

Publish ethically or perish

1 Research Centre, College of Medicine, King Saud University, Riyadh, Saudi Arabia
2 Department of Pediatrics, Medical College, New York University, Valhalla, NY, USA

Date of Web Publication4-Oct-2019

Correspondence Address:
Arjumand S Warsy
College of Medicine, King Saud University, Riyadh
Saudi Arabia
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Source of Support: None, Conflict of Interest: None

DOI: 10.4103/JNSM.JNSM_17_19

Rights and Permissions

The phrase “publish or perish” has been used in an academic context since the early 1970s to emphasize the importance of publishing the findings of research. It has also been widely used to describe the pressure in academic institutions to rapidly and continually publish academic work. The pressure to publish, the lack of knowledge about publication ethics, and other factors have led occasional authors to indulge in practices that are outside of the realm of the ethical principles. This article highlights the ethics of writing and publishing, outlines the various unethical practices (misconduct) that must be avoided, and highlights the severe consequences that may be inflicted on an author, whether a junior or a senior one, following detection of misconducts in publishing. The title of this article is a modified form of the maxim “publish or perish” because it is an important responsibility that every author publishes ethically.

Keywords: Authorship, duplicate publication, ethics, falsification, plagiarism, publication, redundant publication

How to cite this article:
Warsy AS, Warsy IA. Publish ethically or perish. J Nat Sci Med 2019;2:186-95

How to cite this URL:
Warsy AS, Warsy IA. Publish ethically or perish. J Nat Sci Med [serial online] 2019 [cited 2022 Nov 27];2:186-95. Available from: https://www.jnsmonline.org/text.asp?2019/2/4/186/266073

  Introduction Top

Advancement is an integral part of the human experience, whether it is in the form of progress in health care, improved nutritional status, improved comforts of home, enhanced means and ease of communication, social media, entertainment, travel, and so on. All these have been the result of unceasing “search, research, and discovery” in every conceivable field. “Research” implies explorations, investigations, experimentations, examinations, and surveys, and is the product of the “inquiring minds.” It is the search/research carried out since the dawn of civilization that has led to the continuous escalation of human knowledge beyond what was already known. For information to enter the “domains of science,” it must be communicated to others in a form that can help them judge its worth and validity. There are different venues for sharing knowledge – these include the publication as a thesis or in journals as well as in social media and “knowledge media,” such as presentations and proceedings of conferences/symposia/workshops. To emphasize the importance of publishing research findings, Miller is quoted in several publications to have said: “if it wasn't published, it wasn't done.”[1],[2] Publications are an essential end product of research. The journals' impact factor and the manuscripts' citability are considered factors indicating the importance and acceptability of the study.

As early as 1927, the phrase “publish or perish” was used in an academic context.[3] Eugene [4] stated that the phrase later appeared in a book published in 1942 by Logan entitled: “The Academic Man: A Study in the Sociology of a Profession.”[5] Since the first mention, it has been widely used to describe the pressure in academic institutions to rapidly and continually publish academic work in reputable journals, in an attempt to sustain the author's position in the academic institution or to further advance his/her career.[6],[7] The position of the academic institution and the researcher, at the national and international level, is closely dependent on the number and quality of publications coming out in their name. Hence, it would be important that all conducted researches generate publications; otherwise, as stated by Whitesides,[8] “if your research does not generate papers, it might as well not have been done.” The National Academy of Sciences (NAS), in the book “On Being a Scientist,”[9] also emphasizes the importance of successful publications as they bring attention to the research, the researcher, and the institute, sponsoring the research and helping in continued funding for the author, as well as promoting tenure continuity for the scholar.

  Unethical Practices in Communicating Knowledge Top

The ethical principles of publication are sacrosanct for obvious reasons. This, however, has not prevented the occasional author from indulging in practices that are clearly outside of the realm of these values.[10],[11],[12] Indeed, the sometimes-overwhelming pressure to publish breeds a culture that risks academic research integrity [Table 1]. Because many junior authors lack experience in academic writing and may be susceptible to the above pressures, the institution must take steps to provide clear guidance to these authors, whether staff members, researchers, and undergraduate or postgraduate students.
Table 1: Some unethical practices adopted in preparation of manuscripts for publication

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This article is aimed to reach authors, particularly those who are new to this field, in an attempt to (i) highlight the ethics of writing and publishing, (ii) outline the various unethical practices (misconduct) that must be avoided, and (iii) present the severe consequences that may be inflicted on an author, whether a junior or a senior one, following detection of misconducts in publishing. The title of this article is a modified form of the very well-known maxim “publish or perish” – it is an important responsibility that every author publishes ethically. We, therefore, feel that “publish ethically or perish,” provides a more unhindered view of the significance of publication ethics.

  Publication Ethics Top

Ethics and its underlying principles

The term “ethics” comes from the Greek word “ethos,” which means “character.” It is stated that ethics is “the study of the morals and the moral decisions to be made by a person to adopt what is acceptable (good, right, and virtue) and what is not (evil, wrong, and vice).”[13] Several principles have been adopted, and the four basic ones, outlined in several publications,[14],[15] are as follows:

  1. Autonomy, i.e., independent, free, and self-directing, i.e., the state of 'self-determination
  2. Nonmaleficence, i.e., to avoid and prevent harm to all
  3. Beneficence, i.e., to provide benefit or advantage to all
  4. Justice, i.e., to ensure fairness and equity to all.

These basic ethical principles translate into the applicable steps listed in [Table 2].[16]
Table 2: Ethical principles to be adopted when conducting research on humans

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Just as research ethics involves the application of fundamental ethical principles to research, which are essential to all human and animal experimentations, these principles must be applied to writing. A failure to uphold these principles would be considered a “misconduct in the publication.” It must be remembered that what an individual writes, his/her original ideas, are considered “intellectual property,” in a manner similar to copyright laws, which protect an original invention. Therefore, the ethics of academic writing prevents misconduct during publication and teaches the writer to avoid any wrongdoing such as copy–paste (plagiarism), fabrication, falsification, duplicate publication, redundant publication, conflict of interest, and authorship problems. In the section below, these topics are briefly discussed.[17],[18],[19],[20],[21]

  Ethics of Scientific Writing Top

A guide to responsible conduct as a researcher is provided in the book published by the NAS, “On being a Scientist,”[21] which outlines important information for researchers. Several elegant articles have been published with the principal objective of introducing the correct scientific conduct when publishing.[22] Policies addressing the ethics associated with writing and publishing have been outlined by several professional organizations.[18],[19],[20],[21] Many journals follow the policies implemented by the “Committee on Publication Ethics (COPE)”[18] and “the International Committee of Medical Journal Editors (ICMJE).”[19] The majority of biomedical journals have endorsed and implemented the ICMJE recommendations for “the Conduct, Editing, Reporting and Publication of Scholarly Work in Medical Journals.” This was first published in 1978, and several updates have been made and adopted to date.[23] The “COPE,” established in 1997,[18] represents the largest association with over 12,000 members and regulates the ethics of research and writing. Regular meetings of COPE are held to discuss and solve cases of misconduct in research and publications. In general, all policies implement well-defined principles of honesty and integrity.

[Table 3] lists some of the ethical points that must be considered when writing a scientific document.
Table 3: Some important ethical considerations when preparing a scientific document

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  Authorship Top

Authorship of a manuscript published in a journal confers responsibilities on each of the authors;[24] has important implications in the form of academic position, promotions, awards, and other financial benefits; and even plays a vital role in the “World Ranking” of the institute to which the author belongs.

Most importantly, publishing confers creditability to the research and the author at the level of the institute and the national and international levels. Conversely, all authors of a published manuscript carry the responsibility of ensuring the accuracy of what is being published and bear the burden of being accountable for it. As stated by Flanagin et al.,[25] “authorship establishes accountability, responsibility, and credit for scientific information reported in biomedical publications.” Hence, authorship of articles must be reliable, trustworthy, honest, and transparent, so that readers have trust in the accuracy of what they read. Several journals require the information about the contribution of each author in the research/writing, and all journals ensure that each author has seen the manuscript before its submission for publication. Most studies conducted and reported are the outcome of joint ventures between those who designed and planned the research, obtained financial support, performed experimentations, collected data and interpreted them, and wrote the article and contributed to its revision and finalization. Single authors on a manuscript are solely responsible for performing all the activities mentioned above. However, most research articles are the outcome of contribution from several individuals – hence the dilemma as to “who qualifies to be an author?” According to the ICMJE,[19] the following four basic rules must be followed to determine who can author a scientific manuscript. According to these rules, an author is one who:

  1. Contributed substantially to research planning, designing, implementing, obtaining research grants, data acquisition, data processing, and result interpretation
  2. Participated in the drafting process, revising the written material, and critical review of the text
  3. Contributed to the final form of the manuscript submitted for publication
  4. Accepted responsibility for all aspects of the work with the agreement that all questions related to the integrity and accuracy of any part of the study will be investigated and resolved

According to the ICMJE, these guidelines ascertain responsible and accountable authorship.[19] Guidelines have been published on the authorship of medical articles, which play a role in clarifying the role of authors.[26] It must be remembered that inappropriate authorship plays a role in undermining the credibility of the author/s and the integrity of the research.

The number of author/s on manuscripts is variable and is frequently related to the nature of the research and the discipline. In general, theoretical investigations have a fewer number, whereas experimental studies have a larger number of authors. Manuscripts with only one to a few thousand authors are seen in literature, and there is no upper limit to the number of authors. An article published in Physics Review Letters in 2015 has 5154 authors [27] and, as claimed by Castelvecchi,[28] has broken all records by having more than 5000 authors whose names cover 24/33 pages of the published manuscript.

The first author is the one who has made the maximum contribution, and the co-authors are generally listed in the decreasing order depending on the extent of participation, although the senior author is the last author.[29] Two or more authors can be joint authors if they have equally contributed. All individuals with a minor contribution can be recorded in the acknowledgments.

Certain inappropriate practices in authorship are listed in [Table 4][17],[25],[26],[29],[30],[31],[32],[33] which must be resisted, as much as possible.
Table 4: Practices to be resisted in assigning authorship

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  Research Fraud Top

Fraud, such as the invention (fabrication) or the manipulation (falsification) of data, is a serious form of misconduct during publishing (Office of Research Integrity).[34] Sometimes, however, an unintentional or honest error occurs which is not considered as misconduct.

The term “fabrication” refers to the act of concocting results or data and reporting them as accurate findings. In some cases, the studies are not performed due to lack of equipment, chemicals, funds, etc. In other instances, the reviews are conducted, but the data are partially or wholly fabricated to obtain significant results or results of choice. Despite the seriousness of the deed and the potential for dangerous consequences, studies continue to be exposed to be fabricated or manipulated. Zietman,[35] Editor-in-chief of the Int J Radiation Oncol Biol Phys, states that “you may think fabrication is so egregious no one would take a chance, but you would be wrong.”

Falsification is a way in which the data obtained are manipulated, for example, some data are omitted, or are modified, or not accurately entered in the research records, giving results of the researcher's choice. In some cases, information is adjusted at the time of data analysis, figures are changed, and the final result is a manipulated one. As stated by Zietman,[35] this practice is difficult to detect, and the prevalence is not known. There are also practices by which the research methodology, research materials, and equipment are manipulated to get meaningful results. In some cases, such practices are the product of the researchers themselves, whereas in others, such a practice occurs at the level of the technical staff or junior researchers, to be rewarded or to please the boss. All such practices are like “lying” and must be avoided on all accounts to maintain research integrity and accuracy.

  Duplicate, Repetitive, and Redundant Publications Top

One of the very first remarks that “manuscripts should not be considered for publication in a journal if they were submitted or published elsewhere” was put forward by Franz Joseph Ingelfinger (Editor of New England Journal of Medicine) in 1969 in an editorial and is referred to as the “Ingelfinger rule.”[36] This rule is now adopted by all the International Scientific Indexing journals. The phrase “duplicate, repetitive, or redundant publication” refers to the publication either in electronic or print media, which has the same or similar (partial or complete) information (written portions: aims, hypothesis, results, discussions, conclusion, data, and tables, figures, etc.). The duplicated publications often do not refer to each other and frequently have the same or similar authors, with changes in the listing order. At times, the main study is truncated into several smaller studies and published with considerable overlap. The problem with duplicate, repetitive, and redundant publications has been discussed in detail by Johnson,[37] in an editorial which summarizes the factors involved in this practice and the resultant damage. Furthermore, if for any reason a duplicate, repetitive, or redundant publication is necessary, the criteria laid down by the International Council of Medical Journal Editors must be strictly followed. The book entitled “Best Practice Guidelines on Publishing Ethics” outlines publishing ethics in a very effective way [38] and as emphasized in the guidelines of several journals, it emphasizes that “accurate and complete reporting enables readers to appraise research, replicate it, and use it fully.”

  Plagiarism Top

Plagiarism is derived from a Latin word: “Plagiare,” which means to “kidnap.” The Oxford English Dictionary defines plagiarism as: “The action or practice of taking someone else's work, idea, etc. and passing it off as one's own.” It is considered as literary theft (Oxford English Dictionary: http://dictionary.oed.com). Several other definitions exist in the literature for the word plagiarism, and a few are presented in [Table 5].[39],[40],[41],[42],[43],[44],[45] As such, it can be stated that plagiarism is like “stealing” someone else's work and being purposefully deceitful about it – hence, it involves cheating others. It is one of the most frequent forms of misconduct in writing, when someone else's original words or ideas are presented as one's own, without giving credit to the author, without reference or quotation. It has to be remembered that plagiarism may be considered as a severe form of ethical misconduct with severe consequences.
Table 5: Definitions of plagiarism

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Plagiarism has always existed, but with the advances in technology, it has become effortless to copy–paste from books, published manuscripts, thesis, and internet articles and present them as your own. On the contrary, with the advances in technology, it has also become easy to detect plagiarism. Frequently, an author may present an idea or a product as new and original although the same or similar product already exists in the literature. Studies have shown that plagiarism frequently occurs among both the faculty and students in colleges, universities, schools, and research institutes. Unfortunately, plagiarism is considered as “a multi-layer phenomenon of dishonesty that occurs even in higher education.”[46] A study on medical students showed that plagiarism occurs frequently, and students continue to engage in it despite explicit warnings. A study reported by Bilić-Zulle et al.[47] on Croatian medical students showed that more than 90% of the students in their second year, when asked to write essays on a given topic, plagiarize.[48] Another study from the US (Boston University) reported that, even at a senior level, when applying for medical residency, one in twenty applications contained plagiarized material.[47] Faculty also succumbs to plagiarism mainly to advance their status by publishing their work for promotions, job security, and improvement in their salary scale; for popularizing their name; and for other gains.

  Types of Plagiarism Top

Direct plagiarism

Direct plagiarism is when a section or complete work of another author is copied and presented as one's own with no attribution to the original author, no quotation marks to indicate the borrowed material, and no references. This practice is considered academic dishonesty, and there are many examples of serious disciplinary actions that have been taken against those who plagiarized, including, at the very least, a retraction of the published manuscript.

Plagiarism may be intentional or unintentional. These types differ only in the fact that, in the former, the act is carried out knowing what plagiarism is, whereas in the latter type, it happens due to lack of knowledge and without the intention that one is plagiarizing. Das and Panjabi [49] discuss the two forms and state that the “unintentional plagiarism, sometimes may not be labeled as scientific misconduct or require a legal sanction.” The unintentional form of plagiarism is often included in “unconscious plagiarism or cryptomnesia.”[50] Taylor [51] defined it as “....the presence of phenomena in normal consciousness, which objectively are memories, but subjectively is not recognized as such.” In this type of plagiarism, words, or ideas (e.g., hypothesis), or a solution to a problem is put forth, thinking that it is original when, in fact, it is not and was produced by someone else or even one's own self at an earlier occasion. Brown and Murphy [50] present some interesting examples of several prominent people who have been accused of cryptomnesia.

Intentional plagiarism is a serious and egregious offense as one is deliberately taking material written by someone else, or someone else's ideas or opinions, and publishing as his/her own with only slight changes and no mention of the original. Since he/she is aware that this is violating the guidelines, which ascertain academic integrity, the offense is serious. Examples include instances such as copying from another source and presenting it as one's own, filing laboratory reports prepared by senior students and submitting as one's own, purchasing a manuscript written by someone else and publishing it as one's own, asking someone else to write part or all the manuscript or report without giving credit to the real author, and submitting work as a solitary author when a portion of the work was carried out by a group. In the latter form, an article in its entirety is written by someone else but is presented as one's own is referred to as “author plagiarism.” As stated by Das,[52] whether intentional or unintentional, both these forms do amount to plagiarism, and if detected may lead to severe consequences.


The re-publication of material written and published previously by the author himself/herself is considered “self-plagiarism.” Self-plagiarism has been considered as an ethical dilemma facing researchers in the biomedical field.[53] The Publication Manual of the American Psychological Association defines it “as a type of plagiarism in which the writer republishes his published work as a whole or reuses portions of a previously written text while authoring a new work.”[54] It is different from plagiarism as it refers to using one's own previously published work as if it was new. However, it is considered as theft and is referred to as “stealing one's own previously published work without referring to it.” Whether self-plagiarism amounts to scientific misconduct or not is debated, and controversies exist.[55] Some examples of self-plagiarism include:

  1. Re-publishing one's previously published paper elsewhere as a new paper without informing the publisher or the readers
  2. Publishing a more extensive study in small portions instead of a comprehensive one, with a significant similarity between them, to increase the number of publications
  3. Using parts of one's previously published paper in a new article, without any reference, citation, or mention.

The practice of self-publication must be avoided as it infringes on the publisher's copyright, and the authors must be aware of laws that are involved in reusing text.

Mosaic plagiarism

Mosaic plagiarism refers to the writing in which the written material or an idea or opinion is copied from the source and then some changes are made by substituting different words or phrases to make it look different, but the original author is not credited. Because the newly written material is a mixture of the ideas or opinion or sentences of the original and the new author, it is said to be “mosaic” plagiarism. This form is probably the most frequently encountered plagiarism, where an unsuccessful attempt is made to produce a new document, but the original is not credited.

Factors influencing plagiarism

Several studies show that the extent of plagiarism varies in different cultures and societies,[42],[56],[57] and various factors have been implicated as the driving forces for the continued presence of plagiarism. These include a lack of motivation and a lack of willingness to put in the work needed, efforts to gain in professional standing without a desire to put in the effort to achieve this, language problems, methodological uncertainties, and lack of knowledge about plagiarism and its harmful consequences. Devlin and Gray [58] reported that students plagiarize because of poor academic skills, teaching and learning factors, their lack of understanding of plagiarism, personality factors, and external pressures. Even to meet institutional admission criteria, several students revert to plagiarism. Several studies have shown that, even among the postgraduate students, there are deficiencies in their academic knowledge about plagiarism.[59],[60] The suggestions made above could help the institutions of higher education to develop strategies and increase awareness of plagiarism. In this manner, in the age of technology and the Internet and its associated cybercheating,[61] acts of plagiarism can be handled. More recently, with the advancements and ease of access to technology, it is easier to plagiarize than to write, particularly among the non-English students and faculty. A recent study from Germany and Slovenia showed that it is the easy access to information-communication technologies and the web, which is driving plagiarism,[46] although an earlier study has pointed toward “teachers” neglect, unsatisfactory course contents, and homework load.[62] Koul et al.[42] pointed out that plagiarism may vary across cultures and societies. Nisbett et al.[57] suggested that because the Westerners and Easterners socialize into different worldviews, cognitive processes, and habits of mind, the factors leading to plagiarism vary. Several studies have reported different factors that drive plagiarism, and some are summarized in [Table 6]. More studies have to be conducted to identify the factors that contribute to the prevalence of plagiarism in different societies and cultures.
Table 6: Factors playing a role in encouraging plagiarism in different population studies

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It must be pointed out that, in many institutions, the students are unaware of the notion of plagiarism, particularly the undergraduate students. No explanations, workshops, or lectures are delivered to the students on writing ethics and consequences of the unethical practices that they may develop. Thus, they tend to pick up such unethical habits that stay with them and make them plagiarize or follow other unethical practices.

  The Punishments for Scientific Misconduct Top

The penalties for scientific misconduct cover a wide range, and differences are seen at the international level.[75],[76],[77],[78] International standards for research integrity are proposed,[79] and policies and initiatives addressing research misconduct have been prepared.[80] The penalty depends on whether the one involved is a student (undergraduate or postgraduate), a researcher or a laboratory technician, or a faculty or a staff member [Table 6]. Junior students are generally given a warning and are required to attend counseling or supervision programs. However, as the seniority of the student is raised, the punishments become more severe and may be as severe as expulsion from the university or institution. For staff, faculty, researchers, and other employees in the academic institution, the punishments achieve greater intensity with the nature of the misconduct and the number of times the offense is committed. For published manuscripts, a correction may be required, or in severe cases, the manuscript is retracted. Cokol et al.[81] stated that the number of retracted articles is increasing rapidly and in a report of “Retraction Watch” published in The Scientist, the total retractions recorded for 2017 was more than 1000 (https://www.the-scientist.com/research-round-up/top-10-retractions-of-2017-29834).

For the first-time offenders, concessions are provided in the severity of the punishment, but if the misconduct is repeated, the severity of the punishment increases. A difference of opinion exists among different authorities and researchers as to what the punishment for scientific misconduct should be. Several studies suggest that, because scientific misconduct such as fabrication, falsification, and plagiarism are severe frauds, the steps taken to counteract them should be drastic. These studies classify such misconducts as “criminalization” and hence merit severe punishments;[82],[83],[84],[85],[86] others are not in favor of such drastic actions as the benefits they claim may not be so great.[86] Recently, China has introduced social punishments for scientific misconduct. These include “Prevention from getting bank loans, running a company, or applying for a public service job;” “listing in the national database of misconduct cases;” and “naming and shaming on the social credit system's website.”[87] Such measures are taken to discourage misconduct in science to ensure research integrity actively. Many reports in the literature, as well as policies of different universities, present types and examples of punishment for scientific misconduct [Table 7]. The most severe forms of punishment are generally for fabrication, falsification, and plagiarism, which are considered as the most severe forms of misconduct.[83],[84] Sovacool [83] suggests that “harsher criminal sanctions against misconduct, better protections for whistle-blowers, and the creation of due process standards for misconduct investigations are urgently needed,” and “stricter criminal statutes against misconduct are necessary to motivate whistle-blowers and deter wrongdoers.”
Table 7: Some examples of punishments for scientific misconduct, presented in literature

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  Conclusion Top

The subject of ethics in scientific writing is an imperative one and has been given due coverage in most universities, occupying a high status and ranking in the academic arena. Guidelines exist for ethical measures and how they can be implemented to prevent or at least minimize the incidence of misconduct. As a general recommendation, such guidelines must be made available to the staff, faculty, researchers, postgraduates, and postdoctorates. For undergraduate students, there must be mandatory courses on the ethics of writing, plagiarism, scientific misconduct, and its consequences, or this topic should be a part of some course. Frequent workshops should be organized to make the students understand the significance of ethics in all fields and to develop a clear concept of what is right and wrong in scientific research and writing. The notion “publish ethically or perish” is probably a little harsh, but “to survive with dignity in the academic world,” it must be followed.

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Conflicts of interest

There are no conflicts of interest.

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  [Table 1], [Table 2], [Table 3], [Table 4], [Table 5], [Table 6], [Table 7]

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Publications. 2021; 9(4): 48
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