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Expanding Your Publication Ethics

While it can take a long time to build up your reputation, it can be lost very quickly if you engage in unethical behavior. Here we familiarize you with the international ethical standards that you should follow when conducting and publishing your research.

Jeffrey Robens, PhD

Jeffrey Robens, PhD

Senior Editorial Development Manager, Nature Research Academies

PhD, Pharmacology
University of Pennsylvania

See more articles by Jeffrey Robens, PhD

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Publication ethics

Reputation is your currency in academia. As you build up your reputation worldwide in your field, you will increase your influence and your international collaborations that will further drive your research forward.

While it can take a long time to build up your reputation, it can be lost very quickly if you engage in unethical behavior. It is not worth the risk.

Therefore, it is important to be familiar with the international ethical standards that you are expected to follow when conducting and publishing your research.

In this article, we will review some of the more common aspects of publication ethics that you should be familiar with: authorship, plagiarism, data manipulation, and transparency.

Determining authorship in a journal article

Who qualifies to be an author on your paper? Should lab technicians who assisted with the experiments be listed? What about your colleague that helped you proofread the English in your paper? Should you be adding the department head as an author to all your papers?

In most cases, the answer to these questions is ‘no’.

determining authorship in an article.

Significant contributions and accountability

Most journals consider two important aspects for authorship: significant contribution to the study and writing of the manuscript (for intellectual content) and accountability for the published data and ideas. For example, in the author guidelines for Nature journals, we state:

“The author list should include all appropriate researchers and no others. Authorship provides credit for a researcher’s contributions to a study and carries accountability… …Authors are required to include a statement of responsibility in the manuscript that specifies the contribution of every author…” (1)

Gift authorship

Because of the concern of gift authorship, when authors are added to a manuscript when they do not qualify as an author, some journals are now requiring authors to complete and sign an authorship statement that is submitted along with the manuscript.

So please be sure to read the author guidelines of your target journal carefully. If someone assisted with your research, but did not qualify as an author, it would be more appropriate to thank them for their assistance in the Acknowledgements section of the manuscript.

Eluding plagiarism

Writing in English is not easy. So, it may be tempting to copy published English text into your manuscript. However, this will be classified as plagiarism.

Journal editors use sophisticated software to detect similarity between submitted manuscripts and the published literature. If they determine that your manuscript contains plagiarized content, your manuscript will be returned to you for revision or even rejection.

avoiding plagiarism in research.

Paraphrase ideas in your own words

So if you want to discuss a previously described idea in your manuscript, you will need to paraphrase the idea in your own words. There are some tips to help you with this.

Let’s say you’re a Japanese researcher who speaks English as a second language. First, you can first explain the idea in your notes in Japanese. And then, when you write your manuscript, translate the idea back into English.

By going through this translation step, your text will have low similarity with the original and not be flagged as plagiarism.

You can also try to verbally explain the idea to a colleague. By doing so, you are forcing yourself to put that idea into your own words, which you can then use in your writing.

For methodology, where accidental plagiarism is common, you can simply cite previous articles rather than trying to paraphrase the technique in your paper.

Cite your sources

In addition to paraphrasing to reduce word similarity, it is also important to cite the source of that idea. You need to give credit to the original author. Otherwise, you may give the false impression that the idea is yours when it is not. By both paraphrasing and citing the source, you should not have a problem with plagiarism in writing your manuscript.

Avoiding data manipulation

Although we know we cannot manipulate our data, we may be tempted to so we can publish in more prestigious journals. However, readers have the right to evaluate your research based on the actual data you obtained, not what you hoped to find!

Because misinformation can hinder the advancement of the field, journal editors now have access to sophisticated software that can detect figure manipulation. Further, if peer reviewers question the authenticity of your figures, they have the right to request the raw data for evaluation.

avoiding data manipulation

There are cases when you can improve the quality of the figure or graph, however. You may wish to enhance the brightness or contrast of a figure to improve figure clarity, but this will need to be done to the entire figure.

Further, you may wish to remove a statistical outlier from analysis (a data point that is >3 SD from the mean in a normally distributed data set). However, in both these cases, you need to explain what was done in the Methods section of your paper for transparency and reproducibility.

Learn more about identifying and avoiding plagiarism in academic writing.

Improving transparency

Reproducibility is essential in science. If others cannot replicate what you have done, your results will be questioned, and this can negatively affect your reputation in the field.

Therefore, ensure that accurately and transparently describe how your study was conducted to allow others to replicate your work.

It can also be useful to discuss expectations when performing the experiments as well as technical challenges that you faced and how they were overcome. Therefore, when people are reproducing your work, they know exactly what to expect.

To improve transparency among Nature journals, we have abolished space restrictions in the Methods section (2) and now require all life science papers to complete a reporting checklist (3) that is published along with the paper.

We also require authors to state where all the data used in the study can be found for others to be able evaluate and reproduce your research (4).

As reproducibility is crucial for scientific development, expect other publishers to also being imposing stricter requirements on technical and data transparency as well.

There are many other important aspects of publication ethics you also need to consider — such as multiple submissions, duplicate publications, and conflicts of interest — that we do not have time to discuss today.

I would encourage you to read through Nature’s publication and research ethics website to review these other ethical considerations as well (5).

Being aware of the ethical guidelines you are expected to follow is the first step, following these guidelines carefully in your research and writing is the other step.

By doing so, you will not only ensure that the information you publish is valuable to the field, but will also build and establish your reputation among your peers.

Final Thoughts

Your reputation is your currency for success in science, do what you can to protect it. Nature Research Editing Service offers scientific editing services to ensure your paper meets a journal’s most rigorous standards.


  2. Nature. 2013; 496: 398. doi:10.1038/496398a
  3. Nature. 2017; 546: 8. doi:10.1038/546008a
  4. Nature. 2016; 537: 138. doi:10.1038/537138a

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