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Scientific Conduct

Pangaro, Louis; McGaghie, William C.

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  • There are no instances of plagiarism.
  • Ideas and materials of others are correctly attributed.
  • Prior publication by the author(s) of substantial portions of the data or study is appropriately acknowledged.
  • There is no apparent conflict of interest.
  • There is an explicit statement of approval by an institutional review board (IRB) for studies directly involving human subjects or data about them.


Reviewers provide an essential service to editors, journals, and society by identifying issues of ethical conduct that are implicit in manuscripts.1 Concerns for reviewers to consider include issues of “authorship” (defining who is responsible for the material in the manuscript—see “Title, Authors, and Abstract” earlier in this chapter), plagiarism (attributing others' words or ideas to oneself), lack of correct attribution of ideas and insights (even if not attributing them to oneself), falsifying data, misrepresenting publication status,2 and deliberate, inappropriate omission of important prior research. Because authors are prone to honest omissions in their reviews of prior literature, or in their awareness of others' work, reviewers may also be useful by pointing out missing citations and attributions. It is not unusual for authors to cite their own work in a manuscript's list of references, and it is the reviewer's responsibility to determine the extent and appropriateness of these citations (see “Reference to the Literature and Documentation”) earlier. Multiple publication of substantially the same studies and data is a more vexing issue. Reviewers cannot usually tell whether parts of the study under review have already been published or detect when part or all of the study is also “in press” with another journal. Some reviewers try to do a “search” on the topic of a manuscript, and, when authorship is not masked, of the authors themselves. This may detect prior or duplicate publication and also aid in a general review of citations.

Finally, reviewers should be alert to authors' suppression of negative results. A negative study, one with conclusions that do not ultimately confirm the study's hypothesis (or that reject the “null hypothesis”), may be quite valuable if the research question was important and the study design was rigorous. Such a study merits, and perhaps even requires, publication, and reviewers should not quickly dismiss such a paper without full consideration of the study's relevance and its methods.3 Yet authors may not have the confidence to include results that do not support the hypothesis. Reviewers should be alert to this fear about negative results and read carefully to detect the omission of data that would be expected. (It is important to note that nowhere in this document of guidance for reviewers is there a criterion that labels a “negative study” as flawed because it lacks a “positive” conclusion.)

Reviewers should be alert to several possible kinds of conflict of interest. The most familiar is a material gain for the author from specific outcomes of a study. In their scrutiny of methods (as covered in all articles in the “Method” section of this chapter), reviewers safeguard the integrity of research, but financial interest in an educational project may not be apparent. Reviewers should look for an explicit statement concerning financial interest when any marketable product (such as a CD-ROM or software program) either is used or is the subject of investigation. Such an “interest” does not preclude publication, but the reviewer should expect a clear statement that there is no commercial interest or of how such a conflict of interest has been handled.

Recently, regulations for the protection of human subjects have been interpreted as applying to areas of research at universities and academic medical centers that they have not been applied to before.4 For instance, studying a new educational experience with a “clinical research” model that uses an appropriate control group might reveal that one of the two groups had had a less valuable educational experience. Hence, informed consent and other protections would be the expected standard for participation, as approved by an IRB.5 In qualitative research, structured qualitative interviews could place a subject at risk if unpopular opinions could be attributed to the individual. Here again, an ethical and legal responsibility must be met by the researchers. We should anticipate that medical education research journals (and perhaps health professions journals also) will require statements about IRB approval in all research papers.

In summary, manuscripts should meet standards of ethical behavior, both in the process of publication and in the conduct of research. Any field that involves human subjects—particularly fields in the health professions—should meet the ethical standards for such research, including the new requirements for education research. Therefore, reviewers fulfill an essential function in maintaining the integrity of academic publications.


1. Caelleigh A. Role of the journal editor in sustaining integrity in research. Acad Med. 1993;68(9 suppl):S23–S29.
2. LaFolette MC. Stealing Into Print: Fraud, Plagiarism, and Misconduct in Scientific Publishing. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1992.
3. Chalmers I. Underreporting research is scientific misconduct, JAMA. 1990;263:1405–6.
4. Code of Federal Regulation, Title 45, Public Welfare, Part 46—Protection of Human Subjects, Department of Human Services. 〈〉. Accessed 4/1/00.
5. Casarett D, Karlawish J, Sugarman J. Should patients in quality improvement activities have the same protections as participants in research studies? JAMA. 2000;284:1786–8.


The Belmont Report [1976]. 〈〉. Accessed 5/23/01.
    Committee on Publication Ethics. The COPE Report 1998. 〈〉. Accessed 5/9/01.
      Committee on Publication Ethics. The COPE Report 2000. 〈〉. Accessed 5/9/01.
        Council of Biology Editors. Ethics and Policy in Scientific Publication. Bethesda, MD: Council of Biology Editors, 1990.
          Council for International Organizations of Medical Sciences (CIOMS), International Guidelines for Ethical Review of Epidemiological Studies, Geneva, 1991. In: King NMP, Henderson GE, Stein J (eds). Beyond Regulations: Ethics in Human Subjects Research. Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 1999.
            The Hastings Center's Bibliography of Ethics, Biomedicine, and Professional Responsibility. Frederick, MD: University Publications of America in Association with the Hastings Center, 1984.
              Henry RC, Wright DE. When are medical students considered subjects in program evaluation? Acad Med. 2001;76:871–5.
              National Research Press. Part 4: Responsibilities. In: Publication Policy. 〈〉. Accessed 6/5/01.
                Roberts LW, Geppert C, Connor R, Nguyen K, Warner TD. An invitation for medical educators to focus on ethical and policy issues in research and scholarly practice. Acad Med. 2001;76:876–85.

                Section Description

                Review Criteria for Research Manuscripts

                Joint Task Force of Academic Medicine and the GEA-RIME Committee

                © 2001 Association of American Medical Colleges