PLOS and other publishers have recently seen a rise in large-scale cases involving manipulation of the publication process, and PLOS staff are working to increase the stringency of their processes to keep problematic articles out of the literature. As part of this work, the Human Subjects Research Policy for PLOS ONE, PLOS Climate, PLOS Global Public Health and PLOS Water has been updated. As of March 1, 2023, these journals require that authors of manuscripts reporting research involving human participants provide original ethics approval documentation at the time of submission. This also applies to studies that use human subjects’ data or primary tissue samples, except for studies that are exempt from ethics approval per institutional and/or national requirements.
The competitive nature of academic publishing, tenure, and hiring decisions can incentivize researchers to take shortcuts, compromising on ethics to boost or accelerate their publication records. In some cases, this might mean conducting research before all requisite approvals have been obtained. In others, it might mean purchasing authorship or article content, or compromising the integrity of the peer review process. These unethical practices can pollute the literature with problematic articles that are harmful to the broader community, including people endeavoring to replicate fraudulent research and those directly impacted by the published findings.
Up to this point, PLOS journals have required that submissions of studies involving human participants include an Ethics Statement reporting information about the study’s ethics approval and informed consent procedures. On occasion, journal staff have requested ethics approval documents for studies where there were concerns about adherence to the policy.
Recently, the PLOS Publication Ethics team has handled higher volumes of cases where documents received during investigations raised concerns about whether ethics standards were upheld during the research process, whether measures were in place to protect participants in the research, or whether the reported findings were reliable.
In light of these concerns, PLOS ONE ran a trial in 2022 wherein cohorts of authors were asked to supply ethics approval documents before peer review. Compliance was high, but what journal staff found was deeply troubling: in one cohort, nearly two-thirds of submissions did not meet PLOS ONE’s human subjects research requirements and were therefore rejected. Importantly, journal staff would not have detected the issues had they not requested the ethics documentation.
Given these observations, the Human Subjects Research Policy for PLOS ONE, PLOS Climate, PLOS Global Public Health and PLOS Water are being updated, effective 1 March 2023. Similar updates for other PLOS journals is also in consideration. Under the new policy, original ethics approval documentation will be required at the time of submission and evaluated by journal staff before peer review. If there are any concerns about the ethics approval documents, if they are not provided, or if they indicate the study did not comply with PLOS’s policies, the manuscript will be rejected without external review. As per their longstanding policy, PLOS will continue to request ethics documents for manuscripts submitted before March 2023 if deemed necessary by journal staff or editorial board members. Submitted ethics approval documents will not be published.
While this updated policy alone will not identify all potentially fraudulent or unethical research, nevertheless, it is an important advance in PLOS’s efforts to safeguard the integrity of human subjects research publications, uphold our ethics policies, and ensure that the community can continue to trust, reuse, and build upon the published work.Click here to read the original press release.
Regulations, guidelines and other institutional frameworks
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