Ethical considerations around watchlists (COPE Forum, March 2024)

Apr 2, 2024 | Scholarly publishing

The March 2024 COPE Forum began with a discussion on ‘ethical considerations around watchlists’, hosted by Daniel Kulp (Chair, COPE Council).

During the discussion, the benefits and potential risks associated with watchlists were explored from the position of both individuals and journals, as well as how publishers should use them. In principle, a watchlist could be used as a quality control tool; usually kept private as a measure of accountability. If, however, the list was exposed/leaked, the publisher’s trustworthiness and maker of transparency can be held to account.

It is important to note what is included on a watchlist – is information recorded about an individual, including personal data? Do COPE offer any guidance on what kind of criteria individuals should meet to be on a watchlist? And how can an individual defend themselves or “remove” themselves from a list? These were some of the key questions raised during the conversation regarding individual authors or account holders. The threat is much greater to be named and listed; as careers, research programs and scholarly publications can all be potentially be disputed/disrupted if this extremely sensitive information is exposed in the public domain.

At an individual level, abhorrent practices to circumnavigate peer-review processes could be observed through “flagging” an author’s account – for example, to collate information about suspicious activity. However individuals have a higher right to privacy and such lists need to be regulated or kept private within the publishing house. Academic publishing is witnessing a systematic effort to undermine peer review; the rise of papermills, reviewer cartels and bad actors exploiting the system often for financial gain mean that individuals should be aware of this and make due considerations during submission.

Sharing nefarious behaviours is important and if publishers share systematic problems regarding behaviour amongst one another, they can collectively disrupt the ways papermills and peer-review rings operate. COPE has guidance on how EICs can share information. However, how can we share this information more broadly? The STM Integrity Hub offers a duplicate submissions check across publishers, which could be a useful tool to manage misconduct. This is being developed and the STM Integrity Hub are exploring managing this in an ethical and legal way.

One of the biggest risks with watchlists posed at an individual level is that account holders are added incorrectly or without proper reason. This could be very detrimental to an individual in terms of their career and may also possibly be defamatory and could have legal ramifications. Watchlists must aim to be transparent but not give away details of what we are looking for. The risk is higher for individuals as it can directly impact future employment and ability to do research. Should there be mitigation circumstances for appeal for minor infractions? A similar name could be a risk, for example.

In the absence of an agreed decision amongst the industry on what should and shouldn’t be on a watchlist, the main risk appears to be a legal one. STM have already advised that the industry needs to be careful regarding the type of data which is shared. Legally underpinning this stage is crucial to ensure an individual’s privacy and GDPR-compliance is maintained. It was suggested that if private watchlists are maintained, legal counsel should be able to advise how to evoke sanctions or prevent someone from publishing. The publisher however must be mindful of any reputational damage or litigation brought against them.

If an individual finds themselves on a watchlist they do of course have the right to reply, to ensure that the process is fair and transparent and that they can defend themselves and their position. It was raised that it would be good practice to notify an individual that concerns have been identified, which will allow them to ask for an appeal. It is important to consider and understand what the watchlist represents.

As the risks increase and the systematic manipulation of peer review is attacked, the ways in which this data is captured in order to identify patterns of misconduct has to be carried out quickly, ethically and legally in order for the publisher to maintain integrity and be commercially viable as well as managing its own trustworthiness.