Ethics and Publishing

Rod Pitcher (@Rod_Pitcher) is a PhD student in Education at The Centre for Higher Education, Learning and Teaching at the Australian National University, Canberra, Australia. The focus of his research is the metaphors that researchers use when describing their work. He has recently launched a blog, Rod’s Business, and is active on Facebook.

His e-book, Advice to a Troubled PhD Student, is available for free download.

No parking sign from Japan, with cute image of a policeman
No parking, by Jonathan O’Donnell on Flickr

Writing is an important part of all academic endeavour, particularly writing journal papers.

The experience of writing such a paper is an important part of the overall learning during one’s PhD. The lessons that can be learnt from it will provide a good basis for any future academic work.

This post is about a very important lesson I learnt about my attitude to publication during my PhD. I learnt important lessons about myself and the way I behave in ethically difficult situations. I came out of the situation with a clear conscience, without feeling that I had acted unethically.

Let me tell you about my experience:

Two of my publication activities involved me in ethical dilemmas. How I resolved them might be of interest and use to others in similar situations. In such things, we can’t always learn from our own mistakes. Sometimes, it is better to learn from the way other people handle the difficult situation without causing problems to themselves or others.

New results

After some revision, one of my journal papers was accepted, with publication promised at a later date some six months ahead. During the wait for publication, my research took a new turn that rendered the work described in the accepted paper out of date. I had to decide whether to withdraw the paper from publication because it was out of date, or allow publication because the piece would still have value.

In the six months preceding publication, I agonised over that decision. In the end, I found myself unable to decide, so I allowed publication to go ahead. On publication, I received some interesting and useful comments from people who had read it.

Should I have allowed publication or not? I think that that is a dilemma other researchers must face at some time in their careers. Given that there is often anything up to twelve months or more between submission and publication, it would seem to me that there is often a case to be made that the research is out of date (dare I say ‘obsolete’?) at the time of publication. The author then has to decide if there is justification for the publication or whether the paper should be withdrawn.

I had a feeling that, ethically, the paper should have been withdrawn. On the other hand, given the ‘publish or perish’ syndrome of the modern academic’s position, there is pressure to publish anything, even when one is still a student. In the situation, I was unable to decide and allowed publication to go ahead. When I received comments after publication, I realised that the paper did have value to the readers and discipline. Since it had significance to some people, and the dissemination of ideas and results is part of the purpose of publication, I feel the publication was justified. Faced with this situation again, I would publish the paper without feeling distressed.

Another instance where some difficulty with ethics occurred was when I peer reviewed for a couple of journals. One of the papers I reviewed looked very interesting and was closely allied to my own work. I felt the urge to hold back the paper while I wrote one of my own on the same topic. I thought that if I wrote and submitted a paper of my own before reviewing that paper, I might have more chance of it being accepted. My work would gain precedence.

Thankfully, I was able to resist the temptation and return the reviewed paper promptly to the journal. I have to wonder, though, if other authors have held back a paper they are reviewing so that they can gain precedence or so that a favoured colleague can get in first. Again, given the ‘publish or perish’ dynamic, publication precedence can be a very important factor.

Since publication is so important, even to a PhD student, I have had to come to grips with various ethical problems and do my best to get published. Much of it has been tough going.

Publication is not easy, particularly for the beginner. On the other hand, publication is a great ego boost. Seeing one’s name and work in a journal makes all the work and worry worthwhile. When people send me emails about my published material, I really begin to realise just how much it is worth. Then I feel as if I’ve made a genuine contribution to my field. More importantly, I know I’ve it ethically and responsibly, and am able to properly be proud of my contribution.

The question remains: Why bother? Why not go ahead and publish regardless of any ethical considerations?

The simplest answer is that it is right and fair to other people that one should be ethical in one’s dealings with them. One should treat one’s colleagues, and competitors, as one would like to be dealt with oneself.

But there is a further consideration: there is always the risk of being found out. If that should happen, one’s reputation would forever be blackened. The risk is always there and it’s one not worth taking.

For me, acting ethically and correctly, in publishing or any other activity, is its own reward. The warm feeling of a job done well is worth having for its own sake.


  1. Interesting thoughts, in my area it’s not unusual (but not desirable either) for papers to take more than 2 years to appear. A recent paper took five! Luckily I was given the opportunity for a final look over before publication and was able to amend some footnotes and comments as some of my ideas about the research had changed and I had discovered some new things.

    Also sometimes it is interesting when a researcher has published several articles which demonstrate how their research has developed and changed, even if future publications render earlier ones ‘wrong’ in some way, I never see it as reflecting badly on an author at all.

    On the topic of acting ethically I would also add as someone who works as an editor for an academic journal that when referees act unethically, or even just grudgingly, it is often very evident to the editors. Even if the process is a anonymous between referee and author it is clear to editors when a good paper gets a really bad review it doesn’t deserve ora referee is ‘holding out’ because the referee feels that their ‘research area toes’ are being stepped on. It happens pretty rarely, and as editors we don’t say anything publicly, but it gets noticed!


  2. Kat.
    Thanks for the information about journal papers from an editor’s point of view. I’ve often wondered just how much the reviewers’ comments sway the editor’s judgement. I’ve had a few papers rejected when the reviewer’s comments didn’t seem to bad to me.

    I don’t think I could stand the wait of 2 years to find out if a paper is to be rejected. It’s bad enough waiting a few months. That’s why i like writing forum postings — the decision is usually made within days of submission.


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