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Australasian Human Research Ethics Consultancy Services Pty Ltd (AHRECS)

Questionable publishing practice? Are you harmed?1


Antony Ley (Information Policy Officer at Griffith University) & Gary Allen

When considering whether a journal publisher is legitimate, researchers have in the past often focused on whether the publisher is predatory. While this is important, there is a more important question: is the journal credible or is it junk?

Increasingly junk-type publishers clog up the academic ecosystem with journal papers of generally low to no value. These include publishers that produce credible articles alongside questionable work.[1] Consequently, basing a decision on title and reputation isn’t reliable. Supposedly quality publishers that churn out junk are driven by quantity rather than quality. The more journals they establish and the more articles they publish, the greater their profits via article processing charges (APCs).  Screening such publishers for being predatory can prove difficult and can lead to debatable results, when the more pertinent issue that may be easier to determine is whether they are making a useful contribution to the body of academic knowledge.

Predatory publishers have used a range of deceits to disguise themselves as credible publishers. For example, a hijacked journal creates a counterfeit website that pretends to be the website of a legitimate scholarly journal. This predatory publisher then solicits manuscript submissions from researchers for the hijacked version of the journal and pockets the money.

However, predatory and junk-type publishers are becoming increasingly sophisticated and researchers likewise need to become increasingly savvy to sift through the chaff.

Recently we were asked to provide advice for a researcher regarding the legitimacy of a journal. They had been invited by email to guest edit a special issue of an open access journal published by MDPI. A quick scan of MDPI’s professionally presented website showed that the publisher had a range of journals with impact factors of 3+ and 4+. It was based in Basel, Switzerland and had membership of a range of organisations including: the Committee on Publication Ethics (COPE); the Directory of Open Access Journals; and the Association of Learned and Professional Society Publishers.

So a superficial check might conclude it was a safe publisher to engage with.

However a quick web search showed some researchers questioning the standards of this publisher. This lead to an even closer inspection of the journal’s website revealing that Education Sciences had more than 60 special issues planned. Another of MDPI’s journals has more than 300 special issues planned (with more than 4,000 articles already published in 12 issues in the first six months of 2020). This high volume of special issues and articles is a clear distortion of acceptable publishing standards. In the time it took to write this piece these numbers surged even higher. When you calculate the amount of money per article the total revenue involved here is astounding.

As noted by Alan Finkel in 2019, researchers need to focus on quality over quantity. Confronted by so many special editions, researchers should seriously question the quality of a title.

We advised the researcher that the University should not support this publisher as it had displayed highly questionable publication practices.

The quality and legitimacy of journal publications is an important consideration for researchers who are considering publishing or editing.  It is also something potential employers and grant-funding-bodies are now checking when reviewing CVs. Careful forensic examination is increasingly required to confirm a publisher’s and journal’s credibility. The Think, Check, Submit checklist can help. We need to assess the value and legitimacy of journals and publishers on a continuum between high quality at one end and predatory at the other.  There are many journals that though “peer reviewed” and not predatory, should be avoided for being junk-type publications with distorted publishing standards that pollute academic knowledge.

As appointment/promotion and grant-review boards catch on, the important question here is: are you harming your career by allowing your name and intellectual efforts to be associated with them?

[1] The Rise of Junk Science

This post may be cited as:
Ley, A. & Allen, G. (30 July 2020) Questionable publishing practice? Are you harmed?  Research Ethics Monthly. Retrieved from:

What are questionable research practices as reported by ECRs in STEMM in Australia?0


Katherine Christian, Carolyn Johnstone, Jo-ann Larkins, Wendy Wright and Michael Doran

Katherine Christian, Federation University Australia
Carolyn Johnstone, Federation University Australia
Jo-ann Larkins, Federation University Australia
Wendy Wright, Federation University Australia
Michael R Doran, Queensland University of Technology

Early-career researchers (ECRs) across the world have long reported significant difficulties caused by lack of funding and consequent job insecurity, gender inequity, work/life imbalance, and poor or insufficient professional development. The overall picture from our research project about ECRs in STEMM fields in Australia is of people who love science employed in unsatisfactory workplaces and overwhelmed by job insecurity and its consequences. We investigated the workplace experiences of ECRs working in the sciences in universities and independent research institutes across Australia, collecting data in a national survey (n=658), and through eight interviews of women who had recently left the academic workplace for alternate careers.

As we previously described (Christian et al., 2020), a concerning 38% ECRs reported questionable research practices from colleagues inside their institution and 32% from colleagues outside their institution. While “questionable research practices” were not defined within the survey, and there was no opportunity provided for respondents to expand in the context of this question, this term has been used to describe behaviours ranging from fraud to data exclusion and rounding of p-values (John et al., 2012). Qualitative data collected from other questions provided insights into practices which give cause for concern. These quotes, which speak for themselves, provide some indication of what our respondents identified as questionable research practices:

I have also encountered some antisocial behaviour among academics, such as senior staff who have attempted to “steal” work I am doing to present as their own. It’s cutthroat. (ECR A)

My supervisor is unethical and a scoundrel who makes this job terrible. She exists to feather her own nest and ECRs are a commodity to use to this end. (ECR B)

I’ve found that highly respected research groups often have less integrity than you’d initially thing (sic). QRPs [questionable research practices] are worryingly common, and engaged in to chase funding to conduct more QRP studies (ECR C)

Lack of funding and the need to ‘sell’ your research often leads to many researchers fabricating and embellishing data. This leads to the inability of genuine researchers to replicate findings, wasting precious time and resources, giving up and then their contracts not being renewed because the boss doesn’t get the 10 publications per year they demand. (ECR D)

I believe that the whole Academia environment is corrupted and has lost its true vision. The lack of funding is making researchers to sometimes make-up data to get grants or to publish meaningless papers just for the sake of raising the numbers. (ECR E)

In our national survey, 60% percent of STEMM ECRs reported they had been impacted by lack of support from supervisors, 33% by bullying and harassment based on power position and 13% said they felt unsafe in the workplace (unexpectedly 16% men felt unsafe compared with 11% women) (Christian et al.,2020). These comments encapsulate many of the issues which point to the poor workplace practices identified by our respondents:

The institutional work culture is a major concern (bullying, academic misconduct, workplace safety etc., which goes un-noticed) (ECR F)

I am currently looking outside academia to get away from the culture of harassment… it takes too much of a toll on my health… but I would stay in academia if I were to find a position that didn’t subject me to harassment by a supervisor. (ECR G)

Being yelled at by my supervisor on a regular basis, being yelled at by his students due to my supervisor lying to the students, being unable to lodge complaints as it’s made clear that I will not have my contract continued and will have difficulty finding another job without references if I lodge a complaint. (ECR H)

The themes which emerged from these data include ECRs feeling the need or wish to leave their jobs because of workplace stress related to job insecurity, poor institutional culture or harassment from supervisors. In parallel, we learnt why ECRs stay and tolerate these conditions: they love their research, their actual work. This puts them in a quandary about whether to stay or go and there is clear uncertainty about what to do next, either because there is nowhere to go or because the options are unpalatable.

If our government is to achieve its stated aim of making Australia one of the best places in the world in which to undertake innovation, science and research, and to maximise the spread of benefits to all Australians (Department of Industry Innovation and Science, 2018), then we must take better care of ECRs in STEMM fields who will form this future workforce. We must address a research culture where questionable research practices, whatever form they take, are so prevalent and, instead, work harder to change the culture and foster the high standards of research integrity called for in our Australian Code of Responsible Research Practice. These practices do not have to be tolerated; instead our research institutions must provide all staff, particularly ECRs, with safe avenues to report inappropriate behaviours – and follow up, every time, with appropriate action.


As participants in the survey self-selected, it is possible we may have attracted more dissatisfied people to the study than is representative, or only people who had the time available to respond. Also, as this survey is long and conducted only in English, people from culturally and linguistically diverse backgrounds may be under-represented.

It is not possible to know the response rate to invitations received by potential participants. As a consequence of the approval process required by the HREC, distribution of those invitations was usually not within our direct control and instead was either managed by a third party or was recruitment via directed social media. This process was reported briefly in Research Ethics Monthly (Christian et al., 2019).


Katherine Christian is supported by an Australian Government Research Training Program (RTP) Fee-Offset Scholarship through Federation University Australia. Michael Doran is supported by an NHMRC Fellowship (APP1130013)


Christian, K., Johnstone, C., Larkins, J. and Wright, W. (17 September 2019) The need to seek institutional approval to survey staff –was this a misunderstanding of the purpose of Guideline 2.2.13 in the National Statement on Ethical Conduct in Human Research? Research Ethics Monthly.

Christian, K., Johnstone, C., Larkins, J., Wright, W. and Doran, M. R. (2020). Survey of Australian STEMM Early Career Researchers: Job insecurity and questionable research practices are major structural concerns. BioRxiv, 2020.02.19.955328.

Department of Industry Innovation and Science. (2018). Australia 2030: Prosperity through Innovation. Australian Government.

John, L. K., Loewenstein, G. and Prelec, D. (2012). Measuring the Prevalence of Questionable Research Practices With Incentives for Truth Telling: Psychological Science.


Katherine Christian, Federation University Australia School of Arts, Mt Helen Campus, Ballarat, Victoria

Carolyn Johnstone, Federation University Australia School of Arts, Mt Helen Campus, Ballarat, Victoria

Jo-ann Larkins, Federation University Australia School of Science, Engineering and Information Technology, Gippsland Campus, Churchill, Victoria

Wendy Wright, Federation University Australia School of Health and Life Sciences, Gippsland Campus, Churchill, Victoria

Michael R Doran, Queensland University of Technology.

This post may be cited as:

Christian, K., Johnstone, C., Larkins, J., Wright W. and Doran, M. (29 July 2020) What are questionable research practices as reported by ECRs in STEMM in Australia? Research Ethics Monthly. Retrieved from:

The ethical petri-dish: recommendations for the design of university science curricula0


Dr Jo-Anne Kelder, Senior Lecturer, Curriculum Innovation and Development, University of Tasmania,
Professor Sue Jones, Honorary Researcher, School of Natural Sciences, University of Tasmania,
Professor Liz Johnson, DVC of Education, Deakin University,
Associate Professor Tina Acuna, ADL&T College of Sciences and Engineering, University of Tasmania,

Ethics (thinking and practice) is intrinsic to the nature of science. Ethical practices within science-related professions are mandated by policies, frameworks, standards and cultural norms. A scientist should also consider the broader implications for society when applying scientific knowledge..

.Does our laboratory start working to develop a vaccine for Covid-19 or continue working on that potential cure for childhood leukemia? What will happen to the endangered Giant Freshwater Lobster if we remodel the hydrology of that major river so farmers in North-West Tasmania can grow more potatoes? Should we approve the use of GM technology to develop Vitamin A-rich rice?.

Science graduates must be equipped to contribute to such complex debates, and empowered to make scientific decisions within a sound ethical framework (Johnson, 2010).

The Science Standards Statement (Jones, Yates and Kelder, 2011), the national benchmark for bachelor-level science degrees in Australia, specifies that graduates will demonstrate a coherent understanding of science, and be able to explain the role and relevance of science in society. society (TLO 1: Jones et al., 2011: p.12). Furthermore, they will be equipped to understand and work within ethical frameworks, and “have some understanding of their social and cultural responsibilities as they investigate the natural world.” (TLO 5.3: Jones et al., 2011: p.15).

The argument that there is ‘no space’ for ethics in the science curriculum is no longer valid (Booth and Garrett, 2004; McGowan 2013). However there remain significant barriers to the teaching and assessment of ethical knowledge, skills and capabilities in undergraduate science curricula. We summarise these as: debate and dissent around what should be taught, who should teach ethical thinking, and how should it be taught and assessed.

It’s not just about plagiarism

Ethics in science falls into two broad categories:

  1. Ethics in the practice of science
  2. Ethics in the application of science.

Ethics in the practice of science relates to integrity in research management (including data collection, analysis and presentation); plagiarism, and authorship. Ethics curricula must ensure students’ familiarity with relevant legislative frameworks such as the National Statement on Ethical Conduct in Human Research. In professionally oriented/applied disciplines such as Agriculture and Environmental Science students must also be prepared for working ethically in a business environment and to understand their ethical and legal obligations as workplace leaders (Botwright-Acuna and Able, 2016).

Ethics in the application of science requires a broader and deeper perspective: appreciating and accepting responsibility for the impacts of scientific work upon society (Evers, 2001; Schultz, 2014). Graduates need to be aware that the ethical frameworks within which science is practised are not static, but adapt as social norms change. They must understand how their personal ethical perspectives interact with and may clash with, formal mandated frameworks, and be prepared to engage in debate around the ethical implications of applying discovery science in the real world. They must be prepared to defend ethical decisions and to appreciate that others may hold conflicting views. As Evers puts it: “the study of ethics should therefore be an integral part of the education and training of all scientists with the purpose of increasing future scientists’ ethical competence” (2001: p. 97).

Recommendation – that students are encouraged to debate, discuss, and appreciate that people will hold different points of view on, ethical questions.

Teachers may need some training

Practising scientists who themselves operate within relevant ethical frameworks are best placed to guide students about ethics in the practice of science (Kabasenche, 2014). However, while some scientists have taken up the teaching challenge of including ethics explicitly in their curriculum, this is not yet mainstream (Booth and Garrett, 2004). Most science academics are not themselves formally trained in ethical thinking (Johansen and Harris, 2000) and may express legitimate concern that they are not best placed to design and teach curricula on ethics (van Leeuwen, Lamberts, Newitt and Errington, 2007).

Recommendation – that science faculties provide professional development and community of practice opportunities to teaching staff to ensure that they have the confidence, skills and knowledge to teach ethical practice within a science curriculum.

There is a strong argument for a collaborative, interdisciplinary approach, with both science academics and philosophically trained ethicists involved in teaching ‘science ethics’ (Kabasenche, 2014). The scientist contributes expertise in the relevant science and their understanding of the ethical practice of science, while the philosopher brings critical thinking skills and decision-making tools that support ethical understandings and analysis of relative consequences. For example, in The Responsible Scientist, Forge (2008) argues that responsibility in scientific work has implications beyond intended outcomes, and includes taking into account foreseen and foreseeable outcomes.

Recommendation – that science faculties pursue opportunities for collaborative, interdisciplinary design and delivery of ‘science ethics’ across the undergraduate science curriculum.

It’s not just for the first year students

Teaching ethics to science students must do more than ensuring that first years are familiar with university policies on plagiarism and academic integrity (Botwright-Acuna et al., 2016). Ethics must be an explicitly assessed component of the curriculum at each level of study, and overtly aligned to the core science curriculum. Assessment tasks must distinguish between students’ knowledge of relevant ethical frameworks, and their ability to apply those frameworks in practice.

For example, an assessment task for third level Zoology students models an Animal Ethics application: students construct a scientific research question within an ethical framework, and justify that research in language accessible to lay people (Jones and Edwards, 2013). In the undergraduate course ‘Communities of Practice in Biochemistry and Molecular Biology’, students develop research skills alongside their capacity for ethical analysis of the impacts of science on society (Keiler et al., 2017) while in a subject on ‘Energy and Sustainability’, students develop a national energy plan that addresses equity issues as well as technical and political feasibility (McGowan, 2013). Schultz (2014) suggests several strategies for assessing Chemistry students’ knowledge of ethical thinking, such as writing a Code of Conduct for practising chemists.

Recommendation – that ethics is a compulsory and explicitly assessed component of a bachelor-level science curriculum, and that students are exposed to ethical thinking in the context of science from their first year onwards.

It’s everybody’s business

Good practice is a teaching team approach to curriculum design, delivery and scholarly evaluation (Kelder et al., 2017; TEQSA, 2018). A whole-of-curriculum approach will involve team members meeting regularly to discuss and coordinate connecting the ethical implications of scientific knowledge and practice being taught; to ensure that ethical thinking is embedded at each curriculum level; to scaffold and develop learning from introductory to assured level. At the broader level, the science curriculum must provide a framework within which students are supported to develop personal and professional responsibility for their learning and later professional life (Loughlin, 2013).

Recommendation – that the degree curriculum is discussed and agreed upon by the whole teaching team prior to curriculum design (and ongoing, as it matures) to ensure that students’ learning is built upon, and assessed coherently and developmentally.

Recommendation – that scholarship promoting and recommending content and delivery methods, and, especially, effective assessment strategies for the teaching of ethics to science undergraduates, is encouraged and rewarded.


Booth, J. M. and Garrett, J. M. (2004). Instructors’ practices in and attitudes toward teaching ethics in the genetics classroom. Genetics, 168(3), 1111-1117.

Botwright Acuña, T.L. and Able, A.J. (Eds.). (2016). Good Practice Guide: Threshold Learning Outcomes for Agriculture. Sydney, Australia: Office for Learning and Teaching.

Evers, K. (2001). Standards for ethics and responsibility in science: An analysis and evaluation of their content, background and function. International Council for Science, Paris.

Forge, J. (2008). The Responsible Scientist: A Philosophical Inquiry. University of Pittsburgh Press.

Johnson, J (2010). Teaching Ethics to Science Students: Challenges and a Strategy. In: Education and Ethics in the Life Sciences, Rappert, B. (ed.) ANU E Press, 197–213.

Jones, S. M. and A. Edwards (2013). Placing ethics within the formal science curriculum: a case study. In: Frielick, S. et al. (Eds.) Research and Development in Higher Education: the place of learning and teaching, 36 (pp 243-252). Auckland, New Zealand, 1-4 July 2013.

Jones, S. M., Yates, B. F. and Kelder, J.-A. (2011). Learning and Teaching Academic Standards Project: Science Learning and Teaching Academic Standards Statement. Sydney: Australian Learning and Teaching Council.

Kabasenche W. P. (2014). The Ethics of Teaching Science and Ethics: A Collaborative Proposal. Journal of Microbiology & Biology Education, 15(2), 135–138.

Kelder, J.-A., Carr, A. R. and Walls, J. (2017). Evidence-based Transformation of Curriculum: a Research and Evaluation Framework. Paper presented at the 40th Annual Conference of the Higher Education Research and Development Society of Australasia (HERDSA), Sydney.

Keiler, K. C., Jackson, K. L., Jaworski, L., Lopatto, D. and Ades, S. E. (2017). Teaching broader impacts of science with undergraduate research. PLoS biology, 15(3), e2001318.

Loughlin, W. (2013). Good Practice Guide (Science) Threshold Learning Outcome 5: Personal and professional responsibility.

McGowan, A. H. (2013). Teaching Science and Ethics to Undergraduates: A Multidisciplinary Approach. Science and Engineering Ethics, 19, 535–543.

National Statement on Ethical Conduct in Human Research.

TEQSA (12 December 2018). “Guidance Note – Scholarship” Version 2.5.

van Leeuwen, B., Lamberts, R., Newitt, P. and Errington, S. (2012, October). Ethics, issues and consequences: conceptual challenges in science education. In Proceedings of The Australian Conference on Science and Mathematics Education.

This post may be cited as:

Kelder, J., Jones, S., Johnson, E & Botwright-Acuna, T. (18 June 2020) The ethical petri-dish: recommendations for the design of university science curricula Research Ethics Monthly. Retrieved from:

Why autism research needs more input from autistic people0


Elle Loughran
Student, Trinity College Dublin
Elle Loughran is a Laidlaw scholar studying genetics at Trinity College Dublin in Ireland

This post first appeared in Spectrum, the leading site for autism research news.

I am a student and researcher studying evolutionary genetics, and I am autistic. I often come across papers on autism research, but unfortunately, reading them is rarely a positive experience.

Too much autism research fails to acknowledge autistics as people who can read and make valuable contributions to the field. Instead, it casts them as little more than passive study participants or recipients of treatment. This shortsightedness damages research and scientists’ ability to help autistic people.

Reading autism research as an autistic person can feel like being treated as an alien. For example, consider a 2019 paper that stated: “This finding reinforces other work which shows that autistic people can have, maintain, and value close romantic relationships and friendships.” Imagine how bizarre it would be to read that about yourself.

I do not mean to pick on that paper in particular, but on a research culture in which anyone would think that sort of statement needs to be made.

This sort of culture results in seeing top researchers throw around blatantly wrong and offensive ideas about my community. For an old but powerful example, British researcher Simon Baron-Cohen endorsed a quote that suggested autistic individuals experience people at dinner parties as “noisy skin bags” that are “draped over chairs.” In my view, the appropriate response to that is, “No, that is absolutely not how we experience anything. What the hell?” Of course, that would not be an appropriate academic reply.

I understand that even seemingly obvious things need to be examined and tested in science, but if someone were to suggest that the moon is made of cheese, I doubt researchers would insist on disproving it with a study. Yet somehow autistic people must be so strange and unknowable to researchers that they cannot dismiss equally implausible characterizations of us.

In fact, many autistic people are available to answer questions about how we see things. Many of us speak up and share our stories proactively. It can seem to us as if scientists are not listening.

Then there are papers that suggest society would rather fewer people like me existed — and not because they care about my suffering. Or those that survey the prospects of preventing autism, pointing out that these are “high priorities for researchers, parents, advocates, clinicians, and educators.” Why is there is no mention of autistic people on that list?

Integration barriers:

The opportunities for someone like me to correct the culture in autism research are limited.

Often when I see these things in the course of my work, I just sigh and ignore them. If I’m discussing a paper with my scientific peers, I do not want to bring up issues with the paper’s treatment of autism and be seen as an ideologue, research subject or object of pity rather than as a respected colleague.

Other people’s responses can also thwart meaningful exchange. Last summer, I ‘came out’ as autistic while in conversation with an autism researcher and several of her colleagues. The people in the group responded with something along the lines of,  “Oh, well, you’re not like other autistic people, so those points do not apply to them.”

If a person’s ability to converse with you makes you assume she is not like ‘real autistics,’ then your idea of autism is automatically going to be ‘people who can’t talk to me.’  You will have a flawed understanding of autism and may not be able to see autistic people as potential colleagues. This risks researchers perceiving autistic people purely as research subjects who do not talk back, have opinions or contribute to the process.

Autistic people are treasure troves of information on their own lives. By including more autistic voices in research, we as scientists could improve our ability to gather knowledge about the condition.

Given the flaws in prevailing theories of autistic psychology, I believe we should encourage more qualitative, open-ended research that seeks input from autistic people and establishes a firmer basis for future studies. We could also seek their help in prioritizing treatment targets. Likewise, if biomedical researchers are going to get funding for studying autism, they must make more of an effort to engage with the autistic community and their wishes.

Things are getting better, and many researchers are doing good work. But listening to autistic people could help them make faster progress. Autistic people are not aliens with whom scientists cannot communicate. We are right here. We are reading what you have to say, and that communication can go both ways.

This post may be cited as:

Loughran, E.  (27 April 2020) Why autism research needs more input from autistic people. Research Ethics Monthly. Retrieved from: