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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:

Embedding clinical research as part of routine healthcare: Managing the potential for competing interests.0


Nik Zeps
AHRECS Consultant


Clinical trials are widely accepted as the best method for understanding whether any particular medical intervention is safe, efficacious, acceptable to patients and cost-effective. Almost every Health Service in Australia runs clinical trials of one sort or another. Enrolment of patients (in this instance they are all patients and not healthy volunteers) into clinical trials through health services operates as a separate activity to routine health care delivery and is managed through its own governance processes rather than as a part of clinical governance. This is widely recognised to be necessary but is unfortunately inefficient, duplicative in many instances, has a lack of objectivity and as a result of poor resourcing and training, is often slow and regarded as problematic by the research community. Sadly, there is a fairly widespread view amongst researchers that Research Governance is a bureaucratic hurdle rather than a means to ensure their research will be safe, quality work, be well managed and have significant impact.

One of the problems with the current system is that it treats all clinical trials as a single category rather than recognising the profound differences between trials that are seeking to establish new evidence for experimental therapeutics and those that are comparing existing therapeutic interventions (so-called Comparative Effectiveness Trials-CETs). It is clear that the risks of being enrolled in a CET are likely to be less than if being enrolled in a trial involving an unapproved therapeutic. Indeed many patients expect clinicians to deliver evidence based care, rather than practice variation, which can only elicited from high quality CETs  However, it is also true that if a person is randomised into the standard-of-care control arm of a trial of an unapproved therapeutic is at no greater risk than if they were not in the trial. Indeed, there is a broad range of evidence that participation in trials has an overall benefit in terms of safety and outcomes even for the control arms so one could argue that being in trial is by and large better than not being in a trial. It is also widely believed that the act of randomisation, the key feature underlying the power of clinical trials, is in itself risky and lifts any trial into a category that requires careful management. The National Statement does not make any such comment about risk related to randomisation and this view is one of subjective convention rather than one based on any proper assessment of risk.

Another feature of managing clinical trials is ensuring that potential participants are given appropriate information free of any coercion or inducements so that they can make a completely autonomous and sufficiently informed decision to participate or not. To ensure this a great deal of time and attention is paid to reviewing increasingly lengthy and complicated Participant Information Sheets and Consent forms (PICFs). In contrast almost no meaningful time is spent on evaluating the skills of the team in providing the information and being able to answer questions in a manner that ensures there is no coercive or inducive behaviour. Moreover, to my knowledge, no HREC has ever sent observers to audit how a participant is recruited, whether consumer input was sought in the development of the enrolment strategy or to evaluate notes taken as part of the consent process. This would appear to be the more important component of understanding whether the ethical issues arising from enrolling participants in a trial are being met.

Another area of research governance in need of an overhaul is a proper evaluation of the competing interests involved in running clinical trials in the first place. The term ‘conflict of interest’ is problematic in itself because it inherently assumes a negative position rather than recognising that instead there are legitimate instances of competing interests that have to be balanced and that it is not a black and white scenario. The NHMRC National Ethics Conference held in 2005 had this topic as it’s central theme and attendees discussed the need to take a more nuanced approach that included a broader consideration of competing rather than conflicting interests. These competing interests apply to participants themselves, the health professionals running the trials, the institutions responsible for operating the site where the trials are being done and finally the funders of the trials who may also be the ‘sponsor’ in the definition adopted by the TGA, that is, those with a direct vested interest in proving an unapproved therapeutic is better than existing practice so they can market their product for profit. Frameworks for managing these competing interests are often little more than answering ‘conflict of interest’ questions in the ethics application forms or on institutional declaration forms and stating that any institutional policy is being followed. This is clearly inadequate for a variety of reasons. Firstly, in my view after having worked in public and private institutions for 20 years, is that there is a check box mentality to managing potential competing interests with no resources deployed to either teaching staff about it or exploring the more subtle elements as opposed to simply addressing the blatantly obvious ones such as a direct financial conflicts. Secondly,

Given the earlier statements about the potential benefits of being enrolled in trials, and also the fact that for a subset of people the trial may be the only way to access a potentially life-saving treatment, participants themselves may have a profound self interest in participation. At the end of the day who are we doing research for if not the end-users, therefore system generated research barriers inadvertently have a direct impact on patients and members of the public.

It is also possible that participation in the trial leads to funding of components of care that would otherwise be a cost to the person. Some hold the view that people on trials should not experience any out-of-pocket expenses, even where those expenses would occur if they were not on the study. Arguments presented by investigators and sponsors that people should still have to pay any out-of-pocket expenses for standard-of-care components of a trial have been met with opposition by HRECs and institutions in some instances.

Health services are encouraged to run clinical trials for a variety of reasons that include being seen to be a centre of innovation and learning as well as providing access to cutting edge treatments. The reputational benefits are a discrete interest of the organisation that may, if connected to revenue from increased referrals, also be regarded as a potential marketing tool.  In addition, some have argued that government funders or health funds should not have to pay for treatments provided during any part of a clinical trial and therefore enrolment in trials is a means to offset some of the expenses associated with providing care to people in the health service. Some also argue that to promote clinical trial activity health services should have enrolment of patients in trials as a Key Performance Indicator (KPI) despite the obvious issues arising from simply working in ways that focus on meeting this that may not align with the best interests of participants. Indeed, whilst setting KPIs may seem like a good idea they create perverse incentives that are difficult to manage in the existing framework.

A topic that is rarely adequately discussed is the conflicts of interest of the institution that is both the site of the research, enjoying some of financial and reputation benefit from doing so, having a degree of duty of care for the participant, plus conducting the ethical and governance review. Commercially sponsored studies bring in revenue which is used to offset the costs of managing a clinical trial infrastructure. Ironically, making HRECs and Research Governance Offices dependent on revenue from commercial sponsors through fees is a major potential risk for conflicts of interest to arise, particularly where pressure is put to streamline approvals which could compromise more thorough evaluation of risks. Clearly a need to balance efficiency with due process is needed, but the dependence on fees that are not linked in any way to actual work done in terms of proportionate fee structures creates a clear conflict of interest within organisations. There is also a significant issue with using clinical trial revenue from commercially sponsored studies to subsidise the costs of Investigator led studies which do not otherwise enjoy such financial support. Whilst highly attractive to cash-strapped organisation unwilling to invest in such trials, the dependence on such revenue is far from ideal, and in some instances means that these trials cannot be opened as they may compete for recruitment of the same patient population and revenue generating trials will take precedence. I have observed this on several occasions at my own and other institutions, so it is far from a hypothetical risk.

Finally, investigators themselves may have competing interests with respect to enrolling people into trials and there have been arguments against permitting doctors who are both a chief investigator and the primary care provider for a patient from being involved in enrolling a person into a study. This is a fundamentally flawed argument and not one supported in the National Statement. Health Professionals have a primary responsibility to ensure the safety of those in their care and this is enshrined in a legal framework that could result in them losing their status as a health provider for any serious transgressions. Health Professionals should be in true equipoise regarding whether a person participates in a study or not and only suggest it if it would not be against their interests. Those paid to do research (study coordinators and Research Nurses) have competing interests to enrol people with no such equipoise and penalty for failing to exercise good judgement about whether a person should or should not participate. For this reason for medical interventions only doctors should decide whether a person should be invited to participate and should provide independent advice regarding the risks and benefits. Recognising where competing interests to enrol a person exist are managed well on the whole although I have also experienced instances in which obliviousness to the actual conflict of interest of being an investigator and having a financial interest in a product were not identified by doctors as being a direct conflict despite filling in forms that asked them to identify these. Therefore, it is not enough to simply write policies and ask people to fill in forms and appropriate training and the development of a culture that supports people to think about what they are doing is needed.

With our thanks to Nicola Straiton for her helpful comments on an earlier draft.

It is perhaps worthwhile for institutions implementing the Australian Clinical Trial Governance Framework overseen by the Australian Commission for Safety and Quality in Health Care (ACSQHC) to incorporate key parts of managing competing interests used in clinical governance for research activities as these likely overlap. A reasonable question can be asked: Do potential participants appreciate the conflicts of the parties they might assume are supposed to safeguard their welfare and interests? What is therefore needed is more than simply listing financial interests or relationships in ethics and governance applications. Instead a systematic and sophisticated approach is required that weighs up the risks and benefits of running research at a strategic level that is deployed as a core part of the culture of an organisation rather than as check box approach in research applications.

This post may be cited as:

Zeps, N. (29 June 2020) Embedding clinical research as part of routine healthcare: Managing the potential for competing interests. Research Ethics Monthly. Retrieved from:

Worried your researchers might not be treating human research ethics as a core component of good research practice? Concerned they are not seeing it as their responsibility?0


All of us might be part of the problem.

Dr Gary Allen
AHRECS Senior Consultant

Consider a hypothetical problem:

You find a partially submerged car bobbing in the local harbour. 

A big problem

So, you rush out to hire a crane and pay an operator to lift it out of there.


It’s working perfectly.  Soon the pesky vehicle will be out of everyone’s way and normal life can resume.



Except you hadn’t allowed for the weight of the car and water, and you hadn’t factored in the leverage effect of the degree to which the car was below the crane.


So now you have both a crane and car blocking the harbour.

And by the way you might now also have a crane operator who is badly injured.


This latest development really isn’t a problem because you rush out to get an even bigger crane to lift out the first crane with the attached pesky car.

All is going well.

Until it isn’t.


Most of these images record a costly sequence of blunders in Galway, Ireland (which apparently was initiated by a parking accident).

At the risk of undermining my metaphor, the last image is a photoshop fake.

For human research ethics, the big problem is that researchers might not be seeing human research ethics as a vital component of doing research well, and researchers might not perceive ethics as their responsibility.  A related problem is ensuring the ethical design and conduct of research might not be perceived as also institutional responsibility.

The usual response has been to

  1. grab research ethics review as a governance weapon to be wielded with ardent fervour.
  2. slam submitted applications we perceive as being incomplete or ill-advised,
  3. respond with scores of directive conditions. And
  4. use enforcement and sanctions procedures to punish the researchers who dare to resist.

But in attempting to solve this problem, have we created a worse one?

Reflections on the limitations of our current approach

  • The international approach was created as a response to some egregious biomedical and psychology scandals. Safeguarding against such incidents has driven our implementation and the continue evolution of the arrangements.
  • The approach is wedded to a compliance and enforcement way of seeing any problem.
  • The approach tends to treat the 99+% harshly because of the misbehaviour of <1%.
  • It also assumes it is possible and helpful to try to direct the complex behaviour of professionals across a vast array of (sub)disciplines, methods, topics, populations and contexts.

Reflecting back on the time, effort and the resources we have expended over the last 60 years, we find ourselves confronted with an uncomfortable question: Does this approach catch the dangerous minority? I would suggest it does not.

Symptoms of the problem

  • Institutions that almost exclusively focus their human research ethics efforts on ethics review.
  • The institution’s executive is anxious about institutional risk exposure.
  • There is a crippling workload for reviewers and administrators.
  • It is not uncommon to hear researchers ask each other, “Have you done ethics yet?”
  • Too many researchers outsource their ethical responsibility to the research ethics committee.
  • There is evidence of unthinking or grudging compliance, avoidance and misrepresentation.
  • Ethics training at the institution has been reduced to better form filling.

The National Statement (2007 updated 2018)

  • The National Statement is not the problem, though it has its limitations.
  • Are we trapped by past practice? “This is the way it has always been done.”
  • Both the National Statement and the Australian Code stress institutional responsibility for research culture and research training.
  • We recognise the challenges and flexibility that are open to us by the framing of the national arrangements (by way of example, the Australian National Statement on Ethical Conduct in Human Research (2007 updated 2018) allows for great diversity in the selection of a consent strategy, even though there are committees that treat an information sheet and consent form as the preferred consent strategy).
  • Having excellent policies, processes and forms aren’t enough for us to claim we are promoting a culture of ethical and appropriate conduct.
  • Could we actually be encouraging researchers not to be reflective? Could we actually be making things worse?


 But there is a better way: resourcing reflective practice

  • Stressing personal, rather than outsourced, ethical responsibility.
  • Encouraging ethical thinking before commencing an ethics application.
  • Seeing an approval certificate as a step, not the end of thinking about human research ethics.
  • Continued reflection on: merit and integrity matters (such as non-financial conflicts of interest); beneficence (such as public goods and community harms); respect for persons (such as a communal approach to consent); and justice (such as ensuring an otherwise disenfranchised voice is not lost).
  • Developing skills to monitor ethical conduct throughout the lifecycle of a project.
  • Responsibilities continue through analysis, write up, reporting/publication, and management of data/material after a project is completed.
  • Regarding research ethics as a design, conduct, quality and professional responsibility – not ‘just’ a matter of compliance and bureaucratic concern.
  • Recognising a reciprocal obligation for those of us who participate in and/or administer research ethics reviews, to approach the review as facilitating research, not policing it.

Strategies to resource reflective practice

  • Shift institutional ethos – from relying solely on HREC review as a demonstration that the institution is serious about ethical conduct – to an ethical research culture.
  • Ethics review to advise and inform, rather than to clear/approve/police.
  • Ethics administrators empowered to work with both researchers and reviewers.
  • The institution having resource materials rather than rules.
  • Use of mentors and collegiate advisors, such as a network of Research Ethics Advisors.
  • An ongoing commitment to upskilling ethics reviewers.
  • Training, training, training – professional development focused upon principles, strategies to apply the principles to challenges, not just form filling.
  • Top down (institutional and discipline leaders) and bottom up (HDR and supervisor training, new staff and experienced staff).
  • Inviting two-way communication – welcoming innovation, praising thoughtful and elegant strategies, inviting feedback, and supporting creative problem solving.
  • Continuous improvement and striving towards a learning institutional approach, where complaints and negative feedback are opportunities to improve.

No cranes were harmed in the drafting of this post

See also

Israel, M, Allen, G & Thomson, C (2016) Australian Research Ethics Governance: Plotting the Demise of the Adversarial Culture. In van den Hoonaard, W & Hamilton, A (eds) The Ethics Rupture: Exploring Alternatives to Formal Research-Ethics Review. Toronto: University of Toronto Press. pp 285-316.

Israel, M, Allen, G & Thomson, C (2016) Whiteboard: resourcing reflective practice.

This post may be cited as:

Allen, G. (19 June 2020) Worried your researchers might not be treating human research ethics as a core component of good research practice? Concerned they are not seeing it as their responsibility? Research Ethics Monthly. Retrieved from: