Ethics in Open Access Publishing

As Open Access continues to become a dominant mode of scholarly publishing, it’s important to reflect on what it is that makes the system work effectively and fairly. A major component are ethics and standards. Ethics help collectively determine the actions and values of members in the community. Here, we’ll go into the diverse roles and responsibilities of maintaining ethics in Open Access publishing.

What are ethics?

Basically, ethics are a system of accepted beliefs that control behaviour, often based on what is morally right or wrong.

The study and discussion of ethics have their roots in antiquity. The term comes from the Greek ‘ethos’, which means ‘way of living’. Similar studies emerged across the world, including in China and India. Ancient philosophers discussed ethics to safeguard society, by setting out the rules and expectations how people should conduct themselves.

Having a system of ethics is very important during periods of change. Traditional values help bind the community together and brace them for the shocks of the new, whilst the changes encourage adopting updated values and beliefs.

As mentioned, Open Access is spreading and growing around the world. As it becomes the primary mode of scientific communication, it also faces new challenges. Hence, focusing on ethics in Open Access publishing now is more important than ever, as we enter a period of rapid change and innovation.

How are things changing?

Challenges in the scientific publishing community

As Open Access quickly becomes the preferred publishing choice among researchers and scholarly communications reorientates, new challenges are emerging.

Artificial intelligence is the most immediate and pressing issue. Detecting AI-generated content is difficult, as AI tools are constantly updating and becoming increasingly sophisticated. This has enabled the rise of paper mills, which are organisations that produce and sell fabricated manuscripts.

Other issues include threats to integrity and trust in science, with the rise in misinformation, and financial issues that are rippling across academia. All these issues and more intersect in ways that put immense pressure on parties across the publishing industry, from writers and researchers to editors and reviewers.

Accordingly, the scale and danger of these challenges require we preserve the things that have kept scholarly publishing evolving since antiquity. And they present us with an opportunity to improve and adapt, so we can come out more refined and secure.

Ethical responsibilities in scientific publishing

Key to the idea of ethics in Open Access is the community. Each individual and party plays a role in maintaining the system through values that have formed since antiquity.

The Committee on Publication Ethics aims to practically outline the ways in which these ethics should be made manifest in scholarly behaviour and to deal with cases of scientific misconduct. Scientific misconduct is the violation of scholarly conduct in the publication of scientific research.

Many publishers, including MDPI, adhere to COPE’s guidelines in their editorial processes and include their own practices and policies on how to best implement ethical scholarly publishing.

So, let’s explore how the different parties in the publishing process can fulfil their ethical responsibilities.

Authors and researchers

Authors and researchers are the main producers in scholarly communications. They make the findings and present them to us, and as such they have a lot of responsibility in making sure that the research is sound and that it is conveyed accurately and clearly.

Their responsibilities are diverse:

  • Not fabricating or manipulating data.
  • Avoiding plagiarism and properly acknowledging other works.
  • Declaring conflicts of interest.
  • Getting approval for necessary areas, like testing on humans or animals.

The list goes on, but the essential elements revolve around respecting others’ work and communicating findings accurately and honestly.

Editors and reviewers

Roles vary greatly, with some editors focusing on grammar and others on the science itself. But overall, editors and reviewers must ensure that the authors are fulfilling their responsibilities and that no issues arise in the texts.

Also, they must ensure they are not liable to similar issues when considering other works. These include avoiding or addressing conflicts of interest, providing fair and constructive advice and edits, and respecting authorship and confidentiality.

Basically, editors and reviewers should aim to make scientific research the best it can be, in its writing and research quality.


Publishers importantly present and release research to the public. Often, they set the terms for authors and the editorial process, and as such have a major role in ensuring ethical standards are upheld.

Publishers must have clear ethical policies and standards, uphold a rigorous peer review process, and publish high-quality science.

The Think. Check. Submit campaign provides a checklist for determining whether a publisher is suitable. They first encourage you to ask whether you are submitting to a trusted journal. Then, they suggest you check by answering these questions in your research on the journal:

  • Do you or your colleagues know the journal?
  • Can you easily identify and contact the publisher?
  • Is the journal clear about the type of peer review it uses?
  • Are articles indexed and/or archived in dedicated services?
  • Is it clear what fees will be charged?
  • Are guidelines provided for authors on the publisher website?
  • Is the publisher a member of a recognised industry initiative (like COPE)?

What these questions essentially ask is whether the publisher have clear ethical policies and standards, uphold a rigorous peer review process, and publish high-quality science.

What makes ethics in Open Access publishing unique?

Open Access publishing is an evolution of scholarly publishing, as it builds upon the model of journals publishing scholarly articles and books by making them freely available to anyone anywhere.

Following the development of the Internet, values began to shift towards more equality in access. People felt high subscription fees and exclusivity in scholarly publishing were no longer fair or practical. Open Access emerged to remove access barriers and increase visibility.

Increased visibility is seen in the number of citations, academic influence, social media representation, faster publication times, and more.

Furthermore, the commonly used CC BY licenses determine the rights of both authors and users when accessing material by clearly defining the terms of access and reuse. This removes the chance of conflicts over reuse whilst also ensuring there are more freely available than is possible through traditional copyright.

When looking for Open Access journals, the Directory of Open Access Journals is a useful resource, as inclusion involves vetting journals to ensure the highest ethical standards are being followed.

Ensuring Open Access remains ethical

Ethics provide a way to determine the values and correct practice of scholarly communications. They are rooted in tradition, evolving as technology and values change through time. Currently, AI and other challenges are putting pressure on the industry to maintain its integrity and trust, especially as misinformation increases.

Whilst Open Access solidifies itself as the present and future of scholarly publishing, all parties across academia must behave ethically and collaboratively to ensure these standards and values are retained.

If you want to learn more about ethics in Open Access publishing, we’ll be publishing more articles later this month. For now, see MDPI’s Research and Publication Ethics statement for more.