When our words are used in the name of hate: Lessons learned

Over the past few weeks, I have been reflecting on the year behind us and I feel incredibly proud of the important progress we have made at Hindawi. At the same time I have been considering the most difficult situation we faced during this past year, and I wanted to discuss the impact it has had on our policies and processes as well as the impact on me personally.

In August, an article we published was used to justify hateful messages about same-sex couples being unfit parents. I discussed the details in a blog post I wrote at the time, so rather than repeating them here readers may look over this earlier post.

In the months following our initial response, we organized several internal working groups to discuss potential changes to our editorial policies and procedures, as well as other issues that we felt needed to be re-examined. We had a number of company-wide meetings to bring together these working groups and make sure that we were in agreement about how to address the more complex issues we faced, which I will summarize below.

1 – Expanding our internal screening

The editorial independence of our Academic Editors is an important principle within our editorial process, as it is for nearly all scholarly journals. Nevertheless, we believe that in certain cases it may be necessary for Hindawi to take further precautions (over and above the standard peer review process) to ensure that the articles we publish adhere to the highest standards of integrity and transparency.

In addition to the peer review process, which relies on independent subject matter experts, Hindawi also conducts a thorough editorial screening process to check that manuscripts adhere to our policies and guidelines. This screening process takes place in two separate stages: initial screening done upon submission, before peer review, and a final screen following peer review. We have had this internal screening in place for several years to check for issues like plagiarism, citation manipulation, fraudulent authorship, and undisclosed conflicts of interest.

As a result of discussions within one of our working groups, we decided to add additional checks to our screening to identify submissions that discuss topics that are highly controversial, politically or religiously sensitive, or are likely to be misunderstood or misused within public policy debates. In cases where such manuscripts have been identified, our Research Integrity team will determine whether any additional steps should be taken as part of the review process prior to publication. Accordingly, we have updated the guidelines for our authors and Editors to explain that our Research Integrity team will sometimes seek additional advice on submissions with serious ethical, security, or public policy implications. In these cases we may recruit additional reviewers with specific expertise, seek the input of additional Academic Editors, and in cases where we have serious concerns that cannot be addressed we may decline to consider a submission for publication.

2 – Handling potential conflicts of interest

We believe that having a clear understanding of the context in which research is conducted is critical for its objective assessment. This applies for Editors and reviewers during peer review, as well as for readers after an article has been published. While we have always intended to clearly identify potential conflicts, we realized we could do more. So, we have recently updated our online submission and peer review system to explicitly remind authors, Editors, and reviewers of their obligations to disclose any potential conflicts of interest throughout each stage of peer review.

In addition to clarifying our conflict of interest policy, we now ask authors of Research Articles and Clinical Studies to make an explicit Funding Statement. This move furthers our efforts to make the information surrounding a particular piece of research more transparent. Moreover, it provides a structured section within an article for authors to acknowledge funding agencies and cite grant numbers, which are traditionally included in a more general Acknowledgements section. Ultimately this enables better visibility of research outputs for funders and easier reporting for grantees.

3 – Improving how we train our Editors and reviewers

Given how much we rely on the expert judgement of independent Editors and peer reviewers as part of the peer review process, we decided that there was more we should be doing to train our Academic Editors and reviewers about our editorial policies and ethical guidelines. In order to do this in a consistent way across a large number of Editors and reviewers, we are developing training materials focused around key issues related to ethics, reporting standards, and peer review. As these materials develop, we will be incorporating them into our online peer review system where appropriate, and we will be developing a more structured training process for Editors from the time they first join one of our Editorial Boards and continue throughout their editorial term.

4 – Highlighting controversial issues within published articles

We recognize that in certain areas of research there are topics where significant disagreements exist between experts. In these cases, the conclusions of some peer-reviewed articles may not reflect the broad consensus of experts in the field. At the same time, we felt that it would be detrimental to the progress of science if we were to simply refuse to publish research on these topics within our journals. Rather, we believe that our aim should be to clearly identify these cases where possible and encourage researchers with conflicting views to respond in a constructive manner so that readers can better understand the arguments and evidence in support of each conflicting view.

Shortly after the publication of the article I highlighted above, we did solicit this sort of critical response, which we published a few months after the original article. However, the critique was not clearly visible to all readers as it was published as a Letter to the Editor, without a clear link from the article to which it referred. Going forward, we decided that we should clearly indicate cases where a published article is referenced in a subsequent Letter to the Editor, as we do in cases where an article is retracted or corrected. We will continue exploring ways to make readers aware of controversial claims within published articles and provide a forum for constructive debate around these topics.

Lessons I have learned

This experience has taught me that we should not wait until we encounter a crisis to re-examine our policies, workflows, and systems. Rather, we must build in a process for this sort of critical analysis as part of our routine. While this is difficult to do in practice given how time consuming it can be, I believe that if we fail to do so we are destined to see our editorial quality slowly decay. As we move forward we will explore processes to help us re-evaluate all our policies and workflows in a more systematic way, in much the same way as we have processes in place for strategic planning, budgeting, and performance evaluation.

A greater personal lesson came from watching my colleagues response throughout the initial event and subsequent discussions. Although the majority of our team in London had joined Hindawi during the year leading up to this, I saw a clear understanding of our ethical responsibility as a publisher of scholarly research, as well as the courage to put that responsibility ahead of personal interests.

As much as I hate to admit it, when I first learned that an article we published was being used to support hateful views on such an important issue, my immediate reaction was to try to understand if we had followed all the correct procedures, to figure out what people were saying about us, and to come up with a plan of action to minimize any reputational damage that may come as a result. In contrast, a number of my colleagues immediately recognized that we had an ethical responsibility to respond as quickly and as clearly as possible to the hateful and bigoted messages that had been posted on the streets of Melbourne, regardless of the impact it would have on us. The issue at stake had serious public policy implications that outweighed the significance of any reputational damage that may come as a result of speaking up.

This unequivocal response, which included one colleague telling me that he wouldn’t be comfortable working with us any longer if we failed to speak up and several other team members putting their summer holidays on hold to help us understand and respond to what had happened, reminded me that we must always put the mission that we exist to serve ahead of our own interests as individuals or as an organization.

I am proud of having built a team and a culture in which people stand up for their beliefs. Over the past several months, the passion and dedication of our team has continued to amaze me and this has had a deep impact on how I view my own role, as well as that of Hindawi, in serving a cause greater than ourselves. I would like to take this opportunity to thank my team for their dedication and passion over these past few months.

Paul Peters
Chief Executive Officer