Interview with Nature on their editorial process in wake of STAP

NatureI asked Nature a half dozen questions about their editorial process. While they declined to answer any direct questions about the STAP cell paper situation, I thank them for answering these questions via a Nature spokesperson. The end result is an intriguing glimpse inside the editorial/review process at Nature.

1. Does Nature have any kind of automated (or human-based) system for checking submitted or accepted manuscripts for plagiarism? If so, when was this system instituted? If not, why not?

Nature uses plagiarism software (the CrossCheck service which uses the iThenticate software and the CrossRef database) to check all our published papers; however, the software did not detect plagiarism in this particular case. The manufacturers of the software are currently looking into this.

2. Does Nature have any kind of automated (or human-based) system for checking submitted or accepted manuscripts for image manipulation or duplication? If so, when was this system instituted? If not, why not?

Nature Publishing Group utilises tools to do randomised spot check analysis of images but we currently do not have the resources to undertake detailed image analysis on all our papers. For duplications, we do not have resources to check large numbers of figure panels against each other.   However, we are actively reviewing our policy on image checking and have decided to increase the number of checks that we undertake on Nature journal papers.  The exact number or proportion of papers that will be checked in the future is still being decided.

3. Does Nature vet potential reviewers for conflicts of interest (COI) before assigning them to manuscripts or does it rely on the reviewers to self-disclose COIs after they have been invited to be reviewers of specific manuscripts? On this page it suggests that Nature does not itself look for COIs (, but rather relies on reviewers to self-disclose. What if a reviewer fails to disclose a significant COI?

Editors are well connected within the research communities that they serve and use their judgement not to request reviews from people in the same department or those who co-publish regularly.  However we cannot, of course, know if reviewers are on the same grant or who they may be consulting for, so have to rely on a system where a reviewer will make any potential COI known to us.

4. It’s been brought to my attention that while some Nature Publishing Group journals are signatories to the Committee on Publication Ethics (COPE), Nature Magazine is not. Why would Nature not be part of this group that works to make the publication process as ethical as possible? (see link here:

Nature editors have engaged with COPE on occasion. However, they and the Chief Editors of the Nature journals have a long history of developing policies collectively for our journals – policies that are more attuned to basic research than is COPE, which has a strong clinical flavour.

5. Would a submitted patent application by an author for the technology described in a manuscript be required by Nature to be disclosed as a competing interest? If authors fail to do so, what is Nature’s policy on what happens as a result? This webpage would seem to clearly indicate that patent applications should be disclosed:

The Nature journals require authors to declare to the editors any competing financial interests in relation to the work described. As part of this policy, authors are encouraged to declare patents or patent applications whose value may be affected by publication. However, appreciating how much value can represent a competing interest is a subjective matter, and many authors have patent applications that do not amount to material value. In these cases, the editorial office may feel that the value is not substantive enough to justify declaration of competing interest.

6. Does Nature have a bioethics person on staff or on contract to consult with should ethical dilemmas arise during the review process?

A number of members of staff at Nature have responsibility for considering ethical dilemmas and providing advice during the review process.  We also solicit the advice of experts on subjects such as biowarfare, use of human oocytes, etc, when needed.


  1. Another conflict of interest is that the author of the now retracted News&Views article which discussed Obokata et al. was (and still is, I think, but I haven’t found a link to confirm this) the chair of the Riken CDB institute’s external advisory committee.

    I don’t think this should preclude his writing a News&Views article on a paper by CDB researchers, but I do think such conflicts of interest should be disclosed to Nature’s readers. Nature doesn’t presently include “conflicting financial interests” in News&Views articles, but I think they should.

    I asked their spokeswoman about this and she said they’d think about it. Not. Holding. My. Breath.

  2. As the current Chair of the Committee on Publication Ethics (COPE), I’d like to note that although COPE started 17 years ago with a very small group of medical journals editors is not now predominantly clinical – we now have more than 9000 member journals from across all of scholarly publishing worldwide. The cases we discuss at our regular meetings come from a variety of journals and we have found the best discussions happen when editors from a range of specialties get together to learn from each other. We would be more than happy to discuss with the Nature editors how they and COPE would benefit from Nature joining COPE.
    Ginny Barbour

    Dr Virginia Barbour
    Chair, COPE

  3. There was an awful lot of “no, but let me justify that to you” in the Nature responses, which, given the concerns with the STAP paper (and the long history of inability to properly review and analyze the validity of stem cell-related papers), ring really hollow.

    Also really grateful Dr. Barbour chimed in.

  4. On the COPE comments, it seems to me that since many of NATURE articles do or will inform clinicians or will be a vehicle for getting evidence into practice it would be excellent if they could have a working agreement with COPE as this is now a standard most authors and reviewers understand.

  5. The key answer is: ‘Editors are well connected within the research communities that they serve and use their judgement [to decide who reviews what].’

    Let me ask: Is this not exactly the arrangement one would want to secure a bias in what gets published, no matter what the goal of the bias was? It is only taken on faith that the bias is towards scientific progress (and not, for instance, towards shareholder return via spectacular headlines).

  6. “For duplications, we do not have resources to check large numbers of figure panels against each other.”

    I find this comment ironic given that the pressure put on authors by editors/reviews at high impact journals to include ever increasing amounts of data has now resulted in papers having so many data panels that it’s apparently too much effort to quality control all of these data.

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