Submissions from institutions where misconduct has previously been suspected
A scientific paper was submitted in January 2011. After initial assessment by the journal’s editor-in chief, it was allocated to one of the co-editors. By chance, the co-editor had reviewed the manuscript for another journal only a few weeks before. The manuscript had been rejected by the previous journal for a number of methodological flaws.
The resubmitted manuscript contained significant changes to both methodology and results apparently correcting the flaws noted in the previous reviewers’ comments. Realistically, these changes could have only been possible if the study had been repeated but as only a few weeks had elapsed since the previous rejection, the editor suspected fabrication of results.
The editor contacted the editor-in-chief to highlight a possible case of misconduct. The manuscript was rejected primarily because it was not of a sufficient standard to merit publication and also because of concerns regarding the possible falsification of results.
In his letter to the author, the editor-in-chief asked for an explanation of the differences between the two manuscripts. The reply claimed that additional patients had been recruited. Of note, the demographic details (including age, height and weight) in the revised paper were identical to the previous submission, making this explanation unlikely.
In view of the unsatisfactory response from the lead author, a letter was sent to the dean of the faculty of medicine at the author’s institution but no reply has so far been received. Information regarding the academic department in this university has been difficult to obtain as their website is unhelpful so it is not clear if this letter was received by those in authority. Consequently, after several months and following discussion with the journal’s publisher, it was decided not to pursue this enquiry further.
Recently, another manuscript from the same department has been submitted. The co-author of the previous paper is listed among the five authors of this new submission. It is not clear, however, if this author was complicit in the previous case of alleged misconduct. The lead author of the previous paper is not included.
This paper has been reviewed and is again of a poor standard that does not warrant publication. There is, however, no reason to suspect misconduct with this current study.
The editor-in-chief has so far not responded to the authors regarding publication but has asked for the contact details of the head of the academic department from the lead author. An email reply included a contact name. A letter to the academic lead asking for clarification of the previous submission has been sent. A reply is awaited.
At present it is impossible to establish whether the previous misconduct is the result of a single rogue researcher or an institutional problem with research governance. The failure to receive an adequate explanation may simply be a problem with contacting somebody in authority who can investigate the conduct of research within this department. It is however, difficult to believe that a co-author of a paper where misconduct almost certainly occurred was not aware of such behaviour.
To avoid a similar situation in the future, the Forum advised the editor to tighten the journal’s instructions to authors and request the contact details of all authors, not just the corresponding author, on submission of a paper. The Forum agreed that it is difficult to deal with the second paper until the issues with the first paper have been resolved, particularly as there is no evidence of misconduct in relation to the second paper. The advice was to contact the ethics committee or institutional review board in relation to the first paper, or if a response from the institution is not forthcoming, consider contacting any professional bodies the author might be a member of or the funding body. The editor might consider contacting any collaborating institutions listed on the second paper.
Despite a further letter to the university in question, the editor has not yet received a reply. The editor was given the email address of the head of the academic department from the author of the second submission. No response has been forthcoming. The editor is not aware of other bodies who could be contacted to shed light on the matter. The research project was funded internally.
The journal’s Guide for Authors has been updated and authors are made aware that extra information can be requested by the editors. Should the journal receive further submissions from this institution, they will receive thorough peer review and if there is any doubt as to the validity of the data, the journal will seek clarification from the authors.