Accusation of theft of a model
Case text (Anonymised)
During refereeing of an article, one of the referees made an accusation of theft regarding a model described in the article. The referee and the authors had been collaborating on a review article previously, but had fallen out. The journal requested evidence from the parties. This involved several rounds of requests to the accuser, as the journal felt that the accuser was not providing anything amounting to actual evidence of the alleged theft. Owing to the technical nature of some of the evidence, the journal informed the parties that the material would be sent to an anonymous expert for adjudication. The adjudicator concluded that no evidence had been provided that supported the accusation. The journal will therefore be continuing its usual editorial consideration of the article. The investigation has delayed the progress of the article for several months.
Should the journal inform the accuser’s institution of these events?
Are there any other steps the journal should take?
There was obviously an existing dispute between the reviewer and the author and it was suggested that they should settle their argument between them. However, it was felt that this would not happen as they were no longer on speaking terms.
As the reviewer’s actions had caused some delay in the processing of the authors’ manuscript, it was suggested that the editor might like to determine if the reviewer had an undeclared conflict of interest. The injured party in this case was the author of the paper, and one possible course of action would be to suggest to the author that he write to the reviewer’s institution and complain about the reviewer’s behaviour.
It was felt that the editor should not write to the reviewer’s institution, as he had no evidence that the paper was deliberately delayed by the reviewer. However, he might wish to write a moderately worded letter to the reviewer, pointing out concerns about his behaviour and including details about what is expected of reviewers of papers for the journal. While it would be up to the editor to decide whether or not to use the reviewer in future, any suggestion of producing a “blacklist” of unsuitable reviewers was to be rejected.
In short, the editor in chief wrote to the complainant indicating that the journal had asked an independent expert to review the evidence presented, and that the result of the inquiry was that no evidence to support the complaint could be found. The complainant was informed that the journal intended to go ahead with the publication of the article. The author was also informed of this decision.
The article has been published, and no further communication from the complainant has been received.
We are aware, however, that the complainant has subsequently raised similar objections with another journal after the publication of a separate article in this area by the same author. We have informed the editor in chief of that journal of the circumstances of the complaint lodged with us, our investigation, and actions.