It has been drawn to our attention that a paper published in a high-impact journal in the field of biological sciences (Journal A) draws very heavily on research published in the lower-impact factor journal for which we work (Journal B), as well as on work published in other journals. One of the authors of the paper in Journal B has contacted the editor of Journal A to register his/her concerns, as have several other high profile scientists in the field, including some whose work has also been appropriated. These scientists have each asked Journal A to investigate the peer review process for the paper in question. The author of the paper in Journal B has also asked the editor of Journal A if s/he might write a piece, to be published in Journal A, to ‘set the record straight’. This request was denied. Journal A, instead, suggested the author post a comment about the paper online on Journal A’s website, which would be of lower visibility than the article of concern itself.
· Should Journal A accede to the request to publish a response by the author of the paper in Journal B? Such a response would place the article of concern in the context of previously published data and hypotheses, and engage readers in the debate about the provenance of the published theories. If this is not published as a mini-review, as requested by the author, then would it be appropriate for it to appear in another form in the published journal that is equal in profile to the paper in question?
· Should Journal A have offered to conduct an investigation into how the paper in question was peer reviewed to allay the concerns of the scientists who have contacted them to request this?
This case prompted much debate among the Forum with several different views being proposed. However, all agreed that the peer review process is notoriously bad at detecting fraud or most forms of misconduct and is not really the issue here. Moreover, it is not open to complainants to demand an editor review their journal’s peer review system. The focus should be more on defending the reputation of the authors. In the absence of an ombudsman for Journal A and the fact that it does not appear to have a printed letters section, most of the Forum agreed that the authors should accept Journal A’s offert to post a comment on their website. Once the issue is in the public domain, it can be discussed and debated.
However, others argued that it was not sufficient for the authors to post a comment on the website because it is not citable, does not have a doi and so would not be linked to the original article. The authors should complain to the editor and ask him or her again to publish their response; but it was pointed out that you cannot force an editor to publish.
COPE’s code of conduct states that editors have a duty to “encourage debate” and that “cogent criticisms of published work should be published unless Editors have convincing reasons why they cannot be”. Hence if the editor refuses to publish the complaint then the author could call into question their compliance with COPE’s Code of Conduct. However, in his or her defence, the editor would probably note that posting the authors’ comments on the website constitutes publication, given that there is no correspondence section in the paper journal. This then led to a debate on the definition of “published”. Is something published if it appears on the website or does it have to be citable?
There was a general feeling that the authors should do something, and if nothing else is available, they should be encouraged to post a comment on the website, which might at least spark some debate. Having done so, if the authors continue to believe the editor has treated them unfairly, then they could complain to a higher authority, perhaps to the publisher or society, if it is a society owned journal.
COPE also agreed to look again at its Code of Conduct with a view to clarifying what is meant by “published”.