In 2020, the corresponding author of an article published online three years previously notified the journal of an authorship conflict and explained that the institution was requesting retraction. Because authorship conflict does not typically warrant retraction, the publisher requested further details from the author and the author's institution about the conflict. The author provided two different versions of a heavily redacted report from the institution's responsible conduct of research investigation committee report. Because there was no response from the institution for several weeks, the journal published an expression of concern (EOC) and continued periodic chasing of the institution.
The institution eventually responded indicating it was not an authorship conflict but research misconduct on the part of the corresponding author. The journal, publisher, and institution's integrity officer subsequently met to discuss the findings. Following the meeting, the institution provided a third version of a heavily redacted committee report, which was conducted to review multiple allegations against the corresponding author. The institution's committee concluded multiple allegations had occurred, affecting multiple publications, including in this journal's article: (1) data fabrication affecting one of nine figures and (2) that incorrect institutional animal care and use committee (IACUC) protocol numbers were listed in the published article, and some animal research methods described in the article lacked either IACUC approval or the experiments were conducted before the protocols were approved by the IACUC, which is against journal policy. The journal considered this sufficient information to proceed with retraction of the article.
After informing the corresponding author of the retraction notice, the author responded that the conflict was an authorship dispute and that they have been the target of racial discrimination at the institution. The journal and publisher put the retraction notice on hold and asked the corresponding author for documentation they claimed would exonerate allegations of lack of IACUC approval. The author then provided an IACUC protocol and approval letter citing a different number than is published in the paper. The journal reviewed the author's documentation and confirmed that some procedures used in the article were not approved in the IACUC protocol provided by the author. However, the journal noted that the methods used were within the standards of accepted practices in the field and that the institution's recommended consequences (retraction) seemed more significant than those similar circumstances.
The corresponding author claims to have reported this dispute to the NIH Office of Research Integrity and to have resigned from the institution. The journal's retraction notice remains on hold.
Questions for the Forum
- The corresponding author has called the validity and motivation of the institutional body’s findings into question. While the journal cannot adjudicate the allegations of racism, how does the journal protect itself from being part of the discrimination (if the allegations are true) while also ensuring the validity of the published work?
- What should the journal do with regard to the EOC, which is supposed to be temporary?
- If the journal does not retract the article, should this dispute be made more transparent to readers?
The Forum noted this is a complex case and it is difficult to determine what is going on without the full participation of all of the parties involved. The Forum agreed that the journal cannot adjudicate the allegations of racism.
An independent body to review the issues and advise the author on next steps is needed, and it seems that this is happening at the NIH Office of Research Integrity. The Forum agreed this is the best course of action; the journal cannot make a judgement regarding the investigation carried out by the institution.
While the investigation by the NIH Office of Research Integrity is in progress, the expression of concern should stand. The Forum agreed it is reasonable to leave the expression of concern in place until a decision is made and the investigation has been completed. The expression of concern does not need to provide details; it should state there is an ongoing investigation. The advice was for the editor to wait and let the process at the NIH Office of Research Integrity unfold.