The editors in chief of journal A and journal B, both owned by society C, received a letter from the last ‘senior’ author, also the corresponding author on one of the papers (author D), concerning separate papers published in both journals (paper E published in journal A and paper F published in journal B), informing them that one of the co-authors on both papers is under investigation for scientific fraud. The results of the investigation are expected to take a further 6 months to complete. The case has, however, attracted some press attention and there is a danger that the journals will be brought into disrepute by association. Author D listed the figures in both papers E and F which the other co-authors had determined, on subsequent examination, to be fraudulently manipulated and/or duplicated and asked for advice on further action. Figures had been duplicated from a third publication, journal G. Author D is a member of the editorial board of journal A. The letter sent by author D was co-signed by all authors except the author accused of fraud. The accused author was the corresponding author on one of the papers.
The editors in chief of both journals also received a letter to the editor from an independent observer of the case, criticising the editorial process that led to the papers being accepted and published.
The society and editors in chief naturally wished to respond rapidly to author D and to avoid any damage to the reputations of the journals through association. Following standard society policy and procedure, and consulting the COPE guidelines, the editors in chief referred the case to the society’s independent publication ethics committee.
The editors in chief also instigated a review of the editorial processes for the two papers to be conducted by (1) a former editor of both journals who was familiar with the subject area covered by the papers and (2) the chair of the society’s publications committee.
The publications ethics committee investigated and confirmed the figure duplication and manipulation described by author D and recommended:
(1) that author D should be asked to retract the papers
(2) that all authors should be banned from submitting to either journal for 1 year, as is standard practice, on the grounds that all authors take joint responsibility for the content of submitted papers
(3) the third journal, journal G, should be informed of the actions being taken
(4) that author D be asked to resign as an editor of journal A to avoid bringing the journal into disrepute by association.
The outcome of the internal review of the editorial process leading to the publication of the papers is incomplete at the time of submission. Findings will be fed back to the editorial boards at meetings in July for discussion and action.
The society and editors in chief seek a second opinion on the recommendations of the publications ethics committee and advice on improving the editorial process to avoid similar cases in future. We would also like advice on:
(a) what opportunity to reply must be afforded to the author, who is effectively accused prior to a public notice by the journals;
(b) in light of the COPE guidelines and the COPE definition of 'author', should the nature of response depend on whether the corresponding or another author notifies the publisher/journal of a potential problem.
COPE never recommends banning authors because of the legal implications involved. The Forum agreed that author D acted honourably by acting quickly and co-ordinating the retraction but agreed that the journal’s response should not depend on whether the corresponding or another author notifies the journal of a potential problem. The Forum was told that the editor has contacted the accused author and given him the opportunity to respond. He has not responded to date. The Forum agreed that the editor can go ahead with the retractions, even if the accused author does not respond. The Forum suggested contacting all of the authors and giving them the opportunity to respond.
However, some suggested that if the editor is in doubt about any aspects of the case, he should wait for the results of the investigation before proceeding.
In view of the general interest in the case and further accusations of lax editing, and in order to preserve the reputation of the journals, the editors-in-chief decided to retract the papers, with the agreement of all authors, except for the author accused of misconduct, without waiting for the outcome of the external investigation. The society is continuing to review editorial procedures to heighten awareness of figure manipulation and duplication among reviewers and editors. The practice of banning authors will be reviewed.