We were contacted by a lawyer acting on behalf of the last author (author A) of two research articles published in our journals. Both articles are co-authored by one other author (author B), who was the corresponding author. Author A claims not to have been aware of the submission and also raises concerns that the timelines and dates of the before and after photos reported in the articles are incorrect. He also claims that informed consent was not received from the patient described in one of the articles for publication of their case.
On submission and publication of both articles, both authors were based at author A’s own private institution. Author B has since left the institution. All authors submitting to our journals receive an automated email when a manuscript is submitted, alerting them to the submission. As far as we can tell, author A received this email in response to both submissions. However, we have had no correspondence directly from author A regarding either article.
We have contacted author B for an explanation of the concerns raised by author A, which we have been told we will receive shortly. The concerns raised by author A are serious enough to warrant an institutional investigation. However, in the absence of an independent institution that we could ask to investigate, we are seeking advice from the forum on how to proceed once we receive author B's explanation.
Question(s) for the COPE Forum
(1) In the absence of an independent institution, how do the Forum suggest we proceed once we receive author B's explanation?
The Forum agreed there are clearly issues with the paper and sufficient doubts for the editor to raise concerns and to contact the institution. Normally the Forum would advise that this issue was beyond the remit of the editor, and that the editor should look for an independent arbitrator, which is usually the institution. But in this situation, it is a private institution.
The Forum asked the editor if the institution had any associated regulatory or professional body which oversees it who could be approached? There is guidance on the COPE website in the form of a flowchart on what to do if you have ethical concerns about a published paper and there is no institution. The advice is to go to a higher regulatory body or, if not, to a medical regulatory body. In the UK, the medical regulatory body would be the General Medical Council (GMC). The GMC note that publication ethics is within their remit, so it is possible to raise this issue with a similar body if the authors are medical professionals, especially if there is no higher authority.
Although it is not the job of the editor to carry out investigations or police the research, the editor does have a responsibility to the readers of the journal, and so he should consider publishing an expression of concern.
The editor may have been able to avoid this situation if the journal had dealt with the ethical issues on submission. While the editor told the Forum that journal policy is to send email confirmation to all of the authors on submission of a paper, they do not ask for confirmation of authorship. This may have helped in this situation. The recently published fourth criteria of the International Committee of Medical Journal Editors (ICMJE http://www.icmje.org/) states that if you are an author of a paper, you have a requirement to help investigate any issues with the paper. Hence author A cannot recuse himself from any association with this paper.