A paper with five authors was submitted from a university hospital in a Middle-Eastern country. One of the reviewers complained that it extensively plagiarised one of his own publications. Examination showed that about 30% of the text and tables had been copied. The results were original, and in some cases had simply been slotted into the plagiarised text.
The paper was rejected by email and the corresponding author was told that under COPE procedures the editor was required to take further action, and the author was invited to comment on the allegations within four weeks.
Close to the deadline the corresponding author replied, blaming an MSc student co-author, and saying that they would like to correct the paper according to the comments.
Having consulted his editorial board, the editor wrote separate letters to each author outlining the case and telling them that the journal would not consider further submissions from them for three years. The hospital’s website showed that one of the authors was the head of department, and had a British PhD. Copies of the submission were sent to him and to the corresponding author, with the plagiarised passages marked.
With a view to tuning the journal’s responses, the editor would value COPE’s view as to whether the three year ban was appropriate, and whether it should have been applied uniformly to all of the authors.
The editor feels that in assessing penalties, some allowance should be made for authors in some countries being less familiar with procedures, and that a more severe penalty would have been called for if the paper had come from Europe or North America, for example. Does COPE agree?
The general view was that the three year ban was harsh and perhaps not appropriate. Most members agreed that banning an author is not good policy and could lead to legal problems. Also, in dealing with cases from outside Europe and North America, we should bear in mind that plagiarism may be unintentional as authors may be less familiar with publication procedures. Hence there is a case here for educating the author, by keeping the lines of communication open, thus also arguing against a ban. The only other course of action would be to write to the authors’ institution informing them of the situation and asking them to investigate.
We had already taken action on this case and case 06-09 but for future cases which might arise we were interested to know COPE’s view. The Editorial Board discussed the COPE views but decided that as the two matters were now largely history it was not worth taking further action. Since then, however, we have had a further case of partial dual submission, and the COPE discussion on 06-09 has helped me with what line to take.
However, I have to report that our Editorial Board were surprised that COPE felt that we had been mistaken to say that we would not consider further papers from the plagiarising authors for a specified period (case 06-10). The academics on the Board are involved in university policies on plagiarising students and thought that COPE was taking a fairly lenient view in just reporting the erring authors to their institutions without taking action ourselves, which we felt appropriate to defend the journal.