A reviewer of our journal noticed similarity between a published paper (P1) and a manuscript under review (P2). At the same time, a member of the editorial team noticed similarity between another accepted manuscript for publication (P3) and both paper P1 and manuscript P2. All three papers were submitted by the same authors based on the same trial, reporting three different endpoints measuring the same effect. The earlier paper P1 reported the results on the most accepted and validated efficacy measures. The latter manuscripts reiterated the findings of the published paper but did not cite the same.
The editor-in-chief decided to hold P2 and P3 and follow the COPE guidelines. The editorial team asked clarifications from the authors, who in reply stated their ignorance about publication practices and argued that the two other efficacy measures will substantiate the results of P1. The results of the papers were contradictory to current practices and hence the editorial team decided to be lenient with the authors. The editors suggested combining the two manuscripts under review (P2 and P3) into one short communication and asked the authors for appropriate modifications (eg, reporting ancillary data).
The authors modified the manuscript but quoted a guideline for analysis, which had not used before, was not present when the authors completed their study and was not related to the topic. This raised questions about the overall integrity and reliability of the authors. The editorial team decided to hold the manuscript and refer to the COPE Forum for consultation.
Questions for the COPE Forum
(1) What should be the stand of the editorial board, especially if authors want to withdraw the paper?
(2) Should the editors share the review information with editors of other related journals?
(3) Should we disclose the names of the authors to other journal editors in the sector?
(4) Should we have an alert list of such authors?
The Forum agreed that even if the authors wish to withdraw the paper, and they have every right to do so, this does not mean that the issue is gone away or is resolved. If the editor has concerns, he/she retains the right to follow-up with the author and/or the institution. The editor can still contact the author’s institution and ask them to investigate. COPE always advises that even if a paper is rejected or withdrawn, the editor has a duty to follow-up any issues relating to suspected misconduct. The editor may like to explain this to the authors.
It may be necessary to share the information with related journals, but the editor may need to assess the scale of the problem first by doing a search for other articles by the same authors and determining what other journals are involved.
Regarding an alert list, COPE always advises against blacklisting authors or sharing alert lists with other editors because of the risk of litigation and the danger of harming other innocent associated authors.
The editor asked the authors for clarification, but did not get a reply even after several reminders. The editor also contacted the author’s institution and asked them to investigate the case but received no reply. The article was rejected on the grounds of compromised publication ethics.
The case was discussed by the editorial team members. The journal has improved the editorial review methods of the journal to filter out possible cases of plagiarism and salami slicing. The editor discussed the case (without revealing any of the author's details) with editors of related journals who said that they also experienced similar cases and expressed the need for efforts to create awareness to avoid publication misconduct. The editor acknowledges the guidance from the COPE website in strengthening the journal's editorial processes.