Author A of a 2008 review article in our journal claims her article was used as the "framework" for a 2013 review article on the same subject in an open access journal by a former student of hers, author B. There was no verbatim overlap but the format (comparison of two common conditions) was indeed similar (differential diagnosis, management, pharmacotherapy, and implications for practice).
Author A sent me the articles for comparison and stated that she thought this was plagiarism and that, furthermore, her student had no experience caring for these patients so she had misrepresented herself as an authority on this topic. The student (author B) was the first author, the second author was a physician who was well published on this topic, and "writing assistance" had been provided by a professional medical writer and paid by a pharmaceutical company that manufactures drugs in this therapeutic class. I checked both papers through iThenticate and there was no verbatim overlap between the two. I had nine members of my editorial board review and compare the articles in question along with the complaints of author A. I asked for specific comparisons (quantity and quality) of overlapping material and whether or not any overlap constituted plagiarism of ideas (not words). The editorial board concluded, as did I, that this format is fairly standard for clinical articles; content overlap likely resulted from similar content in practice guidelines for these conditions; neither article is ‘conceptually original’; and that updates of clinical review articles are a common practice (there was a 5 year gap between the articles). We found multiple articles in the literature on the same or related topics with similar resources, content, and format.
Meanwhile, author A contacted the open access journal stating that she was consulting a lawyer and she wanted author B's article “pulled and reviewed for integrity and rigor”. Within 8 days of the complaint, I wrote to author A stating that we did not find evidence of plagiarism and that I would not contact the open access journal with a claim to protect the article copyright because I did not believe it had been violated. Author A was not pleased with my response and claims she has "confirmed" with two colleagues that there are striking similarities between the articles. I reiterated based on COPE guidelines and definitions of plagiarism, there was nothing more I could do. Meanwhile, the open access journal responded to author A's email that they have "removed" the offending article by author B from their website (in fact it is still there) and they suggested she contact the author because authors retain the copyright. I referred author A to my publishing manager, who has been appraised of this investigation since the beginning, if she wishes to pursue this further.
Questions for the COPE Forum
(1) Do I have an obligation to contact the open access journal with my findings? I am reluctant to do so given there are legal implications (lawyer contacted by author A); author B's paper has not actually been removed; and there are professional medical writers and a pharmaceutical company involved in author B's paper. I had never contacted the open access journal myself and they have not contacted me but I "feel" that I might have some responsibility to let them know that we are not making any claim.
The editor updated the Forum that the paper by author B has now been removed from the publisher’s website, with no notice of formal retraction, although it is still possible to find the paper by a search of PubMed.
The Forum suggested that the style of writing of review articles may mean that this type of issue arises. Author B may have been commissioned to write the review and asked to format it in a specific way. The Forum noted that it is possible to have plagiarism of ideas and not just words, although harder to prove, and author A may feel this is the case in this instance.
But in reality, this is an issue for the open access journal, not the editor’s journal. The editor feels that the open access journal has genuinely tried to do the right thing but has just not handled the situation correctly. Should the paper in fact have been removed at all? Was there any plagiarism? By removing the paper, without issuing a retraction, the literature has not been corrected, and if the paper was not plagiarized, then what might have been a reasonable paper is no longer available. Was the editor of the open access journal pressurized into removing the paper by author A and/or its publisher because of the threat of legal action?
Is author B aware that his paper has been pulled from the journal’s website? Author B and his colleagues may have legal redress against the open access journal. But it is up to the open access journal to inform author B.
Hence a suggestion was for the editor to reach out to this other editor, and perhaps discuss how this might have been handled differently. On a poll of the Forum audience, more than half agreed that the editor should reach out to the other editor, obtain their side of the story and perhaps then establish how proper correction of the literature can be done.
At the suggestion of the COPE Forum, the editor wrote to the managing editor of the online journal clarifying that the journal did not find any plagiarism with their published article and that the editor would not pursue any claims against the journal. The editor also noted that the article in question was missing from the home page of the journal on the publisher’s website but that it remained available on the PubMed Central site for their journal. The editor asked that the journal update her if they were conducting an investigation themselves and offered information on the COPE guidelines.
The managing editor responded thanking the editor for the clarification and explaining that the decision had been made by the publisher to remove the article in question from their website to “avoid legal complications,” which had been threatened by the complaining author. He stated he did understand that removal of the article was not recommended by COPE but because the article was still listed and retrievable on the PubMed site for their journal, they thought this was a reasonable solution. He stated he would forward the editor’s letter to the editor-in-chief and the publisher to see if this would change the decision; however, the situation remains the same. There has been no retraction of the article and the editor has not heard back from either the journal managing editor or the editor-in-chief.
FOLLOW UP (December 2014):
There has been no change in the status of the article in question and no further communication from the authors or the open access publisher. The article remains widely available and discoverable. The editor considers the case now closed.