Concerns over research by an author in numerous, separate publications
Case text (Anonymised)
The authenticity of the content of numerous publications by Author K has been questioned by ‘concerned researchers’ in an anonymous email sent to the Editor of Journal A in December 2009.
The email noted that author K had been publishing articles in numerous journals that “report remarkable findings that watching humorous films, drinking deep-sea water, exposure to road traffic, cell-phone noise and radiation, kissing, playing computer games, listening to Mozart, infant suckling, sleep deprivation and starvation all affect various [physiological] responses.” Few of K’s findings have been replicated by other authors and the ‘concerned researchers’ were clear that they believe the findings to be unusual and the research based on improbable hypotheses and mechanisms.
The data presented in each of the articles are remarkably consistent ‘and, to be frank, seem too good to be true’. Most of these articles have been published by author K as a single author, and for a lone researcher the output is prolific.
The concerned researchers, the editorial office for Journal A and colleagues from the publishing house have all attempted to find an institution that author K may be affiliated to. There are suspicions surrounding author K’s affiliations to two institutions. When the author’s name and the two institutions are typed into a search engine, a lot of references to very similar articles appear in the search results.
The ‘concerned researchers’ therefore “cannot help but question whether the data presented in these articles are genuine. If not, this appears to be a case of scientific misconduct that could have far-reaching implications [in the field] … . This is ongoing, with nearly 100 articles published over the last few years including some published this year (2009)”.
Journal A published a paper by author K in 2004 which, taking into account the summary above, could have easily been fabricated from the perspective of the editor of the journal. The editors and the concerned researchers wish to know more about the legitimacy of these publications and whether the articles by author K are reliable.
The Forum suggested that if the author’s institution cannot be found, the editor could report the author to the General Medical Council or the equivalent medical licensing authority in the author’s country. The Forum asked if the editor had tried responding to the anonymous email. There is little that the editor can do without substantive evidence. He could respond to the anonymous email, asking for more information and emphasising that strict confidentiality is assured. The Forum noted that the editor has a duty of care with regard to the journal’s published papers. The editor should contact the reviewer(s) of the 2004 paper that was published in his journal and ask them to look again at the paper. Other advice was to contact the other journals where the author has published as they may have some information that would lead to the author’s institution, which should be contacted if possible. The Forum advised the editor to be alert to any more papers that come in from the same source.
Following on from the COPE Forum, I took on COPE’s advice and contacted the other editors that were listed at the end of the anonymous email that our editor received. There were 12 other editors and journals listed in this email, from a wide range of publishing houses. I have received five responses so far. One was apparently not aware of the email ever being sent. One asked a colleague to respond to my message, which I am still waiting for.
Three have expressed concern about the nature of the email; one of these editors has offered to judge the papers of the suspected author and provide a response, and I am waiting to hear back from them. One of the editors contacted a colleague who lives in the same country as the author and received a general response from their colleague who claims to know of the author and mentioned that the author ‘is known for [their] unique treatment’. However, this colleague noted that “I am not personally an acquaintance with [the author]. I just heard from some colleagues that many of [the author’s] works seem to be fake or fabrication, although I do not have any evidence about it”.
One editor responded with a lengthy email where they mentioned they have had discussions with the other editor of the journal and administrative staff at the publishing house. The editor noted that “ My personal view was that we should go ahead and ask the people who made the allegations to give in confidence their names so that we felt that there was a legitimacy to proceed with the inquiry that was clearly needed by virtue of the allegation”. However, the editor was not successful in obtaining personal identification from the anonymous email authors. The editor goes on to say that “At this point, our views are split. My view is that there was enough of a basis and concern given the subject of anxiety by the authors of the email about being victimised as whistleblowers. I thought that an open ended question to the author of the series in publication that are in question, [the author], is merited and, at the very least, a request to be able to contact [the author’s] head of department or person connected to their institution to gather more information on their research activities. My colleagues thought that this was unreasonably intrusive with no names or specific accusation. As a result, we have not advanced”.
As for our journal, we managed to find some email and postal addresses for the author, by searching online and going back through previous submission records. An article by the author was submitted and published in 2004, and the editor of our journal has mentioned that the paper “could easily be fabricated”. The editorial office sent a message to the author expressing concern about the integrity of a paper that was published in their journal and asked the author to respond as soon as possible. This email was sent out earlier this week, and one of the email addresses bounced, but the second one seems to have worked. We are now waiting for any sort of response.
Follow-up (September 2011):
One of the email addresses bounced, but others seemed to have got through, including one that was used by the author in a very recent paper. However, after several months we have not had any response. The author of the original email pointing out the odd pattern of author K’s publications did contact the editor of our journal having noted that the case had been brought to COPE. He had no direct link to author K, had no special insight into his work and was not from the same country as the author, but had come across the author’s publications as he was working in a similar area. For reasons to do with his own experience as a scientist, he was sensitive to possible fraud which is why he felt obliged to bring his concerns to the attention of the journal editors. The editor of our journal was convinced he was sincere.
A retired UK allergist who said he knew author K contacted us to say that he believed that the author was a genuine scientist and would not undertake scientific fraud.
We asked the reviewers of the original paper whether they had any doubts about the authenticity of the work published in our journal in 2004 and they said that they had not had any concerns. However, the paper was a case series and the information could easily have been fabricated.
The next step is for the editor in chief of our journal to contact known associate editors in the same country as the author, using the following draft text: “ Dear X, I write to you confidentially in your capacity as a trusted associate editor of xjournal. About a year ago, the xjournal editorial team were asked to look into a paper published by author K in xjournal in 2004. Many of author K’s papers are single author and contain intriguing observations, and the paper in xjournal fits this description. Although of course we have no evidence to suggest there are any irregularities, we are duty bound to look into the matter. We have tried to contact author K by email at several addresses without any success. I would much appreciate it if you would let me know if you have contact details for him or his departmental colleagues, so that we can correspond with him. This is clearly a very sensitive issue and I would appreciate your treating it as confidential”.
These associate editors may know how to take this matter to the medial association within the country. The emails are now being sent and we are waiting for a response.
Follow-up (December 2011):
In July 2011 the editor-in-chief sent an email to some associate editors of the journal in the country where we believe the author is from. We have not yet had a response from these associate editors, and we may go to the medical association of that country soon, as this case has been going on for so long. The editor had an email from the whistleblower who pointed out there had been no new publications effectively since 2009. He also pointed out that there was a legitimate Dr K and wondered if the other person was an imposter.