Case text (Anonymised)
The editors of this journal check all articles against Medline for possible redundant publications. Two very similar articles from an author were retrieved when the name of the author was searched. The titles were very similar, except for the name of the disease. The abstracts had almost 50% identical wording. The two articles were not related to the article submitted to the editors, but as they came up with such similarity, the editors looked them up, interested more as scientists and colleagues from the same university.
The editors found that the control groups were identical, but there was no cross referencing between the two articles, although they were published more than two years apart. The same controls were used for two different diseases, one more prevalent in women, the other in men. Finally, although the main point of the articles was measuring concentration of a substance in healthy subjects and patients, there was not a single value of the measurement. The only numbers provided in the tables were the results of the Mann–Whitney statistical test.
Surprised by such data presentation, especially because one of the journals was a respected journal from the editors’ country, the editors wrote to the editors of the two journals in question, and then to the head of the institution, explaining how they had learned about the problem, and asking for an explanation. The journals never replied. The institution head replied in quite a rude way, enclosing a letter from the authors, who wrote that they saw no problem because the papers had been through a peer review in respected journals. They stated that they originally submitted real numbers, but the reviewers asked for simplification of the tables (ie, taking out the actual values of the measured variables). The editors wrote to the journals again (twice), asking them to clarify this, but still did not get any answer.
The editors would like COPE’s advice on how to proceed?
As the papers in question were not from the editor’s own journal, the Forum reasoned that really the editor is in the position of whistleblower. The advice from the Forum was to submit a letter detailing the issues. In this way, even if it is rejected for publication, the editor will have to respond in some way and the matter will be in the editorial system. If the letter is rejected, then the editor can decide to appeal. If the editor still feels dissatisfied with the editor’s response, another suggestion was to contact the editorial board of the journals and then the publishers.
Although this case did not directly concern the editor’s journal, the editor felt is was necessary to pursue the issue because of its importantce to the scientific community in his country.
After several inquires, the editor received a response from the authors who stated that the reviewers asked them to remove data and only give statistics. The editor asked the editors of the two journals to provide him with the reviews but a reply was never received from the editors of either of the journals. As all of the authors are from the editor’s country and and one of the journals is an international journal from the same country, the editor has asked advice from the National Board for Ethics in Science and Higher Education, which has a mandate to investigate cases and give opinions to the Minsitry of Science, Education and Sports. The editor is currently awaiting their response.
The National Board for Ethics in Science advised the editor to send the case to the University Ethics Board, as this is the next step after his appeal to the deans of the Medical and Dental Schools. The editor did not get the formal letter from the National Board for Ethics, but their decision is available online, in the annual report of the Board to the Parliament. The editor plans to follow the advice from the National Board for Ethics. The case continues.
The editor received a reply from the National Board for Ethics in Science that he has to first bring this case to the University Ethics Council, before they (the Board) can give their opinion. The editor then sent the case to the University Ethics Council. The editor is awaiting their answer.