Duplicate publication and alleged image manipulation
Case text (Anonymised)
The editorial office of journal A was contacted anonymously by an individual who made allegations against two papers, both published by the same author. Paper 1 was alleged to be a duplicate publication, with the paper previously having been published in journal B. The editorial office of journal A, in accordance with the COPE flowcharts, contacted the author informing them of the allegations and asking for a response/explanation. The author freely admitted to the duplicate publication and paper 1 is in the process of being retracted.
The allegation against paper 2 was image manipulation consisting of false bands being included in an assay figure. The editorial office reviewed the images and believes that they have been manipulated. As such they would like to retract the paper from journal A. When the author was contacted he admitted that some of the figures had been made by copy/paste but he maintained that the conclusions of the article are correct.
Numerous other journals have been contacted about similar alleged misconduct by this author, who believes that the accusations must be politically motivated.
The editorial office carried out further investigation of other papers published by the same author in journal A and found another instance of apparent image manipulation (paper 3). When contacted, the author made the same statement as above. When a co-author of this paper at another institution was contacted for his position, he defended the corresponding author and stated that it was inconceivable to him that serious claims of scientific misconduct made by an unidentified accuser could be applied here. Moreover, he claimed that none of the experiments was performed in his laboratory.
As the author denied any real wrongdoing, but to the editorial team it seems quite obvious that the figures have been manipulated, the editors of journal A contacted the author’s institution and asked for a response within 3 months. They have not received a reply from the institution.
The editorial team is certain that the figures have been manipulated to provide false data and would therefore like to retract the relevant articles (papers 2 and 3) despite the author’s denial of any wrongdoing and no contact from the author’s institution. In consultation with the publisher for journal A, it is felt that the best way to proceed would be to issue a non-specific notice of retraction for the relevant papers, thus avoiding potential charges of defamation.
Would the Forum agree with this course of action or does it have any other views?
The Forum questioned whether the editor had contacted the correct person at the institution. Ideally the case should be investigated by the institution so perhaps the editor should keep pursuing the institution. The editor could send a registered letter if email has elicited no response. If there is a funding body or ethics committee, this could be another avenue to pursue.
Ideally the editor should issue an expression of concern and then issue a retraction if there is evidence of misconduct after an investigation has been conducted by the institution. The Forum would advise against issuing a non-specific notice of retraction. However, if there is no response from the institution and the editor wants to retract the article, he should state all of the facts in the retraction notice, in a non-accusatory way, with his reasons for retraction, and mention that the institution has failed to respond.
As one of the authors is from a different institution, another suggestion was to contact that institution and request an investigation on the basis that all authors should take responsibility for published work.
The articles involved were retracted from the journal.