Editor found guilty of research misconduct
Case text (Anonymised)
A journal appointed a new editor-in-chief to their journal. He had previously been on the editorial board of the journal for 10 years and the editorial registrar for 5 years. During the handover period, it came to the journal’s attention that he was due to appear in front of a tribunal for research fraud. By agreement with the journal, he stepped down until the outcome of the tribunal, and the editor-in-chief of another journal took over as acting editor-in-chief in the interim.
The outcome of the tribunal was that many of the charges against the editor were upheld, so he has stepped down permanently. The charges that the tribunal found him guilty of (which did not relate to any papers published in the journal) included fabricating data, accessing electronic patient records without permission, breaching patient confidentiality, submitting a paper knowing that his coauthors had not approved it as a final version, forging his coauthors’ signatures on copyright forms, and referencing a particular fictitious individual in the acknowledgments (apparently as a private joke).
During his time on the editorial board, he published numerous articles in the journal, including two original research articles, nine reviews, three editorials/commentaries and one case study. As far as the journal is aware, there are no substantive issues with any of these papers, which underwent the usual review procedures, but several reference the fictitious person in the acknowledgements.
During his time as editorial registrar, he had input in editorial decisions, as a reviewer and associate editor, and by assisting the then editor-in-chief with decisions on the two categories of papers in our journal which undergo internal review rather than full double-blind peer review. During the weeks when the editor-in-chief role was being handed over, before he stepped down, he made the final decision on several manuscripts as editor-in-chief.
Questions for the COPE Forum
• To what extent should the journal consider the editor’s previous publications in the journal as 'suspect'? The journal will publish a correction relating to the fictitious acknowledgments; should they publish any additional note of editorial concern against his papers?
• To what extent should the journal revisit editorial decisions he has previously been involved with during his 10 years' association with the journal?
• The acting editor-in-chief has not been appointed editor-in-chief according to the stringent procedures recommended by COPE/ICMJE. Is there anything the journal can do to mitigate this situation during the process of appointing a new editor, which may take several months?
The Forum noted that thankfully this is a relatively rare event. The journal needs to handle this well to avoid reputational damage. Hence the journal needs to think in terms of a public explanation or statement of what has happened
The Forum agreed there needs to be a thorough investigation. Previous papers written by the editor need to be handled on a case by case basis—hence all of the papers should be looked at if practically possible, in particular if any have medical/patient implications. The journal will need to carry out due diligence for these papers. While the acknowledgement issue is relatively minor, it is very unprofessional behaviour. The core issue is whether there is any likelihood of problems with the papers that were written by the editor. This is not dissimilar to institutional handling of research misconduct—is the misconduct a one-off or a systemic problem?
Regarding his input in editorial decisions, as a reviewer and associate editor, and in assisting the then editor-in-chief, the advice was to do a spot check of, say, 10% of the decisions, so the journal is reassured there are no problems with the process or the outcome of any of the decisions. In particular, decisions he took himself or where he went against a decision of the reviewers, for example, should be looked at carefully.
The journal needs to reassure potential authors that they have processes in place to be confident in what they have published in the past—otherwise the journal risks serious reputational damage.
The Forum suggested that this may be too difficult and indeed inappropriate to handle only internally and the journal might consider engaging an external, independent group of people to deal with the issue on behalf of the journal.
The journal needs to develop a process to appoint a new editor-in-chief that ensures that this situation does not happen in the future. Again, it is essential to have external people in the selection process.