We became concerned that not all of the co-authors were aware of a research paper submitted to our journal due to the difficulty receiving responses from the email addresses that had been supplied and their nature, given that the authors all worked in a hospital/academic institution. Despite repeated requests and attempts we remained dissatisfied with the responses and did not feel certain that all of the authors were aware of the paper. We therefore requested further documentation signed by all of the authors, but all of the signatures appeared to be signed by the same person, and hand writing analysis suggested this was highly likely. In addition, the statement from the ethics committee also had a similar signature. The letter from the ‘head’ of the ethics committee was on blank paper, not letterhead, and was not received as an original hard copy.
We therefore contacted the head of the ethics review committee who was different to the head on the document we had received and about which we had some concerns. The current head eventually confirmed after a second request that the doctor who had signed the previously supplied document was not on the committee. Ethics committee clearance has since been granted retrospectively after the paper was submitted.
As a result we have significant concerns about this paper, its ethical clearance and some of the documentation that has been supplied. We have advised the authors that we have suspended processing of their paper and that we would seek further advice from COPE. Our intention is to report our concerns to the hospital director and formally reject this paper.
We would appreciate guidance on any further action we should take.
The Forum agreed with the proposed course of action of the editor. It would not be appropriate in this case to simply reject the paper. It is very clear that something serious has happened in relation to the governance of this paper, and if the editor were to simply reject it, it is quite likely that the authors will simply submit elsewhere. In these situations, COPE recommends that if an editor has a concern about a paper, even if they end up rejecting it, they must tell the authors that they will take it further and that it is highly likely that it will be referred to their institution for further investigation.
(COPE Council also discussed this case outside of the Forum). Council members agreed with the proposed course of action. This appears to be a very serious breach of ethics and the author may repeat this type of misconduct with another journal.
First you should inform all the authors of what you are going to do in a factual, non-accusatory way.
As there may be legal implications, you should also ensure that the letter to the hospital director has to be purely factual, with dates and copies of letters between the journal and the ethics service and the authors. Claims about forged signatures need to be backed up by a report of handwriting analysis (or if you can't supply that you should not make the accusation directly). The journal should consider taking legal advice.
You may want to pursue this issue further to a higher institutional level. Hence, in addition to the hospital director, if there is another head of the academic institution or some kind of oversight office then you might consider contacting them also. If the authors are working in an academy (university) and the hospital is affiliated to that university, then there may be a research regulatory body of that university that could be informed.
The journal followed the advice given by COPE and sought legal advice from their publishers before writing to the hospital director raising their concerns. The editor also rejected the paper and gave the authors the reasons for doing this. The editor has had no response and so he plans to write again and also write directly to the head of the ethics committee.
Update (September 2013):
The editor has still not had a response from the hospital director despite following up the original communication and copying in the ethical review chairman. It was agreed that the next step should be to contact the research integrity office.
Update (February 2014):
The editor has now had a response from the ethics committee, recognising the nature of their concern. The ethics committee is going to inform the university rector.