The process of naming and describing novel species of bacteria is governed by the Bacteriological Code. As part of this process, authors are required to deposit the type strain of the novel species in at least two culture collections located in different countries, and they are also required to provide documentary evidence that the strains have been so deposited and that the deposited strains are viable and are available to other researchers without restrictions on their use for taxonomic research. This evidence takes the form of a “certificate” issued by the culture collection. This system has been developed to ensure that type strains are available for comparison with new strains isolated in the future, and to insure against collections going out of existence and/or changes in import/export regulations, etc. The priority of names is determined by the date of publication; in our journal, which is the journal of record for the description of novel species of prokaryotes, the date of publication reflects the date of acceptance (ie, papers are published in the strict order that they are accepted). Papers are not accepted for publication before suitable certificates have been provided for the type strains of any novel species described.
A culture collection curator contacted the editor-in-chief of our journal because of concerns about three type strains that had been deposited in their collection by the same group of researchers. Investigation by editorial office staff suggested that the certificates that had been provided by the authors (which took the form of unprotected Word files) might not have been issued by the culture collection concerned. The editorial office staff then undertook an investigation of the certificates from this collection provided in conjunction with all papers submitted by this group and asked the collection to confirm: (i) the specific curator responsible for handling that strain, (ii) whether they had issued a certificate for that strain and (iii), if so, the date on which the certificate was issued. This investigation suggested that a total of six certificates provided by this group had not been issued by the collection. All six were apparently signed by the same curator (who had not in fact been responsible for handling three of the strains, hence the original suspicion).
Following the COPE guidelines for suspicions of fabricated data, as the closest match to this situation, the editor-in-chief contacted the corresponding author of these papers and asked for an explanation. It then transpired that the curator had already contacted the corresponding author to request that this group stop “misusing her signature”, as she put it. The corresponding author was extremely apologetic and assured the editor-in-chief that this would not happen again. He also indicated that one of his co-authors had been responsible for obtaining certificates for these strains but that this co-author had since left his laboratory and returned to his native country. He provided a contact address for this co-author.
The editor-in-chief contacted this co-author and he admitted that he had produced the forged certificates in an attempt to expedite publication, and thereby secure priority for the names, without the knowledge of the corresponding author or his other co-authors. Again he was extremely apologetic and assured the editor-in-chief that this would not happen again.
Because bona fide evidence has therefore not been provided that these type strains have been deposited in two culture collections in different countries, the descriptions do not fulfil the requirements of the Bacteriological Code and the editor-in-chief took the following decisions: (i) a single paper that has been published in print will be retracted and (ii) four papers that have been published ahead of print but not in print will also be retracted in print, as these papers are already listed by PubMed. A sixth paper that was still under review was withdrawn by the corresponding author at the suggestion of the editor-in-chief.
A retraction statement has been drawn up after consulting the unpublished COPE guidelines on retractions and the wording has been agreed by the corresponding author and the co-author responsible for the forged certificates. The statement indicates that a certificate was provided by the named responsible author, without the knowledge of his co-authors, that was not issued by the culture collection concerned. These retractions have not yet been published.
As yet we have not contacted any of the authors’ institutions. Our preferred course of action is to contact only the institution where the responsible author is now based. The remaining authors are based in a country where scientific misconduct is a very sensitive issue and we are concerned to avoid damage to the reputations of those co-authors who were not aware of the falsification. The editor-in-chief is also considering writing an editorial to highlight this issue and to ask other collections to take steps to prevent their certificates from being similarly manipulated. We would like the advice of the committee as to the merits of this course of action.
The Forum reiterated the fact that if something is published online then it is considered published. If the strain cannot be reproduced, then the paper is in effect fraudulent. However, there is a wider question here. Should this process be considered as purely an administration step? The advice was to make sure the instructions to authors clearly state that the authors have collective responsibility. The Forum agreed with issuing a retraction statement and naming the authors responsible but also highlighting those authors not responsible. Some members of the Forum suggested approaching the new institution where the responsible author is now based. The Forum also agreed that an editorial to highlight this issue was a good idea and also asking other collections to take steps to prevent their certificates from being similarly manipulated or to ensure tighter security.
The editor heard no more from the offending author's institution to support the rumour that his employment had been terminated. The papers concerned have been resubmitted with the legitimate documentation without the offending author's name appearing on them and they are currently under review.