An article was submitted to my journal and was sent for peer review. An editorial board member realised that a number of the references were incorrect: publication dates had been changed to make them more current.
The author was contacted by email and telephone who said he/she had a number of students working for him (who were not listed as authors or in the acknowledgment) and they must have changed the dates because it was well known that faculty preferred current research. He was sorry and was happy to correct the references so the peer review process could move forward.
I told him the manuscript was rejected based on the grievous errors in the reference list. This author also had an accepted manuscript in the production queue. I reviewed that manuscript again after realising the issues above and found the same problems.
Because I had already accepted that manuscript, I gave the author the opportunity to correct the references and add the student's names who worked on the paper to the acknowledgment section. The managing editor and I had to review and further correct the references following his attempt, and this manuscript will be published.
Have other editors experienced similar problems and how does COPE recommend handling them?
The Forum agreed that this is serious misconduct and almost amounts to falsification of data. The Forum questioned the motivation of the author and nobody present had seen a similar case. The author’s behaviour seems extremely odd and it seems strange that the author did not realise that the incorrect dates would be spotted, either because of well-known papers or through reference checking and automatic linking. The Forum suggested that the editor should send a firm letter to the author, explaining that this type of conduct is unacceptable and that she will be contacting the author’s institution and informing them of the situation.
The Forum also suggested that in light of the misconduct and extremely unusual behaviour regarding the references, the editor should perhaps question the scientific veracity of the studies and perhaps this too needed to be investigated, not only in terms of the current paper, but also in relation to previous papers published by this author. The editor told the Forum that other journals had published papers by this author and the Forum advised the editor to contact these editors and share her findings. It may be that all of the editors could write to the institution if similar problems are found in other papers by this author.
The publisher is working with their legal department to determine the contents of a letter that will be sent to the author’s dean and will be signed by the editor and a representative from the publisher. The editor also decided not to publish a manuscript by the same author that had previously been accepted.
Follow Up (March 2011):
The editor discovered that there were also plagiarism issues in three other journals by the same publisher and the plagiarism involved both submitted and published manuscripts. There were also coauthors for several of these papers. The editor contacted the author's dean, as did another editor. The editor received an email from the dean thanking the editor for her efforts. The research compliance officer for the university became involved, the author admitted guilt for the plagiarism and he tendered his resignation in February 2011. The publisher’s legal department is reviewing the extent of the ethical issues and will decide what further action to take. It appears that the author has been involved in ethical violations of manuscripts for a long time.