In 2014 we received a communication from the Research Integrity Officer of an academic institution informing us that a paper, published in our journal in 2013, included falsified or fabricated data. We were informed that, following an investigation, they had determined that scientific misconduct had occurred.
Within a few days we received a communication from one of the authors of the paper (who is no longer at the institution) reiterating this assertion and providing some further explanation; that a former student had fabricated data and that it affected the paper (but providing no specifics).
Over the next week or so, other journals by the same publisher received similar notifications from the same author. Initially, we were presented with no information regarding who the perpetrator was or the specifics of the affected data. We were therefore unable to determine how severely affected the validity of the overall paper was and whether a retraction or correction was necessary.
Our initial response was to request further information from the institution and the author. Initially, we were informed by both parties that, as a result of Federal privacy laws, they were unable to divulge any details pertaining to the investigation, aside from what they had already told us. In the meantime, we decided to publish an expressions of concern on all four papers affected by our publisher with identical notices detailing what we knew for certain and stating that we would seek further details from the institution.
Sometime later we heard back from the institution providing further specific information (ie, outlining the fabricated data) for three of the four papers. Of these three papers, two are now in the process of being retracted, while an academic editor has been consulted to advise on whether the third should be retracted or corrected, based on the additional scientific information now available.
However, in regard to the fourth paper, published in our journal, we were told by the institution that no further information was available. The author who contacted us has not provided any specific information either. Therefore, we find ourselves unsure of how to proceed next, as we still do not know to what extent the conclusions in the paper are valid.
Question(s) for the COPE Forum
• Should we proceed with a retraction but simply state that we cannot provide further information (something we feel is unsatisfactory for our authors)?
• Should we instead leave the expression of concern online but update it to say that we will not be able to provide any further information?
• Does the Forum have any other suggestions?
The Forum asked the editor if the paper had been handled through the Office of Research Integrity (ORI) in the USA, as they post their findings on cases on their website. However, the laws related to the ORI are very strict and do not allow sharing of information, even with institutions, and so the only way of finding out any information is to look at what has been published in the federal registry. The editor told the Forum that there was no information on the ORI website.
One view was that, given the history of all of these papers, and the concerns about the data on this particular paper, the editor should err on the side of caution and retract the paper.
However, a more cautious approach was also suggested. COPE would advise that a retraction statement should be as informative as possible; a journal needs to give its readers a reason for the retraction. Hence, in the absence of further information, the editor may consider not retracting at the moment, but instead updating the Expression of Concern. The editor may want to explain that other papers have been retracted as a result of the same investigation but no further information is available on the current paper.
Another suggestion was to go back to the institution and insist that they provide further information on the validity of the data.
Following the discussion at the Forum, the editor decided that there was insufficient information available to support a retraction. Therefore, the current Expression of Concern remains on the record pending further communication from the institution concerned.