A publisher was alerted to possible issues with band duplication in an article (more than 10 years old) by a reader. The corresponding author was contacted to resolve the issue. The author was unable to provide a satisfactory explanation for the bands, and because of the age of the article, the original data were no longer available. The institution was asked to investigate; a summary of the case was provided and the similarities in the bands using an open source tool were highlighted.
When the publisher received a copy of the investigatory committee’s report, it was clear that the institution had focused on the use of the software tool exclusively. The institution concluded that the software was not a validated tool, and so there was no basis for concluding that the blots in question were duplicated or improperly altered. The contact person also stated that it was not the institution's place to comment on whether the data in the publication were sound and trustworthy.
The publisher pointed out that the software was not used to detect problems with the paper—it was simply a tool to provide a visual demonstration of the similarities between the blots. The publisher stated that they would have raised this issue regardless of whether the tool was available. They explained their expectation and experience that institutions initiate inquiries into potential ethics cases raised by journals and comment specifically on whether the conclusions are still sound. The publisher asked again that the committee investigate the scientific issues raised about this paper; the institution declined.
Next step being considered are sending the paper to one of publisher’s editors who has relevant scientific expertise, or to an independent adviser, asking them to advise on whether the conclusions are still supported if the blots in question are unreliable. The publisher is also considering sending the paper to an independent ethics expert to verify that there are potential problems with the blots.
If it can be verified independently that there are potential problems with the blots, there are two courses of action: (1) if the adviser finds that the conclusions are still sound, issue an expression of concern/publisher's note highlighting the specific blots and detailing the steps taken so that readers can make their own decision about the data; (2) if our adviser finds that the conclusions are not sound, retract the paper. The publisher would tell the institution the route they plan to take.
Question(s) for the COPE Forum
- Are the publisher’s plans reasonable, or is there a better course of action?
- Regardless of whether an expression of concern/publisher's note is published, or the paper is retracted, is it reasonable to quote from the report of the institution so that readers know the institution refused to investigate?
- Should the publisher consider contacting the relevant funding agencies?
The Forum suggested that if an institution is not willing or unable to investigate, one potential option might be to contact the original funders listed in the paper, or to contact any regional integrity offices, if these exist.
COPE’s retraction guidelines state "When editors or journals have credible grounds to suspect misconduct, this should be brought to the attention of the authors’ institutions as early as possible, but the decision to correct or retract an article should be made by the journal and does not necessarily depend on an institutional finding of misconduct." This scenario is common—often institutions do not conduct investigations or do not provide a definitive answer to questions raised by the journal.
If the editor feels that the data are unreliable or might be misleading, then the paper should be retracted. Getting further expert opinion to support the concerns of the editor is good practice. If the editor decides to retract, the retraction notice should explain why the journal believes that the findings are unreliable. The editor should inform the institution and the authors in advance, with the wording of the notice, and give them a chance to respond.
However, if the editor is uncertain of the integrity or the data or cannot resolve the concerns because the data are not available, then an expression of concern could be published, which could change to a retraction if the institution confirms there has been misconduct. The institution would need to investigate further. The expression of concern could state that the institution has been contacted but that the concerns have not been resolved.
Another option might be to ask the reader who brought up the issue to write a commentary and allow others to dig deeper into the issue.
In general, journals or publishers cannot always depend on an institution when deciding whether or not to retract an article because standards differ across institution. A journal needs to adhere to its own policies and not necessarily to what the institute thinks is appropriate.
The editor prepared an expression of concern for publication in the journal and is awaiting the authors’ agreement on the wording.
Follow up (September 2020)
The journal is about to publish an expression of concern. The editor did not hear back from the authors despite numerous attempts at contacting them. The journal considers the case closed.