In February 2007, author A and a colleague submitted a paper (paper A) to our journal, which uses double-blinded peer review. We sent paper A for external review.
Four weeks later, group B submitted a paper (paper B). The editorial office sent paper B to external reviewers, one of whom was author A. Both groups of authors are known to us and well regarded within our discipline. The reviews on both papers were received and we were on the point of writing to both groups asking for revisions when author A emailed to say that he was concerned about similarities between the two papers and felt that this was more than a coincidence. He believed that the method he had used, in the context he had applied it, was entirely original and that the authors of paper B must have had prior sight of his paper.
His case was that paper A reported a study that had been presented at a conference in April 2007. He thought that one or more of the authors of paper B might have reviewed his paper for the conference the previous November, and had used it to design an identical study. He claimed that paper B showed evidence of having been “rushed into submission”.
We contacted the conference organisers to ask if they could reveal the names of the reviewers of author A’s paper, but they refused. Our editors could find no evidence of plagiarism, except they did agree that the application of the method in this particular context was, to quote one of our editors, “striking” in its similarity.
Group B responded robustly to our request for further details. They said that although the method was new within our discipline, it was widely reported in other literatures. They produced papers (including one they had published in our own journal several years previously) to show that they had a reasonable prior claim to the use of the method, since they had been using it for some time. They argued that it was only the application to this particular context, and not the method itself, that was original.
We felt that this response was reasonable and credible. Faced with this apparent deadlock we took the view that misconduct had not been proved. Furthermore, trying to establish which group had prior claim to an idea that was already largely in the public domain would be next to impossible. We were unwilling to report any further accusations without real supporting evidence.
We therefore felt that the only course of action open to us was to level the playing field, since to do otherwise would be to rule in favour of one or other group. Accordingly, we wrote to both groups of authors and told them that:
In the absence of any evidence to the contrary, we had no choice but to assume that both papers had been written in good faith and that it was an example of coincidence;
We were going to publish both papers side by side once satisfactory revisions had been received (we publish dates submitted, reviewed and accepted in the journal, which would give evidence that group A had submitted first);
As group A had had the slight advantage of seeing an early draft of paper B, we felt it only fair to let group B have sight of paper A. No further exchanges between the groups would be facilitated thereafter.
We planned to discuss the matter with COPE and would report to both groups.
Author A responded to say that he felt this was unfair. He did not want his manuscript to be sent to group B since his paper was the better of the two—it had received more positive reviews—and that he himself had not gained anything by seeing group B’s manuscript. He felt that he had lost the advantage of having submitted first and that his paper should be published first.
We have three questions, therefore:
- How should we now respond to author A?
- Have any members of COPE experienced anything like this before and, if so, how did they resolve the matter?
And, on a more general point, how far should editors reasonably go in exploring a case like this, when it is a matter of one reputable group’s word against that of another, and there is little or no evidence either way?
The general consensus was that the editor’s course of action was reasonable, except for point (c) above—that is, most agreed that group B should not have had sight of paper A. On a general note, the Forum emphasised the fact that it is not the job of editors to adjudicate in such matters. If there is no evidence of misconduct, the authors should be advised to sort the matter out among themselves. One viewpoint was that, in retrospect, the editor should perhaps have allowed the papers to follow the usual editorial procedures, without interference, and should not have shared the information with the authors. Some argued that paper A should be published first as it was submitted first, but others suggested that from the reader’s point of view it would be more interesting for the two papers to be published together.
Both papers are likely to be accepted and once the final decisions have been made, we will send all of the documentation to our independent Quality Standards Advisory Group for a report that will be shared with the authors. The COPE report, with your permission, will form a valuable part of the documentation