We were contacted by a reader who told us that he had spotted a number of cases of image duplication and mislabelling of fluorescent tags that had occurred over the past 4 years. These involved two papers published in our journal, and two other papers published in two different journals. The two papers in our journal were both reviews, and the one that had the most occurrences involved a poster (associated with the review) that we had recently published. Although each paper had different authors, there was one author, author X, common to all the papers. The reader provided extensive evidence.
I checked all the evidence myself, looking up the original sources and concurred with the reader that there was at least image duplication (I could not verify myself whether mislabelling had occurred). I also discussed the case with our publisher. I then contacted the head of author X’s institute, copying in author X and his co-authors on the poster article. I told the institute head that I was making no assumptions about wrongdoing but presented the evidence and asked for an explanation.
The matter was referred by the institute head to Dr Y, the Associate Vice President for Research of the university, who appointed a Committee of Inquiry. This committee found reason to launch a full investigation, and so an Investigatory Committee was appointed. I was told that I would receive their report.
While I was waiting for their decision, the editors of the two other journals in question approached me to ask that I keep them informed. I told them about the Investigatory Committee and recommended that they contact Dr Y if they wanted to be kept abreast of the outcome.
Almost 2 months later, I received an email from author X, copied to Dr Y, with an explanation of what had happened. He could not provide an explanation for the error in the first paper. There was one image in that paper that claimed to show something labelled with a particular fluorescent tag, but a different, although similar, tag was in fact used. He said he spoke with his co-authors, who agreed that the error did not affect the scientific conclusions of the paper and that he could either correct the tag name or provide a new correct image.
For the poster, he said that there were a number of images mislabelled, and that this occurred, in essence, because he used ‘placeholder’ images while creating the poster but forgot to replace them with the correct images. He offered to redo the poster with the correct images and also wanted to replace some other images that were correctly labelled because he had ‘better versions’ of them. He assured me that the text did not need to be changed and again said that his co-authors agreed that the scientific conclusions of the paper were unaffected.
After again conferring with our publisher, we have come up with a plan:
- I have contacted Dr Y and asked him to verify that the Investigatory Committee has accepted author X’s explanation and found no evidence of fraudulent intention.
- I have asked author X to have his co-authors on both papers contact me directly to confirm that the scientific conclusions of the papers were not compromised and that they are satisfied with the replacement images author X is proposing.
- I will ask author X to provide a replacement image for the first article.
- I have told author X that it is not acceptable to replace correctly labelled images with ‘better versions’ and that we will only deal with those that are incorrectly labelled.
- I plan to issue corrections for both papers. On the poster article, because it involved 10 images, I also plan to include, with the correction, a statement to the effect that a committee was appointed by author X’s institute to investigate the mislabelling and that they found no evidence of malicious intent (I’m wary of the wording I use here).
- I also want to reprint the poster and send a copy of it to each of our print subscribers as they will have received a copy of the incorrect version. I am talking to our online hosts about how we can provide a link to the corrected version of the poster because, although I feel strongly that the original should remain online as it is, a correct version should be available.
- I will ask author X to cover all costs associated with the redesign, printing and mailing of the poster, in addition to the costs of the corrections themselves.
I am not convinced by author X’s explanation and did look to see whether there were any other published corrections associated with author X’s previous publications but did not find any. If the Investigatory Committee confirms that they did not find evidence of fraudulent intent, however, then I feel I have to accept that decision and will proceed according to our plan outlined above. I would very much appreciate COPE’s advice on how we have handled the situation so far, and whether our plan of action could be/have been improved.
The Fourm agreed that the editor had done all he could and had handled the case well. The institution has investigated and found no fraudulent intent. The editor should publish corrections, stating the facts and avoiding accusing any of the authors, and then let readers draw their own conclusions. Regarding the whistleblower, the editor does not have a duty to keep him/her informed of all of the details of the case. The whistleblower cannot expect to be involved in the case. The whistleblower can contact the institution if they want. The editor should keep correspondence with the whistleblower as formal as possible, reply only to direct questions and not involve him/her in the investigation.
The editor followed the plan that he outlined, taking into consideration the advice received from the Forum. Corrections were published for both of the articles involved, with agreement from all co-authors, that stated the facts; a link to a corrected version of the poster was provided (keeping the original in place as published) and print copies were sent to all print subscribers (all costs covered by the author). The whistleblower was contacted only to confirm that corrections had been published. The editor considers the case to be resolved.