A letter was sent to the editor indicating that three articles (one of them in the editor’s journal) on identical subjects had been published in the same year (2006) by the same authors, accusing the first author of all three articles of stealing data from and plagiarising a previously published article from the academic institution where the first author previously worked. The letter, sent by a senior academic and former supervisor of the first author, said that the data had been published without his permission or acknowledgement and he requested that the author be contacted and he and his colleagues punished for their unethical behaviour.
Soon after, the same allegedly victimised head of department sent a second letter to the same editor saying that he was planning on contacting the author’s university and Ministry of Health, informing them of this matter, and also requesting that these papers be immediately retracted from the journal, with an explanation published. Moreover, he stated that he would be submitting a letter to the editor which he hoped would be published with an editorial comment in the next issue of the editor’s journal.
On close inspection of the initial paper published in 2005, referred to by the two letters (the plaintiff was the first author and the alleged culprit the second author), it was clear that the data constituting the only original part of the three 2006 articles were published previously and had been reproduced in identical format in two and differently in the third article. The rest of the data were comparisons with previously published data sets from other countries. The “original” data set had indeed been plagiarised. In addition, the description of the methods was verbatim from the 2005 article, except for the instrument used in all three articles. As a result, there appeared to be clear plagiarism, illegitimate use of data and duplication of data. None of the 2006 articles cited each other and the initial 2005 article was cited in only two of the three articles.
The announced letter to the editor was indeed submitted but rejected on the grounds that informing the readership and issues of sanctions are the prerogative of the editor, not of scientists external to the journal.
The following actions were taken:
- The editors of the two other journals involved were contacted suggesting coordination of effort and, if possible, reaching a consensus as to the sanctions. Only one editor replied suggesting: (i) retraction of two of the three articles without indicating which; (ii) contacting the accused scientist and requesting a response to this apparent violation of ethical standards; and (iii) the senior and corresponding authors be restricted from publishing in these journals for a specified period of time.
- This editor replied to his colleague suggesting that all three articles be retracted on the basis that none of them provided original data; to simultaneously publish a common letter in all three journals; and lastly to ban the main author for five years and the co-authors for three years.
Questions to COPE: (i) should the current academic institution of the main author be contacted for information? (ii) should there be any dissemination of this case beyond the three journals directly involved? (iii) is attempts to coordinate between journals a good idea or should each journal go on its own and make its own, probably different, decisions?
The editor updated the COPE Forum with the following information. The editor had written to the first author requesting that he retract the paper. The author agreed and his letter of retraction was published together with an editorial from the editor outlining the issues. The paper was retracted.
Members of the Forum questioned whether this was in fact a case of plagiarism, and argued that duplicate publication might be a more accurate description. However, the Forum were unanimous in recommending contacting the academic institution of the main author. The Forum emphasised that the editor should not make any allegations and should not get involved in an investigation except to provide factual information. The institution should be presented with the facts and the details of the 2 other titles, and then asked to investigate the matter themselves. The Forum found the attitudes of the editors of the other journals very worrying. The editor was right in contacting them, but their responses, or lack of response, were disheartening. The advice was to consider contacting the editorial boards of these journals.
The Forum also noted COPE’s usual recommendation of caution in applying sanctions against authors where there has been no due process of investigation, such as an institutional finding of misconduct.
No further action was taken. The editor considers the case now closed.