A paper was submitted to us describing an RCT carried out in a Far Eastern hospital. Soon after the manuscript had been sent out for review, one of the reviewers sent a letter alerting us to a “possible case of fraud”. The reviewer in question appears to have compared notes with another investigator in his institute, and together they realised that the same group had submitted two similar trials to two different journals (without enclosing the related paper in their submission to us).
There is ambiguity here, but we believe that the allegation is one of fraud (Do the patients really exist? Are the two groups of patients overlapping?) rather than duplicate publication.
We challenged the authors, asking them to send us the related manuscript and protocol. This they did very willingly, and they sent files of primary data too.
The authors then withdrew the related paper submitted elsewhere. Although this seems suspicious, it seems that the authors thought we would be less favourably inclined to the paper they had submitted to us if a related paper from them was accepted by another journal first.
Review of the paper submitted to us proceeded, although the individual who had alleged fraud did not send a report.
Sufficient technical criticisms were raised to justify rejecting the paper, in our opinion. However, as far as we know, independently, one of the other referees commented “somewhat puzzling are the exceptionally well balanced, perfect patient characteristics in table 1”.
We have now rejected the paper in question. We would like COPE’s advice on what to do further—we are open to persuasion, but are not sure that there is sufficient evidence of wrongdoing to ask for an institutional investigation. We have not yet responded to the reviewer who raised the initial allegation of fraud.
The Forum questioned the idea of requesting an institutional investigation in view of the fact that there is no clear evidence of wrongdoing. Also, would the investigation be conducted properly and would the authors receive a fair trial? Others questioned whether it would be a sensible use of editorial resources. The Forum suggested that as the authors are aware that the editor has raised suspicions regarding the paper, that may be sufficient warning for them. Other advice was to contact the reviewer explaining that it is not good practice to compare notes with other investigators as such material should be treated as confidential.
The paper was rejected and the editor decided not to try to initiate an institutional investigation owing to insufficient evidence of wrongdoing. Later the editor heard from the refereeing “whistleblower” (who had written to the editor to allege “possible fraud”) that the same paper had been accepted at another journal, and that he had been invited to write an editorial. A couple of weeks ago, the editor heard from the same “whistleblower” that the other journal rejected the paper and were considering an investigation. The journal is no longer actively involved in pursuing this matter.