As editor-in-chief of a journal (journal A), I was contacted by an individual (N) who indicated the following: authors of an article published in journal A were questioned as to the similarity of a figure and a table appearing in both journal A and in another journal (journal B). N noted that reanalysis of the data of the published work by the authors suggested errors and inconsistencies of the similar data across journal A and journal B.
Subsequently, N provided additional details, including notice of a third journal (journal C) that appeared to have published a table similar to those in journals A and B. The editor of journal B responded to this saying that although the authors had been contacted by the editor of journal B and a response from the authors was pending, they agreed that retraction from journals A, B and C was required. Of note, journal B had previously resolved a challenge from N with respect to the study in question as a letter to the editor regarding data interpretation with a response from the authors. The editor of journal B shared both of these publications with the other journals involved at the request of journal A.
Although the authors referenced journal B in the article they published in journal A and stated that it was an extension of the study published in journal B, they only indirectly referenced the figure and table. The figure and table did not include a reference or acknowledgment to indicate where they were initially accepted/published or submitted elsewhere. Hence it appears that a very similar figure and table appeared in three publications and a figure in two publications without appropriate assigning credit.
This appears to journal A to be a possible case of overlapping publications by the authors. Taking the first publication dates (including Epub dates) on PubMed, it appears all three articles were published at around the same time, with the article in journal C publishing first as an Epub article.
It should be noted that the authors retained the copyright to their article published in journal B. I am not sure about journal C.
Most recently, N sent another email to all three journals questioning the housing conditions of the animals used in the study and whether the statement indicating that the authors had received approval from their ethics committee of experimentation on animals is actually true.
As editor of journal A, I forwarded all the information to my publisher. I plan to contact the authors on review and after discussion with COPE. My publisher has also informed journals B and C of our plans to contact COPE before taking any initial action.
As well as asking for guidance on how best to handle this case, we would like COPE’s opinion on which journal should be taking the lead to resolve these concerns, as it involves multiple journals.
The advice from the Forum was to follow the COPE flowchart on redundant publication. Initially the editor should contact the authors and ask for a full explanation. If the editor feels that the explanation from the author is not satisfactory, he can then retract the paper, if his is the second journal which published the paper. If a paper is published online it should be considered as being published, so the epublication date is the date to go by. The first version of the paper should remain and the others should be retracted.
However, if the editor feels that there is only partial overlap and readers would benefit from the availability of new data, then the editor could issue a notice of redundant publication.
Another scenario would be if the editor accepts the explanation of the authors that they made a genuine mistake. In this instance, the editor could issue a correction (for example, figure 7 has appeared in a previous publication).
The Forum stressed it is important to contact all of the authors, not just the corresponding author. The Forum also agreed that regardless of whether or not N is acting in good faith, the editor should investigate the accusations by contacting the authors and asking for an explanation.
The Forum advised liaising with the other editors if possible, and jointly contacting the institution.
The Forum also suggested looking at the copyright issues (e.g. the date on which copyright was transferred to a journal, if applicable).
The editor retracted the paper. To the best of his knowledge the other papers in question have also been retracted.