Journal A has accepted a meta-analysis for publication. As is standard practice for many articles accepted in this journal, a key expert (Professor X) in the relevant field was invited to submit a commentary on the paper. Professor X expressed concerns to the journal that “we believe that some of the papers included in the review could be either fabricated or at best are heavily plagiarised”. The papers included in the meta-analysis are all primary studies published in peer-reviewed journals.
Journal A requested some evidence for the concerns raised by Professor X.
Professor X has already tried to investigate the potential research misconduct of the primary studies. He sent a comparison of five studies, three of which were included in the meta-analysis accepted by journal A. Professor X claims strong evidence of plagiarism, and questions whether the trials took place at all. He also notes that he has previously written to the authors of the trials but says that few have responded. Those that did respond, he believes, have failed to provide reassuring responses.
Example response from authors sent to Professor X include the following: “The work has been actually undertaken after proper clearance. And details of the same are available with the competent authority.” “We don't want to be get disturbed as I discussed with our main author.” “Excuse us..Bye”.
Journal A has now halted publication of the meta-analysis.
The editors of journal A are unsure how to proceed, as the potential research misconduct lies with research not submitted to the journal, but rather primary studies included as part of a meta-analysis submitted based on the “available data”.
Question(s) for the COPE Forum
(1) How do we establish whether or not the primary studies are fabricated?
(2) Is it journal A’s responsibility to pursue this investigation or should it be the responsibility of the journals in which the primary studies are published?
(3) How should journal A proceed with managing the meta-analysis accepted for publication?
The Forum was told that the editor has not yet contacted the authors of the meta-analysis. The advice from the Forum was to raise the concerns with the authors initially. The editor has a responsibility to act on the information that he has, and the first thing to do is contact the authors of the meta-analysis.
The editor also needs to be sure that the evidence from the expert is sound, regarding the fact that some of the papers in the meta-analysis are fabricated or heavily plagiarised, before he draws any conclusions. The Forum suggested gathering more opinions on the meta-analysis and perhaps eliciting help from members of the editorial board. Why was the paper accepted in the first instance? Did the reviewers suspect anything untoward with the paper? The editor should go back to the reviewers and ask their opinions and also ask their advice on the response from the key expert.
The Forum cautioned against the practice of blindly re-analysing data for inclusion in a meta-analysis, without obtaining the original data, so the authors of the meta-analysis need to take some responsibility here.
Unfortunately for the authors, their paper is in limbo while there are questions over the paper. One suggestion was to ask the authors to re-do the meta-analysis using only the data that are not under suspicion.
Ultimately, it will be up to the journals in which the primary studies were published to investigate the fabricated and/or plagiarised papers, but journal A should initiate the investigation by contacting these journals. It will be the responsibility of the other journals to see that an investigation is carried out but journal A should follow the events. Of course, if the other journals refuse to investigate, there is little that the editor can do.
In summary, the Forum agreed that the editor should contact the authors and the reviewers of the meta-analysis in the first instance. If the editor has sufficient evidence that some of the papers are fabricated or heavily plagiarised, he should then contact the journals where the primary studies were published and ask them to investigate.