Potential figure manipulation with corresponding author uncontactable
Case text (Anonymised)
A reader contacted the journal to raise concerns about a paper containing a potentially manipulated figure. The editor-in-chief agreed with the assessment that the figure had been manipulated and attempted to contact the corresponding author, without response. Following further contact with the co-authors and institution, it was established that the corresponding author had retired after publication of the paper, and no current contact details could be found.
No co-authors were able to confirm how the figure was constructed, but explained that it was an old image that was made by or for the corresponding author, and that the location of the raw image or original data was not known due to the corresponding author’s laboratory being dismantled on retirement. The figure is also present in a previous publication from 2007. The figure manipulation does not appear to affect the scientific results or conclusions of the paper.
Question for the COPE Forum
• Given that the corresponding author cannot be contacted to confirm if the nature of any figure manipulation merits retraction, would it be appropriate to publish an expression of concern which will remain in place if no additional information is forthcoming?
The Forum advised that as there is no true confirmation of the evidence that the figure was manipulated, a retraction does not seem to be warranted without further investigation. A suggestion was to contact the journal of the previous publication, as there may be an issue of duplicate publication or copyright issues related to the figure. The editors can then discuss together how to deal with this issue. The other journal may have the original data. If the copyright resides with the first journal, then the editor may have to have a different type of notice on the paper.
The Forum agreed that the most reasonable solution would be to publish an expression of concern, explaining the issues. An expression of concern provides an opportunity for further information to be made available at a later date, and then any further action, if necessary, may be taken. A different view expressed was to remove the figure and publish a correction—if other researchers have re-done the work on the subject it may be possible to replace the figure with a citation.
Following advice from the COPE Forum, the editor contacted the journal of the previous publication. The journal is proceeding with an expression of concern to explain the issues. The editor considers the case closed.