Case text (Anonymised)
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The rector at author D’s institution contacted the editor of journal A stating that they have found what they evidently consider to be serious misconduct in an article written by author D and the rector requested author D to retract the paper from journal A but author D refused to do so. The institution contacted journal A to say that the institution’s name should not be connected with the article and the institution believes that this misconduct should be known to journal A’s readers immediately. The suspected misconduct by author D was that in figure X each lane was taken from different gels that were combined together, according to the rector.
Journal A investigated the situation by communicating with author D. Journal A confirmed that the ‘representative’ western blot image of figure X in the accepted version is a composite photo comprising band images from different gels. Journal A requested author D to retract the paper. However, author D refused to do so. Instead, author D is proposing to publish an addendum containing a new gel figure with all of the controls. Author D has admitted that figure X was a composite from different gels; however, author D’s apparent view is that the data are not flawed. Journal A knows that the journal has a right to retract the paper at their discretion according to the COPE guidelines but journal A would not like to retract the paper. At the same time, journal A feels that this misconduct also should be known to readers immediately as suggested by the rector at the author’s institution.
Journal A believes this fits the situation where an ‘Expression of concern’ should be published, according to COPE’s guideline as author D’s institution and author D have not reached common ground.
Journal A replied to author D’s institution that they will publish an ‘Expression of concern’ instead of retracting the paper for now, as author D is refusing to retract the paper. Also, journal A told the rector that if author D keeps refusing to retract the paper, journal A will publish an addendum as author D requests. The rector at author D’s institution replied to journal A that they still believe that the paper should be retracted and that the institution’s name could not be associated with the article.
Following communication with the authors and the institution, journal A is now thinking it is time to publish an expression of concern anyway as the authors and institution cannot reach agreement and this should be known to readers as soon as possible.
Our question to COPE is:
Would it be appropriate to publish an expression of concern in this situation?
The Forum was told that the editor has now decided that he would like to retract the article. According to the COPE retraction guidelines, an editor can retract an article even without the author’s consent. In the current situation, it is a question of whether the editor feels that there is a mistake in just this one figure or if there are problems with other aspects of the paper. He must decide if the best way of setting the record straight is to retract or correct. If he feels that only the figure is incorrect, but the rest of the paper is reliable, then he should publish a correction. However, if the editor has more serious concerns, they he should consider retracting the paper.
The Forum suggested that as the institution is involved, the editor should ask the institution if they have conducted a formal investigation. If they have not, the editor should request that the institution conduct an investigation into this matter. The editor could base the wording of the retraction on the results of this investigation. The Forum noted that the retraction notice does not have to accuse the author of deliberate misconduct. It should simply state the facts. The retraction notice can also list which authors have agreed to the retraction and so the editor was advised to contact the other authors and ask them for an explanation and see if they are aware of the situation.
The Forum warned against publishing an expression of concern. An expression of concern should only be published if there is an unresolved, ongoing investigation or if the evidence is inconclusive. Most agreed that the evidence was strong here, but the editor needs to get the institution to investigate. Another suggestion for the future was to publish guidance to authors on how to present images when submitting a paper.
The journal published a retraction. The editor considers the case now closed.