Author A published a paper in Journal X, which presented evidence of failure by another research group to declare a serious conflict of interest in a paper that had been published some years before in Journal Y. This conflict of interest centred around the undeclared involvement of a third party with a vested interest. Evidence for this was presented in the form of correspondence from the third party stating explicitly that they had developed the work and written a draft of the paper. The paper reached conclusions which had significant favourable policy implications for the third party.
A year later, the research group submitted a response to Journal X, in which they strenuously denied Author A’s conclusions. They accused Author A of libel for suggesting that this undeclared involvement had taken place. They stated “We conceived of this paper, collected the data on which it was based, performed the statistical analyses, wrote the manuscript, and had the final say as to what went into it.”
Most importantly, the research group stated explicitly that they had had no contact with the third party other than to obtain some publicly available, although expensive, information. This remark was made in the context of their emphatic denial that the third party had had any role in the conception, data analysis and preparation of the manuscript.
The editor of Journal X asked Author A, along with three other reviewers, to review the research group’s reply. Each reviewer raised significant criticisms, which prompted the editor to request a radical resubmission from the research group.
Author A’s review presented authentic documentary evidence in the form of correspondence between the third party and the research group. This referred explicitly to research being undertaken on the same data used in the published paper. This contradictory evidence thus revealed thor the the research group had made a serious misleading statement in their original reply to Journal X.
The research group duly resubmitted their revised response. Critically, it did not contain the statement they had originally made, but reiterated that the third party had had no role in their published research.
Author A was shown their revised response and invited to write a reply for simultaneous publication. He was advised that he could not refer to the statement in his reply because this no longer appeared in the revised manuscript. Author A’s response however, did reference the contradictory evidence, in the process of reiterating that the research group had failed to establish that the third party had not been involved in their original paper.
Journal X then accepted both submissions. But the research group withdrew their reply, compelling the withdrawal of Author A’s reply, because it relied on the publication of the research group’s response.
The editors felt the research group had submitted a misleading statement, which they imagined would never be revealed as such, and intended that it would constitute a defence for why they had not declared the involvement of a significant vested interest in their original paper to Journal Y. Had the editor not chosen to select Author A as a reviewer, this intended deception might never have never been revealed.
The review process allowed the authors to sanitise their reply for eventual publication. The editor, Author A, and the research group thus remain the only people who know about this. By withdrawing the paper, the research group may have calculated that they would thus avoid the embarrassment of having the contradictory evidence exposed.
- When authors attempt to mislead readers and are found to have done so during the review process, do editors have any right or duty to publicise such attempts in their journals?
- When authors withdraw a paper, do editors have any right to override that withdrawal?
- Should the editors’ duty go beyond taking the matter up with the authors’ institutions?
- Notwithstanding his agreement that the review process is confidential, should Author A have any right or duty to publicise his experience in uncovering this attempt at deception?
- It was intriguing that the authors denied the allegation, when they seem to have lied and tried to cover up what they had done.
- It was not clear if the lead author was a university employee.
- Editors do have a right to publicise attempts to mislead; it is also in the public’s interest.
- The editor should publish and be damned, but after having sought legal advice.
- The journal should write a very strong letter to the author's institution.
- Author A should have the right to publicise his experience of uncovering deception.