About a month after our journal (Journal A) published a paper (Paper X), the journal received emails from readers that Paper X was very similar to a paper (Paper Y) that had just been published by another journal (Journal B). Some of these emails were sent to both journal offices. Paper X was submitted to Journal A a few days before Paper Y was submitted to Journal B and Paper X was published in Journal A about 3 weeks before Paper Y. The two paper superficially do not look similar and Paper X contains results that are not in Paper Y. However, the two papers also contain highly similar results and make similar key conclusions. Truth be told, all of the additional results presented in Paper X were added during revisions. The authors of Paper X knew that Paper Y had been accepted by Journal B by the time they submitted the first revision of Paper X to Journal A
The authors of these two papers overlap significantly and the two co-corresponding authors are the same. We contacted the authors. The authors pointed out the obvious differences between the two papers and a few minor differences that most readers would not detect, and insisted that the results reported in these two papers were obtained separately rather than the same results reported in two papers. In addition to those readers who sent emails to us, the reviewers of Paper X and a few editorial board members of Journal A who read these two papers all agreed that the two papers were highly similar.
We contacted the office of Journal B and the Editor, and received a message from the managing editor of Journal B that the Editor of Journal B had asked for and received an explanation from the authors and was satisfied with the explanation.
I would like the Forum’s advice on how to handle this case, in particular as it seems that Journal B will not take any further action.
(1) Given that the paper was submitted to Journal A earlier and published in Journal A earlier than in Journal B, albeit only a few days, would retraction by Journal A be appropriate?
(2) If the authors indeed did something wrong, would a simple Concerns on Duplicate Publication be sufficient? Would banning the authors from publishing in Journal A for a few years be appropriate?
(3) Are there other options?
The Forum agreed, regardless of what the other journal does, the editor should publish a notice of concern. If it becomes clear that the data are the same, then the editor should consider publishing a notice of duplication. It is COPE’s policy not to encourage banning authors or to apply any other sanctions, partly because of the risk of litigation.
The Forum was interested in whether or not journal B was a member of COPE, as if this were the case, the chair of COPE would be prepared to write to the editor.
The case is being investigated by the author’s institution.
As mentioned in the last update to this case, this case was being investigated by the authors’ institution. A response was received from a Pro-Vice-Chancellor and Vice-President of the university. According to this letter, the investigation group consisted of one external expert (who coincidentally is a member of Journal A’s editorial board) and two university professors. The Group’s report was discussed by the Vice-Chancellor and some senior leaders of the university, including the Pro-Vice-Chancellor and Vice-President who sent a response to the editor, and has been accepted by the university. Because this response was sent as a hardcopy instead of an electronic file, a summary of the key findings and conclusions of this investigation are shown below by directly copying appropriate statements from the response.
“The Group was informed by (the authors) that the two studies—were conducted in two consecutive time periods with completely different patients, and the number of cell lines used were not the same.” “The Group saw some raw data supplied by (the authors)”. “Based on the findings reported by the Group, the Vice-Chancellor and I are satisfied with the explanation that the data reported in the two papers came from two sets of experiments, and there is no evidence that the data were altered for the purpose of publication in two different papers”. “(The) Group pointed out that there appeared to have been significant double publication of a large portion of the (Journal B) paper’s data in the (Journal A) paper”. “Yet, the Investigation Group noted the defence of the co-corresponding authors—that the two studies had been conducted with two different patient groups in two different time periods, with the second study having some modifications of protocol and methodology”. “The Group’s report stopped short of saying that duplicate publication of the same data had indeed happened, although the Group made it clear that reporting similar data in different publications without proper referencing was not good practice, which the university entirely agrees.” “Our Vice-Chancellor intends to issue a letter of reprimand to the lead/co-corresponding author” “Another letter will be sent by the Vice-Chancellor to the other co-corresponding author reminding him of his proper responsibilities as a senior author and a department head in ensuring that commonly accepted codes of practice in the academic and research community, not to mention the university’s relevant policy, should be followed by researchers under his guidance.” “The university has accepted the Group’s report, and has advised the authors of the (Journal A) paper of the University’s decision accordingly.”
Journal A is satisfied with this investigation conducted by the authors’ institution, and the communication regarding proper author/researcher conduct in publications from the authors’ institution to these authors.