Suspected image manipulation involving four journals
Case text (Anonymised)
Editorial office staff at journal A noticed possible image manipulation in two figures of a new paper submitted by author X. These suspected manipulations involved images of gels which appeared to contain multiple duplicated bands. This prompted editorial staff to look at the submission history of author X to journal A in more detail.
It was found that author X had previously submitted to journal A numerous times. All previous submissions had been rejected for reasons unrelated to the concerns raised here but one paper had been accepted for publication. Unfortunately, this author X paper which journal A had published appeared to contain possible band duplications in two gel images, as did an earlier submission which had been rejected at the start of 2015. As at least three papers received by journal A from author X has suspected image problems, authors X’s recent publication history was examined.
Similar possible gel issues along with a suspected image duplication relating to a photo of bacterial colonies were identified in three papers published in three different journals (journals B, C and D). Two members of editorial staff along with the editor-in-chief of journal A have considered all of the suspected issues and feel confident they are legitimate. As it currently stands, journal A has rejected the most recent submission from author X on the grounds of possible gel issues identified. However, the suspected issues identified in the four published papers in journals A, B, C and D were not mentioned in the rejection letter to allow time for an appropriate course of action to be decided.
As the paper was only recently (12 August) rejected by journal A, it has yet to hear back from author X, if indeed it does at all.
Journal A feels that it is important that journals B, C and D are made aware of the issues in the papers they have published. However, they also feel that it is important that they are made aware of all of the papers involved so they can appreciate the full picture as this may determine how they choose to handle the issues in their own respective journals.
Question(s) for the COPE Forum
• Would COPE advise that journal A contacts journals B, C and D at this stage? If so, what sort of information could legitimately be provided to the other journals? Should Journal A provide journals B, C and D with copies of all of the papers involved, including the unpublished papers submitted to journal A which were rejected without review? Would this breech confidentiality or would the importance for full enclosure trump confidentiality concerns in this situation? As most of the suspected issues only become apparent when the brightness/contrast levels of images is adjusted, journal A has put together PowerPoint files for each respective paper involved to highlight the possible issues identified. Would COPE advise providing copies of these PowerPoint files to journals B, C and D so they are under no doubt about the possible issues identified or could this be considered a defamatory action in the (what we feel unlikely) event journal A is mistaken over these issues?
• What type of action would COPE recommend the journals take should all agree with the issues identified? Would retraction be called for, considering the numbers of papers involved? Should author X’s institution be contacted? Journal A feels it is important that these issues are addressed but also feels somewhat uncomfortable with the idea of having a hand in potentially destroying someone’s career and livelihood.
• Journal A has not looked any further beyond the papers mentioned above as every published author X paper examined appeared to have potential issues so a line had to be drawn somewhere. However, journal A suspects that there may be other papers from author X in the literature with similar possible issues. Who is responsible for checking the publication history of author X for issues? Would it be author X’s institution should you recommend this be referred to them?
The Forum warned against rejecting the manuscript at this stage as the paper will then be out of the jurisdiction of the journal, and it is likely the author will submit it to another journal.
The Forum advised contacting the other journals but the editor should not share specific data immediately with the other editors. The editor should share the minimum amount of information with the other editors but in a neutral manner, without accusations or blame. The COPE guidelines "Sharing of Information Among Editors-in-Chief Regarding Possible Misconduct" (http://publicationethics.org/files/Sharing%20_of_Information_Among_EiCs_...) provides practical guidance on this issue.
The Forum were in agreement that the matter should be reported to the institution. The institution is the only body with access to the data and it is up to them to investigate. The journal is not in a position to do this. The editor should inform them of the analysis, but not the results. It would send a stronger message if the editors of the other journals were also to contact the institution, or if all of the editors were to approach the institution together.
The published papers must be dealt with on a case by case basis, and handled by correction or retraction as appropriate.
For the future, the Forum suggested updating the journal's instructions to authors with a statement saying that the journal reserves the right to contact other editors or the authors' institutions in cases of suspected misconduct.
After further discussion with their publisher it was recommended that journal A should seek the opinion of an independent expert on the concerns raised about images in the published paper, the rationale being this would strengthen their case should the decision be made to retract. A suitable expert, who was unaffiliated with journal A, was approached and agreed with concerns about the images in the paper. As it was felt that the falsification of images raised sufficient doubt over subsequent interpretations of the data reported, the decision was made to retract the paper. A retraction statement is due for imminent publication in journal A.
When the retraction has been published, the editor-in-chief of journal A plans to contact the other journals involved and will make sure to follow the COPE guidelines for ‘Sharing of information among editors-in-chief regarding possible misconduct’.
Journal A will follow the Forum’s advice for updating the journal’s instructions to include a statement to the effect of “ the journal reserves the right to contact other editors or the authors' institutions in cases of suspected misconduct”.