Unethical private practice

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Case text (Anonymised)

This single author manuscript describes the treatment of 300 women with psychological problems. The women were randomised to either therapy or pharmacological intervention, and this study reports the relative effectiveness of these strategies.

At submission, the manuscript did not contain any mention of ethics approval, consent or trial registration. When the author was queried on these issues, he claimed that the study was performed ethically, but that he did not have ethical approval because he did the study privately, and is not associated with any organization or institution. Since he had listed his affiliation with university X, we questioned how he had access to these patients. The author responded that he runs a private practice, and that he wanted to mention university X out of “personal interest”, and to please remove the name of the institution from his submission.

This author does not have a Scopus or PubMed record, or an institutional email address. Upon searching for his email address in Google, we identified two papers that appear to have been published by this author in journal A and journal B, neither of which is indexed in Scopus or PubMed.

We have contacted university X through their general email address to alert them of this individual, since he appears to be using their name in an unauthorized context, but have not received a response. We contacted the author to express our concerns and inform him that we would keep his file open until the issue has been resolved, but received no response. We attempted to contact the author’s medical council to report this individual, but were unable to find contact information as their website is not in English. We also contacted journal A and journal B to notify them of our concerns, in the event that they also wished to investigate this author; neither journal has responded.

Two months later, we re-sent the notification to university X general email address and received an out of office response.

We would greatly appreciate any suggestions on whether there is anything further we can do other than to reject the manuscript.


The Forum suggested that the editor has a duty to pursue this further and to continue to try and make contact with the author and the institution. Suggestions were to send an email to a specific person or department at the institution, not just use the general institution email; find out the name of the vice-chancellor or head of the department; locate a phone number or email contact for the secretariat in charge of the department; find someone to translate the information on the website. The university needs to know that their name is being used in this context by this author, and they need to start an investigation. The Forum also advised contacting journals A and B again. Are there any co-authors on the other papers? If so, the editor should try to contact them. Does the journal have any editorial board members in this country who could tell the editor the relevant person to contact?

If the editor still gets no response, another suggestion was for him to write an editorial on this issue.

Follow up: 

Based on advice from the COPE forum, we have again attempted to contact the institution through their general email address—we have still not been successful in identifying a personal contact at the institution. Our next step will be to find someone to help us translate the website or an editorial board member who may be able to help us identify a committee or other point of contact in the author’s region.