A publisher is responding to allegations about a particular group of authors. The complainants have accused this group of authors of wide scale research fabrication and misconduct, relating to a large number of their papers across many different journals (published by a variety of publishers).
The publisher and the journals that are investigating and responding to these claims have referred the concerns to the institution responsible for the research governance of the authors. The institution said they would investigate and respond by a certain date, but their response is slightly overdue.
Question(s) for the COPE Forum
Should an expression of concern be published while waiting for the outcome from the institution?
One of the journals has received another submitted paper by the same group of authors. Should the paper undergo normal peer review, or should it be delayed because of the unresolved investigation about the other papers?
Should different publishers/journals share information with each other about cases that involve multiple papers and journals? If so, how should the information be shared with others?
COPE typically advises that cases should be handled and judged individually. A new submission should not automatically be dismissed from being peer reviewed, but the editor may wish to consider additional precautions in its review. One suggestion is to ask the author to provide all of the raw data or any underlying images. The journal may wish to do additional statistical analysis to see whether there are unlikely patterns in the data.
Communication with other editors might be fruitful where there are duplications among different papers in different journals across publications. Otherwise, the editor should try to respect confidentiality. The editor should look at their own journal independently of other journals. It is not appropriate to correct or retract a paper just because there are problems with other papers.
The case has been with two publishers for more than a year. Journal A at publisher A published article A by author A, affiliated to institution A and institution B (in another country), and author B affiliated to institution B. Journal B at publisher B then published article B, by the same authors and affiliations. The two articles are on closely related research.
Shortly after publication of article A and before publication of article B, a senior colleague of author A at institution A contacted publisher A asking for article A to be retracted. The claimant said author A had left institution A after the submission to journal A but before publication. The claimant alleged that author A used other researchers’ data without permission and used the affiliation without approval (breaching an agreement signed by author A), some data were unverified by institution A, and author B and institution B were not involved in the research. The other researchers alleged to have been involved were not acknowledged. These allegations were confirmed by the head of department at institution A.
Author A disputed this, saying they did do the work and were still affiliated to institution A (as confirmed by a letter signed by an institutional representative and a court document), and they were no longer subject to the agreement they were said to have breached because it had been terminated. Author B has not commented on the allegations and institution B has been uninvolved in the investigation.
Publisher A asked institution A to formally investigate. Institution A’s preliminary investigation confirmed grounds to suspect misconduct and they began a further investigation. At this point, institution A asked for the publication of an expressions of concern (EoC) to inform readers of the investigation, which both publishers agreed to. Author A asked for the EoCs to not be published due to ongoing legal action against institution A and the claimant and asked to be allowed to add comments to the EoCs if they were published, but each publisher posted the EoC without author A’s comments.
Several months later, an institutional representative asked for retraction based on author A not providing data to the investigation and doubts that the named authors were the only ones who contributed to the research. Institution A said author A had taken further legal action against institution A, but nevertheless asked for the articles to be retracted due to misconduct by author A. Institution A stated that there will be no further investigation of, or action against, author B.
The publishers have not been given details of the investigation report or findings. Author A still denied misconduct and said they had not been given evidence of this, and confirmed their ongoing legal action against institution A.
Question(s) for the COPE Forum
One option may be to update the EoCs to note the finding of institution A’s investigation of misconduct and their request for retraction. Is this reasonable in the absence of detail on the institution’s findings and in light of the ongoing legal action (which the institution admits is continuing)?
Institution A is pressing for retractions and presumably legal proceedings could be dragged out by author A. Does institution A have the authority to force retractions while civil legal proceedings are underway?
Can the publishers insist on seeing the findings of the institutional investigation?
Generally, it is best if journals do not get involved in legal arguments. The advice would be not to proceed with the requested retraction while there are ongoing legal proceedings. The Forum acknowledge this is not a perfect solution as legal proceedings can be lengthy.
However, the journal might take the stance that until the institution or the author who complained states exactly what is wrong with the article, the article will stand, and no action will be taken. It is unreasonable to ask a journal to retract an article or take action without a clear explanation of the problems with the content of the article. Also, it is not the journal’s role to be a mediator or to follow the demands of any one party. Hence the journal should be cautious about making a permanent decision while there are ongoing legal proceedings.
The Forum advised the journal to follow the advice of their own legal team.
The publisher informed the institution and the author that no further action would be taken while legal proceedings are ongoing. The institution did not reply. The publisher asked the author to provide the full document of the application to the court and expected timings, but those details have not been provided yet. Further delays due to the COVID-19 pandemic are expected.
A publisher was alerted to possible issues with band duplication in an article (more than 10 years old) by a reader. The corresponding author was contacted to resolve the issue. The author was unable to provide a satisfactory explanation for the bands, and because of the age of the article, the original data were no longer available. The institution was asked to investigate; a summary of the case was provided and the similarities in the bands using an open source tool were highlighted.
When the publisher received a copy of the investigatory committee’s report, it was clear that the institution had focused on the use of the software tool exclusively. The institution concluded that the software was not a validated tool, and so there was no basis for concluding that the blots in question were duplicated or improperly altered. The contact person also stated that it was not the institution's place to comment on whether the data in the publication were sound and trustworthy.
The publisher pointed out that the software was not used to detect problems with the paper—it was simply a tool to provide a visual demonstration of the similarities between the blots. The publisher stated that they would have raised this issue regardless of whether the tool was available. They explained their expectation and experience that institutions initiate inquiries into potential ethics cases raised by journals and comment specifically on whether the conclusions are still sound. The publisher asked again that the committee investigate the scientific issues raised about this paper; the institution declined.
Next step being considered are sending the paper to one of publisher’s editors who has relevant scientific expertise, or to an independent adviser, asking them to advise on whether the conclusions are still supported if the blots in question are unreliable. The publisher is also considering sending the paper to an independent ethics expert to verify that there are potential problems with the blots.
If it can be verified independently that there are potential problems with the blots, there are two courses of action: (1) if the adviser finds that the conclusions are still sound, issue an expression of concern/publisher's note highlighting the specific blots and detailing the steps taken so that readers can make their own decision about the data; (2) if our adviser finds that the conclusions are not sound, retract the paper. The publisher would tell the institution the route they plan to take.
Question(s) for the COPE Forum
Are the publisher’s plans reasonable, or is there a better course of action?
Regardless of whether an expression of concern/publisher's note is published, or the paper is retracted, is it reasonable to quote from the report of the institution so that readers know the institution refused to investigate?
Should the publisher consider contacting the relevant funding agencies?
The Forum suggested that if an institution is not willing or unable to investigate, one potential option might be to contact the original funders listed in the paper, or to contact any regional integrity offices, if these exist.
COPE’s retraction guidelines state "When editors or journals have credible grounds to suspect misconduct, this should be brought to the attention of the authors’ institutions as early as possible, but the decision to correct or retract an article should be made by the journal and does not necessarily depend on an institutional finding of misconduct." This scenario is common—often institutions do not conduct investigations or do not provide a definitive answer to questions raised by the journal.
If the editor feels that the data are unreliable or might be misleading, then the paper should be retracted. Getting further expert opinion to support the concerns of the editor is good practice. If the editor decides to retract, the retraction notice should explain why the journal believes that the findings are unreliable. The editor should inform the institution and the authors in advance, with the wording of the notice, and give them a chance to respond.
However, if the editor is uncertain of the integrity or the data or cannot resolve the concerns because the data are not available, then an expression of concern could be published, which could change to a retraction if the institution confirms there has been misconduct. The institution would need to investigate further. The expression of concern could state that the institution has been contacted but that the concerns have not been resolved.
Another option might be to ask the reader who brought up the issue to write a commentary and allow others to dig deeper into the issue.
In general, journals or publishers cannot always depend on an institution when deciding whether or not to retract an article because standards differ across institution. A journal needs to adhere to its own policies and not necessarily to what the institute thinks is appropriate.
The editor prepared an expression of concern for publication in the journal and is awaiting the authors’ agreement on the wording.