During the review process for a manuscript submitted to our journal, one of the reviewers alerted us that the manuscript appeared to be the work of a collaborator (Dr X) who was not listed as an author on the paper. It became clear that the manuscript’s corresponding author (Dr Y, affiliation A) was a postdoctoral researcher supervised by Dr X (previously at affiliation A, recently moved to affiliation B). A third researcher, Dr Z, was an author on the manuscript and at an institution in a different country.
We asked Dr X whether they were aware of the manuscript from their postdoctoral researcher, Dr Y. Dr X was not aware and stated that Dr Y was funded solely by Dr X’s grant, and that they were working on a similar manuscript for submission elsewhere. Dr X requested that we withdraw the paper.
We asked Dr Y to confirm whether the author list on the paper was complete and to provide us with funding details. Dr Y replied that there were no other authors, and that the work was completely self-funded.
Question(s) for the COPE Forum
Should the journal contact the author's institution (and/or the supervisor's institution) to investigate?
Should the journal withdraw the manuscript from consideration at this stage, or wait for the results of an investigation?
The editor updated the Forum that the journal had contacted the author's institution. It seems that the supervisor, Dr X, is in the process of moving to a new institution but is still at the same institution as the first author. The department chair said that they will look into the matter. The journal told Dr Y that they had contacted the institution and Dr Y asked to withdraw the paper. The journal withdrew the paper as requested but let the institution and author's postdoctoral advisor know that the paper had been withdrawn. The institution is continuing their investigation.
Author Y is stating that this work is under their own funding even though they put their affiliation as the institution where they are employed and supervised by Dr X. How should institutional affiliations be reported correctly or what constitutes a misrepresentation of an institutional affiliation? Perhaps there is some form of misrepresentation here. Editors should be able to validate whether affiliations that are reported by authors are real. They should be publicly verifiable. According to the American Psychological Association (APA), institutional affiliations should be included to the extent that the institutions have contributed substantially to the research being done or to the paper that is being produced from that research.
As Dr X stated they were working on a similar manuscript for submission elsewhere, withdrawal of the article seems a reasonable response by the journal.
The paper was withdrawn. The editor contacted the institution and they said that they are conducting their own investigation.
A whistle blower contacted journal A regarding two published articles. The articles focus on the effect of energy healing on an in-vitromodel of disease. The whistle blower raised concerns about the appropriateness and reproducibility of the energy healing methodology used.
The authors were contacted to provide an explanation of the methodology as there was a lack of clarity in the articles. The corresponding author responded with a clear explanation of how they implemented the study but concerns about how this would be reproduced by others persisted.
Consequently, a post-publication peer review was conducted. Unfortunately, the post-publication peer review provided no comment on the energy healing methodology that was implemented. The reviewer focused only on the methodological elements that gave no cause for concern, and summarised that the methods are suitable and valid.
Given this review, the editor who handled the manuscript feels that no editorial action is required. However, concerns surrounding the energy healing methodology and its reproducibility remain. It has been suggested that the reviewer is contacted again for an assessment of the specific energy healing techniques used in these studies.
Question(s) for the COPE Forum
If the reviewer or the handling editor determine that the methodology is sound but not reproducible, how should the journal proceed?
A suggestion from the Forum was perhaps to ask at least one other post-publication peer reviewer to specifically comment on this particular issue.
This is an ongoing problem in this field. Some techniques that people use for healing touch and many other types of hands-on healing are difficult to standardise. People who work in this field and use this technology most likely understand this and so the problem is probably more for people who are uninitiated. A suggestion was that there needs to be commentary in the article by the author about the difficulties of reproducing the techniques if that was not sufficiently addressed in the discussion.
A discussion of the limitations of the study could be addressed in the journal, through the usual post publication discussion process or letters to the editor.
Another view was that in a scientific publication, if the method is not reproducible, then it is not considered science. Reproducibility is the foundation to science and so if it is not reproducible, should it be published? However, the post publication review suggested the methodology is sound.