Dr X submitted a paper to a journal that was assigned by a rather hung-over editorial assistant to an associate editor who was a co-author on the paper. Realising the mistake, she emailed the associate editor to reassign the paper. He expressed surprise as he did not know Dr X, had not seen the paper before submission, and knew of no reason why he should be a co-author.
Dr X was asked to explain and account for all the co-authors’ accreditations. From his reply it was clear that he did not understand the requirements for authorship as the associate editor was listed as having been the inspiration for several of his papers.
A decision was taken to contact the head of department who also appeared on the paper as the final co-author, asking him to clarify the accreditations given by Dr X. The head of department replied:
“I share your concern regarding the proper use of the authorship credit. As the Chair of the Department, it is my responsibility to provide academic and professional guidance within the department for all of our students, including our post doctoral associates. This includes developing and disseminating an accurate understanding of what “authorship” means academically.
Upon reading your email I was at first quite surprised to see my name listed as a co-author. My second thought was that the questions that you raised with respect to co-authorship are related to the relative naivety of Dr X. He has only been in this country and at this university for the past three months.
Earlier today I met with both Professor Y, who is Dr X’s faculty sponsor, and Dr X. We discussed your concerns and questions in detail, as well as the greater implications of the ethical principals of authorship. During that meeting it became clear to both Dr X and myself that the inappropriate crediting of authorship was not intentional and instead represents a cultural misunderstanding. Dr X used the author title as an honorific with some of the persons he identified. It was his belief that such a practice was expected and condoned in this country.
Professor Y did not catch this error since Dr X submitted the manuscript to your journal without his review and input. Your email and the resulting meeting allowed me to fully explain this misunderstanding to Dr X in hopes that he does not make similar mistakes in the future. It also provided a mechanism by which Professor Y and I could explain the responsibilities of an author in properly submitting a manuscript for review and publication.”
The head of department asked Dr X to:
Withdraw the manuscript from consideration for publication while all the issues related to authorship are resolved.
Make clear that the work described was conducted in his country of origin and not at this university, should he resubmit.
Work with Professor Y to ensure that any future articles for publication meet the highest ethical and professional standards.
Is this case resolved?
This issue is worth writing about, but by someone who is not already involved in the case.
There could perhaps be three related articles: one investigative journalism piece; one on the science; and another on the data analysis.
In a paper detailing a physiological study of healthy human volunteers the authors stated that ethics committee approval had been granted and that the participants had given informed consent. After peer review the paper was revised and accepted.
During the production phase the journal received an email from a researcher who was reviewing another paper from the same authors for a different journal. The reviewer had been sent the draft of the “paper in press” to provide additional information for the submission being reviewed. The reviewer was concerned that both studies were unethical on the grounds that the preparation being administered to the volunteers was insufficiently pure and had not been previously tested thoroughly in animals.
The editors asked for clarification and also sought a translation of the consent form. The authors provided further verification from the ethics committee, and argued that the animal testing was not a legal or ethical requirement at the time of their study. The reviewer and authors still disagree. The consent form seems to lack information on potential side effects, but the authors’ previous preliminary research had not revealed any adverse reactions.
This warrants further investigation.
It may be helpful to find more referees in this area and subject the paper to further peer review.
The Editors’ Code of Conduct emphasises that even with ethical approval, a study may not be ethical.
Write to the editor of the other journal outlining the concerns.
A group of authors, based in private practice, submitted three manuscripts to Journal A and one to Journal B. All the manuscripts described the application and effectiveness of a spinal manipulation technique.
The first manuscript in Journal A was a case series of 21 patients. After publication, a member of the journal’s editorial board pointed out several flaws in the study design, including the fact that the authors did not say whether consent had been obtained from the patients. The editorial board member was invited to post a comment detailing his concerns; he has not done so yet.
The second manuscript in Journal A was a case report describing the application of the technique on a patient with a rare spinal disease. The manuscript was rejected on the grounds of poor quality. A reviewer also said that the authors should not be able to make a claim about the effectiveness of this technique when it was only being applied to one patient, and when one of the authors was the director of the institute that “invented” and promotes the technique. This was not picked up during peer review, partly because the author was less than clear about his competing interests.
The third manuscript in Journal A was another case report describing the technique being tested on one patient. The manuscript was rejected before peer review for this very reason.
The manuscript in Journal B was rejected after peer review. The lack of ethical approval for the study concerned the reviewer, who suggested that the results might have been fabricated because the manuscript involved the treatment of 50 patients, and in the past he had peer reviewed two manuscripts by the same authors presenting exactly the same results from the treatment of only 15 patients.
When the author was questioned about ethics approval, he said that he had previously gained consent from a specialist research society for his original study of15 patients. But when this manuscript was rejected, he retrospectively looked at some more patients to make the number up to 50. He said that he did not think retrospective case studies had to be approved by a review board. The webpage for the specialist research society cannot be located.
Do retrospective case studies require ethical approval?
Can we ask the authors for proof of ethics approval for their previous study of 15 patients?
Could it be applied to the later retrospective study or do researchers normally have to re-apply for approval?
Should we further investigate the suggestion that the author may have fabricated the results?
What do we do if we can’t actually locate the people from whom they allegedly obtained ethics approval?
A new intervention would require ethics committee approval.
It seems very odd not to have included the other 35 patients.
A real retrospective study does not require ethical approval
From whom do authors in private practice obtain ethics approval?
With no institution involved is it very difficult to take action.
Get a statistician to look over the data.
Find out who certifies the authors and send a letter to their oversight group.
Contact the relevant research misconduct agency.
Write to the authors, asking for details of ethics committee approval and the address of the board.
The editor in chief of Journal A is also on the editorial board of Journal B. Journal B publishes “annual reviews” that purport to describe recent advances in the field, but only do this by discussing and citing their own content. The editor in chief of Journal A now wants to have “annual reviews” in his journal to help increase the impact factor.
In your experience, is this standard practice?
If not, how do we convince the editor-in-chief to change his mind?
The ISI should have mechanisms to stamp this practice out.
The practice is very prevalent, and well known reviews significantly increase the impact factor and this is bad practice.
External editors see it is as standard practice, and journals can ask for citation to make it easier for the reader, but where to draw the line?
The editor in chief of a journal started insisting that authors include references from the journal in their articles. S/he provided examples of acceptance letters from several other journals in the field, which insist that their authors do this, as evidence that it is standard and acceptable practice. The authors do not agree and think this is an unethical attempt to massage the impact factor. But they are struggling to convince the editor-in-chief.
If you agree we should not include the journal references, how do we convince an editor-in-chief who sees his competitors doing it?
An editorial board member of a journal submitted an unsolicited review article on a drug. The editor said the journal would consider the article, but suspected that the article had been commissioned or even written by a drugs company. S/he stipulated that the author must provide a financial disclosure statement before the article could be accepted. The journal published the review article, which had been refereed by two independent reviewers. The author disclosed in his competing interests that he had been a paid consultant for the company that markets the drug. Several months after publication, an agent for the drug company ordered reprints of the article. The agent requested the wording: “This literature review was supported by [X]” be included on the cover sheet of each reprint. The agent was advised that this statement could not be added because the author had not disclosed it. The agent insisted, so the journal contacted the author. The author asked: “Does the final article have these words or something that states the article was in part supported by [X]?” A copy of the agent’s wording and the competing interest statement from the published article were sent to the author, who replied that he was fine with it as long as the publisher was. The author was then asked to explain the extent of the drug company’s involvement in writing the review article. The author replied that the competing interest statement in the article was accurate; the review had been written independently of any pharmaceutical company, and that the requested statement from the agent was inappropriate. The author was contacted again to point out the contradiction in his two replies. At the same time the agent was asked to question the drug company as to whether it had paid the author to write the review, and to confirm the extent to which the drug company had been involved in preparation of the manuscript. The agent did not reply; neither did the drug company. Eventually, the agent cancelled the reprint order. The author finally replied to confirm that he had been confused by the original request, thinking that clarification of whether he was a paid consultant to the drug company was required. He said that when it became apparent in a follow-up email that the drug company wanted the extra statement added, he realised it was inappropriate. The author assured the editors that the drug company would write a letter of explanation soon. The letter has yet to arrive.
- This case raises serious concerns. The connection was not made clear and this is a full conflict of interest. - The paper should be retracted. - The author should be asked explicitly if s/he had been paid by drug companies to write this review.
A letter was sent to an editor, claiming that scientific misconduct had taken place in Russia. The editor did not want to ignore the issue, which was not related to submitted papers and could not be published as a letter. But s/he was unsure what action to take.
This would be best pursued as an investigative news story.
Ten days after receiving an article for consideration, a group of editors received an email from the publisher informing them that the particular author in question had recently submitted nine articles to their journals, eight of which had been submitted in the previous seven weeks. Based on the similarity of the titles, the publisher had concerns about possible duplicate submission and had written to the author to request clarification. The author replied, insisting that, with the exception of one article that had been submitted twice to the same journal by mistake, all manuscripts were unique and should be treated as such. The editorial board had already decided to reject the manuscript before being alerted to the publisher’s suspicions. But the case raises questions about the mutual responsibilities of publishers and editors in communicating confidential information in such situations. It is still not clear whether duplicate (or inappropriate multiple) submission actually took place.
- Multiple submissions to journals are likely to become more common as journals increasingly share common submission systems. Duplicate submission is a serious ethical issue. - The publisher was right to inform the editors of the duplicate submission. - Once identified the editors are responsible for contacting the author and taking the issue forward. - Editors should share information on authors. Submission is confidential, but not if an author breaches the journal’s guidelines. - Publishers and editors all need to raise their game in this area. - Ask the author to supply all the other papers and to make a statement that there has been no duplicate publication. - If no satisfactory answer is forthcoming, the editor should contact the institution.
The case of a patient with unresolved upper abdominal pain and weight loss was written up and submitted by her family doctor to a journal that publishes interactive case reports. The intention was to present it as an unfolding story in three parts over five weeks. Responses would be invited on the journal’s website from readers to questions about diagnosis and management, and about what to say to the patient. Several expert commentaries would be commissioned to accompany the third part of the case history. Patients are always asked to give written consent to publication. And the authors are asked to explain that the case will be discussed “live” on the journal’s website and to invite the patient to read the rapid responses and write a commentary about their health and experience of having their story discussed in this way. To date, the patient’s real first and family names have been used in these case reports, with their consent, and they have described patients whose problems have been resolved. Would it therefore be ethical to publish this unresolved case, given that the patient may be exposed to all sorts of opinions on her health, some of which may be very frightening? Can consent in this situation be truly informed?
- There is a duty of care to safeguard the patient’s psychological health. - The potential harm is completely unpredictable. - Why is the patient named? This will only increase the possibility of harm. - This is tantamount to “reality medicine,” akin to a Victorian freak show. - The patient should not take part as it is not in their best interests. - It would be difficult to obtain consent in this case, as it is a work in progress with huge risks.
A complaint of redundant publication was made by a reader, who claimed that a second paper had been published in the journal, after the first had already been published elsewhere. No permission letter was obtained by the author of the second paper and the first paper had not been cited.
- The editors should write to the authors and publish a retraction. - The editors should write to the authors’ institutions.
The editors decided not to write to the authors' institutions, but they have taken steps to write to the authors and publish a retraction.