Two authors submitted a case report which was interesting but not written in the style of the journal. The editor therefore invited the authors to rewrite the case report, and resubmit it. They did so within a week. The case report was sent out for peer review, accepted and published.
The head of department of one of the authors then wrote to the journal, stating that the case report had previously been published in a non-English language journal. Moreover, in that version of the case report, but not in the more recent version, the head of department had been listed as an author. The head of department had not been asked or informed about the submission to the British journal. The head of department gave the reference of the previous publication. The editor obtained the paper: it did indeed appear to be the same case, since it had essentially the same story and identical figures. The head of department was listed as an author, together with the two authors who had submitted the case report to the editor.
The authors had written a cover letter for each submission. Both cover letters stated that the case report had not been submitted to any other journal. They had been sent after the case report was published in the non-English language journal. The authors were contacted separately by email, and asked to explain the discrepancy. They were warned that if no satisfactory explanation was provided, the journal would have to retract the case report. At the time of writing, they have both written to say that they will provide an explanation, but have not yet done so.
The majority of the members of the Forum agreed that there were grounds for retraction of the paper. However, others argued that as the papers were in different languages, a “notice of duplicate publication” would be more appropriate. All agreed that this was a definite case of misconduct. There are two issues here: (1) the author issue in relation to the names on the two papers and (2) the duplicate publication issue. There may also be copyright issues with the first journal. The advice was to write to the author’s institution, but not in this case to the head of department as he may be unable to remain unbiased. It was suggested to write to the Dean of the university and ask him to investigate.
The authors wrote to us to say that the previous publication was not a scientific publication (ie, in a magazine rather than a journal). They said that the magazine had no editor, no peer reviewers and no signed author agreement. They sent us a photocopy of the instructions to authors, and highlighted a sentence saying “bear in mind that you are not writing a scientific publication”, from which they inferred that the magazine was not a scientific publication.
However, the publication is quite a well known journal in their country of origin. It does have an editor. It is indexed on PUBMED, as indeed was their original publication. The statement about “not writing a scientific publication” appeared to refer to the section, rather than to the journal as a whole: moreover, it was in the section “guide to style”, and hence appeared to be intended to encourage lucid writing.
We therefore retracted the publication.
We also wrote to the professor who had let us know about the duplicate publication, to thank him.
We received a case report from one of the authors of this paper, and the professor who had told us about the duplicate publication. We rejected it on the grounds that it was good, but not exceptional.
After a number of appeals and revisions, and having satisfied ourselves about the results being “too good to be true”, we eventually accepted a paper. In September 2007, we received a letter from the head of the institute (and also a member of the university ethics committee) expressing concern about the paper. The allegations were: the funding source could not be that acknowledged; the authors affiliations were not correct (some authors who were stated as being at his institute had never been members); and the trial had not been submitted to the local ethics committee. The authors provided us with a document signed by the head of the institute (complainant) stating that the author in question had been a member of his institute in the year that the trial was conducted. They also provided legal advice that they had complied completely with the law in force at the time of the trial. This was verified by the Minister of Health who sent a letter saying he had approved the trial as required by law. The authors acknowledged that the funding was erroneously attributed.
We are publishing a correction that makes clear the authors’ affiliations and the funding source, but we have no further concerns about ethics approval.
The Forum agreed that the editor had done everything he should and had followed the correct course of action.
June 2008 This case was brought to our attention by the head of institute (and member of the ethics committee) who told us that authors affiliations were incorrect and that ethics approval had not been appropriately sought. Our investigation suggested that ethics approval did meet the legal requirements and we stated in the previous report that we had no further concerns about the ethics of the study. Now new problems have become apparent.
It seems that there is a difference in legal opinion about the ethics approval requirements in force at the time of the study. There appear to be inconsistencies in the timings of submissions and approvals. Furthermore, there is currently a legal case against the authors concerning consent.
We have issued an expression of concern and are awaiting the outcomes of the court case and other investigations.
August 2008 We issued an expression of concern as we were made aware that there has been an investigation launched into the conduct of the study (after a patient’s court case and a parliamentary question) and that the trial registration number was invalid. The investigation has now been concluded. We are studying this at the moment and are considering taking further steps.
The editor told the Forum that the journal has now issued a retraction of the paper and published an accompanying editorial on co-authors’ responsibilities. The corresponding author still denies any wrong doing and the co-authors are claiming it has “nothing to do with them”. The Dean of the institute has been dismissed.
A manuscript was submitted to our journal describing a clinical trial funded by a commercial sponsor with almost all authors being either employees or having financial ties to the company. Although generally favourable, during the extensive peer review process several reviewers raised concerns about the data being “too good to be true”. The editors sought additional statistical advice from two further statisticians, who felt there was no evidence of fraud. The paper was accepted.
Recently the journal received a phone call from X who wanted us to know that the company is aggressively touting its stock by saying it has a major paper that will soon appear in a prestigious journal. X also alleged that he had information raising further doubts about the conduct and validity of the study. Specific points were put to the authors, who refuted these.
What should we do now?
Should we be concerned? Should we do anything more? Although the results look very good, extensive review and enquiry has found no evidence of scientific fraud. Should we do nothing more and publish? Should we seek more evidence from the source of the allegations? Should we organise an independent investigation?
In this unusual case, some members of the Forum suggested that although the paper has been thoroughly reviewed, if the editor still suspects fraud then he should take steps to investigate it. Other suggestions were to ask X for his evidence that the conduct and validity of the study are flawed, with a deadline for an answer. If no answer is forthcoming, the paper should be published.
Thus the advice from Forum was that the editor has two options: (1) as there is no proof of fraud, the paper should be published but the editor should write an editorial explaining that although the results appear “too good to be true”, it has been extensively reviewed and analysed; (2) to definitely rule out fraud, ask the authors for the raw data and have the data thoroughly analysed.
February 2008 We have asked the institution to examine the data and report back to us. They have agreed but we have had no other feedback as yet.
August 2008 The Head of the institutions where the corresponding author was employed sent us a letter saying that he has full confidence in the author and in the author’s work and so we went ahead and published the paper. We regard this case as closed.
Professor A and professor B has been in a dispute over a certain type of treatment for over 15 years. Professor A has accused professor B of killing a patient while he was (in professor A’s view) doing research on the patient without consent. Professor B has accused professor A of research and publication misconduct because he published a paper in journal X in 1994 that included a selected group of patients from a paper already published and a selected group of patients from professor A’s hospital that had not given consent to be part of a research project. Professor A has claimed that his patients were not part of a research project, since the treatment he gave them was available to all at that time. Both cases were handled by the national board of research misconduct at the time (in 1996). The conclusion (briefly) was that none of them had behaved unethically, but that they could have done it differently.
Last year this debate “reopened” when professor A published a book were he portrayed himself as a whistleblower and told about how the hospital and the medical community had tried to “hide” the fact that professor B had in fact killed a patient while he was doing research on the patient without consent. In the debate that followed, several things were written from both “sides”. In professor B’s opinion, professor A has throughout this last debate actually admitted that the patients he included in his 1994 paper were part of a research project and that they had not given consent. He now asks the editor of journal X to retract this paper. What should the editor do?
The Forum agreed that there were no grounds for retraction of the paper. Given the very public nature of this case and the fact that it has been thoroughly aired in the public domain, the advice was to do nothing. The editor should consider the case closed. The Forum also advised against publishing any more letters of correspondence.
One of the referees of our journal has brought to our attention a potential case of plagiarism.
The referee feels that the a manuscript submitted to our journal plagiarises an article published in another journal. The authors are from an institute in a far-eastern country.
We would be grateful if COPE could provide an opinion on this issue, as well as advice on what would be the best course of action.
The Forum was informed that one paragraph in the introduction and one other sentence had obviously been cut and pasted from another (cited) paper but that the work itself was not duplicated. The advice from the Forum was to write an educative letter to the authors pointing out that if they directly quote from another paper they should either place the words between quotation marks and state who had written them or report them indirectly citing the author. The Forum did not consider it was necessary to go any further.
The editor-in-chief wrote to the authors pointing out that quoted text should be placed between quotation marks, stating who has written the text, or alternatively, authors should create their own text to describe the situation and not use other individual’s text. This letter was sent to the corresponding author together with the decision letter. The authors have responded with a letter of apology, acknowledging their mistake.
One of the referees of our journal has brought to our attention a potential case of plagiarism.
The referee feels that the a manuscript submitted to our journal, representing a retrospective study of a cohort of patients with a particular condition, plagiarises an article published in another journal in 2003. The authors are from an institute in a middle-eastern country.
The submitted paper contains numerous full paragraphs identical to those in the previous paper.
We also suspect that fraud may be involved. For example, the submitted paper reports data on 28 patients (72% male and 28% female); clinical sign 1 was present in 68%; sign 2 in 26%; sign 3 in 9% and one was asymptomatic. A particular investigation was diagnostic in 45%. In the first paper, 47 infants were studied. He percentages of the parameters detailed above were identical!
We would be grateful if COPE could provide an opinion on this issue, as well as advice on what would be the best course of action.
Our editor-in-chief was considering the following course of action:
(a) Write a specific editorial on plagiarism and fraud.
(b) Publish the abstract of the published article (with the editor’s permission) together with the abstract of the submitted article with the identical text highlighted.
(c) Inform the authors of our intention and ask if they wish to make any comment.
(d) Inform the publisher of our intentions.
Does the Forum think this would be an appropriate course of action?
The Forum agreed this was blatant plagiarismbut also that fraud was likely in view of theidentical percentages in the various subgroups of cases reported. It begs the question as to whether the research was actually performed.
The advice from the Forum was to ask all of the authors for an explanation of why the text was identical to that of the other paper and why the percentages were identical. No allegation should be made and a deadline for an answer should be set. If no or no satisfactory answer is forthcoming, COPE recommends reporting the matter to the Vice Chancellor for Research at the authors’ university asking him to investigate. It was also suggested to COPE that the matter should be taken up with the Ministry of Health.
If the university does not respond appropriately, they should be politely reminded at 3 month intervals, asking for the result of their investigation.
The Forum advised that if the editor decides to publish an editorial on plagiarism/fraud etc, he should not identify the paper or authors concerned until the proper authorities have reached a conclusion.
The editor-in-chief wrote to all the authors asking each of them for an explanation as to why the text was identical to that of the other paper and why the percentages were identical. None of the authors responded by the set deadline. We have subsequently sent a reminder email and none of them has responded. We are now in the process of writing to the Deputy Director of the Research Institute where the authors performed the research, to ask him to investigate.
The editor and co-editors of a book have a query concerning an ethical dilemma involving possible authors for a book chapter.
The book concerns certain diseases in pregnancy and the authors have been approached to contribute a chapter. Both authors are apparently deeply religious and have expressed a strong concern about contributing to a book in which views may be expressed that are against their religious beliefs, specifically that other authors may suggest termination of pregnancy as a possible choice of management. The editors would appreciate the advice of COPE as to what to do.
These are the options as the editors see them:
(1) Leave it to the authors to decide whether they wish to contribute to the book, with no reassurance by the editors as to the content of the rest of the book. This might mean the two authors concerned complain on publication of the book and bring unfavourable publicity to the book and/or demand that their names or chapter is withdrawn from the book, which would be breach of contract on their part and create great difficulties for the book.
(2) Allow the authors to see proofs of all chapters and let them decide whether they wish to contribute. This would make the drawing up of contracts difficult and might mean the editors have to find replacement authors for this chapter at the very last minute.
(3) Allow the authors to include a comment in their chapter that they do not approve of some of the content of the book on religious grounds. However, this would be an unusual comment in the context of this chapter and may be seen as the authors imposing their religious views on a patient’s management. One could argue that if this is the case, why are they writing a chapter in the first instance? The readership may feel the same.
(4) Find other authors.
The editors intend to include a chapter in the book on ethics in cases of certain diseases in pregnancy and so they in no respect plan to brush such issues under the carpet by not including them as authors.
The advice of the COPE Forum would be appreciated.
This case sparked much lively debate and comment. Some favoured option (1) but suggested contacting the authors, informing them of the content of the rest of the book, and leaving the decision up to them. Some advised getting assurances from the authors up front that they would not complain on publication of the book and bring unfavourable publicity to the book and/or demand that their names or chapter is withdrawn from the book, and if none is forthcoming then ask them not to contribute (ie, option (4)). Others thought option (4) was the most sensible. However, some Forum members suggested that from the point of view of the reader, option (3) was the most interesting. Some likened it to a conflict of interest. However, others questioned whether not mentioning termination of pregnancy as a possible choice of management would make the chapter clinically useless. Is the editor confident that the authors can present their subject in an unbiased and complete manner? All agreed that this was a very interesting case and all thought option (2) was inappropriate.
We publish mini-reviews of important articles from the medical literature. In order to give the authors of reviewed articles a chance to respond to the review, we have now started to contact the corresponding author once a review of their article has been published on our website. If an author responds, we wish to publish their comments underneath the review.
Do we need to get formal verification on whether the author is writing on his/her own behalf or on behalf of the other named authors? Or can we just rely on clarification with the author by email?
Would a response from a single author or just some of the authors be allowed, if clearly stated so on the published response?
The Forum agreed that is was acceptable for a single author to reply if it was made clear in the published response that this was the case. However, it is normal practice for the corresponding author to reply on behalf of all of the authors. A good corresponding author will contact the other authors with his response and obtain their approval. It was suggested that a box could be provided, to be ticked by the corresponding author to confirm that the co-authors have agreed that the corresponding author is replying on behalf of all of the authors. Clarification by email is acceptable.
We are ensuring that all author responses clearly state on behalf of which of the authors the response has been sent. Also, we do allow author responses which are sent on behalf of only some members of the author group. We consider this case now closed.
We ask our contributors to send us short mini-reviews of interesting articles they have come across in their regular reading. Most of our members also act as peer-reviewers and come across interesting articles as part of the peer-review process, before they are published .
If they sent us one of those mini-reviews of an article they have peer-reviewed, and we kept the submission on file inhouse until the article is published (on a password protected contributor page), would you regard this as a breach of confidentiality?
The Forum were unanimous in their opinion that this would be a breach of confidentiality. It would also be misconduct on the part of the reviewer as the peer review process should be completely confidential. The issue here is the fact that the article has not been published. In addition to the confidentiality and ethical issues, there is also the problem that the peer-reviewed article may be revised and so would not be the same as the published article. All agreed that it was acceptable to comment on a published article but not on a submitted article.
We have dismissed the idea of using peer review reports or notes in any way. We consider this case now closed.
During peer review of a manuscript submitted to journal Y, one of the referees indicated a belief that at least one of the authors had not declared a relevant conflict of interest (CoI). The article indicated that the authors had no relevant CoIs. The referee provided a URL to a press release that supported the allegation. It appears that one of the authors is the discoverer of a series of compounds that are the subject of the article. The compounds have been licensed to a company.
The authors were asked to clarify the situation and have provided a revised declaration that acknowledges the CoI.
Journal Y recently (September 2007) published another article by this group on the same subject that contained a declaration indicating no relevant CoI. Journal Y is in the process of indicating to the authors that a correction to the published article with the correct CoI declaration will be necessary.
Journal Y is also aware that another article by this group was published in journal Z six months earlier and did not reveal the CoI. Journal Z has a stated policy on declaring CoIs that we strongly suspect was in place when this article was submitted. Journal Y is intending to contact Journal Z to inform them.
Does the Forum recommend that other affected articles should be sought out and other affected journals be alerted in this way? If so, perhaps the question “Are other articles affected?” might be added to the flowcharts.
Does the Forum consider that the seriousness of this omission is compounded by its repetition? If so, should there be any additional sanction (other than publishing multiple corrections) in this and similar cases?
The Forum questioned whether it is the editor’s role to police all journals and so rejected the idea that other affected articles should be sought out and other affected journals be alerted. Editors should spend their time editing not policing. However, most agreed that the author’s institution should be informed, asking it to investigate, but warned about making any allegations. The Forum believed that the seriousness of omission of a CoI was compounded by its repetition but only if it had been done knowingly and if the omission occurred after it had been made clear to the author that this was not good behaviour. Some warned that this may not be so clear cut. Instructions to authors can vary widely and often CoI statements are not requested.
The journal brought the previously published article lacking a declaration of the potential conflict of interest to the attention of the authors of that article and requested that they supply a corrected declaration for publication as an rrratum. The authors agreed and the erratum has been published. It appears this was a case of omission rather than anything else and the journal has not informed the affected author’s department.