Our case relates to a paper (by author’s A and B) that was retracted because of lack of acknowledgement of the contribution of another author (C). The retraction statement noted: “While the A/B paper is largely the work of A and B, it includes some sentences and ideas that previously appeared in an unpublished paper and/or Power Point presentation only with A and C listed as authors. We regret that the paper was published without any acknowledgement of the earlier collaborative work.” Author A has contacted the journal expressing concern that this retraction is damaging his reputation.
The basis for the retraction was evidence from C that parts of the A/B paper were the same as parts of a paper started by A and C but never finalized or published. C provided six specific cases involving about 23 lines of duplication. While this represents a small percentage (about 4%) of the total number of lines in the paper, because they duplicated lines from some version of the A/C paper, the editor believes there was a moral obligation on A and the new author (B) to acknowledge the earlier paper and/or the collaborative efforts of C.
However, A claims that (1) s/he wrote all of the A/C paper, (2) asked C to identify his/her own material, (3) offered to delete any such material from the final paper with B , (4) received no instructions regarding what to delete and (5) proceeded to use whatever he liked and drop whatever he did not like. There is no way for anyone now to know exactly what A and/or C wrote in the various versions of the A/C paper or what exactly each contributed to the ideas that were presented in the PowerPoint presentation.
The editor felt that there was a clear obligation on the part of A to acknowledge the earlier collaborative work with C, and that there was an equally clear obligation on the part of the journal to inform its readers that this acknowledgement was neglected in the A/B paper. A’s obligation resulted from (1) all the collaborative efforts between himself and C, (2) the fact that both A and C were listed as authors of the PowerPoint presentation and the various versions of the unpublished paper, and (3) the fact that A’s signature on the Statement of Authorship claiming originality of the entire work was not true.
Author A is contesting the retraction and states that the posting has damaged his personal reputation and career. The case was referred to the publisher’s Plagiarism and Piracy Task Force, but this committee could not agree, since some felt the editor had acted correctly, but others felt some sympathy with author A.
The Forum was unanimous in their opinion that they would not recommend retraction for misattribution of authorship or a missing acknowledgement (which could be resolved by a correction) or as a form of punishment for the authors (as stated in the COPE guidelines). A correction, rather than a retraction, would appear to be more appropriate in this case. An article should be retracted only if the findings are unreliable or in cases of serious misconduct such as plagiarism. Also, COPE does not advocate banning offending authors from publication for any period of time as it may have legal implications. The advice from the Forum was to retract the retraction using carefully agreed wording and publish a correction that acknowledges the original co-authorship of the original complainant. The Forum advised the editor to check the journal’s guidelines on retraction and consult COPE’s guidelines on retraction.
We have implemented COPE’s recommendations. We consider the case now closed.
The publishers received an email from author B about a recently published paper, which passed peer review and had been available online for about a month. In this email, author B claimed that he and another colleague C had determined the peptide sequence in question and had not published it yet, nor given permission for it to be published. He claimed that author A had access to his unpublished results as a subcontractor on one of his grants. Furthermore, author B demanded the article be retracted. Author A alerted author B to their intention to publish in 2009, to which no response was received. Author A says that the data were obtained in his laboratory in joint work with authors B and C. Author C says that the data were obtained by him and author B, and only disclosed to author A afterwards in some collaborative work.
A further complication is that both authors B and C (and notably not author A) have a patent pending on the peptide sequence in question. However, author A could not have known about this. There is clearly some communication breakdown between authors A and B, but does author B have the right to demand that author A’s paper be retracted?
The Forum agreed that this was a case of disputed authorship and it cannot be resolved by the editor. It is one person’s word against another. The advice from the Forum was to contact the authors’ institutions, and in a formal letter ask them to investigate the case. The editor should let the authors know that he is contacting their institutions and that he will abide by the decision of the institution. The editor should then publish a correction or retract the article, depending on the outcome of the institution’s investigation.
Like many journals, we do not collect actual signatures of each co-author, asking the corresponding author to declare on a form that, among other things, he/she has the authority to submit on behalf of the others
A paper was published in our journal in April 2010. Shortly afterwards, we were contacted by one of the authors saying that he and his colleagues had been unaware of the existence of this paper and that the corresponding author, who had been visiting their department from another country, had taken data from their database and written and submitted the manuscript without the permission of the department or hospital. His first knowledge of the article was when the publishers had sent him a set of proofs (since the corresponding author had not responded to their emails); unfortunately, he did not tell us then, before publication, but contacted the corresponding author directly in an attempt to stop publication and had assumed it had been dealt with
I asked him to check the data and he did so, saying that while they were not inaccurate or unreliable, they presented an incomplete picture and the paper ought to be considerably revised to incorporate other data and a fuller discussion, in order to put it into context
Meanwhile, I have written to the corresponding author without response. My intention is to contact the corresponding author's institution(s) if there's still no response by the end of May. I have also written to the research ethics committee at the hospital concerned to check that approval was given as claimed in the paper (so far also without response).
My suspicion is that the claimant is correct, that the corresponding author has behaved improperly. In due course my intention is to publish a notice to this effect, that will include any response (or lack of) from the author and his/her institution; clearly, I will need to gather more information if possible and give the institutions time to respond.
My question is whether it would be better to do this in the form of a correction, setting out the circumstances and including any supplementary information supplied by the claimant, or to retract the paper and allow the claimant to re-submit a revised version, accompanied by a notice of some kind. And whether it would be worth publishing a statement of concern in the meantime while investigations are ongoing. The paper itself is a review of patients of a particular type, undergoing a particular treatment, so it does not claim that treatment X is better than treatment Y although it might contribute to treatment decisions in terms of counselling/offering that treatment to these patients—thus does have clinical implications.
The advice from the Forum was that there has been serious misconduct and so the paper should be retracted, even though only the corresponding author was involved in the misconduct. Although the data are not in question, most believed that the paper should be retracted. If the investigation is going to take a long time, then the editor should publish a notice of concern. Going forward, the advice from the Forum was to always contact all of the authors, and not just the corresponding author, when the journal is dealing with any manuscript.
I intend to issue a notice of retraction after the final deadline for the authors’ institutions to respond (or be listed as having not responded). I have had confirmation from the ethics committee that they did not know about the study, even though it was claimed that ethics approval had been granted. The remaining authors say they have a revised manuscript in preparation and we will consider this as a new submission if/when it is submitted. In the meantime, the journal has adopted the suggested policy of emailing all of the authors, and not just the corresponding author, when the journal is dealing with any manuscript.
Author A has published approximately 150 original articles since ~1994, with ~100 on one particular topic. Since some of these events were up to 16 years ago, and there are no formal records from then relating to these studies, the only information we have is the memory of the editors of the affected journals in post at the time. According to their accounts, suspicions were aroused over the validity of the data, in particular the similarity between baseline data of some of the different studies. When author A was pressed to provide raw data, he stopped responding and stopped submitting papers to the specialty journals, switching to general journals where he continues to publish. The editor of one specialty journal raised concerns with the author’s institution (in another country) approximately 12 years ago; it responded saying it saw no reason to investigate further. A letter, published in one of the specialty journals in 2000 by an independent researcher, asked the question “Why are author A et al’s data so nice?”, pointing out that the probability of such results occurring by chance were infinitesimally small, but as far as we know there have been no formal investigations of author A’s work
Following an April 2010 editorial in one of the specialty journals about research fraud in general, that mentioned this particular author by name, a correspondent raised the lack of investigation into author A, stating that his update of a systematic review was being hampered by the (suspect) influence of author A’s work in this area. The current editor-in-chief of that journal contacted the current editors of seven other affected specialty journals, who until this point were largely unaware of the problem, or its extent, having not been in post at the time the papers were submitted to their journals. We have since been discussing the problem and possible courses of action. The points raised are:
(1) Regarding the older papers:
(i) the journals themselves do not have the ability to mount an investigation;
(ii) it is unlikely that an investigator, bona fide or not, will still have original data from the older studies;
(iii) it is unlikely that author A’s institution will be interested in investigating studies so old, and we think he might have moved universities since then;
(iv) currently we do not have any firm data of wrongdoing, just suspicions. Options for gathering more data include asking the original correspondent and the systematic reviewer to provide a more formal commentary, although we have not done that yet. Meanwhile, one of the editors has gathered data on all author A’s studies: there are 135 in which author A is the first author, reporting almost 12,000 randomised patients in 17 years. Most are with one of the same three co-authors. The largest group of papers (by topic) are all very similar in design, with very little variability in baseline placebo event rates, and generally similar results although the outcome measures differ and there are one or two ‘surprising’ (at best) findings. One particular drug features in 71 studies. Dropouts are hardly ever reported.
(2) Regarding the newer papers:
(i) these may be easier to investigate since the data should still exist;
(ii) we could contact the editors of the non-specialty journals (there are many, publishing just 1-2 of A’s articles each) to alert them but the problem of having only suspicions remains (compounded by the relatively large number of journals, each with a small number of papers);
(iii) we could ask a respected academic in author A’s country to make discreet enquiries of author A’s co-investigators, some of whom may not realise what is going on, or they may have concerns themselves. However, this could be a delicate situation for such a person. We would welcome COPE’s advice on how best to proceed.
The Forum was unanimous in their opinion that this should really be resolved by the researcher’s institution. Although there is no hard evidence, it was suggested that all of the journals, as a team, approach the institution and ask the institution to conduct an investigation. It was felt that this would provide a more powerful case than a single editor on his own. Meanwhile, the editor should try and gather more evidence, perhaps by contacting the ethics committees who supposedly approved these studies. The editor may then be able to determine whether in fact the studies took place as reported. The Forum advised against informing the non-specialty journals at this point as there is no real evidence at this point, so it would be difficult for them to know what to do. The Forum also suggested that the editor should advise anybody doing a meta-analysis on this subject to include a sensitivity analysis to test the effects of including the data from these studies.
The group of editors-in-chief are planning on sending a letter to the author and the institutions. The delay has been in obtaining an independent analysis of the suspect works, which so far indicates that the likelihood of fabrication is very high.
Follow up (May 2011):
The editors are still planning on sending a letter to the author and the institutions but this has been delayed pending the analysis, which has now been submitted to journal A for publication! (It concludes that fabrication is almost certain.) Meanwhile, a separate publication scandal has distracted the editors’ attention recently.
We did not investigate ethics approval since we felt that should be for the institution to investigate. My main question is what to do with the analysis that has been submitted:
(i) process as usual and publish if accepted (after discussion with/approval by the publishers); that is, let the author/institution respond if they wish (ii) present it to the suspect author (with the analyst’s permission) and remove from the publication process for the time being (iii) present it to the suspect author’s institution(s) as per (ii) (iv) present it to the suspect author and institution(s) as per (ii)
I have sought an independent statistical review of the analysis from a respected statistician but have not had a response.
Advice on follow up:
There were various views on how to proceed in this difficult case. Some agreed with sending the analysis to the institution and the suspect author, at the same time, informing them that the intention is to publish the analysis in the journal, and then see what type of response this elicits. Others disagreed and recommended treating the analysis like any other submission (despite the fact that the review was commissioned by the journal and the editor hadn’t originally intended to publish it) — send it out for peer-review and publish it in the normal way. Most agreed that a copy of the analysis should be sent to the institution, either before or after peer-review. But the paper does not need to be peer-reviewed before it is sent to the institution.
The Forum also advised consulting the journal’s legal department before going ahead with publication.
My subeditor handling this case told me he had found similarities with the protocol of a paper published elsewhere. The subeditor decided to send the paper for review to one of the authors of this published paper. The reviewer reported that the manuscript had the same figures and conclusions as a second paper he had published. All figures and the conclusions of the manuscript were the same as the second published paper. The reviewer also noted that most of the data were the same or had been only slightly changed and the text in the materials and methods section was also mostly identical. The reviewer asked me as editor to inform the first author’s institution asking for an in-depth investigation of this case of scientific fraud. The reviewer also said that he would inform the director of his own institute about this case of unethical behaviour.
This paper was first submitted to my journal in February 2010 and rejected on initial review by a different subeditor because it was missing many references and was incomplete.
I could not find any other papers written by the other authors on the paper so I’m assuming they were probably students, with the last author the professor. It is not clear to me if the paper was submitted with the approval of all authors as this was not stated in the covering letter.
The advice from the Forum was to follow the flowchart on ‘Suspected plagiarism in a published article’. In the first instance, the editor should contact the corresponding author and ask for an explanation. If there is no response the editor should try to contact all of the other authors. If the response is unsatisfactory, the editor should consider informing the author’s institution and asking them to investigate the case. The editor should inform the authors that this is the course of action that he is pursuing. The Forum noted that it is very important to give the author a deadline for response, and most considered a month a reasonable length of time. The editor might also consider posting a registered letter to the author if there is no response to emails.
On 18 June the editor sent an email to all of the authors informing them that we were concerned about a possible case of plagiarism and asking the authors to provide an explanation. A deadline of 2 weeks was offered and we informed them that we would contact the universities involved after this date. The corresponding author replied that he was not aware of this manuscript and he believed someone has used his name to submit the manuscript. However, one of the authors replied that he was not aware that the data were plagiarised and he offered to help in this case. He provided a number of pieces of evidence confirming the identity of the corresponding author. The Dean of the University where the corresponding author is working was informed about the situation on 10 July, followed by a second email on 29 July. The Dean finally acknowledged receipt of our letter on 1 August saying he will investigate the case. The editor sent a follow-up email on 25 August and the Dean immediately replied that the case is now under investigation.
We would like other editors’ opinions as to whether adhering to the journal’s policy on trial registration may contribute towards the non-publication of trial results (and thus bias in the literature).
All of our journals have the same policy on trial registration—for studies started before July 2005, we permit retrospective registration (providing it was done before submission) but for trials started after July 2005, we require registration to have been done before enrolment of the first participant.
In recent years we have tried to enforce this policy strictly and have rejected many papers reporting trial results where the trial was not registered in line with our policy. A very quick audit reveals about 20 or so studies which have been rejected in the past year or so due to non-compliance. For these studies, we have informed the authors of our policy and advised them they can retrospectively register, for free, at clinicaltrials.gov, where they are also able to deposit results (should they be unable to secure journal publication).
We are now also considering removing the ‘grandfather’ clause for old trials (pre-2005) (ie, that we would be unable to consider these for publication unless they had also been prospectively registered). One specific case we handled recently relates to a large cancer screening trial, which we felt was likely to be methodologically sound, and addressed a question where there was little data in the peer reviewed literature. The results would undoubtedly have informed future clinical practice and may have had the potential to save lives—the trial results suggested benefit for a screening approach which is not currently routine practice. The trial had been done after July 2005 but was only registered some months after enrolment started. We rejected purely on the basis that the study had not been properly registered in line with our (and other journals’) policies. We did not think that selective reporting was an issue with this particular study.
However, would other editors have a concern about strict application of the registration rule (ie, that editors have a duty not just to apply policy regardless but to consider their responsibilities to the integrity of the evidence base in a more flexible way, which in some cases may be achieved by overriding their own policies)? However, we are concerned that having some laxity in our policy (eg, with the grandfather clause for older trials) may encourage triallists to think that prospective registration is not mandatory (and thus avoid registration in the future).
The advice from the Forum was that, in general, it is probably best to judge each paper on a case by case basis. Some argued for leniency in the case of trials published in and around 2005, as many authors may not have been aware of the new requirements for registration. However, whether or not a trial is registered has little bearing on the quality or ethics of the study, and so it is up to the editor to decide whether or not a study should be published. All authors should now be aware of the regulations so there is no excuse for not registering a trial. However, it was pointed out that many journals do not require trial registration and so the authors can always have their work published elsewhere. Editors need to balance the benefits of having a strict policy requiring prospective registration (which should encourage trial registration) against the harms of non-publication of individual studies that have not been properly registered but may contain valuable information.
The advice from COPE was very helpful, and we are still handling new cases which relate to this problem. Our journals have not changed their policies. We still have a strict policy requiring prospective registration for trials done since mid-2005, although we are more lenient still and permit retrospective registration for trials done before mid-2005. Very sadly, the journals continue to reject some numbers of trials which were not registered in line with our policies. We continue to refer authors to clinicaltrials.gov to deposit their results along with their registry details.
An author submitted a paper for peer review with journal X on a topic that refers to a very recently published paper (ie, highly timely). The peer review was rather protracted because of long response times, reviewer substitution and the need to re-review the manuscript after a major revision.
Just before the second decision was rendered, the author contacted the editor-in-chief with a serious concern that the accepted standards of peer review had been compromised: specifically, the author had just seen, in an online version of journal Y, an article that was very similar in many places to the article that he/she has submitted to journal X. The author suspected that one of the peer reviewers had either taken personal advantage of the opportunity or passed the paper on to another scientist who was either the author of the first published paper or a close contact.
The editor-in-chief compared the two papers, noted striking similarities in two large sections (also mirrored by the order of reference citation in those sections) but assured the author—without revealing the identity of the peer reviewers of his/her paper—that there was no obvious connection between the reviewers and the author of the first published paper (a PubMed search for coauthorship and a Google search for association of names revealed no connection whatsoever).
The author thought of other ways in which the similarity could have arisen and finally remembered having submitted a grant proposal with very similar wording, which might have been reviewed by the other author. That, and the assurances from the editor-in-chief, put the case to rest.
However, what should/could the editor-in-chief have done to resolve the matter had the suspicion of breach of peer review confidentiality or personal benefit been more likely (ie, likely enough to suggest more background research)? How could such a case be resolved to the satisfaction of the author (ie, such that the true precedence of his/her work would be recognised by readers in contrast with that of the opportunist author)?
The Forum suggested that the editor should follow the flowchart on “What to do if you suspect a reviewer has appropriated an author’s idea or data” in such cases. Even if the other journal has published the paper first, the editor can consult the submission dates for confirmation. The first journal would then have to retract the paper on the grounds of plagiarism, if indeed this had been investigated and proven by the institution. It is hoped that the journal would follow the COPE guidelines on retraction. Since the journal’s review process was exonerated, it is really up to the author to pursue the matter and the editor should encourage the author to do this. The author and/or editor could consider contacting the grant giving body as well as the reviewer’s institution and ask them to investigate. The editor should also contact the editor of the journal that published the possibly plagiarised work and inform him/her of the situation.
We are seeking guidance on the ethical issues surrounding drug/medicine use evaluation (DUE or MUE) audit cycles, particularly with respect to the publication of findings but also perhaps with regard to the conduct of these audits in general.
DUE is a quality improvement activity that involves data collection and evaluation (usually by audit), followed by ‘action’ or intervention and a repeat or ‘follow-up’ audit to monitor changes in practice. DUE methodology was used for a recent national quality improvement activity overseen across approximately 60 hospitals by an independent organisation funded by the government to promote quality use of medicines. Participating hospital ‘project teams’ were asked to identify a predefined number of patients from their surgical lists for the baseline audit, obtain consent from the patient for inclusion (‘if required by local authorities’), conduct a brief postoperative patient interview regarding pain management and, after discharge, retrospectively collect pain management data from the medical record .
Data were submitted to the national project team for collation and assessment, with individual and combined results fed back to hospitals. An educational intervention was then conducted at each site, attempting to address medical, nursing and pharmacy issues, and utilising a number of tools, including one-on-one ‘academic detailing’, presentations and posters. A follow-up audit (same as the baseline) was then conducted at each institution.
A manuscript was submitted to our journal describing the conduct and outcome of the project in two hospitals, and comparing these with each other and with the national results. The hospitals were not specifically identified but were labelled A and B, although one could be assumed to have been the primary institution of the authors and the other probably one of two smaller institutions in the same area health network. The methods stated that formal patient consent was not required for the inpatient interview component because the questions asked fell within routine postoperative care. Institutional Ethics Committee approval appears not to have been sought for any aspect of the project in either of the hospitals concerned although the overall project appears to have been conducted with the approval of various state health bodies and presumably individual hospital administrations, although this is not clear.
The manuscript was rejected on a number of grounds, mainly relating to questions of methodology and partly related to the question of publishing a small subset of a much larger set of data (also to be published eventually according to the website of the national project). The submission did, however, raise other ethical questions that remain a matter of some debate among the editors concerned, and we seek the help of COPE in addressing these since it appears this sort of situation is likely to come up again with increasing regularity. Our first question relates to the study subjects study. In the submitted paper, the assumption appeared to be that the patients were the subjects and their ‘recruitment’ was discussed. However, we feel that the subjects of the investigation were the staff of the participating hospitals since it was their drug prescription administration and documentation behaviour that was being examined before and after a behavioural intervention.
Our second question regards the nature of the project. Is it a quality assurance/improvement activity that does not require ethics approval for its conduct and/or publication of results? Or is it actually a research study examining the behavioural effect of an educational intervention on hospital staff, and as such does require ethics committee consideration, approval and possibly individual participant (staff) consent?
This case prompted a discussion on the differences between a study and an audit. Most agreed that if there is an intervention, then it is a study, but it was pointed out that there are regional differences, and different countries have different policies on what type of studies need ethics approval. The Helsinki declaration discusses “human subjects” and so does not make a distinction between patients and staff. The advice from the Forum was for the journal to develop their own policy on this issue and to perhaps commission an ethical debate around the subject for publication in their journal. The Forum also reiterated the fact that even if a study has ethics approval, the editor does not have to publish it if s/he is unhappy about any of the aspects of the study.
COPE suggested we develop internal policies regarding situations like these, and this was discussed at our subsequent editorial board meeting. The Committee's advice was found to be very helpful by the board, and in particular the agreement with our assessment that the staff, not the patients, were the subjects of this particular “experiment”, and some discussion occurred surrounding this and other cases discussed at the COPE Forum meeting involving conflict of interest issues (new ICMJE guidelines) and Clinical Trial Registration.
Notices regarding conflict of interest and trial registration are being considered for inclusion in our instructions for authors and also for a new set of editorial guidelines.
The more difficult ethical question is yet to be fully resolved. However, we will continue to deal with such cases on a case by case basis and hopefully reach consensus among the editors.
Please note, this case is being submitted by the Publishing Director of the journal based on the advice of a senior COPE member because it relates to the conduct of the editor in chief of the journal. The editor in chief of the journal is aware that the case is being submitted.
A letter of complaint was submitted in November 2009 relating to an editorial published in one of our journals, authored solely by the editor in chief. The person who wrote the letter of complaint has insisted that his anonymity be protected from the editor in chief. This is because he had previously been, in his view, the victim of a harassment suit (which subsequently failed) by the organisation mentioned in the editorial for interfering in their businesses.
This letter made two allegations: (i) that the content of the editorial contained numerous inaccuracies and unsubstantiated accusations and (ii) that the editorial had an undeclared conflict of interest as an individual (Dr X) involved with the organisation that the editorial mentioned had influenced the writing and appearance of the content without Dr X’s name being disclosed
The editor in chief was advised that this communication had been received and was informed about both allegations (on an anonymised basis). The Editor responded to state that Dr X was well known to him and that he had been asked to help with the editorial because of his superior use of English. Dr X had originally been asked to be a co-author of the editorial but had refused. The editor stated that it was true that Dr X had had some influence on this editorial but the content of this editorial was fully his intellectual product for which he bore all responsibility.
The editor categorically denied that there was an undisclosed conflict of interest and concluded by requesting that the person making the allegations should bring the matter into the open and send in a letter to the Editor. In our response, we advised that since Dr X had helped with the refinement of the text, their name should have been declared at the end of the editorial, particularly as Dr X was involved with the organisation that the editorial mentioned. We asked the editor to provide further clarification about Dr X’s involvement with the editorial. The editor replied to say that Dr X was a reviewer of his paper and that he, the editor, would not agree to general or even specific disclosure of Dr X’s participation with the preparation of the editorial to the readers of the journal. He reiterated that he would be prepared to enter into an open debate if the person making the allegations would submit a letter to the editor.
We responded to the editor to say we believed that the editor was confusing his role as author and editor. That as an editor, since he authored an article in which he viewed Dr X as taking the role of expert reviewer, then the paper should not have been handled by him as editor but should have been passed to another editor to make the decision about whether the editorial was suitable for publication. As the author of the article, he was required to disclose the involvement of Dr X who helped him to write it.
The editor responded and stated that he agreed there was some confusion between the roles of editor and author but that he did not see how the roles could be separated and reiterated that he would only respond to the allegations if a letter to the editor was openly submitted to him.
Despite further communication with the editor, no further progress has been made and the matter has been left with us advising the editor that it is not acceptable to us as owner and publisher of the journal to have published an editorial authored by the editor in chief who has subsequently admitted to us in writing that there was a further individual involved in the writing and preparation of the editorial whose name has not been disclosed to the readers of the journal. We advised the editor that if he remained unwilling to comply with our request that we would have to consider what further action to take which may involve taking this matter to COPE.
With regard to the second allegation, we advised the editor that we would be obtaining independent evaluation of the content of the article. The editorial was sent out to three independent experts. The outcome of these was that one reviewer supported publication of the editorial whereas the other two opposed publication. Given this mixture of reviews, we have not taken this matter any further and are still hopeful that the person making the initial anonymous complaint may still decide to write a letter to the editor to bring his concerns into the open.
We would appreciate the advice of COPE as to what next steps we should now take.
The Forum agreed that this was an interesting case but felt that it needed more information. Some members questioned the nature of the complaint. Is it not acceptable for editors to write editorials and express their own views? That might be viewed as part of the editor’s job. However, the publisher confirmed that she was unable to disclose any more details without breaking confidentiality but that the content of the editorial was also an issue.
In light of the fact that the publisher could not provide any further details, the Forum focused on the conflict of interest issue. It seems that the editor has admitted having a conflict of interest but refuses to publish this fact. All agreed that the editor should disclose his conflict of interest in the journal, whether or not a letter to the editor is openly submitted to him. The advice from the Forum was to encourage the complainant to write a letter to the editor, to which the editor could respond and declare his conflict of interest and hence the debate would be in the public domain. Although the publisher mentioned that she had tried this route unsuccessfully, she was encouraged to pursue this again. If this fails, other advice was to convene a semi-formal investigation and appoint an independent advisor or adjudicator. Ultimately, however, the editor is answerable to the publisher and the publisher must decide whether disciplinary action is required.
We have been contacted by a reviewer after he spotted a paper he had reviewed for us (journal 1) now published in a second journal (journal 2). Both journals are members of COPE. The reviewer had advised we reject the paper when it was sent to him to review in September 2008. This was based on his assessment of the paper and also the supplementary material he was sent by us: protocol, CONSORT statement and trial registration details. Seeing the paper now published in journal 2 (April 2010), he still has the same concerns about the conduct of the trial and validity of the data presented—for example, the study was not really randomised (subjects were allocated alternately to treatment or control and participants’ trial numbers were known to the outcome assessors)—and reporting of the outcomes was inconsistent with scores given in the raw data.
Following the original rejection from journal 1, the authors appealed against our rejection and we declined their appeal. The letters from us made it clear that we had concerns about the methods and reporting, and both external reviewers’ reports were available for the authors to see.
So in spite of making it clear that there were problems with their paper, the authors still went ahead and submitted to journal 2.
When contacting us, the reviewer wanted to know if he could contact the editor of journal 2, make it known that he had seen supplementary material when he had reviewed the paper and explain his concerns to the editor. We advised him to write to the editor of journal 2 in confidence, explain what had happened and say that we had reservations about breaching confidentiality in this way but thought that the benefits of doing so outweigh the risks.
The editor of journal 2 has now contacted us asking to see the supplementary material. Unfortunately, we no longer have the files available (we do not archive them that long) but we do have the reviews. Questions for COPE • Should we share with journal 2 the reviews we still have? • In principle, could we have shared the supplementary files and original submission (although they are no longer available)?
The Forum’s advice was that the journal should not share reviewer comments with another journal without first asking the reviewer’s permission. However, it is quite acceptable for the reviewer him/herself to decide to send their comments to another journal if they think this is the right thing to do (since the review belongs to the reviewer). Most people felt that the material submitted by the author to the journal (ie, the protocol) should not be sent to another journal, as this is privileged/confidential information. It is up to the second journal to contact the author and ask for this material. If the author does not respond, then the journal that had actually published his work (journal 2) should contact the author’s institution.
The editor of journal 2 contacted the author of the paper who provided some, but not all, of the answers which he sought. So, after discussions with the reviewer and a member of the editorial board, they decided not to dig deeper with the author but instead publish the letters that had been sent to the journal about the paper.
The editor of journal 2 published six letters in total: two letters about the paper with replies from the author, and a further letter about the commentary accompanying the paper, together with a reply from the author of the commentary.