The PhD supervisor and a co-supervisor published a paper. The paper contained the work of a PhD student; approximately 90% of the paper was from the thesis. The PhD student found out when the paper was electronically pre-published. He contacted the supervisor. The supervisor’s first reaction was “How did you find out”? The supervisor did not want to include the PhD student as an author since he himself had done most of the work. The editor decided to remove the paper from the journal until the case was decided.
The editor contacted the supervisor and he stated that he would have included the student as an author when the paper was accepted. Contact with the co-supervisor (and co-author) showed that he was not aware of the paper. He found the quality too low and did not want to be involved. He informed the editor that a similar case with the supervisor had occurred in another journal, 2 years earlier. (The editor contacted the editor of the other journal who confirmed that a similar case had occurred and the paper had not been published.) The paper was finally removed from the journal; no paper version had been printed.
What do we do in this case? We want to ban the supervisor but allow the student to publish. The editor told the PhD student that he could submit a paper himself. However, the quality may not be sufficiently high for it to be accepted. To date, the PhD student has not submitted a paper to the journal.
The Forum emphasised the fact that if something is published online (especially it it has a DOI number), then it should be considered published. Hence, an editor cannot simply remove a paper from their website. A paper should only be removed from on online site if it has been formally retracted. In this case, the paper should be re-instated on the website, with an expression of concern. The editor should contact the author’s institution at a high level—perhaps the head of department or dean of the university—and request that they conduct an investigation into this case. An expression of concern can be published on the website while the editor is waiting on the outcome of the investigation. Depending on the outcome, the editor may then decide to retract the paper. COPE does not recommend banning any author because of the legal implications. The editor may want to discuss this with his publisher.
I followed the advice from COPE and contacted the university in question and asked them to investigate the case. They have responded that they will investigate and come back with their results.
Follow Up (December 2010): The editor contacted the institution and asked for their decision but they did not respond. The editor now considers the case closed.
A published paper has been under legal scrutiny due to fabricated data. The court has concluded that the evidence presented undermined the credibility of the study. We have read the COPE guidelines for retracting an article and have checked the flowchart 'What to do if you expect fabricated data'. From reading the guidelines it seems that the editor has the right to retract the paper and to do this promptly. However, because we have not had a case in which a paper has been discredited through a civil court process before, we would like to seek the advice of COPE before we ask for a retraction.
The case in more detail:
• 2006: journal publishes paper that explores the link between two drugs, A and B and vision loss.
• 2006: the drug company responds in a published letter, pointing out flaws in author’s case control study (mainly well known biases of observational studies).
• 2007: author becomes expert witness in case against drug company, based on his paper.
• 2009, June: journal receives letter from author outlining some changes he wants to make to the paper—corrections, and referring to re-contacting people and re-analysing, reaffirming result of link with vision loss in men with a history of MI who have taken drug A (but only drug A now and not B).
• 2009, August: drug company tells journal that author is expert witness and casts doubt on his letter. They want to release source documents to the journal that have been disclosed to them by the author’s university as part of the court case. The university is resisting because it wants the issues argued in court.
• 2009, October: journal consults COPE, who suggest not publishing the letter until the outcome of the court case is known. COPE clearly discussed it as a conflict of interest issue (letter driven by the fact that the author was the expert witness).
• 2009, August: drug company writes to say author has been excluded as expert witness in the trial because errors in the trial call the study’s reliability into question. Provides transcript of relevant court ruling. This makes it clear that the author became an expert witness in February 2007, after publication of paper but before submission of the letter. He clearly became an expert witness on the basis of the study. Transcript says that author acknowledges inaccuracies—11 of 27 patients who originally reported use of the drug before developing vision loss turned out, from original trial forms, not to have started drug A or B until after diagnosis of vision loss. The ‘history of MI’ in some of the men turned out to be a family history of MI. Author also claimed to have re-contacted patients during the trial but court found no evidence of that. Court concluded that these undermined the credibility of the study. The court also ruled out the letter from the author as being similarly inaccurate.
It is clear that the author as an expert witness was arguing that his study showed causation. It was a small observational study: it could never show causation. We have not yet approached the author for his comments.
So, we would like to take this back to COPE to ensure our proposed course of action below is the correct one. We do not think we have had a case in which a paper has been discredited through a civil court process so we want to make sure that the actions taken are still acceptable.
(a) Ask the author whether in the view of the court opinion he wants to retract the paper?
(b) If author says no, refer to his university, asking it to investigate and consider ordering retraction of the paper.
The advice from the Forum was to retract the article and to quote the reasons for retraction verbatim from the civil court ruling, pending any legal appeal. In the event of a legal appeal by the author, the editor should probably publish an expression of concern in the journal. The editor was advised to contact the author’s institution and inform them of the journal’s proposed course of action and ask them if they had anything further to add regarding the case.
Following COPE's advice, the editor wrote to the author informing him that the journal wished to retract the paper. The retraction notice will be published in the next issue of the journal.
The authors submitted a paper to our journal which went through the review process and was accepted for publication. It was then placed online in corrected proof. While online we were informed by a reader that the paper appeared to have been published in a journal local to the authors, although only an abstract was available in English. We requested that the authors submit an English language version of the original paper so that we could assess whether this was a case of dual publication. In the meantime, we removed the online version.
Following this, the authors withdrew the paper. The question now is, should we pursue this further by reporting the authors to the regulators in their country for an apparent attempt at dual publication and, if so, to whom should we report?
The Forum reiterated the fact (raised in case 10-14) that if something is published online, then it should be considered published. Hence, an editor cannot simply remove a paper from their website. In this case, the author cannot withdraw his paper as it has been published. A paper should only be removed from on online site if it has been formally retracted. If the editor has clear evidence of duplicate publication (ie, if he can review the translated published paper and determine the degree of overlap between the two papers), then he should re-instate the paper on the website along with a notice of duplicate publication. The editor should follow the flowchart on ‘Suspected redundant publication in a published article’. He should contact the authors for an explanation. If no response or an unsatisfactory response is obtained, he should consider contacting the authors’ institution.
The authors formally retracted the paper. Therefore, the paper was not re-instated. The reason given by the authors was that they did not want to go to the expense of providing an English translation of their original paper. At this stage my inclination is to do nothing further.
A paper was published with four authors from two universities and the contact author provided an exclusive license form on behalf of all of the authors. After publication, one of the authors contacted the editor claiming a case of plagiarism. The claim is that the published paper was a direct copy of an MSc thesis which this person had supervised 7 years previously. Complications arise in that the first author of the paper was the MSc student, now working at the other university, and the complainant was an author of the published paper. Thus apparently the authors included the person whose work was being plagiarised and the supervisor of that work, who is also complaining about the publication of the paper. The claim was that the other authors had plagiarised the MSc thesis and had no right to publish the material.
As editor, I was asked to take action but my only route was to contact the authors by e-mail. I received an email from the corresponding author assuring me that all procedures had been correctly followed and also an email from the first author, the MSc student on whose thesis the paper was based and now a PhD student with the corresponding author's university, stating that he was happy with the publication. However, I have had another co-author request the paper they have been included on be delayed as they had not known of its submission until we contacted them. The author making the complaint states that the work belongs to him, not his student, but I understand that an MSc is written by the student and is the student's own work hence the student would have copyright and the right to subsequently publish papers from the MSc data. Additionally, the system we use automatically informs all authors and co-authors on submission of a paper that the paper has been submitted so the delay is also a problem.
What actions are possible?
The advice from the Forum, in the editor’s absence, was to contact the author’s institution, informing them of the situation, and request that they conduct an investigation. It is not for the editor to resolve the situation.
Author X submitted a paper to another journal, and included author Y, a student in the same institute, as a courtesy. Author Y had drawn two figures for the paper and discussed some of the observations (all made by author X) with author X but the paper did not deal with the thesis research of author Y.
After the original paper was returned, requiring extensive revisions, author X revised the paper and submitted it to our journal. Author X did not include author Y as an author, but listed Y’s contribution in the acknowledgments. Following notification of acceptance and online publication, author Y complained to the editor, insisting that he should be added as an author by the journal without reference to author X. The editor contacted author X who indicated that author Y did not make a substantial scientific contribution to the article and that the notice in the acknowledgments was appropriate.
Authors X and Y hold similar views as to what author Y's contribution was, but different views on whether this is sufficient for authorship. The editor notified authors X, Y and the administrative head of the institute, and recommended that the parties resolve the matter among themselves. Author Y indicated that this suggested approach was unacceptable, repeated that he should be added as an author on the paper regardless of the opinion of author X and did not accept the editor’s position that this matter could not be resolved arbitrarily in author Y's favour by the editor or the publisher. Author X has insisted on publication as the single author. The editor has continued to attempt to make contact with the parties, without recent success.
The Forum noted that the editor cannot determine the intellectual contribution of the authors. The editor needs to contact the institution again and obtain a clear ruling on the case. The advice was to pursue the case through the institution and inform the authors of this. For the future, the editor should look at the author guidelines of the journal to try to ensure this situation does not occur again. Permission to publish should be obtained from all authors on submission of the paper for publication.
The article was published, and the editor received no further communication from any of the parties.
I am seeking advice on a confidential ‘letter of concern’ from an author (X) of a manuscript submitted before I was appointed editor of the journal but rejected by me on the advice of the associate editor.
Author X is concerned with similarities or parallels between his manuscript, rejected in 2008, and a recently published article. I have looked over our file and contacted the associate editor who handled the manuscript. One of the authors of the published article, author Y, was in fact a reviewer of the manuscript by author X and recommended rejection, as did two other reviewers. In the opinion of the associate editor, there are clear parallels between the article by author Y and the manuscript by author X, but these seem to be the result of common research interests rather than appropriation of ideas or data.
Author Y has published previously on this subject. Both authors X and Y are well established scientists, although from somewhat different disciplines. At this point, it is my view that author Y should have declared a conflict of interest in the review of the manuscript but has not appropriated ideas or data. Unfortunately, our system at the time of this review did not include explicit guidelines on conflicts of interest. I can also imagine that the reviewer would have assumed that his overlapping interests were obvious from his previous publications.
My options seem to be the following: (1) Reply to author X, acknowledging the parallels but communicating the view of the associate editor that there has not been appropriation of ideas or data. (To acknowledge the apparent undeclared conflict of interest would seem to violate reviewer Y’s anonymity.).
(2) As above, but ask author X if he wishes to make a more formal complaint (waiving his own confidentiality), in which case we would need more specific details about the suspected appropriation of ideas or data.
(3) Write first to reviewer Y and request a response to the ‘letter of concern’. However, I do not think this is appropriate, given that author X indicated his communication was confidential.
I have consulted the COPE flowchart but find that the issue of a conflict of interest is not well covered.
The Forum agreed that this was a case of reviewer misconduct and the editor should follow the flowchart on ‘What to do if you suspect reviewer misconduct’. The editor should contact author X and ask him to provide as much evidence as possible and then the editor can assess the situation. The Forum agreed that the editor’s best course of action was (2) above. If the case cannot be resolved, the editor might consider contacting the author’s institution.
A separate issue is that author Y should have declared a conflict of interest in the review of the manuscript and the Forum agreed that the editor could contact author Y informing him of this.
As editor of journal A I am handling a manuscript by an author and it is likely to be accepted, although this is not yet decided. As a reviewer for journal B, I have since been asked to review a manuscript by the same author that uses similar material and comes to a similar conclusion, but pushes the presentation of the results a little further. My gut feeling is that there is insufficient novelty for journal B. However, my problem is how do I tell journal B without compromising my role as editor of journal A?
Following advice from a COPE council member, I decided to review the manuscript for the second journal and in my comments to the authors I suggested that in order to sharpen their conclusions this study might be better embedded in a larger study. In my covering note to the editor, I wrote “Unfortunately, there may be an ethical issue to do with this manuscript. I have consulted COPE, without of course mentioning the journal, the authors or the subject of the research, but they cannot bring it to their Forum until March, which is long after the review deadline”.
The “larger study” that I mentioned is the work that is under review in the first journal. The covering note to the editor does not breach confidentiality with respect to the first journal but it does alert the editor of the second journal that there “may” be a problem and that he or she can decide to wait for a decision by the Forum.
I have since found out that Journal 2 has now rejected the manuscript, with another reviewer’s report identifying the same general scientific problems as I did in my comments to the authors. So, my cautionary covering note to the editor about a potential conflict of interest seems not to have been needed.
Does the Forum think that I handled the situation correctly or is there anything else I could have done?
The Forum agreed that the editor acted correctly by raising his conflict of interest although some suggested it might have been easier to tell the other editor that he could not review the paper as he was reviewing a similar paper submitted to his own journal by the same author. The Forum noted that it is fine for an editor to raise a problem with another editor. The Forum did raise the ethical issue of the author failing to declare a similar paper submitted to another journal. Most journals would require a copy of the other article. Had the author signed a form to say that the work was not under consideration at any other journal? It may be the case that the editor should review his guidelines to authors to ensure that such guidance is clear.
Dr R, of University 1, has written an ‘official complain’ to Editor E alleging that a paper he was invited to review employs without permission a method that is the ‘background intellectual property’ (BIP) of University 1. He believes the paper should not be published.
Dr R asserts that he created the BIP prior to its use in several research projects at University 1, and notes that Dr A, the paper’s author, worked on these projects at University 1 under Dr R’s supervision when the method was explained to him.
Dr A’s current affiliation is University 2. Dr R asserts that: University 2 was never granted any right to use the BIP and that to do so would be an infringement; Dr A was advised of the confidentiality of the method. Dr A did not cite University 1’s BIP in his paper.
Dr R did not in fact review the paper when first submitted: several reviewers were invited and the initial ‘revise’ decision was communicated to Dr A on the basis of other reviews received. Dr R’s complaint to Editor E, which incidentally is not on University 1’s letterhead, was received when a revised version of the paper was under final review, 5 months after the initial reviewer invitation.
Editor E has sent details of the complaint to Dr A, advising him also that the review process has been suspended pending a resolution. Dr A’s response to the complaint was a direct reply to Dr R (rather than to Editor E, although a copy was sent to him), expressing surprise at the complaint and refuting the allegations, asserting instead that he was already using the methods in his paper before working at University 1 and that he had not used University 1’s methods. He also comments that despite having undertaken ‘lots of work’ at University 1, he was never included as a co-author. Editor E has asked Dr R for a response to Dr A’s views but has yet to receive one.
Editor E and the journal’s publisher are both aware of the COPE flowcharts, and jointly seek the Forum’s further advice in this case:
1. Should Editor E take the lead in investigating the matter, or should this be handled by the publisher? 2. In terms of an investigation, the COPE flowcharts recommend forwarding the concerns to the author’s institution. Is this the appropriate course of action here? In a case such as this, we would be especially interested in the Forum’s view on the suggestion that the concerns be forwarded, at an appropriate level, to both institutions simultaneously.
As noted above, the review process for the paper is presently on hold.
The Forum was unanimous in their opinion that neither the editor nor the publisher should investigate the matter. Journals are not set up to carry out investigations. The advice was not to publish the paper until the author dispute is resolved. The editor should contact both institutions and ask them to conduct an investigation into this matter. The Forum also commented that this may be a case for lawyers to sort out but the journal and publisher should be kept informed. The Forum advised that it would be appropriate for the journal and/or the publisher to contact the institutions.
The matter was referred by the editor and publisher to University 2, who are conducting a formal investigation according to the university's code of practice for complaints of misconduct in research. University 1 is cooperating at the highest level. The process has been delayed at several points, but is expected to be concluded shortly, a date having been set for the examiners and expert advisors to hold a formal hearing. The review process for the article concerned is still on hold, pending a decision: a regrettable but understandable delay of more than 10 months.
An original research article was published in a journal in 2000. This is a quarterly, non-indexed journal. The abstract is available on a national indexation website.
The same article with a slight change in the title was published in our journal in April 2002. Ours is a monthly journal which has been indexed in Medline since 1975.
Both articles appear the same, with the study of 190 inpatients, and both have similar wordings. The authors and the order of their names are the same. The authors were affiliated to a reputable teaching medical institution. However, with the passage of 9 years, all of the authors have dispersed and some have left the country. Their contact numbers and email addresses are not available.
As the duplicate publication occurred in our journal, we feel we should take the necessary action. According to COPE guidelines, the authors should be approached for an explanation. This is difficult as no contacts are available.
We would appreciate suggestions from the Forum as to what steps should be taken for this misconduct detected after a lapse of 9 years.
If it is impossible to contact the authors, the advice from the Forum was to contact the institution and inform them of the authors’ behaviour and ask them to investigate. If it is a clear case of duplicate publication, there is no need to have the authors’ permission to publish a notice of duplication. So if the editor is convinced that this is a case of duplicate publication, the advice was to publish a notice of duplication publication.
The email address of the corresponding author was obtained from the internet. After having success with a test mail, a letter was sent with the proof of duplicate publication. (The scanned copies of both articles were mailed as attachments.) An immediate reply was received which was discussed in our editorial board meeting in which we agreed it was not convincing.
The author apologised for any perceived misconduct but stated that as the other journal was not an indexed journal, he believed that this submission was not a bar to subsequent submissions to an indexed journal.
Having discussed the case with the COPE Forum and not being convinced by the author’s reply we took a decision to retract the article on the grounds of duplicate publication. The retraction notice was published in the May 2010 issue of our journal.
A detailed reply was sent to the author, specially highlighting the fact that ignorance cannot always be forgiven.
The institution was also informed and the addresses of the co-authors were requested. The authorities have not responded favourably.
Shortly after publishing a short report, another group involved in similar work accused one of the authors (A) of the short report of fabricating and/or stealing data from their lab. The other group also stated that author A’s conclusions about an image published in the short report were wrong.
We asked to see author A’s original data and talked to his co-authors and the institution where his studies were reportedly carried out. We were satisfied that the data presented in the short report were real and the author’s own, and there was no evidence of data fabrication or theft.
We asked for expert opinion on author A’s interpretation of the image. Three experts thought that the author could not draw the conclusions he had based on the scan he presented in the publication and that reference images produced from the original data were needed to support his conclusions. We went back to author A, told him we were satisfied that there was no evidence of data fabrication or theft, but that we did think he needed to provide more data to support his claims. He did provide some additional images. However, our experts’ view was that the data provided did not verify the author’s claims. He had used images from published articles as reference images, and not reference images from his original data.
In the meantime, the other group submitted a correspondence article explaining how their own studies conflict with author A’s claims. This was sent for review. The reviewer felt that author A’s article should not have been published, but that the other group needed to provide some more experimental detail and data. At this point we approached author A telling him that we did not think the data he provided supported his claims and that he might want to consider retracting the article. Author A responded by sending us several opinions from ‘experts’ he had found arguing that the article should not be retracted. None of these ‘experts’ is an expert in the imaging technique used. He also said he would now be able to provide reference images from his original data, although we have not seen them and do not know, without checking with our experts, whether or not they would be enough.
The short report describes an invasive clinical intervention and makes claims about its efficacy. This is a controversial area of research, and our concern is about leaving something that may not be accurate in the public domain, but we also do not feel that the author has intentionally misled us or the public. We feel at this point that the best course of action is to publish the critic’s correspondence article, along with the authors’ response, and let the public judge for itself. However, given the clinical nature of the short report and the doubts raised about the veracity of author A’s claims, we would like the committee’s opinion on whether the publication of the correspondence piece and the authors’ response is enough, whether we would be justified in publishing an expression of concern about author A’s article or whether there are grounds to retract.
The Forum agreed that the editor had done the right thing by allowing the authors to comment. Exchange of correspondence is ideal in such cases as this will be linked permanently to the original article and so the debate will be in the public domain. The Forum did not think the article should be retracted. Also, the Forum advised against publishing an expression of concern as this indicates that there is something wrong with the data. All agreed that the editor had done all he could except perhaps to write an editorial on peer review and post publication comment.
We did not publish an expression of concern but encouraged the ‘other group’ to submit their revised correspondence. They decided they did not want to, so we have not taken any further action.