The authenticity of the content of numerous publications by Author K has been questioned by ‘concerned researchers’ in an anonymous email sent to the Editor of Journal A in December 2009.
The email noted that author K had been publishing articles in numerous journals that “report remarkable findings that watching humorous films, drinking deep-sea water, exposure to road traffic, cell-phone noise and radiation, kissing, playing computer games, listening to Mozart, infant suckling, sleep deprivation and starvation all affect various [physiological] responses.” Few of K’s findings have been replicated by other authors and the ‘concerned researchers’ were clear that they believe the findings to be unusual and the research based on improbable hypotheses and mechanisms.
The data presented in each of the articles are remarkably consistent ‘and, to be frank, seem too good to be true’. Most of these articles have been published by author K as a single author, and for a lone researcher the output is prolific.
The concerned researchers, the editorial office for Journal A and colleagues from the publishing house have all attempted to find an institution that author K may be affiliated to. There are suspicions surrounding author K’s affiliations to two institutions. When the author’s name and the two institutions are typed into a search engine, a lot of references to very similar articles appear in the search results.
The ‘concerned researchers’ therefore “cannot help but question whether the data presented in these articles are genuine. If not, this appears to be a case of scientific misconduct that could have far-reaching implications [in the field] … . This is ongoing, with nearly 100 articles published over the last few years including some published this year (2009)”.
Journal A published a paper by author K in 2004 which, taking into account the summary above, could have easily been fabricated from the perspective of the editor of the journal. The editors and the concerned researchers wish to know more about the legitimacy of these publications and whether the articles by author K are reliable.
The Forum suggested that if the author’s institution cannot be found, the editor could report the author to the General Medical Council or the equivalent medical licensing authority in the author’s country. The Forum asked if the editor had tried responding to the anonymous email. There is little that the editor can do without substantive evidence. He could respond to the anonymous email, asking for more information and emphasising that strict confidentiality is assured. The Forum noted that the editor has a duty of care with regard to the journal’s published papers. The editor should contact the reviewer(s) of the 2004 paper that was published in his journal and ask them to look again at the paper. Other advice was to contact the other journals where the author has published as they may have some information that would lead to the author’s institution, which should be contacted if possible. The Forum advised the editor to be alert to any more papers that come in from the same source.
Following on from the COPE Forum, I took on COPE’s advice and contacted the other editors that were listed at the end of the anonymous email that our editor received. There were 12 other editors and journals listed in this email, from a wide range of publishing houses. I have received five responses so far. One was apparently not aware of the email ever being sent. One asked a colleague to respond to my message, which I am still waiting for.
Three have expressed concern about the nature of the email; one of these editors has offered to judge the papers of the suspected author and provide a response, and I am waiting to hear back from them. One of the editors contacted a colleague who lives in the same country as the author and received a general response from their colleague who claims to know of the author and mentioned that the author ‘is known for [their] unique treatment’. However, this colleague noted that “I am not personally an acquaintance with [the author]. I just heard from some colleagues that many of [the author’s] works seem to be fake or fabrication, although I do not have any evidence about it”.
One editor responded with a lengthy email where they mentioned they have had discussions with the other editor of the journal and administrative staff at the publishing house. The editor noted that “ My personal view was that we should go ahead and ask the people who made the allegations to give in confidence their names so that we felt that there was a legitimacy to proceed with the inquiry that was clearly needed by virtue of the allegation”. However, the editor was not successful in obtaining personal identification from the anonymous email authors. The editor goes on to say that “At this point, our views are split. My view is that there was enough of a basis and concern given the subject of anxiety by the authors of the email about being victimised as whistleblowers. I thought that an open ended question to the author of the series in publication that are in question, [the author], is merited and, at the very least, a request to be able to contact [the author’s] head of department or person connected to their institution to gather more information on their research activities. My colleagues thought that this was unreasonably intrusive with no names or specific accusation. As a result, we have not advanced”.
As for our journal, we managed to find some email and postal addresses for the author, by searching online and going back through previous submission records. An article by the author was submitted and published in 2004, and the editor of our journal has mentioned that the paper “could easily be fabricated”. The editorial office sent a message to the author expressing concern about the integrity of a paper that was published in their journal and asked the author to respond as soon as possible. This email was sent out earlier this week, and one of the email addresses bounced, but the second one seems to have worked. We are now waiting for any sort of response.
Follow-up (September 2011):
One of the email addresses bounced, but others seemed to have got through, including one that was used by the author in a very recent paper. However, after several months we have not had any response. The author of the original email pointing out the odd pattern of author K’s publications did contact the editor of our journal having noted that the case had been brought to COPE. He had no direct link to author K, had no special insight into his work and was not from the same country as the author, but had come across the author’s publications as he was working in a similar area. For reasons to do with his own experience as a scientist, he was sensitive to possible fraud which is why he felt obliged to bring his concerns to the attention of the journal editors. The editor of our journal was convinced he was sincere.
A retired UK allergist who said he knew author K contacted us to say that he believed that the author was a genuine scientist and would not undertake scientific fraud.
We asked the reviewers of the original paper whether they had any doubts about the authenticity of the work published in our journal in 2004 and they said that they had not had any concerns. However, the paper was a case series and the information could easily have been fabricated.
The next step is for the editor in chief of our journal to contact known associate editors in the same country as the author, using the following draft text: “ Dear X, I write to you confidentially in your capacity as a trusted associate editor of xjournal. About a year ago, the xjournal editorial team were asked to look into a paper published by author K in xjournal in 2004. Many of author K’s papers are single author and contain intriguing observations, and the paper in xjournal fits this description. Although of course we have no evidence to suggest there are any irregularities, we are duty bound to look into the matter. We have tried to contact author K by email at several addresses without any success. I would much appreciate it if you would let me know if you have contact details for him or his departmental colleagues, so that we can correspond with him. This is clearly a very sensitive issue and I would appreciate your treating it as confidential”.
These associate editors may know how to take this matter to the medial association within the country. The emails are now being sent and we are waiting for a response.
Follow-up (December 2011):
In July 2011 the editor-in-chief sent an email to some associate editors of the journal in the country where we believe the author is from. We have not yet had a response from these associate editors, and we may go to the medical association of that country soon, as this case has been going on for so long. The editor had an email from the whistleblower who pointed out there had been no new publications effectively since 2009. He also pointed out that there was a legitimate Dr K and wondered if the other person was an imposter.
In November 2009, the Editor of Journal X received a letter complaining of a serious breach of publication ethics regarding an article already published a month earlier on the Journal’s website. The paper concerned had not yet been published in a full journal issue either online or in print. One of the authors of the letter, Professor X, was a named author on the published paper. His complaint was that he had never seen the article prior to publication and had not agreed to be an author.
Professor X stated that some years previously, a number of research groups around the world were invited to join a collaborative research effort. A late Dr Y made the suggestion to make the work a multicentre study and suggested Dr Z as one of the investigators. Professor X also stated that Dr Y asked him to manage all the multicentre groups and compile the work into one final paper. Professor X said that an agreement was made to use a research protocol developed by him across the whole multicentre study.
The published article has Dr Z as corresponding author in addition to a Dr W as first author. Drs W and Z are at the same research institution. Professor X claims that he tried to discuss the progress of work (using the agreed protocol) with Drs Z and W but without reply. Professor X feels that Dr Z has not followed the agreed research protocol and by not liaising with colleagues has made this publication appear as if it is his original work and taken credit for work which was not his original idea. Professor X also states that as the original research protocol was not followed, the findings in the paper are of poor credibility.
When asked about the situation, Drs Z and W stated that they thought each other had been in contact with Professor X to obtain his consent before submitting the manuscript to the Journal. They both apologised for the mis-communication and suggested that Professor X could be removed from the author list before the paper is published in a journal issue. Professor X replied saying that only a full retraction of the paper would be a satisfactory outcome for him because his reputation was damaged by the publication of work that had not followed the originally agreed research protocols that he had developed.
On gathering both sides of the story, the Publisher decided that the two parties (Professor X and Drs Z and W) should communicate with one another in order to find a resolution to the problem and agree how, or if, this paper should be published in a journal issue or whether it should be retracted outright. Dr Z has since written to Professor X saying that there was no agreed usage of the protocol or publication plan and that he was kept informed of the ongoing project. Dr Z reiterated an offer to change the list of authors including the removal of Professor X from the paper.
The Forum was told by the editor that the case has since been resolved. The paper has been published with the amended author list—Professor X’s name was removed. The Forum suggested tightening up the journal’s authorship and contributorship criteria and also copying all authors on all correspondence rather than just the corresponding author to avoid the occurrence of a similar case in the future. The Forum also stressed that it is essential to publish a correction to the published article and to ensure that there are not two versions of the article in circulation.
Following the advice from the Forum, we have tightened up the author and contributor criteria for our journal to try and prevent this happening again. We have also recommended that the editorial office copy in all authors on correspondence. Although the paper had been published online, it had not reached a full issue of the journal so we have been able to correct the paper prior to its formal publication in a journal issue.
A manuscript was submitted to our Journal in 2008. The six authors signed the author form for the Journal which accompanies all submitted manuscripts. The author form gives information on the role each author played in the study and states that each author has read and approved the paper for submission to the Journal.
Following peer-review the paper was accepted for publication. It was published in February 2009. In October 2009 the Journal received a letter from the corresponding author who asked for the paper to be retracted. The corresponding author stated that the first author had used data which was originally generated by a student working in the department (permission had been given to the first author to use the data) but that the data presented in the paper were different to the data published by the student in a thesis. The corresponding author further stated that the first author was being investigated by the university in which the research took place and by the Ministry of Education.
The Editor-in-Chief of the Journal and the Publisher wrote to the corresponding author and said that they would wait until the investigation by the university and Ministry of Education had concluded before deciding whether the paper should be retracted. The corresponding author responded to this letter and asked that the paper be retracted immediately and stated that the investigation would take several years.
The Editor-in-Chief and the Publisher then wrote to the first author and asked for a full and detailed explanation as to the concerns raised by the corresponding author. The first author responded and said that the dataset for the paper was extracted from a patient database which contains information on patients treated at the university. Datasets from several sources were used to update the main database and information was extracted based on the inclusion criteria outlined in the paper. The first author stated that she had identified more patients who fitted the inclusion criteria from the database than the student and this was the reason for the discrepancy in data between the thesis and the paper published in the Journal. The first author also told the Journal that the corresponding author had brought the discrepancies in the data to the attention of the Ministry of Education, the university's Academic Ethical Committee and the Faculty Appeals Committee. The first author says that these groups have accepted the reasons behind the discrepancies in the data.
The Editor-in-Chief and the Publisher also wrote to the co-authors of the paper (four co-authors, excluding the first author and the corresponding author). Three of the co-authors have responded and state that they accept the reasons behind the discrepancy in the data produced in the original project and the data used in the paper. In addition to writing to the co-authors, the Editor-in-Chief and Publisher informed the corresponding author that they were contacting the co-authors. The corresponding author responded and said that the paper should be retracted immediately and that he was considering whether to publicly announce that the paper should be retracted from the Journal.
The Journal would appreciate advice on how to proceed.
The Forum commented that it was unusual for an author to criticise his own paper. The Forum suggested asking the corresponding author to write a letter detailing his concerns that could be published in the journal and then his co-authors would have the chance to comment on the letter. Other advice was to contact the institution and ask them about their investigation and how long it will take to complete. The institution should be approached in neutral terms asking them to confirm the corresponding author’s claim that the investigation will take several years. The Forum believed that the editor is not in a position to do anything else at the moment.
Following the COPE meeting, we were informed by one of the authors involved in our case that an investigation had been launched to examine the allegations surrounding the data used in the paper. We wrote to the authors and asked for details of the investigation, particularly the contact details of the person chairing it. We received confirmation that the investigation is being coordinated by the research ethics committee of the university where the authors are based and have written to the chair of the committee and requested a report of their conclusions once the investigation has been completed. We have not yet heard back, although the letter was only sent recently. We have also let the authors know that we have contacted the research ethics committee and will wait on the findings of the investigation before proceeding any further.
Follow Up (December 2010): The editor received no response from the authors' university and no response from the complainant (who was also a member of the author team). Therefore, the journal did not retract the paper and it continues to stand. The editor considers the case now closed.
Child abuse is a common but underdiagnosed problem in our country. The abuse ranges from minor injury to severe head trauma. The true incidence of intentional head injury in children remains uncertain.
We published a case of child abuse with blunt head trauma with intracranial haemorrhage presenting as loss of consciousness simulating a diabetic ketoacidosis. We received a complaint from a reader about a photograph illustrating the case which showed details of the abuse (bruises and signs of abuse around the perineum but the upper half of the body was not visible). We believe the case report warranted that the photo be published.
However, the complainant argues that he believes it was wrong to publish the photograph at all and especially in its present explicit form. The complainant believes that publishing this photograph of the child is a violation of child’s human rights. The complainant also states that before publishing the photograph, he hopes the editors had obtained appropriate consent to publish.
Some members of the Forum questioned whether it was necessary to print the photograph of the child. Could the case have been described adequately without the photo? Although the photograph is already published, some suggested removing the picture from the online version of the journal. Others argued that as the editor believed overwhelmingly in the importance of this case and had published it in good faith, he should stand by his original decision. The father of the child had agreed to the photograph being published and the child had since died, so there was no issue of consent. Another suggestion was to write an editorial on the subject highlighting the issues involved.
Our editorial board decided not to delete the photo from the e-issue because it was thought that it was an important finding and it was necessary to keep it to educate our readers (doctors/paediatricians).
Our journal published a manuscript as part of an editors’ forum which, as an invited forum paper, received reviewer feedback but did not follow our usual double-blind peer review standard for regular submissions (the reviewers were aware of the author’s identity but the author did not know the identity of the reviewers).
Following the publication of this article, the editor-in-chief received correspondence from a reader (hereon referred to as the “scholar”), who indicated he (used generically for simplicity without implication of the author’s or scholar’s gender) had contacted the original author directly and was concerned about the data used in the paper. The author also emailed the journal to advise us of his correspondence with the scholar, which had made him aware of oversights in data collection.
The original author provided a revised paper and drafted a corrigendum which was edited and published as an erratum in a subsequent issue of the journal. The scholar was given the opportunity to read the erratum prior to publication. After publication of the erratum, the scholar continued to vocalise his concern that it still misrepresented the author’s data and offered readers misleading conclusions, and he remained frustrated over the original author’s unwillingness to share the dataset despite his request for it.
The scholar complained to the editor-in-chief of the journal that the author ignored his many email messages and asked the editor-in-chief to pass on his concerns. After consulting with another editor of the journal and deciding that it was not the journal’s place to be involved in such disputes, the editor-in-chief talked with the author by phone and asked the author to correspond with the scholar directly about this issue. The editor-in-chief also told the scholar that the journal could not be the go-between in passing messages from one to the other but would consider a written response to the published erratum so that the debate would be in the public domain. They were encouraged to talk to each other directly.
We received the response article from the concerned scholar outlining his points of contention, which was intended for publication with the understanding that the original author would be given an opportunity to reply if he chose (but the scholar would not be offered space for a further rejoinder). We provided the original author with the scholar’s response article, and he prepared a reply. The scholar was then given an opportunity to read the original author’s reply to point out any factual errors in need of correction, and he again felt the reply article would be misleading to readers as well as misrepresentative of his own claims. He further raised concerns about a flawed review system, not only in regards to the original article not being reviewed double-blind, but also to the editing process for his versus the original author’s latest reply articles (both were edited—primarily proofreading in nature—by the editor-in-chief and another editor).
At this time, the editor-in-chief has contacted both the scholar and original author simultaneously in the hope of encouraging them to work together with shared data to produce a new paper (if, indeed, a re-analysis leads to new results). Should they not choose to pursue this, the journal intends to publish the scholar’s reply and original author’s response, likely alongside a final word from the editor-in-chief. Any response or outcome along these lines is still pending.
How might editors ensure the integrity of data beyond the safeguards built into the normal manuscript review process? What role should the editor play when authors refuse to share their data? More generally, how should editors address concerns of readers who remain aggrieved by authors’ responses to readers’ commentary on an erratum provoked by questions raised by said readers in the first instance?
Following discussion with the officers of COPE, the summary of advice is as follows:
1. Double blind review is not always possible. For example, in small fields, most people can easily know the author of a piece of work. Also, there is no evidence that double-blind review is better than single-blind or non-blind reviews. 2. The editor cannot possibly double check the accuracy of the data in every paper and thus it is a good policy for the editor to allow readers a forum to voice their concerns about the published work. 3. The editor has the right to decide what gets published in the journal in light of the mission of the journal, its style, and the space constraints. 4. There is a point where a critique/concern becomes an opinion. The editor has the right to decide when the disputants have had the chance to voice their views and when it has reached the point for the readers to judge the merit of the grievance or responses from the published comments. 5. I have given the reader the courtesy and opportunity to voice his/her view.
Does the Forum agree with the officers’ advice and is there anything more I should do?
The Forum agreed with the officers’ advice. All agreed that the effort on the part of the editor to publish the debate was sufficient. The editor raised the issue of data sharing and the Forum were told that at the COPE council meeting, council had discussed this issue and were considering drafting a discussion paper to outline the issues. The editor was told that some journals (eg the BMJ) now publish a data sharing statement on all papers, which states whether or not the authors are prepared to share their data, with links to the data as appropriate.