Coming back from disgrace

The tragic suicide of Yoshiki Sasai, one of the authors of the retracted STAP stem-cell paper (discussed in the Letter from the Chair in the August 2014 edition of COPE Digest), highlights the fact that, above all, the communication of research is about people and about trust. Some researchers are seemingly able to bounce back from a finding of serious research misconduct. For example, Hwang Woo-suk was last year granted a patent related to stem-cells. However, for other researchers in such a situation it is the end of their careers.  Some may argue that that is no bad thing; researchers who commit serious research misconduct have no place in research. Contrast that with the situation when a crime is committed. Most places, when a crime is committed, punishment results, and after some time that person is allowed back into society. Indeed, in some jurisdictions, if the crime was not severe, after some period following expiry of the sentence a “spent conviction” may be recorded. That is, history of the misdeed will be erased.

Back to our context:

  •  If your journal knew that one of the authors of a submitted paper had previously been found to have committed serious research misconduct, would you agree to review the paper?
  •  If you did agree to review the paper, and the author asks for blind reviewing as he/she could not otherwise be assured of an unbiased process, would you agree to the request (assuming you don’t have blind reviewing already). This was a recent COPE case.
  •  Flowing from that, should there be a process for researchers who have had a finding of serious research misconduct to be reaccepted as researchers worthy of consideration as authors?

This will be discussed at the start of the next COPE Forum on Tuesday 10 March. Please do leave any comments below, whether or not you are planning on joining the meeting.


  • Posted by Reynir Tomas Ge..., 26/2/2015 6.09pm

My answer to all three questions is a yes, in principle. But for the most serious offences we have had up to a 5-year period until accepting again articles from someone who showed serious misconduct. In a couple of cases it has occurred that an author of fraudulent material has joined a new author group and we told the corresponding author of the new manuscript that we lacked trust in one of the authors and would not handle the submission.

  • Posted by Charon Pierson, 26/2/2015 10.46pm

I have had submissions from at least one author who had an article retracted for ethics violations and several others from authors who have been rejected for plagiarism that was caught in the submission stage. In all cases, the new manuscripts were sent for blind peer-review (we use double-blind review as our normal policy). I think we have to handle these submissions the way we normally handle submissions and not prejudice a reviewer with any comments like "this author has had ethical violations in the past." We do not have a policy of banning submissions for any period of time, so theoretically the author could submit another manuscript immediately, although our policy is not to reconsider a manuscript that has been rejected for plagiarism or other ethics violations. Our guidelines state that appeals on decisions will not be considered for rejection for ethical reasons and we abide by that policy even if the author proposes to correct the problems. I admit I am very cautious of these authors, but so far I haven't found any repeat of ethical problems.

In another case we had where there was a finding of misconduct by ORI, the researcher was banned from participating in Federal projects/reviews for a period of time but that person was fired from his position and apparently is not in a position to do research. Should he resurface with a manuscript, I would follow the same process - haven't had to face that decision so far.

  • Posted by Chris Leonard, 8/3/2015 7.24am

It's a problem I've only had to mediate in once in my career, but I was definitely of the opinion of trying to be even-handed, but proceeded with caution. So the new submission from the sometime-offending author was double-blind peer reviewed (whereas single-blind was the norm at that time for that journal). The reviews were given some scrutiny by the editor, and the in-house staff performed many background checks on previous research in this area. I think if it happened again, this even-handed, but cautious approach would probably be employed again, but if accepted, I would strongly encourage the publication of the peer review reports to display to the world how the work was judged on its merits, with no prejudice against the author.

  • Posted by Pauline Starley..., 10/3/2015 1.07pm

Interestingly, such a rehabilitation programme exists in the US called RePAIR (Restoring Professionalism and Integrity in Research) which aims to rehabilitate researchers accused of misconduct. See for more information and Retraction Watch for further recent discussion