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Allegations of Misconduct webinar summary, April 2019

Allegations of Misconduct

COPE Webinar 12 April, 2019

Watch and listen again to the recording of our Allegations of Misconduct webinar:



Nancy Chescheir, COPE Council and Editor in Chief of Obstetrics and Gynecology, introduced and moderated the webinar. Nancy reminded everyone of COPE's Core Practice Allegations of Misconduct, and what it means in its broadest sense: "Any practice that may affect the research record in terms of findings, conclusions or attribution".

Susan Garfinkel, Assistant Vice President for Research Compliance, Ohio State University. Susan talked about research misconduct from the perspective of the institution with a brief overview of what goes on. Every institution in the US is required to have policies to address allegations of misconduct. Susan described the process and the role of the Research Integrity Officer (RIO) and introduced the Association for Research Integrity Officers (ARIO) who are aiming to put together a directory of RIOs across the country so when journals have problems they know who to contact. What does the role of institutions mean to editors of journals? Susan discussed how to determine research misconduct and how communities can work together.

Tara Hoke, COPE Council (Chair of the Facilitation and Integrity Committee) and General Counsel for the American Society of Civil Engineers. Tara talked about COPE's Facilitation and Integrity Committee,; what it is, what it does and how that ties into the discussion of Allegations of Misconduct. The principles behind Allegations of Misconduct and the role of editors, journals and publishers. Tara introduced COPE's Core Practice Allegations of Misconduct and the responsibility to ensure that you have taken adequate steps before making a decision to ensure it is reasonable and to reduce the possibility that the decision is biased, arbitrary or fundamentally unfair. If you're looking at your processes it would be useful to look at the elements of "Due Process" (21mins into the recording above).
COPE's Facilitation and Integrity (F&I) Committee procedures in a case. F&I hear from someone who has gone through a process of complaint or raising a concern with a journal or publisher and has followed that process through to the end and is dissatisfied with the process. COPE is not a police force or prosecutor but we are here to educate. Sometimes that is educating the person who has submitted the complaint as to whether this was an accepted process, but Ideally our goal is to educate our members if there is an opportunity to improve the process. As long as they followed up with due process and adequate consideration of the factors and giving a fair opportunity for all to be heard, we are not looking to intervene on the decision itself. 

We ran 3 quick polls during the webinar and here are the responses from the attendees:

Your questions answered

Our speakers have followed up on the questions that we couldn't get to during the webinar:

Q: Please give an example and/or case of salami slicing, how it was detected, and how it was addressed. 

A: Salami slicing is considered a form of duplicate publication or plagiarism and is as a way of artificially enhancing the appearance of one’s research output. It can be difficult to detect as the authors may not use similar enough words that would allow detection with plagiarism software and one editor or group of reviewers may not see both papers. There is a also a matter of degree that is important when considering whether 2 (or more) papers represent salami slicing or are rather an appropriate and ethical use of a data set.  

First, a definition. Smolčić defines it roughly as “publication of two or more articles derived from a single study.” Another descriptor, differently pejorative, is splitting a single study up into several “minimally publishable units”. In some cases, particularly with large data sets, or several secondary outcomes or secondary analyses that address clearly different outcomes than the primary study, it is perfectly appropriate to publish more than one paper from the same data set. As an example, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention houses a very large data set of vital statistics. Multiple studies from the same author group can very appropriately be published from this same data set.  That is not salami slicing.   

In contrast, in a example by Smolčić, a research group studied three different blood tests in two groups of patients with kidney disease. In one paper, they reported the results of 2 of these blood tests (Let’s say test A and B) on both groups of patients and in another paper, they reported the results of Tests B and C on the same patients. There is no reason that the original paper could not have included the results of Tests A, B and C on those same patients. This would be “Salami Slicing”. 

Salami publication:Definitions and examples  Vesna Šupak Smolčić.   Biochemia Medica. 2013;23(3):137-141 

Nancy Chescheir

Q: What do you think about applying a ban on future submissions for a certain period of time period for confirmed yet nonegregious instances of plagiarism (e.g., portions of a paper but not the entire ms were plagiarized)? 

A: COPE consistently emphasise the importance of education of authors about ethical concerns and having steps in place to maintain the integrity of the published record.  COPE recommends against banning authors from future submission due to potential legal ramifications. COPE members are encouraged to look at the COPE flowchart on “What to do if you suspect plagiarism”. As an example of in a case of egregious plagiarism, Case 12-26 Reprimanded author plagiarises again, the following conclusion:  

“The Forum advised contacting the author’s institution. The editor should write to the institution informing them of the misconduct, but emphasising that the authors perhaps need to be educated on how to correctly cite papers, reiterating that this type of behavior is unacceptable. The Forum agreed that it is likely that the author will continue to submit articles unless there is some intervention from the institution. The Forum again noted that COPE does not support sanctions against authors or banning authors from submitting papers because of the legal ramifications” 

Nancy Chescheir

Q: What happens when image manipulation happens after editorial acceptance, during preflight and preparation of figures for publication level? Authors might be overwhelmed by the amount of images requested and might make naive or intentional mistakes. Which would be the best due process and decision? 

A: At any point that image manipulation is detected or suspected, the journal editor has the responsibility to confirm or refute the concern. The intent of the authors if manipulation or any other ethical problem is detected does not factor into the requirement that the editor does everything in her power to preserve the integrity of the published research record. 

The COPE flowchart entitled: “What to do if you suspect fabricated data? Suspected fabricated data in a submitted manuscript” addresses your scenario. Essentially, the editor must take these allegations seriously. The author should be approached non judgmentally with the scenario that has been raised and given an opportunity to respond. Failure to respond or an inadequate response should result in an elevation of concern to the researcher’s institution to request an investigation, with appropriate follow up pending the results of the investigation. Also see the flowchart: "What to do if you suspect image manipulation in a published article".

Q: Do you have recommendations of useful image analysis software or services? 

A:  COPE cannot endorse any particular product for image analysis. However, I am providing, without endorsement or with any intention to infer that I have used these products, links to some software that you may wish to assess yourself and with your publisher and information technology professionals. You could do your own search of the internet if you do not have access through a publisher, institution or information specialist by entering “image manipulation software” into your browser. It seems that there are number of no- or low-cost open source of free-with-paid-upgrade options.: 
Forenscially Beta 

Nancy Chescheir

Q: Do all institutions worldwide have ORI? In other words, what should journal editors do if potential misconduct is arising in an institution that does not have a point of contact for research integrity?

A: Internationally there are some institutions that do not place a priority on research integrity, particularly institutions with very small research programs or those that lack resources to establish an office to deal with integrity and compliance issues. When such institutions are faced with a research misconduct problem, a senior institutional official may be tasked with handling the matter.  Lacking experience and policies, institutions find it difficult to handle such matters. There may be difficulties in finding the appropriate contact at these institutions. A journal editor with a problem may first try to look for an office of research or a compliance office, but if there is no success, then it may help to identify the most senior person at the institution to simply ask who handles research integrity issues for the university, and forward the issue accordingly.

Q: Is there a RIO in Chinese institutions?

To my knowledge, there is not a designated person named “RIO” at Chinese institutions, but the institutions may actually have a person designated as the point of contact for allegations of research misconduct. Although sometimes it is difficult to find the correct person, they are often senior people like the Vice President for Research. If there is difficulty in identifying a point of contact, it may be useful to identify the most senior institutional official and ask them who would be the contact person to handle misconduct allegations, without disclosing anything about the specific problem.

Susan Garfinkel

Q: What is the role of an RIO in reviewing errata or retraction notices?

A: The role of the RIO in these matters depends on whether the correction or retraction is a result of a research misconduct or compliance issue.  If an author chooses to correct or retract a paper for any reason, the RIO may not be involved.  If the correction or retraction is the result of a research misconduct proceeding, the RIO and other institutional officials may be involved.  The RIO, in consultation with other institutional officials, may work with the authors or may work directly with the journals to ensure that the correction or retraction is accurate and clearly explains the reason for the retraction. 

Susan Garfinkel

Q: How early should journals tell institutions when there is credible evidence of serious error and/or misconduct?

A: The answer to this question is complex, but in short, as early as possible.  Institutional RIOs understand that there may be many concerns regarding data included in submitted papers that do not rise to research misconduct issues, and institutions do not need to know about every one of these concerns.  However, when a journal suspects that there may be falsification, fabrication or plagiarism, it is important to involve RIOs.  This is because RIOs know how to handle institutional processes to assess the concern, maintain confidentiality, and contact only those people with a need to know. It is also important to keep in mind that in research misconduct cases, it is critical to secure the research record immediately in order to make the determination of whether research misconduct occurred. It is not advisable to notify a potential respondent (the person potentially responsible) of misconduct concerns before the institution can secure the research record because data may be discarded or altered. If it is difficult for a journal to assess whether something is a serious concern of potential misconduct, definitely call the institutional RIO – it is fine to discuss a “hypothetical” concern to help sort out the problem.   

Susan Garfinkel

Q: What percentage of cases brought to the F&I Committee comes from authors vs. publishers/editors?

A: Good question!  I don't think we've looked at this directly (though I'll make a note to do so!), but my intuitive answer is that our complainants are roughly an even split between authors and readers.  We also have a very small amount of "other" cases (e.g., members of an editorial board).  Generally, our publishers/editors don't bring cases to F&I; if they have concerns about a case, they're more likely to seek assistance through another COPE resource (e.g., COPE Forum).

Tara Hoke

Q: If a complainant is not satisfied with a journal’s response, would they contact the I&E committee, or COPE more generally?

A: If a complainant is not satisfied with a journal's action, then I would recommend contacting F&I directly here:

Tara Hoke

Q: What counts as a ‘satisfactory’ response of an author to a journal’s communication of an allegation of misconduct?  Who determines that, and at what point should a journal refer an allegation to an institution?

A: It's hard to provide a universal answer to this question, as I think the answer depends on the specific nature of the allegation.  Ideally, I would think a "satisfactory" answer is one that's supported by objective evidence, documenting that the alleged act of misconduct did not occur. If all you have is an author's word, then that's likely not sufficient to dismiss a credible concern. I would generally say the decision to refer to an institution is the editor's call, though certainly COPE's flowcharts and other resources are intended to help you make the decision on the appropriate time to refer a complaint.

Tara Hoke

Q: Could you please go over Poll 3's results? Why wouldn't it be appropriate to close the case after issuing a EoC? 

A: COPE's retraction guidelines say that journals should consider issuing an EoC when evidence is inconclusive or when there is evidence that the findings are unreliable but the institution is unresponsive.  So it's certainly consistent with our guidelines to issue the EoC and close the case; however, I would still consider it a best practice to continue attempting to solicit an answer from the institution (e.g., by following up every few months). Ultimately the EoC is reporting an inconclusive concern, and continuing to seek an investigation from the journal puts you in the best position to resolve that uncertainty for your readers either with confirmation of the misconduct or by supporting the validity of the paper.

Tara Hoke