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Comments can also be posted below and we welcome feedback from members and non-members on this discussion topic.
Between 2013 and 2015, COPE produced a number of documents on how to respond to the increasing number of people who were raising complaints about research integrity in journals, and more recently a COPE Forum dealt with how to coordinate complaints amongst multiple journals. Since then, complaints about integrity in research publications have become even more prevalent and the issues that they identify have become more complex. It is, therefore, timely to revisit these documents, and update the guidance.
COPE has produced a draft discussion document on "Dealing with complaints about the integrity of published research". We would like comments on this document from all interested parties, and encourage journal editors and publishers to comment (whether or not they are COPE members), and also welcome comments from researchers/authors and academic institutions.
Questions for discussion
- Are there aspects of the guidance in the discussion document that you feel need clarification or change?
- Are there aspects of complaints handling which you do not feel are adequately covered in the document?
- Are there any other tools or resources that you would like to see around this subject?
- What policies do journals have on responding to complaints that are not made to them directly (for example, on social media, PubPeer)?
- Do complaints raised via different channels present different challenges?
The comments on the Forum discussion will be posted here after the Forum.
In 2013, the Chair of COPE, Virginia Barbour, wrote a document to stimulate discussion on how to respond to anonymous whistleblowers. This was in response to the fact that an increasing number of people were raising complaints anonymously about research integrity in journals.
In 2015, two flowcharts were published jointly with BioMed Central: on responding to whistleblowers who raise concerns directly through email or other forms of correspondence to the journal, or to those who raise concerns through social media. Some people raise a series of complaints to the same journal, and guidance was provided for that scenario. More recently, a COPE Forum was held on the issue of coordinating such complaints amongst multiple journals.
Since these documents were produced, reporting of ethical complaints about research publications has become even more prevalent and the issues that they identify have become more complex. This includes situations where multiple complaints are raised simultaneously to multiple journals.
It is, therefore, timely to revisit these documents, and update the guidance. This document aims to do that. It is currently a draft which we intend to share with interested parties to solicit views and comments. We encourage journal editors and publishers to comment (whether or not they are COPE members), and also welcome comments from researchers/authors and academic institutions.
In response to changes in the terminology being used in scholarly publishing we refer to “people who raise complaints” rather than whistleblowers. Previous documents referred to whistleblowers, and these have not been changed.
Who raises complaints?
This guidance refers to anyone, named or anonymous, who notifies journals or publishers of (a) unsound, unethical, or otherwise concerning published research; (b) research reporting issues; (c) publication ethics complaints; or (d) other matters that have implications for the integrity or reliability of the published research record. When complaints are raised, evidence should be provided to support the claims. Some researchers spend much time detecting and reporting on supposedly fraudulent activities and may raise complaints over many publications.
Types of issues reported
Typical issues reported include (but are not limited to) allegations of plagiarism, image manipulation, data appropriation (use without permission), data fabrication, various types of errors, authorship issues, undisclosed conflicts of interest, computer generated manuscripts, lack of ethics approval for human subjects research, concerns about study design or results reported for animal research.
How are complaints raised to editors and publishers?
There are multiple routes to alert editors and publishers to what has been uncovered. It is now possible for issues to be aired to the whole world at once rather than privately, not only via classical media, but also through social media outlets such as Twitter and through websites such as PubPeer which allow users to discuss papers post-publication. This guidance recommends that journals should be contacted directly with any complaints. This way the person raising complaints can be sure that editors have received the information, and editors will have a direct channel of communication with the person raising the issue. This will enable editors to seek any needed clarifications and notify the correspondent of the outcome of the case. In addition to notifying the journal directly, concerned parties are welcome to use other forums (e.g. Twitter, Pubpeer) to discuss complaints and notify readers of potential issues regarding published work, but such forums should not be relied upon to reach affected journals or publishers. Journals should have policies in place regarding how/whether they will respond to issues that are not raised to them directly.
How should complaints be responded to?
Please refer to the flowcharts on responding to whistleblowers who raise concerns directly through email, or to those who raise concerns through social media, as well as the guidance on sharing information on possible misconduct. The roles of each party involved in handling these complaints (Editor/Journal, Publisher, Institution) are set out in the CLUE Guidelines.
- All requests should be considered, and investigated if they have credibility and are about research integrity in a publication.
- Acknowledge receipt and investigate according to the appropriate COPE flowchart or guidance, and the publisher’s guidance.
- Responses should be neutral and fact-based, indicating the intended action. For example, “Dear XX, Thank you for getting in contact with us and drawing our attention to the concerns you have. We will investigate and take action as needed, in accordance with COPE guidelines. Yours sincerely”. Do not get drawn into personal exchanges.
- There is no need to engage in extensive correspondence. If this process has been followed and there is still concern, the advice of COPE can be sought.
- Complaints of a harassing, offensive, threatening, or defamatory manner should be referred to legal counsel or other appropriate authorities and the journal should notify the complainant that allegations made in such language will not be investigated.
- After investigation, if it is found that the complaint has substance, follow the appropriate COPE guidance for dealing with the issue.
- It is important to respect the correspondent’s right to anonymity, and their identity should not be divulged to the party facing allegations without the correspondent’s express permission
- Consider thanking the person raising the concern (anonymously if appropriate) in any journal notice that may be applied, e.g. retraction. The notice could link to any comment in the public domain (PubPeer, Twitter, etc) if appropriate.
- Once the investigation is closed, inform the complainant of the action you are taking. If they do not accept your response and you are confident in it, it is fine to reiterate this once and then say you consider the matter closed and not respond further.
- COPE does not respond when copied into complaints.
Dealing with multiple complaints to the same journal from one individual
On occasion a journal may get several complaints from the same source. Complaints may be directed at an author, an editor, or the journal in general. If these complaints turn out to be well founded, investigations should proceed as warranted. However, there are also cases where an individual makes repeated allegations against a journal, editor, or author that turn out to be baseless. COPE has provided separate guidance on how to respond in these circumstances.
Dealing with issues raised across multiple journals
Complaints raised can develop into large investigations with multiple journals, editors, and publishers involved. These investigations are becoming more frequent and therefore COPE is considering updated guidance on how editors and publishers can work together to resolve these complaints without breaching ethical considerations. An initial discussion was held at the COPE Forum in June 2021: Coordinating multi-journal complaints.
We welcome comments on this discussion from members and non-members.
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