The journal is operated by institute A, and the editor is an employee of institute A. A manuscript was submitted late in 2014 by authors from institute B, a similar type of organisation in the same country. The manuscript was reviewed by two referees who both recommended publication following minor revision. One of the reviewers noted that the abstract contained a vague statement related to the effectiveness of a treatment for a major type of export from the country but there was no further detail in the main text. In addition, the issue of worker safety was raised in the introduction but not discussed elsewhere. There was also a lack of context for the work and a lack of relevant conclusions. The authors were asked to add more detail on each of these points.
In May 2015, the authors submitted a revised version of their manuscript, which contained more relevant information and references to support their statements. The editor and associate editor considered that the authors had dealt with the issues raised by the referees and accepted the paper. The paper was published on 4 July 2015.
A senior manager at institute B rang the editor a few days after publication. The manger stated that the original manuscript had been approved for submission by institute B but the revised manuscript had not, and asked the editor to remove the paper from the journal’s website immediately. The editor said that this was not possible and further explained that if institute B wanted the paper retracted then they would need to provide a written justification.
Within an hour, the editor received three emails from the manager at institute B. The first one said that the paper “contains errors and speculation which were not able to be addressed at the time of finalising the text, as the paper was not re-submitted to the institute B editorial process following review by the journal” and that institute B believed “the paper is not in the interests of furthering an accurate and complete scientific record of the research in this field and therefore respectfully ask that it is retracted”.
The second email said that the manager at institute B had “since been in contact with the industry group who funded the project and they believe the inaccuracies are ‘significant’. As such, I’d like to emphasis the urgency in our request. I understand that in general journal referees remain anonymous unless they choose to identify themselves. In this instance I’ve been asked if we are able to learn the identity of the referees. Would you please comment on this so that I may respond appropriately?”
The third email said “Since I was in touch with you earlier today, the funding agency has had feedback from the relevant government department who have offered their support with responding to ensure the paper is corrected. I think this indicates the concern that these parties have in ensuring the information is accurate. The errors of fact and subsequent speculation to consequences related to worker safety and fumigation efficacy are problematic.”
The editor gave this matter urgent attention by reviewing the paper and checking the journal’s ethical guidelines (which are those of COPE). They concluded that a retraction was not warranted because the majority of this paper had not changed post revision so the potentially misleading revisions amounted to just a small portion of an otherwise reliable publication. The editor also concluded that, in accordance with COPE guidelines, the authors should submit an erratum detailing the specific passages of text that were incorrect and provide factually correct rewording. The editor sent these conclusions in an email to the manager at institute B the same day and waited for an erratum to be submitted promptly given the apparent seriousness of the situation. The editor did not reveal the names of the referees as the journal operates a closed review process. The editor also alerted the journal’s overseas publisher to this issue in order to fast track the erratum.
Ten days later, no erratum had been submitted to the journal but the editor was copied into an email from the funding agency to the manager at institute B. The agency thanked the manager for drafting an erratum but advised them that the funding agency and government department considered the risk associated with publishing an erratum to be too great so one should not be published. The funding agency also asked that both institutes A and B “manage their processes to ensure that any similar event does not occur in future”.
The manager at institute B forwarded that same email to the editor with a note saying that an erratum would not be submitted. The editor replied expressing surprise that an erratum had been drafted (but not submitted) and that it was not up to the funding agency/government department to decide whether or not an erratum should be published. The editor explained that the authors had an ethical obligation to correct the scientific record if errors existed. However, if there were no factual errors but simply statements that some people happened to disagree with, then no erratum was necessary. The Editor asked the manager at institute B to confirm which of these situations was the correct one and the manager replied stating that there were “no errors in the paper”.
Since then, the editor has been advised by colleagues that the funding agency has been alleging that publication of this paper could harm a key export industry for the country and cause substantial economic losses, and that institute A was at fault by allowing its journal to publish such sensitive work. These allegations are being strongly refuted by institute A. At no point have the authors of the paper communicated with the Editor.
The Editor has submitted this case to highlight concerns that: • key stakeholders in a published work (but not the actual authors) have attempted to suppress legitimate scientific results because of possible economic and political damage to an export industry; • this is a serious breach of scientific ethics; • unfounded allegations have been levelled at the journal’s owner for allowing the paper to be published.
Question(s) for the COPE Forum
What further steps or alternative actions does COPE recommend be taken?
This is essentially a conflict of interest issue, not with the authors, but with the employers/funders, emphasising the ubiquitous nature of conflicts of interest. The editor proposed that having clear guidelines and examples for similar situations from COPE would be helpful to resist pressure from funders or employers.
The Forum congratulated the editor for standing her ground, and agreed that the editor had done the right thing here in not bowing to pressure from the funders. As a way of avoiding a similar situation in the future, a suggestion was to ask authors to submit a statement on “the role of the funding source” as a way of outlining the role of the funder and clarifying issues such as: did the authors have control of the data at all times, and did the funder have a role in the analysis or submission of the paper? This would also help define the roles of the authors and funders. The authors are the researchers and should be in control of the data. There should not be any pressure from the funding source to try to manipulate the analysis or interpretation of the results or to influence the decision on where to submit the paper for publication. Both parties need to understand their roles.
Some journals ask each author to complete a separate conflict of interest form, and this may be something the editor might consider for the future.
A suggestion from the Forum was to write an editorial, highlighting the issue. This is an important issue and also raises the fact that government or other funders can be as conflicted as private companies, and this is especially true in small countries and for journals that are national journals.
Recently, our journal has introduced systematic analysis of all submitted manuscripts for plagiarised text, using anti-plagiarism software. We had noticed increased incidences of recycling of existing text which is why we introduced the systematic check. It turns out that a large proportion of the submitted manuscripts (an estimated 30–50%) yield positive results, with copy values of somewhere in the region of 25% to >35%. These are substantial values and certainly beyond fortuitous incidences.
However, in almost all cases it is difficult to suspect acts of conscious (self)plagiarism as the copied text (ranging from single sentences or fragments of sentences to passages of 2–3 sentences) can be attributed to a very large number of sources: often more than 60, and in one case 129 different sources. It looks as if copying text containing what is perceived as elegant expressions has become a means of improving lack of language skills.
In principle, there is no issue of scientific fraud or even plagiarism of ideas or concepts to be suspected. But also in principle, a text that consists of one-third of passages that can be attributed to other sources is not satisfactory and is not what we would consider good scientific writing practice. The question is how to deal with these cases that we see in a quickly growing number? It is not fair to authors who produce good science to penalise them for trying to cope with their limited language skills. It is not fair either, to give the advantage of facility to those authors who easily copy from existing work, over those authors who make the conscious effort to avoid such doubtful practice.
Presently, when significant proportions of text have been copied from a large number of sources (as mentioned above), I do not take this into account when making a decision based on the science of the paper but inform the authors that we consider this a doubtful practice that should be avoided in future manuscripts.
Question(s) for the COPE Forum • What kind of coherent policy should the journal have on this issue? • Have any COPE members had experience with similar situations?
The Forum advised that any policy or process should be based on the context of the content. Choosing a particular benchmark or cut-off for anti-plagiarism software is unreliable, and the a granular reading of the text is often needed to understand the level of copied text. Clearly duplication is more worrying in the results section of a paper compared with the introduction or materials and methods. If large sections of text are duplicated in the discussion/conclusions section of a paper, that would raise concerns.
In terms of technical issues related to the anti-plagiarism software, it is advisable to remove stock phases before running the software. The editor may wish to decide on what size of strings of words to exclude.
The Forum suggested that the editor’s current policy seems very reasonable. In addition, a suggestion was to look carefully at attribution. If large sections of consecutive sentences are not attributed, that could be problematic and the editor may wish to ask the author for an explanation. It is more serious when the words and ideas an author has reproduced are not their own.
The Forum also advised considering the type of paper—in a research paper, the editor may feel that borrowed phases can be overlooked, but this may be unacceptable in a review paper if the author is purporting the presentation of novel ideas.
Regarding a process, the Forum suggested the editor may want to clearly state the journal policy in the instructions to authors, to head off similar cases in the future. The editor should continue to check all submitted manuscripts for plagiarism and duplicated text using anti-plagiarism software; reject those with moderate/major overlap of text; if malicious intent is suspected, contact the author’s institution; if the authors are junior researchers, consider asking them to rewrite passages and re-submit.
There is a role for the institution in these cases as they govern the behaviour of their researchers. Institutions need to investigate any such cases, and educate and support those who are unaware of good practice. Hence the editor should contact the institution if he suspects misconduct or if he believes that good publication practices need to be reinforced. This is especially true if the editor sees patterns emerging within particular institutions or countries; it is up to the institution to investigate these practices. Collective awareness raising of the issue is needed among authors and institutions.
The editor believes the case is closed although he remarks that unfortunately the phenomenon has not gone away and new examples crop up almost every day.
Author A was an overseas PhD student who successfully completed the PhD, and then returned home to a country with considerable political and civil unrest. It had been intended to submit a paper before author A left but time ran out. Subsequently, authors B, C, D and E, who were all involved in the work in one form or another (experimental design, performing preliminary experiments, data interpretation and reanalysis, writing), have written the paper. However, authors B, C, D and E cannot track down author A.
Authors B, D and E have tried emailing author A using the email address that author A used before and during the stay in the UK. Authors B and E have tried contacting author A’s spouse (who also did a PhD under author E’s supervision) by email and Facebook, but the spouse is not responding. Author E has contacted a colleague of author A at the overseas university that author A worked in but that person does not know how to contact author A, nor does another student from that country who studied in author E’s laboratory at the same time. The university that author A worked in is not open due to hostilities, and their website gives no contact information
Authors B, C, D and E are very keen to publish this paper, because the science is good, and also it is important for some of the co-authors who are early career workers and who need publications on their CVs.
Clearly, authors B, C, D and E are unable to obtain permission to publish from author A, whom authors B, C, D and E would like to put as first author, as author A performed the experiments.
Question(s) for the COPE Forum • As the publisher of the journal where authors B, C, D and E wish the article to be published, would it be acceptable to publish the paper with a full statement about the authors’ contributions to the article, and the fact that authors B, C, D and E have not been able to contact A? Thus there would be complete transparency.
The Forum agreed that the suggested course of action by the editor is a reasonable way to proceed. This issue often arises with deceased authors. The Forum suggested approaching a senior member of the institution to guarantee that the work was carried out as described. Also, it would be advisable to have someone vouch for any conflicts of interest that the author might have. A full statement on the article covering these issues would be sufficient.
The Forum discussed whether the author qualified for authorship as he did not contribute to the writing of the article. However, as the study was part of the author's PhD, the paper would necessarily have been based on the author's write up and so he does fulfil the criteria for authorship.
The case was submitted to the internal publications ethics committee, along with the comments from the COPE Forum. The committee were extremely supportive of publishing, and suggested that the PhD examiner of the thesis from which the paper derived should provide a letter confirming that the work was carried out as described and that there would be no conflict of interest for the author in publishing the work in this form. As suggested by the COPE Forum, a senior member of the university—the head of school—also wrote a letter confirming that the work was carried out as described. A full statement covering these issues was placed at the end of the article.
Our journal was contacted by an individual, Dr H, who had recently seen a published article and was surprised that he was not listed as an author because it utilised samples from a database that he established. (The article was published online in November 2014 and in print in February 2015.) He stated that the cohort has spawned many projects, but he was not involved in the “specialist area” in this article. However, he believes he should have been listed as an author because the article would not have been possible without his database.
We told him that the journal conforms strictly to ICMJE's policy on authorship and asked him for more information on his contributions. Although it appears that he fulfils the first criteria because of his involvement in the original cohort/database, he did not fulfil the other three criteria.
At this point we contacted the corresponding author of the article for more information. The corresponding author said that Dr H contributed substantially to the development of the cohort, but was not involved in the design, evaluation or preparation of the data, and recommended publishing a correction with Dr H listed in a simple acknowledgment (not as an author).
Dr H was not satisfied with this solution, continuing to believe that he should be listed as an author. At this point we went back to the corresponding author, who replied that he had discussed the situation further with his co-authors and Dr H, and they thought that even though Dr H does not fulfil the ICMJE criteria, they support his addition as an author because their own publication policy indicated that all PIs involved in the development of the cohort should be listed as authors for subsequent publications. The corresponding author acknowledged that this “puts [the journal] in a difficult position, and exposes problems with [their] publication policy, which need to be resolved, but if it were possible to add [Dr H] to the authorship we should be grateful for your help.”
We replied to the corresponding author letting him know that he continues to state that Dr H does not fulfil ICMJE criteria; in order to comply with journal policy, Dr H should be listed in the acknowledgments. We even offered for them to write the acknowledgment so that Dr H's contributions would be better described. The corresponding author has yet to respond.
However, we received an email from Dr H stating that he still does not believe that an acknowledgment is appropriate. (Per Dr H, “This paper is no different to the way we approached all our other publications and [corresponding author] would certainly know that. I remain perplexed and quite upset as to why and how such a fundamental error was made on his part on this occasion.”) The corresponding author initially believed that an acknowledgment was appropriate, but then recommended the addition of Dr H as an author. We maintain that an acknowledgment is appropriate, and that adding him as an author without fulfilling ICMJE criteria (journal policy) would be the equivalent of gift authorship.
Question(s) for the COPE Forum • Based on ICMJE criteria and journal policy, does the Forum believe that a formal erratum denoting an acknowledgment OR authorship is appropriate? If the latter, an explanation as to why would be very helpful.
The case raises the issue of the role of contributorship. One solution in such cases is for journals to list the contributions of each author. When contributions are clearly listed on a paper, it sometimes becomes clear that some of the contributors do not in fact qualify for authorship, so this practice should be encouraged by journals.
COPE has produced a discussion document on ‘What constitutes authorship?’ which sets out criteria for authorship across different disciplines, and the editor may wish to bring this to the attention of the institution.
The Forum agreed that institutions need to take responsibility for these types of decisions and should have robust mechanisms in place. It is almost impossible for journals and editors to sort out these issues on their own. Unfortunately many institutions fail to arbitrate in these situations. The Forum advised going back to the institution and asking them to address the issue.
The editor may like to look up CRediT (contributor roles taxonomy) which is a CASRAI activity that brings together a diverse set of stakeholders with a common interest in better understanding and communicating different types of contributor roles in research. The CRediT taxonomy may also be a solution in this new era of data sharing where a paper may wish to acknowledge the contribution of the data collectors who would not qualify for authorship.
The Forum also noted that the ICMJE guidelines state that acknowledgements require written permission from the person who is being acknowledged.
In summary, the Forum agreed that contacting the institution is the best way forward and asking them to suggest what should be done in this situation and to explain their policies and procedures in such instances.
To support a recommendation to publish a correction listing Dr H in an acknowledgment (not as an author), the editors sent the institution the following post from Retraction Watch, which describes a similar situation. The institution agreed with this course of action. Although the institution included an apology in their draft correction, the journal opted not to include it in the final correction. The correction will appear in an upcoming volume (in print and online). Prior to publication, the final correction was emailed to Dr H, Dr D and the institution. The editor pointed out that it is the responsibility of the corresponding author, Dr D, to share the final correction, as well as explain the situation as a whole, with all of the coauthors (if he had not already done so). The editor also encouraged the authors to use this experience as a learning opportunity to begin discussions of authorship and acknowledgments at the stage of study conception.
We received an article which was accepted and published after an uneventful peer review process. The article was apparently written by seven authors from two universities. As part of our routine processes, all co-authors were alerted to a submission via the email addresses provided by the submitting author.
Some time after the article had been published, we received an email from the corresponding author (author B) to say that the paper had been submitted without his, or his co-authors, knowledge or permission. Author B says that the work reported is a result of a collaborative study between the authors listed on the paper, but that they had not yet agreed to prepare the reported work for publication. Author B claims that the first author of the article (author A) submitted the article to our journal under author B’s name using a fake email account.
Author A has written to us independently to say that they submitted the article in the name of author B using a fake email account and signed the Licence to Publish in the name of author B without the consent or knowledge of author B. Author A and author B have requested that the published article be withdrawn. Author B claims that there are mistakes in the article and that the co-authors disagree with some of the viewpoints in the article.
The editor plans to investigate, if necessary with support from the universities, to establish whether the published article is scientifically flawed, and is reviewing what the appropriate action should be to address the authorship situation described.
Question(s) for the COPE Forum • If the article is scientifically sound, and therefore does not warrant retraction to protect the accuracy of the scientific record, what action should the editor take to address the claims made by author B regarding author A’s actions?
The Forum suggested this was a copyright issue. Copyright normally resides with the publisher, but if the publisher has not received permission from the authors then the publisher does not have a license to publish, and the paper must be removed from the website. This is also a case of serious deception. In addition, there may be data protection issues on the basis of the accuracy of the data as the author names are listed on the paper without their consent. The Forum suggested the journal may wish to seek legal advice.
One suggestion was to retract the paper, and re-publish if the licensing issues are resolved. The majority of the Forum were in agreement that the paper should not be hosted by the publisher any longer in its current state. The paper should be removed and a note put in its place with an explanation of the events. The institution then needs to take the lead on this matter. It is the responsibility of the institution to investigate the misconduct issue. The note on the website should remain until the outcome of the investigation by the institution.
Following discussion at the Forum, the editor sought legal advice from the publisher and contacted the institution concerned to request an investigation. The editor has now received a formal response from the institution which stated that the institution had directed author B to consult with the co-authors listed to clarify the authorship of the article concerned and provide an updated licence to publish to the journal. The journal is currently waiting on correspondence from author B regarding these matters.
Follow up (May 2016) The Editor has now received an updated licence to publish, and the author group have reached an agreement on the correct authorship for the article concerned. The journal will publish a correction notice to update the authorship and now considers the matter closed.
In November 2014, the first author of a decade old paper in our journal and a 15-year-old paper from another journal informed us that he faked the data in two figure panels in the paper in our journal and one figure panel in the paper in the other journal. The main gist of the manipulation was loading unequal amounts or delayed loading of gel lanes.
Self-admission of data falsification is a serious charge that is difficult to disprove, and we felt a challenge to identify evidence to counter or support this type of allegation. As general guidelines, we felt there were three types of evidence that could help resolve the standoff: (1) compelling original raw data with evidence for or against unequal or delayed gel loading; (2) verified replication already existing within the published literature; and (3) as a last resort, a replication study performed by a wholly independent laboratory.
In December 2014, we asked the first author to contact the corresponding author of both papers and the institute, but he refused. We informed the first author that we would inform the corresponding author of the papers and this might result in violating his confidentiality. In January 2015, we informed the corresponding author that we had received self-admission of fraud from the first author and asked the corresponding author to retrieve original raw data for the figures in question and provide them to us. We also urged the corresponding author to engage the institute ethics committee and get in touch with the first author in gaining a deeper understanding of the challenges.
In February 2015, we spoke with the corresponding author by telephone. The corresponding author did not believe that the first author had faked the data. We discussed potential ways to counter a compelling self-admission and agreed that the corresponding author would provide us with the raw data by the end of March 2015 and would inform his institute.
In March 2015, we were contacted by his institute. On request, we provided the contact information of the first author to the institute’s investigation committee after obtaining permission from the first author. The corresponding author told us that he has located all of the raw data. In contrast with what we agreed by telephone, he told us that he would not be sending us the raw data directly but would pass them to the committee. The first author provided both us and the committee with data that he said was contemporaneously produced and showed a different result from what was published, that he said was without manipulation with gel loading and showed no experimental effect.
In April 2015, we asked the committee to share their investigation results with us and also asked the corresponding author to provide the copy of the raw data to us. But the corresponding author and committee refused to share any useful information with us. The committee told us by email that they have an obligation to protect the corresponding author’s reputation.
In May 2015, we spoke with the research integrity officials of the institute by telephone and they agreed to share more information with us. In early June 2015, we received a summary but not the full version of the committee report, which cites that no further action is warranted because the evidence they gathered can neither support nor refute the first author’s self-admission. We were not provided with any of the original data. The summary report included information such as promotion schedules of both the first and corresponding authors, but these seemed irrelevant to us. We felt it essential that we have access to the full scientific information on which the committee based its recommendation.
In late June 2015, the institute shared with us the full report of their investigation. We were able to understand from this that their conclusion that no further action is warranted was based on the fact that there was no recorded falsification in the laboratory notebook. We feel this reason is not sufficient to counter self-admission of fraud as someone who intentionally fakes data would not likely record it in their laboratory notebook. We therefore were unsatisfied with recommendation to take no further action.
In July 2015, we interviewed the first author via Skype and asked him to describe again how he generated the data and how he intentionally manipulated the data to fake the results. What he described over Skype was consistent with what he has described to us in previous correspondences.
In July 2015, we also spoke with an institute senior official and explained again that only contemporaneous data collected by the first author, contemporaneous data collected by other members of the laboratory, or direct replication of the data by an independent laboratory reported in the published literature would be necessary to counter the first author’s self-admission of fraud. Since none of these avenues turned up evidence to counter the self-admission, we suggested that the experiments in question could be independently repeated by a third party or the paper will need to be retracted.
In August 2015, the corresponding author agreed to proceed to have the data in question independently repeated by a third party. We are now instructing the corresponding author to reach out to a laboratory to start repeating the experiments. While he agreed in principle, the corresponding author is dragging his feet and we are uncomfortable sitting on a serious allegation and eager to move forward with a resolution in a timely and responsible manner.
Question(s) for the COPE Forum • What are COPE's recommended procedures for handling self-admissions of fraud? • What is the journal’s responsibility when one author self proclaims fraud and another author says no fraud occurred? • What is the responsibility of the journal if the journal thinks an institutional investigation was not evidence based.
The Forum noted that this was a very unusual case, both fascinating and alarming. At its heart it would appear to an authorship dispute, and the journal was correct in involving the institution. The Forum suggested contacting all of the authors and asking for their input. It would seem that the only clear way of resolving the issue is to replicate the study and try to reproduce the results.
The Forum questioned why it has taken the corresponding author 10 years to contact the journal, as it would seem to be professional suicide. The Japanese government has recently issued guidelines to institutions to clean up their act following the Japanese stem cell scandal—could this be a factor?
The Forum acknowledged that the journal has handled this correctly by taking the allegations seriously. The Forum suggested publishing an expression of concern. The expression of concern should be worded in a neutral manner without apportioning blame or accusing the author. This also may prompt the corresponding author into action.
The Forum suggested continuing to work with the corresponding author to replicate the study. The only way to resolve this completely is to try to replicate the study, and it is in the interests of the corresponding author if he wishes to stand by his allegations. The journal does have a responsibility to pursue an independent investigation if the journal thinks the institutional investigation was not evidence based. The journal should give the corresponding author a time limit, after which the journal should review the situation and either amend the expression of concern or retract the paper.
The journal has published an expression of concern and will keep readers updated when the results of the investigation are available.
Follow up (October 2016):
The journal has now published two editorial expressions of concern and followed up with two editorial notes, explaining that the results of the independent investigations were inconclusive. The editor considers the case closed.
The editor of journal A was alerted to the fact that an article published in journal A had been previously published in journal B and constituted a duplicate publication. The editor contacted the authors who explained that they had tried to withdraw the article from journal B but their request was ignored and the article was published against their wishes.
The authors contacted journal B with a request to retract the article. Journal B removed the article from its website but did not publish a retraction notice or any explanation as to why the article had been removed. The article published in journal B was not indexed in any indexing services, but the title can still be found by a search in Google Scholar.
The editor of journal A wonders if they need to alert the readership to the fact that a reference to the same article in journal B can be found. They feel that retraction of the article from journal A is not the correct course of action in this case because the article is scientifically sound, and currently only the version published in journal A is available. However, readers may still be misled by references to journal B that can be found on the internet.
Question(s) for the COPE Forum • Should journal A publish an ‘Expression of concern’ to highlight the duplicate publication in the past. However, the article in journal B is no longer available. Perhaps a comment in the comments system of journal A would suffice?
COPE does not seem to have clear guidelines in one place on how and when to use Expressions of concern (although we appreciate they are referred to in various Cases and in the Retraction Guidelines). It is also not clear whether they should be used as temporary notes or permanent publications (or can be both?). Different publishers use them on a case-by-case basis in an inconsistent way. PubMed recognizes an Expression of concern as a type of comment. We thought that it may be useful to discuss Expressions of concern in one of the future COPE discussion Forums to gather opinions from different publishers with a view to develop a more detailed set of guidelines for editors.
The Forum discussed issues relating to punishing the author and correcting the literature. Retractions or corrections should only be used to correct the literature—not for “punishment” In the first instance a notice needs to go on the article in journal A, which could be an expression of concern. Under normal circumstances, the article in journal B should be the one that remains, but the article is currently only available in journal A. Hence the only way of having transparency around this case is for a formal note to be added to journal A. It is essential that the formal note is a form that can be indexed and is citable. It could be an addendum, if that is linked to the article or an expression of concern.
The Forum also noted that the authors should be made aware that simultaneous submissions then withdrawing an article from one journal because you wish to publish it in another journal is not acceptable behaviour, if that is what happened in this case.
COPE agreed to consider the topic of expressions of concern for a Forum discussion.
The editor of journal A followed COPE advice and published a permanent notice in journal A (an expression of concern that is indexed and citable) explaining the duplicate publication that was removed from journal B and linking the note to the original publication in journal A. The editor considers the case now closed.
Editorial office staff at journal A noticed possible image manipulation in two figures of a new paper submitted by author X. These suspected manipulations involved images of gels which appeared to contain multiple duplicated bands. This prompted editorial staff to look at the submission history of author X to journal A in more detail.
It was found that author X had previously submitted to journal A numerous times. All previous submissions had been rejected for reasons unrelated to the concerns raised here but one paper had been accepted for publication. Unfortunately, this author X paper which journal A had published appeared to contain possible band duplications in two gel images, as did an earlier submission which had been rejected at the start of 2015. As at least three papers received by journal A from author X has suspected image problems, authors X’s recent publication history was examined.
Similar possible gel issues along with a suspected image duplication relating to a photo of bacterial colonies were identified in three papers published in three different journals (journals B, C and D). Two members of editorial staff along with the editor-in-chief of journal A have considered all of the suspected issues and feel confident they are legitimate. As it currently stands, journal A has rejected the most recent submission from author X on the grounds of possible gel issues identified. However, the suspected issues identified in the four published papers in journals A, B, C and D were not mentioned in the rejection letter to allow time for an appropriate course of action to be decided.
As the paper was only recently (12 August) rejected by journal A, it has yet to hear back from author X, if indeed it does at all.
Journal A feels that it is important that journals B, C and D are made aware of the issues in the papers they have published. However, they also feel that it is important that they are made aware of all of the papers involved so they can appreciate the full picture as this may determine how they choose to handle the issues in their own respective journals.
Question(s) for the COPE Forum • Would COPE advise that journal A contacts journals B, C and D at this stage? If so, what sort of information could legitimately be provided to the other journals? Should Journal A provide journals B, C and D with copies of all of the papers involved, including the unpublished papers submitted to journal A which were rejected without review? Would this breech confidentiality or would the importance for full enclosure trump confidentiality concerns in this situation? As most of the suspected issues only become apparent when the brightness/contrast levels of images is adjusted, journal A has put together PowerPoint files for each respective paper involved to highlight the possible issues identified. Would COPE advise providing copies of these PowerPoint files to journals B, C and D so they are under no doubt about the possible issues identified or could this be considered a defamatory action in the (what we feel unlikely) event journal A is mistaken over these issues? • What type of action would COPE recommend the journals take should all agree with the issues identified? Would retraction be called for, considering the numbers of papers involved? Should author X’s institution be contacted? Journal A feels it is important that these issues are addressed but also feels somewhat uncomfortable with the idea of having a hand in potentially destroying someone’s career and livelihood. • Journal A has not looked any further beyond the papers mentioned above as every published author X paper examined appeared to have potential issues so a line had to be drawn somewhere. However, journal A suspects that there may be other papers from author X in the literature with similar possible issues. Who is responsible for checking the publication history of author X for issues? Would it be author X’s institution should you recommend this be referred to them?
The Forum warned against rejecting the manuscript at this stage as the paper will then be out of the jurisdiction of the journal, and it is likely the author will submit it to another journal.
The Forum advised contacting the other journals but the editor should not share specific data immediately with the other editors. The editor should share the minimum amount of information with the other editors but in a neutral manner, without accusations or blame. The COPE guidelines "Sharing of Information Among Editors-in-Chief Regarding Possible Misconduct" (http://publicationethics.org/files/Sharing%20_of_Information_Among_EiCs_...) provides practical guidance on this issue.
The Forum were in agreement that the matter should be reported to the institution. The institution is the only body with access to the data and it is up to them to investigate. The journal is not in a position to do this. The editor should inform them of the analysis, but not the results. It would send a stronger message if the editors of the other journals were also to contact the institution, or if all of the editors were to approach the institution together.
The published papers must be dealt with on a case by case basis, and handled by correction or retraction as appropriate.
For the future, the Forum suggested updating the journal's instructions to authors with a statement saying that the journal reserves the right to contact other editors or the authors' institutions in cases of suspected misconduct.
After further discussion with their publisher it was recommended that journal A should seek the opinion of an independent expert on the concerns raised about images in the published paper, the rationale being this would strengthen their case should the decision be made to retract. A suitable expert, who was unaffiliated with journal A, was approached and agreed with concerns about the images in the paper. As it was felt that the falsification of images raised sufficient doubt over subsequent interpretations of the data reported, the decision was made to retract the paper. A retraction statement is due for imminent publication in journal A.
When the retraction has been published, the editor-in-chief of journal A plans to contact the other journals involved and will make sure to follow the COPE guidelines for ‘Sharing of information among editors-in-chief regarding possible misconduct’.
Journal A will follow the Forum’s advice for updating the journal’s instructions to include a statement to the effect of “ the journal reserves the right to contact other editors or the authors' institutions in cases of suspected misconduct”.
We received an original article which was accepted and published. The article was written by multiple authors from several centres, and the corresponding author undertook the task of standardising the content, making several corrections to the original text. The author proofs were sent to the corresponding author, who reviewed them.
However, once published, one of the co-authors indicated his disagreement with the changes that had been made by the corresponding author on his part of the article. This author has asked us to publish an erratum to include, under “Conflicts of interest”, his disagreement with the final version, because he wants to respect the original text (the author already expressed their disagreement before the article was published, but we did not know this until now).
The corresponding author disagrees with the addition to the conflict of interest statement because there is no conflict of interest, only a difference of opinion. Moreover, he argues that, as scientists, we must be aware that all of our work has limitations, and recognize that these limitations are part of what drives scientific progress.
Question(s) for the COPE Forum
What is the procedure we should follow in this case?
The Forum agreed with the editor that these are not conflicts of interest, but differences in opinion between the authors. A conflict of interest statement would not be appropriate in this instance. The Forum suggested that the journal could ask the disgruntled co-author to submit a letter to the editor for publication in the journal, outlining his concerns. Raising these concerns in public could be a way of resolving this issue. It is important that the letter is linked to the original article, so that the two items are permanently linked. If the journal does not have a mechanism for publishing letters to the editor, the journal could use PubMed Commons which enables authors to share opinions about publications in PubMed. In extreme cases, it has been known to have two different discussion sections in the same paper.
A way to avoid a similar situation in the future would be to ask the authors to provide a contributorship statement, which outlines the contribution of each author to the study. The statement could also include agreement on the final version, so that all authors confirm that they agree with the final version for publication.
The journal decided to invite the disgruntled co-author to submit a letter to the editor and to ask the other co-authors to reply. They have yet to receive the letter.
Follow up (February 2016): The disgruntled co-author submitted a letter to the editor. The corresponding author of the original article was given the opportunity to reply. Both letters were published and permanently linked to the original article.
In April 2014, our journal received a case report from author A with co-authors B, C, D and E. After undergoing a first round of revisions pertaining only to the paper’s format, author A excluded co-authors C, D, and E from the revised version and retained co-author B, without notifying the journal of this change. After this change, the manuscript underwent the complete evaluation process, comprising peer review and revisions by the authors. It was accepted for publication in July 2014.
During the evaluation process, author A included two new co-authors (authors F and G). The paper was published in November 2014 with author A and co-authors B, F and G. From the time of manuscript submission until publication, the excluded co-authors C, D and E did not contact the journal or send any requests or comments regarding their authorship.
In May 2015, 7 months after the case report was published, our journal received an email from a legal advocate acting on behalf of the excluded co-authors C, D and E, complaining about the attested authorship of the case report. Co-authors C, D and E claim that author A is not, in fact, the first author and assert that the correct authorship and co-authorship should include the excluded authors C, D and E as the principal authors.
We sent the complaint made by the excluded co-authors C, D, and E to author A (the corresponding author of the published version) allowing him the chance to answer all of the allegations made by the excluded co-authors. In his reply, he assured us that he was the principal author of the case report, as originally submitted, and that it has no element of plagiarism. He further assured our journal that he and the co-authors listed in the published version had written the manuscript and made all the corrections proposed by the reviewers. He stated, “We have never indulged or indulge in such silly misdoings and in order to keep the personal relationship amicable, we would like to withdraw the case report despite it being the product of hours of hard work on our part”.
Question(s) for the COPE Forum
Although this case does not represent a clear reason for retraction (eg, redundant publication, plagiarism or clear evidence that the findings are unreliable), should we issue an expression of concern?
Is it possible for our journal to retract the case report in order to avoid serious legal problems in the near future?
There may be a case for retraction of the paper based on plagiarism, if co-authors C, D, and E claim it was their work, and then the other authors have taken that work and published it as their own. So it could be seen as plagiarism of ideas. But the authorship issue would need to be resolved before taking this action.
However, given that the study seems to be sound, some argued that the paper should not be retracted. An expression of concern may be warranted, but again, as there are no issues with the content of the paper, it may not be necessary.
Has the journal gone back to the authors and asked them why this has happened? The editor could suggest that the authors look at the journal's authorship guidelines and determine who should be listed as an author. However, the Forum agreed that it is impossible for the editor to know exactly what is going on here, and so the journal needs to contact the institution and ask them to resolve this situation. It is not the editor’s role to sort out authorship disputes. Hence the Forum recommended contacting the authors' institutions in the first instance, before taking any action.
There seemed to a failure of the journal processes here and the Forum recommended that the journal should tighten their processes and make sure that their system for checking authorship at submission is more robust. This situation could have been avoided if the journal had been in contact with all of the authors, not just the corresponding author. The journal could request email addresses from all of the authors on submission of a paper, and copy all authors on all correspondence relating to the paper.
Although the journal checks for plagiarism and authorship at the submission step, they have made their processes more robust to avoid future problems. The editor-in-chief sent several messages to the corresponding author and co-authors asking them to find agreement regarding authorship, based on the journal´s authorship guidelines. Unfortunately, no response has been received. The editorial board of the journal decided to give the authors another 2 months to respond. If no response is received, and considering the corresponding author already asked for retraction, the case report will be retracted.
Follow up November 2015 The authors did not answer questions from the journal regarding authorship of their case report. The editor has not retracted the paper and considers the case now closed.