We are a publisher with a portfolio of about 25 journals, with journal X being the flagship journal. Journal X has a high impact factor. We also publish a range of other, newer journals, some of which are ranked highly but most have no impact factor.
An author submitted a manuscript to journal Y where it underwent peer review and was accepted after revisions. After acceptance, the author contacted the editor saying that he had made a mistake and wished to have the paper considered by journal X instead, because it has an impact factor, and stated that if the editor would not publish the article in journal X, the consensus of all authors is to withdraw the paper from journal Y in order to submit it to a journal with an impact factor. The editor informed the author that the paper was not suitable for journal X and that his behaviour was unethical: withdrawal after acceptance violates scientific community norms, as it wastes editorial and peer reviewer resources, in particular if there are no scientific reasons to do so.
The editor wrote to the authors stating that if they insist on a withdrawal at this stage there would be three sanctions: 1) they would be blacklisted (ie, none of the publisher’s journals would consider future submissions from any of the authors, 2) the journal would write a letter to the superiors of the authors outlining the case and 3) they would still be responsible for the Article Processing Charge which is payable on acceptance; ours is an open access journal, with the fee schedule clearly disclosed and agreed upon by the submitting author (the fee schedule specifies that if the paper is withdrawn after acceptance it is still payable and will not be refunded).
The author continues to say that they made a mistake—they thought that journal Y was a section within journal X (in reality the submission form clearly allows the author to pick a journal from a dropdown list and the submission acknowledgement email also contains the name of the journal, as does all subsequent communications). On submission, the author checked a box where he agreed on a possible transfer of the paper within the publisher family.
The author pleads that “The kinds of journals that my PhD student publishes in potentially affects his graduation prospects” and that publication in journal Y “could have terrible repercussions for a very promising PhD student”, as well as “going to negatively affect my prospects [for promotion and tenure]”. The editor is not impressed by these arguments as they illustrate a misuse of the impact factor, and PhD students should be taught to respect the journal submission and peer review/publication process and not taught that it is acceptable to waste editorial resources in order to play impact factor games.
Question(s) for the COPE Forum
• What does the Forum think about the ethics of withdrawing a paper during or after peer review in order to publish in a higher impact factor journal?
• If the Forum agrees with the assessment that the authors acted in an unethical fashion, are the sanctions proposed by the editor in this case reasonable?
• Is there anything else that should be done?
The Forum agreed that this was not good behaviour on the part of the author, but COPE would always advocate a more educational rather than a punitive approach. COPE guidance also advises against blacklisting authors.
Although it seems that the authors’ behaviour was intentional, it is the authors’ prerogative to withdraw a paper at any point before it is published. While the Forum agreed that such behaviour is deplorable and a waste of editorial resources, the advice was to communicate this message clearly to the authors but not necessarily to directly punish them. This is especially applicable to more junior authors.
A suggestion was to write an editorial on this issue in general, explaining why it is not good practice.
Another suggestion was to review the journal submission system and consider outside user testing to make sure there is no confusion for authors regarding submission to different journals in the publisher portfolio. The Forum also noted that it is unusual to charge an author if they withdraw a paper that is not published and hence the editor may wish to reconsider this decision.
Despite communication with the authors that their behaviour was "not good" and in fact "deplorable" (citing the COPE Forum), and despite communication from the dean of the university that the authors’ behaviour is based on a gross misunderstanding on how the university evaluates the value of a publication (which is not based on the impact factor), the authors still insisted on withdrawing their manuscript.
The journal and publisher refrained from any further sanctions, such as blacklisting authors or charging the Article Processing Fee for a peer-reviewed and accepted (but not published) manuscript. The publisher has also discontinued its use of any formal blacklist.
We received an email from a reader relating to the ethics statement in a research article published in 2011. The article presented data collected at a clinic relating to a controversial area in medicine. The ethics statement in the article indicates that, in accordance with regional guidelines, the research ethics committee deemed that the study was a service evaluation and formal ethical review was not required.
Using the reference number cited in the article, the reader obtained the relevant documents from the research ethics committee via a freedom of information request. The reader argued that the documents from the ethics committee related to data that predated what was presented in the article. A review of the documents indicated that this appeared to be the case. In addition, the reader argued that service evaluations should not be presented as research articles as these are two separate things.
The editor of the journal wrote to the author of the article and asked for comment on the issues raised. The author replied that there had been regular contact with the ethics committee as the service period of the clinic was extended, and the ethics committee continued to indicate that the data were being collected as part of a service evaluation and further ethical review was not required. In addition, the data were collected anonymously, which would further exempt the study from requiring formal ethical approval. The ethics committee also provided the authors with a letter indicating that “this letter …may be provided to a journal or other body as evidence that ethical approval is not required under [the regional] research governance arrangements”.
The author indicated that similar requests had been made in the past and that, due to the controversial area of the work, many attempts were being made to retract articles that used the data from the clinic. Attempting to prevent further queries, the author asked the institutional head of research to post a public statement indicating that the work was conducted appropriately and met the highest ethical standards. As requested, the head of research issued a statement on the institutional website in support of the work.
The editor then responded to the reader indicating that the journal was satisfied with the author’s response and the support of the head of research. The reader was not satisfied with the editor’s response and forwarded the details of the case to a high profile blogger who writes extensively on this controversial area of medicine. The blogger then posted a blog criticising both the article and the journal’s handling of the case. The blog was shared widely on social media. From the journal’s perspective, the blog was inaccurate, misrepresentative and damaging to the publisher’s reputation.
Question(s) for the COPE Forum • Should we allow data collected in service evaluations to be published as research articles? In medical journals, this is often seen as an acceptable exception; however, if research ethics committees are declaring a study "not research", should journals do the same? • Should the journal have posted a correction on the article to provide a more detailed ethics statement, bearing in mind that anything labelled a "correction" in a controversial area would be misinterpreted as an error in the research by the critics? • How should journals respond to blog posts that they feel portray them unfairly and are damaging to the publisher's reputation?
The Forum suggested that perhaps the issue is not whether or not the service evaluation is research, but was the evaluation carried out in human subjects (which would require a sound ethics approach) or were the data contained in registries where the patient data were anonymised. It would appear that the latter is the case and that this is a secondary data analysis, but the editor could ask for clarification from the author on the methodology as it needs to be adequately described. Was this a dataset developed out of a research project that had ethics approval for human subjects? If so, the secondary analysis might not need new ethics approval if additional analyses were covered in the initial approval. The methodology is confusing the issue of whether ethics approval was required. The Forum suggested these points need to be clarified before a decision on whether to add a correction on the article or to respond to the blogger.
This issue often arises with audit articles, which is often a term used for service evaluations. There is a contradiction in that journals publish research articles and yet audits or service evaluations are not thought of as research requiring ethics approval. However, it is up to the ethics committees and their procedures to decide what is research for the purposes of ethics approval. Separately, journals need to decide what they can publish so it is the editor’s decision on what to publish in their journal, irrespective of the decision of the ethics committee.
The Forum suggested that the journal may need to provide more information or specific guidelines for authors on what they mean when they say they accept waiving of ethics approval for service evaluations. What is meant by service evaluations?
The Forum agreed that posting a correction may be excessive and perhaps a short editor’s note would be more appropriate. The Forum advised against responding to the blogger and getting into a spiral of communication that could become problematic. A suggestion was to write an editorial on the concepts more broadly and how the journal’s policy is going to evolve in the future regarding secondary research being conducted as service evaluations/audits/quality improvement reporting and what the ethics requirements will be in the future. What are the expectations of the journal for future submissions of service evaluations?
At acceptance but before publication, we found article A submitted to journal A was highly similar to article B, published 5 months earlier in conference proceedings in journal B by another publisher. The abstracts were nearly identical, but the author lists and affiliations did not overlap. We asked the authors to explain this and they said article A is their own work, but it was inadvertently leaked by an unnamed medical company they work with.
We told the authors of article A that in future they must declare the role of any company in their research and consider if this may be a conflict of interests. They said their article was previously submitted 4 years ago to another publisher of journal C, who rejected it. We confirmed this with the publisher, who added that their reviewers and editor are not the authors of article B.
The authors of article A said they spoke with the first author of article B, who promised to withdraw it. Article B was retracted, with the abstract being removed and a retraction notice posted. However, the stated reason for retraction was errors. The authors of article A said they were surprised by this.
What we know appears to be consistent with the authors of article A being the genuine authors, but the authors of article A told us the company does not want to be involved in this matter and they asked to withdraw article A, which we did. We have not contacted the authors or publisher of article B. We advised the authors of article A to contact the institutions of the authors of article B and the editor and publisher of journal B; we suggested they do not necessarily need to share details of the company because proof they are the original authors and the authors of article B are not, may be enough for an investigation. The authors of article A said they would consider this.
Question(s) for the COPE Forum • Could we have handled this case differently? • Should we contact the publisher of article B? • Should we ask the institution of the authors of article A and/or article B to investigate?
The Forum was updated that there has been a further development: one of the authors of article A submitted a new article to the journal, a shorter version of which was published in the conference proceedings.
Generally, COPE recommends that authorship issues should be resolved at the institutional level. Institutions are best placed to investigate these issues, especially if there was a medical device company or drug company involved who funded the work. The institution should have a record of this involvement and they may be able to provide additional information. Also, the further misconduct of one of the authors of article A may indicate a pattern of unethical behaviour which needs to be addressed by the journal, but also by the institution.
The Forum was told that the journal plans to contact the author regarding the latest submission, and ask for an explanation. The journal also plans to contact the authors of the conference proceedings to see if they have any insight as to how a different author group submitted the same work to the journal. After evaluating the responses, the journal may then contact the institutions of the authors of article A and possibly also the institutions of the authors of article B. The Forum agreed this was a sensible course of action.
The authors of the latest submission and those of the conference proceeding said they had collaborated, that the conference proceeding was preliminary work, and the authors of the conference proceeding should have been acknowledged in the submission. Because of the similar issue with the previous article by the same authors, the journal still had concerns and declined to further consider the submission. The journal is asking the institutions to investigate.
Follow-up (July 2018)
The journal contacted both institutions and the other publisher. The other publisher thanked the journal for this and said they will take note of their authors' actions; neither institution has responded.
An author submitted work to our journal (journal A) which, after two rounds of peer review, was accepted and published. One week after it was published, the editors of journal B contacted our journal stating that this work, with the exact same title, authors and content, had been submitted to journal B and, after receiving an acceptance letter, the author withdrew the paper, informing them that it had been accepted by a different journal.
When the editor of journal B asked the author for an explanation, the author did not provide a satisfactory response. Journal B, in consultation with their editorial board, banned the author from submitting to the journal in the future.
Editor B contacted us, alerting us to the situation. After verifying the submission records, we concluded that the submission to both journals had been done on the same day. We contacted the authors for an explanation. The author replied that indeed he had submitted to two journals but that the submissions were several weeks apart. He said he forgot to withdraw the article from journal B and apologized for the situation. However, the submission records for both journal A and journal B indicate that this statement is not true.
We have discussed with the editor of journal B what action should be taken in relation to the author. Journal B has already banned the author. The editorial board of journal B would like to make this misconduct known to the author´s institution and suggests that it should be us who contact the institution. We are reluctant to contact the institution as the author has apologized, admitted his mistake and withdrew the article from journal B. We believe journal B should contact the institution.
Question(s) for the COPE Forum • What is the appropriate action in such a case. Should the institution be informed or is banning the author from both journals for a period of time enough? • Who should initiate the action—journal A or journal B? • Both editors agree that something should be done so that the author does not repeat the behaviour at other journals, but are unsure of what to do.
The Forum advised that in deciding whether to inform the institution, the editor may want to take into consideration the seniority of the author and the country of origin of the author. If the author is from a country where ethical norms are not well entrenched, the editor may wish to be more lenient. COPE would always advocate educational rather than punitive action. Even if the editor feels that the author deliberately tried to deceive, COPE would still recommend an educational approach in the first instance. If the author demonstrates a repeat pattern of misconduct, then the editor might consider contacting the institution.
However, while contacting the institution for punitive reasons is not necessarily helpful some argued informing the institution may be preventative rather than punitive, especially if the authors are junior researchers. The institution has a role in mentoring the author and to ensure that this type of behaviour does not persist. This may also serve to convey to the author the seriousness of the infraction.
A suggestion was to write an editorial on the issue of dual submission. Do authors really understand what it means, and the consequences of declaring that their paper has not been submitted to another journal?
COPE does not recommend banning authors because of the legal repercussions.
An article was submitted involving over 200 pregnant patients with a systemic illness (from 2010 to 2015) who were recruited and assigned to a control group or an active intervention group (of their systemic illness). The control group received routine antenatal care while the intervention group had active surveillance and management of their systemic illness during the pregnancy.
There was a significant increase in morbidity and mortality in the non-actively managed control group. We (reviewers and editors) are concerned about the ethics of this study design. Specifically, it seems pregnant patients who were assigned to the non-active treatment/control group did not have their systemic condition managed in what would today be regarded as 'standard of care'.
Question(s) for the COPE Forum • Despite apparent local ethics board approval, and a statement from the authors declaring adherence to the Declaration of Helsinki, is it ethical to include a non-active intervention group for a disease which is known to have negative fetal and maternal outcomes?
The Forum advised that this appears to be unethical research conduct and egregious violation of human ethics.
Withholding known effective treatment for experimental purposes is not ethical in human subjects’ research. If there is a known effective treatment, the study cannot ethically be done, and any institutional review board would raise a question about such a protocol. If the active management (treatment) is not known to be effective, and the researchers are attempting to establish efficacy of the active management, then a rigorous research protocol should be in place. Such a protocol would ensure informed consent of all human subjects, as well as a process for breaking the randomization if it becomes clear that the subjects in the control arm of the research are in any medical jeopardy. If this is not the case in this research, the authors should be reported to a research integrity office at their institution or at the country level.
Editors can reject a paper for ethical concerns despite local ethics approval, and a journal can ask the institution to reassess this approval. If it is known that a treatment/management is effective, withholding it is unethical.
The manuscript was rejected for a variety of reasons, including the concerns regarding the ethics of the study design.
A submission in the economics field to an interdisciplinary social science journal was accepted, following full external review. Subsequently, the publisher wrote to the author stating that during editorial checks, it had come to their attention that a full manuscript of a paper with the same name was available in a discussion paper series and kindly asked that this version be removed from the website so that the publisher has the right of first publication.
The publisher stated that upon acceptance for publication, authors may deposit the abstract of their paper or an executive summary on this website. They said that in accordance with the publisher policy for online deposit of work, preprints or post-prints should only be deposited into institutional repositories or faculty websites following an embargo period effective on official publication of the paper. The publisher said they will not be able to proceed to publication of the paper until this issue has been resolved.
In the economics field, as in many other fields, it is standard practice to deposit in such a series an early version of a paper that is subsequently submitted for journal publication. The present case concerns a prestigious discussion paper series that has approaching 9000 entries. Since a published version would have undergone substantial changes following external review, researchers would inevitably seek out and cite the later journal version; indeed, leading websites in the field provide details of subsequent journal publication, as available. Generally, leading repositories, including this one, are unwilling to remove papers from its series.
Question(s) for the COPE Forum • Is the publisher’s stand justified? • Can the publisher reasonably insist on “right of first publication”, even where research funding may have been secured from university or external sources? • What should be the response of the journal editor? • Are there differences in accepted practice across disciplines?
Many journals now accept papers that have previously been published as “preprints”. Preprints have a formal DOI so are generally considered prior publication, in contrast with the discussion papers described in this case.
If the editor wishes to publish the paper, and it is standard practice in his field, then the Forum agreed he should have full editorial independence. The publisher should not interfere in the decision, especially if a consensus or joint solution has not been agreed by the editor and publisher.
The Forum advised that the journal needs a very specific and transparent policy, stating clearly in its author instructions what the journal will publish and in what form. The issue can be very complicated for authors when different publishers or even different journals within the same publisher have different policies. The advice was to have a discussion and resolve the issue with the publisher.
The editor brought the advice offered at the Forum to the attention of the Publisher. Following internal discussions, a new policy was adopted, and published, by the publisher, very much in agreement with the advice offered at the COPE Forum. The new policy (edited version) states: “Publisher does not consider a working paper prior publication, nor would the existence of a working paper online disqualify an article from being considered for publication. Additionally, Publisher would not expect a working paper to be removed from its server or conference website. However, this policy is only applicable if: - The author declares to the journal editor on submission of their article that a working paper upon which the paper is based is publicly available; - It is expected that the submitted article is substantially developed from the working paper, be it with further discussion or a different conclusion; - Any working paper must be fully referenced on the submitted article, such as ‘This article is based upon a working paper X, hosted on X.’; - Authors should not assign copyright when uploading their work to a preprint server or conference website. - This policy does not apply to any working paper that has been included in a conference proceeding volume or publication which has received an ISSN or ISBN.”
Thus the journal was able to publish the paper in the special issue without further hindrance.
A manuscript was submitted to one of our journals in a special issue. The initial submission included 15 authors with 9 affiliations. The authors were part of a consortium which has now been disbanded. The manuscript was provisionally accepted for publication.
At this point, three of the authors requested to be removed from the author list, citing irreconcilable differences with the corresponding author. When queried, the authors agreed that they qualified for authorship (as per the ICMJE criteria). One of them informed the publisher that three junior members of his research group also qualified for authorship but had never been included in the author list. When contacted, these junior three researchers requested to be included as authors.
The manuscript's publication was put on hold during these checks. The corresponding author was unhappy at the delay in publication. They denigrated and questioned the integrity of the institution where these researchers were based and claimed that one of three authors was involved in perverting peer review in another, named, journal (not related to the publisher). The corresponding author made it clear that they would refuse to accept any recommendations from the three junior researchers' institution if they were to become involved. The corresponding author also insisted that the three removed authors be included in the acknowledgements. The three removed authors explicitly stated that they did not want their names included anywhere on the paper.
The publisher notified the corresponding author that the ICMJE guidelines recommend receiving explicit written consent from anyone included on acknowledgements. The publisher also continued to clarify the situation with the three junior researchers, informing them that such cases should be taken to their institution. As the publication was still on hold, the corresponding author threatened legal action and full media coverage for alleged censorship and unethical behaviour. A journalist for an international newspaper was copied into these threats.
The publisher took the following actions:
- Removed the three authors from author list, as per their request.
- Asked all 12 remaining authors to sign an authorship form re-attesting to the authorship (the publisher's online submission system notifies all authors of manuscript submission).
- Included the three removed authors' names in the body of the article where a summary of the consortium's meeting and attendees was noted.
- Informed the three junior researchers that the publisher would consider a corrigendum changing authorship if they could prove qualification for authorship, according to ICMJE guidelines.
- Proceeded with publication.
Question(s) for the COPE Forum • Should the publisher have held publication of the article until the findings of the junior researchers provided a report? • If this issue did become a media concern, how much of the above summary should the publisher publicly divulge, if anything?
The general advice from COPE is that journals should always hold off publication of a paper until an authorship issue is resolved. That is what COPE recommends and this advice is outlined in the COPE flowcharts. It is not up to the journal to decide who qualifies for authorship. The Forum agreed that the only option for the journal was to stall publication while the authorship issue was resolved and hence the criticism of the journal for this is unfair.
The Forum noted the importance of the institution and that the editor might still consider contacting them, even if the authors say they will not abide by the findings. The institution can also play their part in terms of educating the three junior researchers. It would be best if the institution, rather than the journal, made the decision to publish a corrigendum in relation to the junior researchers if it is proved that they qualify for authorship, according to ICMJE guidelines. The Forum advised waiting for the institution to provide this proof.
The key issue is to provide transparency. The editor might like to consider publishing an editorial on this issue, laying out all the facts.
An allegation of data fraud was not satisfactorily resolved by correspondence with the authors. We then went to the lead institution and asked for an investigation. Within 10 days we had a report clearing the authors, but interestingly using some of the exact same phrases the authors used in their responses to us. We felt that the report was too superficial and approached the other institution involved.
A new investigation was started; this investigation took many months. The report said there was insufficient justification to take the matter to formal assessment and the institution was not minded to investigate further.
We remain concerned. The second investigation asked the authors to provide some data for re-analysis: that came out close enough for the committee to be reassured. However, provision of the same data for re-analysis is likely to produce the same result. In our previous experiences, only checking of at least some of the case report forms would uncover fraudulent data. We are therefore not reassured that the paper is sound and we have no direct evidence (CRFs) that the data are genuine.
Questions for the COPE Forum • When two institutional reviews have failed to investigate thoroughly enough to reassure editors, what further investigations might be warranted? And by whom?
• Is there sufficient doubt remaining for an expression of concern? Or should we accept the results of the investigations even if we consider them inadequate?
The Forum suggested that if the original data cannot be produced, it would be reasonable to retract the paper. No access to the primary data are grounds for retraction. The Forum asked if it would be possible for the journal to have access to the anonymised data?
The Forum agreed that an expression of concern would be appropriate if the journal believes that the institution has not done due diligence. It is not within the journal’s remit to carry out an investigation. The COPE retraction guidelines state that editors are welcome to issue an expression of concern if the investigation by an institution has not been fair or conclusive.
A suggestion was to contact an organisation that oversees these types of investigations at the institution. Is there a national body than could be contacted?
The role of the editor is to safeguard the literature and prevent readers from being misled, so an expression of concern is entirely warranted in this case.
We received a request by an author who states not to have contributed to an article published in 2015. The author claims that his name was used without his knowledge and that the corresponding author has been retired for several years and can no longer be reached. At the time of submission, we received a copyright transfer signed with the author’s name (we request all authors to sign the form). We are not in favour of withdrawing the article as we feel we have a signed copyright form.
Questions for the COPE Forum • How should we reply to the author requesting withdrawal of the paper?
• We believe a copyright transfer form signed by all author has legal value for us: is this the case?
The presenter told the Forum that the author claims that he did not sign any copyright transfer form. The Forum asked if the journal was confident that the letter is from the author. It might be worthwhile confirming who he is, and obtaining his full affiliation and contact details in case he has been confused with a different author with the same name. The Forum noted that it is very difficult for the journal to work out exactly what has happened, so the advice was to contact the institution for help. The institution can determine the facts of the case and determine if the signed copyright form was faked, which would be fraud. The journal could consider publishing a correction when the correct authorship of the paper is verified.
This case raises the issue of how journals communicate with authors after submission of papers. COPE advises that it is good policy for journals to copy all authors, not just the corresponding author, in their written communications and emails regarding papers submitted for publication. The Forum would advise handling papers in this way in the future.
The Forum advised that if the journal decides to disregard the author’s request, they should seek legal advice first.
The editor contacted the author but received no further comments. The editor considers the case closed.
A reader contacted the journal to raise concerns about a paper containing a potentially manipulated figure. The editor-in-chief agreed with the assessment that the figure had been manipulated and attempted to contact the corresponding author, without response. Following further contact with the co-authors and institution, it was established that the corresponding author had retired after publication of the paper, and no current contact details could be found.
No co-authors were able to confirm how the figure was constructed, but explained that it was an old image that was made by or for the corresponding author, and that the location of the raw image or original data was not known due to the corresponding author’s laboratory being dismantled on retirement. The figure is also present in a previous publication from 2007. The figure manipulation does not appear to affect the scientific results or conclusions of the paper.
Question for the COPE Forum • Given that the corresponding author cannot be contacted to confirm if the nature of any figure manipulation merits retraction, would it be appropriate to publish an expression of concern which will remain in place if no additional information is forthcoming?
The Forum advised that as there is no true confirmation of the evidence that the figure was manipulated, a retraction does not seem to be warranted without further investigation. A suggestion was to contact the journal of the previous publication, as there may be an issue of duplicate publication or copyright issues related to the figure. The editors can then discuss together how to deal with this issue. The other journal may have the original data. If the copyright resides with the first journal, then the editor may have to have a different type of notice on the paper.
The Forum agreed that the most reasonable solution would be to publish an expression of concern, explaining the issues. An expression of concern provides an opportunity for further information to be made available at a later date, and then any further action, if necessary, may be taken. A different view expressed was to remove the figure and publish a correction—if other researchers have re-done the work on the subject it may be possible to replace the figure with a citation.
Following advice from the COPE Forum, the editor contacted the journal of the previous publication. The journal is proceeding with an expression of concern to explain the issues. The editor considers the case closed.