Author A contacted us claiming that an article published in the journal recently by author B was stolen from an article author A had earlier submitted to two different publishers, publisher A in 2016 and publisher B in 2017. Author A provided the PDFs of the manuscripts they had submitted to those other publishers. The version submitted to us 2018 by author B was very similar to that submitted to publisher B.
We contacted publisher B who confirmed the details of the submission to them by author A in 2017. Author B is listed publicly as a reviewer for publisher B's journal, but publisher B could not confirm that they had direct access to this particular submission. Author B said their PhD advisor, now apparently deceased, had given them the article but they recently had doubts that this had been their advisor's work. They agreed to retraction.
Author A has asked whether instead of retracting we might publish a correction to replace author B with the rightful author, Author A, because the article has already been peer reviewed and accepted.
Question(s) for the COPE Forum
• Is correcting a stolen article to list the correct authors a potential solution? If so, should we correct the article metadata too?
• Is there any precedent for such a total correction of authorship?
• How might we detect and prevent the publication of stolen articles? They do not show up on Crossref Similarity Check because they are unpublished.
Copyright is with the assigned author and it is not appropriate to simply transfer it to another author. The Forum advised that there are clear authorship guidelines from COPE and other organisations. There are real duties and responsibilities that come with authorship and hence it is not appropriate to just change the authorship list. The new author(s) have not been involved in the preparation of the article for publication (submitting, revising, etc) and the author(s) who stole the paper may have made changes to the paper. The editor may wish to direct the author to their authorship criteria and peer review process to explain why transferring authorship is not appropriate.
To prevent theft of a paper, one idea put forward was for the DOI to be reserved in advance, with the title and names of the authors, and then part of the CrossRef similarity check would extend to looking up the titles and authors in the DOI database to see if anything similar is already on file.
An author submitted two manuscripts to our journal and the data were clearly fabricated, which was confirmed when we examined the original patient data files. The lead author admitted that they had only recruited a few patients and fabricated all of the remaining data and said that the co-authors had done this without their knowledge.
We reported this to the institution, who conducted an investigation. However, this investigation exonerated the lead author from misconduct, who went on to publish one of these manuscripts elsewhere and is still publishing suspicious manuscripts in other journals.
Question(s) for the COPE Forum
• Should other journals be warned about this case so that they can take a view about further submissions?
• Should anyone else be informed about this case?
The Forum suggested it may be appropriate to contact the journal who published the similar paper because the editor has specific information relating to that particular article, but a general communication about dissatisfaction with an author is not advisable. The Forum advised the editor to proceed with caution.
In a single blind peer review process, a reviewer gave an author detailed suggestions about improvements in the statistical analysis. The author was asked to revise and resubmit the paper to address these and other reviewers' suggestions. The author, unaware of the reviewer’s identity, subsequently approached the reviewer as a respected colleague at a professional meeting to discuss the manuscript revision. During this conversation, to avoid having to pretend to go over their own suggestions as if they were from someone else, the reviewer disclosed that they were one of the reviewers. The author and reviewer discussed how to improve the manuscript, and at this point, the reviewer offered to assist with new statistical analyses they had recommended and become a co-author, which was agreeable to the author.
Before proceeding, the reviewer disclosed this interaction and her intention to the journal editors and the associate editor handling the paper. We determined to reject the manuscript because of the breach of confidentiality and the conflict of interest between the reviewer’s role as reviewer and proposed role as co-author. They will presumably submit the co-authored paper to another journal.
Although the proposed transition from peer reviewer to co-author is clearly inappropriate, some of the early steps leading up to this are less clear. COPE guidance for peer reviewers (https://publicationethics.org/files/Peer%20review%20guidelines.pdf) recommends that reviewers not contact the authors directly without the permission of the journal but provides no guidance about how to handle a situation in which an author, in good faith, approaches the reviewer. This may be particularly common in smaller scientific communities.
Question(s) for the COPE Forum • Does the reviewer have an obligation to conceal their status when asked by the author? • Alternately, would it be better to acknowledge their status as a reviewer but decline to comment further? • How should a reviewer handle having an author unknowingly approach them to discuss a manuscript?
Does the journal have instructions for their reviewers regarding revealing their identity? Should this be up to reviewers to decide? The Forum felt this was an unusual case and there does not appear to be any guidance available on this issue. The Forum questioned whether it was fair on the part of the reviewer to have to conceal their identity and go along with the pretence and is perhaps unrealistic in an academic environment.
What we want to encourage is transparency in the peer review process. Ideally the reviewer should have contacted the journal to discuss the situation. However, it seems a harsh decision to reject the article because of an inadvertent scientific interaction between researchers and colleagues. If the reviewer had contacted the journal, he/she could have recused themselves from the review process and an independent reviewer been invited to review the paper. Any subsequent revision that included the reviewer as a new author could have been properly scrutinised and put through the peer review process.
The editors wrote back to the authors to offer the opportunity to resubmit the manuscript with the involved reviewer now as a co-author, after which it would receive new independent review. However, the authors had already sent it elsewhere.
Author A contacted our journal following publication of a manuscript claiming that he was the rightful author. We asked the author for proof and he said that he had all of the data concerning the patient because he received the operative specimen and made the diagnosis. Author A said he also collaborated in writing the article with author B and hence was surprised that neither his name nor his contribution appeared in the published article.
Author A alleged he gave authorisation to present the case in a conference to author B who later published the article in our journal without his consent.
Question(s) for the COPE Forum
• Who is the owner of this article?
• Is this a case of plagiarism?
• What action can we take regarding authors A and B?
The Forum advised referring the matter to the institution. Journal editors and publishers cannot be involved in adjudicating authorship disputes. Only the institution(s) can determine who is the rightful author. Hence the advice was to contact the institution and request an investigation. If the institution agrees to investigate, the editor may wish to issue an Expression of Concern until the results of the investigation are available.
As this was a case study, was permission granted from the patient to publish the paper? The editor could seek out the patient consent form, and determine if that came from author A or author B. Case reports must not be published without informed patient consent.
Journal A accepted a manuscript with six authors in June 2017, which was published in January 2018. Several months later, the editors of journal A found that journal B had published paper B, which shared striking similarities to paper A. Journal B accepted paper B in November 2017 and published it in February 2018. The first author of paper B was different but the remaining four authors were from paper A.
The editorial board of journal A concurred that papers A and B were written (i) in an identical manner or format of presentation; (ii) under the same study design with only minor changes that would make little clinical difference; and (iii) with extensive use of recycled texts which covered most of the papers, including the majority of the materials and discussion sections.
Had the editors of journal A known that the authors had submitted or planned to submit paper B to another journal, they would have rejected paper A. The claim now is that the authors have self-plagiarised the manuscripts, with potential salami publication.
Question(s) for the COPE Forum • When self-plagiarism and suspected salami publishing is found in a published article, what can the editor do? • Should the editor inform the other journal editor? • In such cases, should the article be retracted from both journals?
Articles should be retracted to correct the literature not to punish the authors. The Forum advised that it is up to journal B to retract the paper for redundant publication or salami publishing because journal A published the article first. Hence it is journal B’s responsibility here to address the misconduct. The editor should contact journal B and inform them of the issue.
Is it possible that the authors were inexperienced and did not think their paper was going to be accepted by journal A because of the time between acceptance and publication? The authors may then have slightly altered the paper and submitted it to journal B? The advice from the Forum was to give the authors the benefit of the doubt, and to contact the authors for an explanation. It is always best to first ask the authors to explain how this has happened. It may be that this is an educational opportunity.
The Forum advised that salami publishing is difficult to prove, and is a judgement call on the part of the editor. In this case, it is a judgement that journal B needs to make.
The editor followed the COPE flowchart on what to do if you suspect reductant publication, asking the authors for an explanation. After receiving an explanation, the editorial board made a final decision and informed the authors of their decision.
The editorial board found that redundant publication, or salami slicing, was not applicable in this case. Regarding text recycling, however, the board found that this case did meet its definition, based on the excessive volume of verbatim sentences shared between the two articles. In the light of this development, a note was added on the front page of the article to this effect. The editor also notified journal B of their decision.
We recently received a pre-submission inquiry from an author, who identified as being fairly inexperienced with writing papers. At first glance it was a fairly standard pre-submission inquiry. The author mentioned the titles of two papers they allegedly had wrote and wondered whether we might be potentially interested in them. The author added that they had a colleague who would also be potentially interesting in submitting papers to our journal and wondered whether we might be interested in publishing 1–2 articles in each issue of the journal.
The author also asked for a swift peer review process and even for me to help with making the revisions to the paper in order to enhance the chances of publication. Finally, the author concluded by saying they would pay me $1100 US dollars to thank me for ultimately accepting the papers.
This is the first time in all my years of editing that I have come across a clear bribe attempt. My main concern is whether I can/should report this situation (and if so, how and to whom) even though the author did not provide any information apart from the name of the affiliations and institution.
Question(s) for the COPE Forum • What can/should I do considering I do not have information on the affiliation or workplace of the author? • Should we respond to these emails or just ignore?
The journal should also ensure that all of the editors of the journal are aware of this issue and the journal’s position that this behaviour is totally unacceptable. Another option is to write an editorial in the journal, raising awareness of the issue.
We have experienced a sudden spurt in casual submissions of poor quality articles. We believe this is because authors wish to show that they have submitted articles which are under consideration at reputable journals.
While any journal or editor would be happy to see increased numbers of submissions, sadly, most are of very poor quality in all respects. Most are very casually prepared without following even basic principles of scientific writing and publication ethics. The incidence of plagiarism and potential compromise of publication ethics is increasing.
Increased numbers of submissions of such poorly written casual submissions take substantial time and resources, adding a lot of pressure to the editorial process. We believe some of the reasons why this is happening include: 1) the scam of publication in predatory journals is being exposed; 2) authors are now realising that articles in dubious/predatory journals are actually a liability; 3) it is easy to submit articles to reputable journals, which do not charge any fees; 4) in many cases, authors submit manuscripts to reputable journals as a transient step to notationally improve their cv; 5) most authors wish to show that their article is submitted to a reputable journal and is “under consideration”.
Question(s) for the COPE Forum • How can we curb the number of casual submissions? • Are there any appropriate restrictive steps, such as charging a reasonable fee at the submission stage? These 'submission charges' could be refunded/adjusted with the APC after the article is accepted?
If the journal has a specific discipline focus, educating university faculty members in that discipline regarding effective methods to mentor students who submit articles to journals as a form of credit for their courses could be one measure to address this problem. The number of submissions to journals should not be a measure a university uses to assess its students and their activities (see for example: http://naepub.com/student-authorship/2016-26-4-6/).
The Forum agreed that charging submission fees could be an option. These could be separate from publication fees. Hence a small fee could be charged for submissions, which may curb the number of casual submissions, or submission of poor quality articles. Then a larger fee could be charged if the manuscript is accepted. In accordance with COPE’s Principles of Transparency (https://publicationethics.org/resources/guidelines-new/principles-transparency-and-best-practice-scholarly-publishing), if the journal decides to take this approach, the fees should be transparent, and should be signposted and clearly stated on the journal website and in the instructions to authors.
A journal received an allegation of scientific misconduct from an anonymous individual stating they were from the group that had written the paper (Institution-1, there are two institutions involved in this research). The email stated that the scientific bases of the article were unreliable. The paper was currently with the authors who were revising the paper after the first round of review, and additional experiments were required.
The editors followed-up with the whistleblower requesting more information and their identity. The whistleblower emailed back, concealing their identity, but provided additional information, highlighting a specific component of the research as unreliable.
Institution-2 (the one that was not claimed by the whistleblower) was informed of the whistleblower. Institution-2 responded by saying that the authors believed there was an initial problem with the data used, but these had been updated and were not fabricated. Institution-2, however, was not the institution that carried out the experiments in question.
The editors made the decision to obtain more information. On resubmission of the paper, the three original reviewers looked at the manuscript but were not told about the whistleblower. All three were satisfied with the changes made to the paper and approved publication. A fourth reviewer was asked to look at the paper and told about the anonymous whistleblower. This reviewer found no clear evidence of fraud, but he could not assess the experiments in question. This reviewer did, however, raise new concerns about technical deficiencies in the work. Aside from fraud, these new issues made it unsuitable for publication in the journal.
The editors requested outside assessment from researchers with knowledge of the work to redo the informatics analyses to see if the raw data (included with the paper) gave the same results as the processed data. Again, there was no clear evidence of fraud, but there was difficulty in complete reproducibility due to poor methods descriptions and lack of access to all of the data.
At this time the whistleblower sent an email recanting his/her original statement and saying they have assessed the work and the authors have made the appropriate changes to fix everything. This was an odd email as there had been no change in the manuscript since the resubmission.
The editors ultimately decided to reject the paper based on remaining concerns of misconduct and the heavy criticism of the fourth reviewer.
The authors from Institution-1 requested a meeting with the editors. At this meeting the authors: expressly denied misconduct; showed the editors pages of data from the experiments of concern; and provided the editor with a copy of an email from an anonymous whistleblower that the leader of the group had received 2 days before the journal editor had received their anonymous email. This anonymous individual claimed to be from Institution-1, and stated that one of the authors (from Institution-1) had visited their institution and removed data.
An additional oddity is that the email addresses from the whistleblower to the editor and to the authors were created to indicate they came from the institutions claimed. Investigation of the email origins showed that the two anonymous whistleblower emails came from the same individual, not two different individuals as claimed.
Question(s) for the COPE Forum
• How should editors act on a tip from an anonymous whistleblower, where there is uncertainty about the unknown person's goals and that, should institutions take punitive action without investigation of the whistleblower’s intent, careers could be heavily impacted.
• If the institutions, when informed, decide to take no action, do the editors have a responsibility to investigate to get a better sense of whether they should further push the institution given the authors can simply submit a paper elsewhere where those editors will not know about the potential for misconduct.
• Due to the importance for the career of individuals on this paper, can the editors aid the authors submitting elsewhere, given that the whistleblower lied, but there is no way to disprove fraud. Or should the editors provide the information about the whistleblower to the institution.
This was a very complicated situation and the editors have no clear means to further investigate beyond what they have done already. The editors had gone far beyond what is normally assumed to be the role of the journal in such cases. The advice from the Forum was for the journal to contact the head of the institutions and the ethics board. The editor can use the Office for Research Integrity (ORI) website to check affiliations if the institutions are outside the US (there are some listings of cooperating national ethics approval boards). The Forum advised contacting the authors first before informing the institution. The institutions should also be informed of the whistleblower’s behaviour and the apparent falsification of email addresses to create the appearance of two whistleblowers.
Suggestions for another journal and assistance with revision might be appropriate in some cases. Because of the issues raised by review #4, the article was not suitable for this journal but there are other journals in the field that might accept a revised article. The suggestions for revision already provided to the authors will help them modify the article and correct any errors.
The editor informed the authors of the overall discussions at the COPE Forum, saying that they had done all they could based on COPE guidelines in terms of trying to assess the veracity of the claims (and detailed the standard COPE guidelines). The editor told the authors that he felt that at this point, further investigation into the situation had to move to their institution if they wanted to pursue that avenue and gain some resolution. Because of the serious nature of this issue, the journal told the authors that they had an additional referee look at the work, one who was very familiar with the journal. He/she raised additional concerns about the work from the standpoint of suitability to the journal, and hence the decision was made that the work was not suited to the journal.
After publication of an article, Author A contacted the journal asking to correct their surname. Author A’s name consists of two parts, but only one was included in the publication. The editor accepted this request but asked all authors to agree to publication of an erratum. Author B (the corresponding author) immediately replied, disagreeing with publication of such an erratum. Author A informed the journal that he had a similar ongoing disagreement with Author B over Author A’s name in another journal. Author A also provided proof of legal name. According to our records, Author A’s name was incorrect on submission and Author A did not ask to correct it before publication (and had confirmed that the submission details were correct). When asked for an explanation of this, Author A claims not to have noticed the mistake at that time.
The journal asked Author B to explain the reason for objecting to the erratum. Author B instead replied with an accusation that Author A did not contribute to the experiments or writing of the article and therefore should be removed from the author list. The journal contacted all authors reminding them of the ICMJE authorship criteria and asking for each of them to confirm their contributions to the article. It was also explained to them that the journal was not able to judge authorship and, if the authors are unable to come to an agreement, the case would be referred to their institution for further investigation.
Author B replied insisting they have the final say on the authorship list as senior and corresponding author. Authors A and B continued to disagree over email, including the journal in this correspondence. Author A did not provide a very detailed statement of contribution. The other authors provided some statements of varying detail. Some of the authors who are still based at Author B’s institution provided identical statements, agreeing that the corresponding author can decide who should be named an author on a publication.
As the authors were unable to agree authorship among themselves, the journal contacted the institution where the research took place (also where author B is currently affiliated). Author A, and some of the other co-authors, have since left the institution. The institution discussed the case with the authors still at this institution, but stated they were not allowed to contact authors who had left (including Author A). The institution forwarded the journal a statement signed by Author B and the other authors still at the institution with a similar statement to those received previously stating that Author A did not meet authorship criteria.
The journal is concerned that the institutional investigation was perfunctory as it did not consult with the original complainant, Author A. However, the journal is not in a position to judge who should and should not be an author. In the meantime, Author B had contacted the editor asking to stop the investigation and not make any changes to the article. This was not acceptable to the editor as Author A’s name is still incorrect. The journal therefore restated the plan to publish an erratum to correct the name of Author A, but Author B strongly disagreed again, and again claimed that Author A should not be an author.
Question(s) for the COPE Forum
• Given that the authors are unable to agree on authorship of this article, the institutional investigation did not consider the opinions of all authors and Author B strongly disagrees with the publication of an erratum, the journal is considering publishing an Expression of Concern. This would state that Author A has informed the journal that their name is incorrect and include the corrected name. It would also state that authorship is under dispute and that the results of an instructional investigation were inconclusive as it was only possible to speak to the authors still at the institution. Would the Forum agree that this is a reasonable solution?
• Are there any suggestions on further action the journal can take?
The Forum noted that there are two issues here: the name change and the erratum notice being clearly indicated. If the decision is made to remove the author, there is the issue of eligibility of authorship. Did the author qualify for authorship? Should he be included in the authorship list? Hence the Forum agreed that the editor cannot resolve this issue and it is best to refer the matter to the institution.
The editor’s immediate concern is that by changing the name, did that escalate the position of the other authors? The editor needs confirmation from the authors of who did what and the correct order of the author list. The Forum suggested that a table at the end of the appendices of the article, with clear descriptions of authorship and contributorship, would be useful. Asking each author to specify their contribution. CRediT (Contributor Roles Taxonomy) could be useful here.
Competition for last author place is increasing in some geographic areas and some disciplines. Changing authorship order or removing an author without adequate institutional investigation is not advisable, however, the correction of the one author’s name could be corrected with an erratum simply stating the correction. Because there is an ongoing dispute as to who actually participated as an author, the case needs to be further investigated by the institution and if the institution is unresponsive, the case should be escalated to a regional or national authority if available. The editor could inform the authors that the journal plans to issue an Expression of Concern about the authorship dispute, pending an investigation by the institution. This may encourage the authors to come to an agreement.
The journal is going ahead with the publication of: (1) an erratum to correct the surname of Author A; and (2) an Expression of Concern stating that there is a dispute among the authors over whether Author A qualifies for authorship and that the institution has been unable to contact all the authors to resolve the dispute.
An editor received a query from an author: “Your guidelines are clear that presenting data at a society meeting does not preclude publication. But what if the society records the presentation, retains copyright of that recording, and posts it online? Is asking presenters to turn over copyright of a recording of data presented at a prepublication stage and disseminating the recording as they see fit crossing the "prior publication" line?”
Question(s) for the COPE Forum • Are presentation audiotapes considered prior publication? • If tapes are copyrighted, does that preclude publication?
Copyright laws are there to protect publishers and they cover only the presentation of something and not the underlying research or data. In the case of audiotapes, the organisation only owns the audio rights not the paper rights, so the editor should check the copyright that has previously been assigned. It is also possible that the audiotapes are behind a paywall for members only, so the distribution of the material might be very limited. There is a need, however, to seek legal advice in such cases and the editor should consult the legal department of the publisher if there is any question. Additionally, when a paper is presented, it is not generally presented in the same format as a scholarly paper submitted to a journal, so there might be significant differences between the audio and the written material, with the exception of the data presented. The main concern is duplicate publication; however, audiotapes are not generally considered primary sources for the purpose of reviews of the literature.
There is a similar situation with dissertations. Do poster presentations have the same copyright rules? Generally, previous presentations in the form of papers presented at a conference are allowed although there might be some text overlap with the abstract, which is usually all that is printed. In other situations, a published abstract in English might accompany an article written in another language, but with appropriate credits, a complete translation of that article might be appropriate for publication.
The parameters of prior publication are a journal decision. For example, journals can decide to publish papers arising out of a dissertation or an audit that has been circulated internally in an institution, but they should be transparent and disclose previous publication or copyright of any portion of the material. One view from the Forum was that copyright issues support paternalistic ideas of protecting people from something that has not been peer reviewed, and this might be an issue for certain disciplines. Another question journals might consider relates to their policies of issuing press releases. Some journals employ the Ingelfinger Rule and embargoes to preclude the spread of misinformation, particularly in research related to public health and safety.
The matter was resolved in the author’s favour. The association changed its policy requiring presenters to have presentations taped and to hand over copyright.