A case report was submitted to our journal (journal X) in February and accepted for publication in September that same year. In late September, the first author on the manuscript contacted us to inform us that this exact case report had just been published in another journal (journal Y) by some of his colleagues, including some of the authors of our manuscript. In the initial submission to our journal, there were 10 authors.
During the review process, two authors were removed from the article at their request. This happened in May, between manuscript resubmission. These two authors then submitted the case report to journal Y, with a new set of co-authors.
We have confirmed with the Editor-in-Chief (EiC) of journal Y that they received their initial submission in May. As noted, the authors on journal Y’s publication include the two authors removed from our journal version, plus one additional co-author who is present on both author lists. This third co-author has since requested to be removed from journal Y’s publication. He was included as a co-author without his consent or knowledge.
We contacted the Research Integrity Office of the author’s institution to request an internal investigation. This investigation confirmed our author’s version of events. We informed the EiC of journal Y of the outcome of the institutional investigation and asked them to take the appropriate action in retracting the article. The EiC assured us that the journal was investigating also but the enquiry was not yet complete. We followed up several times, including attempting an international call with them, but to no avail. We also requested the journal to act in compliance with COPE guidelines on author misconduct.
Journal Y is not a member of COPE but is published by a reputable medical organisation. Finally, in September a year later, the EiC of journal Y responded to our many follow-ups to indicate that they are satisfied with the actions of the authors of the publication in their journal and will not be retracting the article. We asked the EiC for a rationale so that we have all the available information to determine our next steps. We have not received a response despite repeated requests. As we had confirmation from the authors’ institution and journal Y that ours was the original version of the paper, we did not feel justified in holding the paper any longer in production. It was published after several months’ delay. In the meantime, we have asked our authors to approach the other journal directly for further information.
Question(s) for the COPE Forum
Does the author’s institution have any responsibility to contact the EiC to request further action?
What further action can we take to elicit a response from the EiC regarding their rationale for their decision?
The Forum questioned why the editor had decided to go ahead with publication of the paper, knowing that journal Y had already published it in their journal. The editor said that as the paper had already been accepted, that there was a provisional version online and that the institution had confirmed the authors version of events, it seemed unfair to penalise the authors. The Forum asked if the journal had cited the other journal when they published the case report, as there are now two versions of the same case report with different authors. Perhaps the journal might consider putting a note on the paper or an expression of concern to highlight to readers that there is an authorship dispute in relation to this paper and that there are two online versions available.
The editor could ask for the authors to list their contributions to the original paper, and ask journal Y to do the same. This may shed some light on the authorship dispute. The Research Integrity Office were part of the original investigation, so they should be in a position to know the contributions of the authors. Hence the advice from the Forum was to pursue the institution. This is clearly an author conflict and so concerns should be raised to the institution. As the authors are from the same institution, and indeed the same department, this authorship dispute should be handled by their employer.
If the second journal is not open access, then the second group of authors may have signed over copyright, so they may be copyright issues. This is impossible for the editor to adjudicate and so again, the institution needs to be involved.
The journal may wish to consider always requiring author contribution statements to be submitted with any paper, thus preventing a similar situation in the future. The Forum stressed that it is very important to communicate with all authors, not just the corresponding author, regarding any aspects of a paper.
A single author submitted a paper to our journal. A similarity check revealed 48% similarity with another published paper. The published paper was by different authors—5 in total. The similarities between the papers were in the introduction, methods and discussion sections. The submitting author did not reference the published article.
We queried the corresponding author but have not received a response.
Question(s) for the COPE Forum
• What shall we do given this circumstance?
• Should we withdraw/reject the article and embargo the author.
• Should we contact the author’s institute without receiving any clarifications from the author?
• How long should we wait for a response from the author before reporting to the institute?
The Forum would advise contacting the author one more time, and specifically stating that if no response is received within a given time frame, then the editor will contact the author’s institution and ask them to investigate. The editor should be very clear about the date by which a response is expected. That may provide the motivation for the author to respond.
The Forum asked what is the percentage similarity that should raise concerns? This varies widely—by discipline, even by editors within the same discipline. The similarity index needs to be reviewed carefully, and experienced editors will look at all aspects of the article and the sources when deciding if there is significant overlap. Is there a minimum cut-off score below which there is no need to check for plagiarism? One study found a cut-off value of 15% to be useful (https://researchintegrityjournal.biomedcentral.com/articles/10.1186/s410...).
If the editor believes that there was no malicious intent on the part of the authors, an educational approach may be appropriate—for example, if the authors are junior researchers. The editors could explain what is expected of authors in terms of attribution of text, and best practice in this area. However, the editor may not be in a position to know the intent of the authors and this would be better addressed by the institution.
The journal cannot proceed moving this article forward until some of these questions are answered. COPE would never advise banning authors because of the legal implications.
In 2016, group A published manuscript X in our journal. In early 2017, group B submitted a comment critical of the published manuscript. Following peer review, in accordance with the journal’s then active policy, the comment was rejected from further consideration. The policy allowed for the author of the original article to be one of the peer reviewers of the comment.
The lead author of group A, acting as one of the three referees for the comment, indicated in their confidential comments to the editor that group A would be submitting a correction to address issues arising from the comment. Group A duly submitted and published a correction to manuscript X. Soon after, the journal was contacted by a legal representative of group B to express their concern over the publication of the correction by group A. The representative indicated a concern that the unpublished comment submitted to the journal contributed in part to the submission and publication of the correction. Group B researchers considered that the submission of their comment under the journal’s then active comment/reply policy had allowed the authors of the correction to prepare their manuscript using material that they had been privy to only via their involvement in the peer review of the comment, and that this fact had not been acknowledged in the correction.
Group B requested the journal withdraw the correction and re-open the peer review of the comment. As the journal’s management team considered that the first request would leave an error in the scientific record uncorrected and the second request was unlikely to result in a change of outcome, the journal instead investigated the matter raised by the representative Group B, with the goal of preparing a new correction for publication to take into account the facts of the matter following the investigation.
The investigation identified an error on the part of the administrative team that contributed to this situation; namely, failing to ensure the authors of the correction provided due acknowledgement of the provenance of the correction. As part of the investigation, the journal contacted group A for their input. The authors agreed they should have included an acknowledgement, but not having seen similar acknowledgements on other corrections published by the journal declined to include one in their correction. However, group A also noted that they had exchanged email correspondence with group B, prior to the submission of the comment, about some of the matters subsequently included in the comment. Group A have been at pains to stress that their correction was not primarily prompted by the comment.
The journal has engaged with both parties to find a mutually agreed statement on the chain of events that contributed to the publication of the correction, with a view to republishing the correction to clarify both the scientific record and the sequence of events. This has resulted in a great deal of time and effort being expended on several draft statements prepared by the journal over the previous 14 months.
As the matter remains unresolved between the two groups, the journal’s team has elected to publish nothing at all. The groups have been informed of this, and that the journal remains amenable to publishing a statement if the two parties are able to agree a form of words between themselves.
Nevertheless, the publisher regularly reviews its working practices and editorial policies, and this case has contributed to a change of the policies enacted by the publisher to reduce the likelihood of similar sequences of events and outcomes in future. Taking our experience in this case into account and aiming to address potential future conflicts of interest in submitted comments, a new comment/reply policy has been adopted. In hindsight, the previous comment/reply policy was problematic for a number of reasons, including the potential conflict of interest in having the author of the original paper being involved in the peer review of the submitted comment.
Question(s) for the COPE Forum
• Given the apparent impossibility of the two parties agreeing a form of words, and the threats of legal action and publishing their own version elsewhere, is the journal justified in choosing NOT to publish anything? Would it be better to publish the journal’s view anyway and accept the potential risks?
• While recognising the publisher’s original comment/reply policy contributed to this matter, does the Forum have any advice on how the publisher/journal could or should handle similar disputes in future? The policy has been amended to reduce the possibility of conflicts of interest.
• How far should the publisher go in trying to resolve disputes between groups (especially where, as in this case, only one party has actually published in the journal)?
The Forum agreed with the way the journal had handled this difficult situation, and that the editors had done a good job here.
One suggestion was that when the journal changed its policy, it may have been a good idea to explain why, in an editorial, which could have included anonymised details from the case and the reasons for the change in policy.
Another suggestion was that the journal could have been more transparent upfront when rejecting the comment. They may have been able to head off the dispute if they had informed the authors their reasons for doing so and explained what the journal then intended to do.
No subsequent correspondence from the affected parties has been received. The editor considers the case closed.
A handling editor noticed a reviewer report where the reviewer instructed the author to cite multiple publications by the same reviewer in their manuscript. The handling editor noted a similar instance involving this reviewer from the past and requested the editorial office to look into his reviewing history. This uncovered a concerning pattern of behaviour where the reviewer habitually asked authors to add citations to his work when reviewing their manuscript, often when there was no scientifically legitimate reason to do so.
A deeper analysis of this reviewer’s activity showed that he predominantly asked for his own papers to be cited, as well as citations to papers that heavily cited his work. In some cases, he requested for more than 30 citations of his own papers to be added to a single manuscript. His citation requests were heavily weighted towards recent publications, giving preference to citations within a particular timeframe.
According to COPE’s ethical guidelines, reviewers should “refrain from suggesting that authors include citations to your (or an associate’s) work merely to increase citation counts or to enhance the visibility of your or your associate’s work; suggestions must be based on valid academic or technological reasons”.
The handling editor brought the issue to the journal’s editors-in-chief to see if there was legitimate scientific reason for these papers to be cited. (Note: in our editorial structure, handling editors make final decisions about papers; the editors-in-chief do not review decision letters before they are sent out). After reviewing the papers in question, the editors-in-chief did not see a reason why these additional citations were scientifically necessary. The editors-in-chief then drafted a letter to the reviewer to ask him to explain the pattern and why he requested these additional citations. The handling editor and editors-in-chief agreed to allow time for the reviewer to respond. No response was received.
The reviewer has only one academic affiliation, however it is with an institution that has been previously found to offer financial incentives to Clarivate’s highly cited researchers in exchange for the researcher’s agreement to include an affiliation to their institution in future publications. The reviewer is self-employed, thus without an institutional employer, and the editorial team have no direct recourse to an institution in this case.
In response to this case, the journal has banned this individual from reviewing for the journal. We are writing an editorial to clarify the journal’s official position on when reviewer requested citations are appropriate and to offer some suggestions to help others detect this behaviour. Editorial staff have convened a meeting with all the journal’s handling editors to ensure they are all familiar with COPE and the journals ethical standards, and to ensure they are looking out for cases of citation manipulation. Instructions to reviewers have also been updated to make it clear that there must always be a scientifically legitimate reason to suggest the author add citations to existing scholarship.
Question(s) for the COPE Forum
• What does COPE recommend to the journal editorial team in this case where the reviewer does not have an institutional body to turn to in order to continue the investigation?
• What else can the journal do to ensure that other journals working with this reviewer are aware of his evident citation manipulation?
• Should the journal also ban this individual as an author, both out of concern for his potential for future ethical problems, but also as a deterrent for those who might behave similarly?
• What, if anything, should the journal have done differently? Are there other actions the journal can take?
• Do other journals have safeguards in place that would help identify a pattern such as this one more easily?
Editors can share these data with Web of Science/Clarivate who work on algorithms at the journal level and for groups of journals regarding citation stacking. However, there are currently no tools available to detect this type of citation manipulation and hence no effective measures against it.
The usual advice in such situations would be for the editor to contact the reviewer’s institution. As the reviewer is self-employed, this is not possible in this case. The editor told the Forum that they had contacted the author’s one academic affiliation, with no response.
The authors of these papers must have accepted the insertion of so many citations—are they also complicit/being incentivised somehow to include? Authors should push back when asked to include extra citations.
We received an email from a whistleblower notifying us about possible plagiarism in two chapters published by us, both authored by the same two authors. The whistleblower accused the authors of substantial plagiarism.
In both chapters there were, indeed, certain unattributed parts of the text, although the majority was properly attributed. Some of the unattributed parts were authored by the authors themselves, while some were taken from third parties. The whistleblower highlighted some properly cited parts of the text, as he claimed they were directly copied from other sources.
As a first step we contacted both authors for an explanation. The authors admitted their mistakes but also explained that they did not have any malevolent intention, and that it was a simple oversight on their behalf. They explained that they were willing to correct (publish a correction of) their chapter.
We then contacted the editor of the book. In his opinion this was not a case of substantial plagiarism and suggested publishing a correction. The whistleblower was not satisfied with the opinion of the editor.
Question(s) for the COPE Forum
Is this misconduct serious enough to warrant a retraction, or would it be sufficient to publish a correction?
The Forum advised that a correction is probably appropriate in this case, as there does not seem to be any malicious intent or pattern of deceit.
The whistleblower should not be the main consideration—the journal’s main concern should be to consider whether or not the literature needs to be corrected.
One of the main challenges in book publishing is the lack of established retraction/correction processes for books. It is not considered by book authors or editors as a standard process. While plagiarism in books seems to be common, there are no clear guidelines on how to handle it. However, the Forum would still advise following the COPE flowcharts on plagiarism and contacting the institution if appropriate.
The journal decided to publish a correction and asked authors to prepare a draft. Once they receive the draft, the journal will publish the correction.