A manuscript was submitted to disseminate a cross correlational survey research study. The manuscript states that the data were collected through surveys for the two calendar months prior to initial manuscript submission, which occurred in the middle of the third month. The initial submission indicated the research followed the principles of the Declaration of Helsinki, but no other human subjects’ protection information was provided. This is not unusual at the journal when the institutional review board (IRB) or organisation does not provide documents in English. The journal requires an English language translation copy of IRB approval on submission of the revision. After peer review, a revision was requested along with an English translation of the IRB approval letter, the exemption or the organisational policy or government regulation that clearly exempted the research protocol from ethics review.
The revised submission included an English translation of portions of the IRB approval that documented there were two review dates; both occurred after the initial manuscript was submitted to the journal and the initial “revise” decision was sent to the author. It is unclear if the IRB requested revisions to the protocol, which had already been completed, before approving. The editor rejected the manuscript at this point for ethical concerns.
The corresponding author requested an appeal of the editor’s reject decision. The corresponding author reported a different starting date for data collection than the original manuscript had listed, now only two weeks prior to initial manuscript submission. The corresponding author said that they had missed the IRB deadline in month 2, were triaged and not considered for review by the IRB due to the COVID-19 pandemic at the usual deadline for month 3, but were able to submit on the last day of month 3 and received approval in the middle of month 4 (after which the revised manuscript was submitted). The corresponding author acknowledged they chose to collect data prior to IRB submission and approval under the pandemic circumstances, with a self-determination they were following the requirements of the Helsinki Declaration and no other documented ethical or human subjects’ review prior to data collection was apparent.
The journal often receives manuscripts of survey results intended for an internal organisation needs assessment or evaluation, or for quality approval purposes. There are instances where the results of such survey analysis are appropriate to publish and exempt from IRB review, or for the authorship team to seek IRB approval for dissemination after data collection if an unexpected or novel relationship is found. However, in this instance, there is no clear documentation of the intent for a specific organisation’s needs assessment, evaluation, or quality improvement that would clearly meet exempt from review or ethical approval criteria.
Question(s) for the COPE Forum
Should the journal allow resubmission of the manuscript or an appeal to the reject decision, under the unique circumstances of the COVID-19 pandemic, which included the IRB triage of the corresponding author’s protocol.
The Forum noted that most universities had a statement related to institutional review board (IRB) approval with respect to the COVID-19 pandemic, generally stating researchers could not conduct research that required approval and obtain retrospective approval on the research. In this case, it seems that the authors submitted an IRB application and performed the research, assuming the research would be approved. But most universities require researchers to wait for that approval—there is no right of retrospective approval. The Forum believed that the journal took the correct decision in rejecting the article and should not seriously consider an appeal. However, a suggestion was to consider contacting the original IRB to ask if they had a policy about retrospective data collection and if they were aware that the data collection had already occurred.
An author submitted a manuscript and stated that he was the sole author. The manuscript received a favourable peer review and eventually was accepted. Some time after the article was published, a co-author told the author to contact the journal to correct the author list. The author of record (AOR) did this and supplied co-author names to the journal.
The editor worked with the author group to determine the source of the error and to resolve the list and order of authors. The AOR acknowledged that he should have credited additional authors. All authors agreed with the corrected list of authors, but the AOR insisted on being the first author and the other authors did not agree.
Pursuant to COPE guidelines, the editor contacted the university of the AOR for assistance and found that the author had left and was now a resident of another country. The university was unable to assist in resolving the authorship issue. The AOR then contacted the journal and stated that due to disagreement on the order of authorship, he was requesting a retraction of the article.
One more attempt was made by the editor and a co-author to resolve the dispute, but the AOR refused to acknowledge any other lead author. However, the AOR agreed that, following retraction, the manuscript could be resubmitted with another lead author. Attempts to negotiate another solution and education about the consequences of retraction have been unsuccessful in resolving the problem.
Question(s) for the COPE Forum
Are there any remaining options other than retraction?
What is the recommendation should the authors wish to resubmit to the same journal, as has been expressed?
Aside from the existing extensive author guidelines required by the journal, is there another way to prevent this in the future?
What other steps should be taken to address the authors in the case?
The Forum agreed that the editor followed the correct route in terms of handling this case. If the article itself is sound and there is nothing wrong with the research or the integrity of the data in the article, it is usually not appropriate for an article to be retracted for an authorship dispute. The purpose of retraction is to rectify the scientific record not to resolve an authorship dispute.
Also, it is not the role of publishers or editors to resolve authorship disputes. These issues need to be investigated and resolved by the authors’ institutions. The editor may wish to push this request back to the institution and indicate that the journal will not retract the article unless specific reasons for retraction are given.
The COPE retraction guidelines (https://publicationethics.org/files/retraction-guidelines.pdf) include a section on “Should retraction be applied in cases of disputed authorship?” The guidelines state that “If there is no reason to doubt the validity of the findings or the reliability of the data, it is not appropriate to retract a publication solely on the grounds of an authorship dispute.” The ideal situation would be for the authors to agree on a course of action. Failing that, the institution should be asked to investigate. If the institution fails to investigate, or does not respond, the journal should consider publishing an expression of concern or a corrigendum, which transparently states that the journal has become aware that there is an ongoing authorship dispute.
Another view was to consider if there are grounds for retraction based on copyright infringement or some other legal issue (eg, libel, privacy). If the publisher finds there is infringement on the other authors' rights to have been included as authors on this list, retraction might be justified. The Forum would advise the publisher in consultation with their legal department to determine if there is a serious legal issue that necessitates that the article be retracted. Whether the article is republished with another author list is another issue that would need to be resolved but it would mean that the research is not lost but the authorship is corrected.
For future submissions, the journal may wish to update their instructions to authors to state that a signed statement by all of the authors is required on submission, recognising the order of authorship, that there is no one else that should be included as an author in the manuscript and that manuscripts will not be retracted on the sole basis of an authorship dispute.
A publisher is responding to allegations about a particular group of authors. The complainants have accused this group of authors of wide scale research fabrication and misconduct, relating to a large number of their papers across many different journals (published by a variety of publishers).
The publisher and the journals that are investigating and responding to these claims have referred the concerns to the institution responsible for the research governance of the authors. The institution said they would investigate and respond by a certain date, but their response is slightly overdue.
Question(s) for the COPE Forum
Should an expression of concern be published while waiting for the outcome from the institution?
One of the journals has received another submitted paper by the same group of authors. Should the paper undergo normal peer review, or should it be delayed because of the unresolved investigation about the other papers?
Should different publishers/journals share information with each other about cases that involve multiple papers and journals? If so, how should the information be shared with others?
COPE typically advises that cases should be handled and judged individually. A new submission should not automatically be dismissed from being peer reviewed, but the editor may wish to consider additional precautions in its review. One suggestion is to ask the author to provide all of the raw data or any underlying images. The journal may wish to do additional statistical analysis to see whether there are unlikely patterns in the data.
Communication with other editors might be fruitful where there are duplications among different papers in different journals across publications. Otherwise, the editor should try to respect confidentiality. The editor should look at their own journal independently of other journals. It is not appropriate to correct or retract a paper just because there are problems with other papers.
The case has been with two publishers for more than a year. Journal A at publisher A published article A by author A, affiliated to institution A and institution B (in another country), and author B affiliated to institution B. Journal B at publisher B then published article B, by the same authors and affiliations. The two articles are on closely related research.
Shortly after publication of article A and before publication of article B, a senior colleague of author A at institution A contacted publisher A asking for article A to be retracted. The claimant said author A had left institution A after the submission to journal A but before publication. The claimant alleged that author A used other researchers’ data without permission and used the affiliation without approval (breaching an agreement signed by author A), some data were unverified by institution A, and author B and institution B were not involved in the research. The other researchers alleged to have been involved were not acknowledged. These allegations were confirmed by the head of department at institution A.
Author A disputed this, saying they did do the work and were still affiliated to institution A (as confirmed by a letter signed by an institutional representative and a court document), and they were no longer subject to the agreement they were said to have breached because it had been terminated. Author B has not commented on the allegations and institution B has been uninvolved in the investigation.
Publisher A asked institution A to formally investigate. Institution A’s preliminary investigation confirmed grounds to suspect misconduct and they began a further investigation. At this point, institution A asked for the publication of an expressions of concern (EoC) to inform readers of the investigation, which both publishers agreed to. Author A asked for the EoCs to not be published due to ongoing legal action against institution A and the claimant and asked to be allowed to add comments to the EoCs if they were published, but each publisher posted the EoC without author A’s comments.
Several months later, an institutional representative asked for retraction based on author A not providing data to the investigation and doubts that the named authors were the only ones who contributed to the research. Institution A said author A had taken further legal action against institution A, but nevertheless asked for the articles to be retracted due to misconduct by author A. Institution A stated that there will be no further investigation of, or action against, author B.
The publishers have not been given details of the investigation report or findings. Author A still denied misconduct and said they had not been given evidence of this, and confirmed their ongoing legal action against institution A.
Question(s) for the COPE Forum
One option may be to update the EoCs to note the finding of institution A’s investigation of misconduct and their request for retraction. Is this reasonable in the absence of detail on the institution’s findings and in light of the ongoing legal action (which the institution admits is continuing)?
Institution A is pressing for retractions and presumably legal proceedings could be dragged out by author A. Does institution A have the authority to force retractions while civil legal proceedings are underway?
Can the publishers insist on seeing the findings of the institutional investigation?
Generally, it is best if journals do not get involved in legal arguments. The advice would be not to proceed with the requested retraction while there are ongoing legal proceedings. The Forum acknowledge this is not a perfect solution as legal proceedings can be lengthy.
However, the journal might take the stance that until the institution or the author who complained states exactly what is wrong with the article, the article will stand, and no action will be taken. It is unreasonable to ask a journal to retract an article or take action without a clear explanation of the problems with the content of the article. Also, it is not the journal’s role to be a mediator or to follow the demands of any one party. Hence the journal should be cautious about making a permanent decision while there are ongoing legal proceedings.
The Forum advised the journal to follow the advice of their own legal team.
The publisher informed the institution and the author that no further action would be taken while legal proceedings are ongoing. The institution did not reply. The publisher asked the author to provide the full document of the application to the court and expected timings, but those details have not been provided yet. Further delays due to the COVID-19 pandemic are expected.
A publisher was alerted to possible issues with band duplication in an article (more than 10 years old) by a reader. The corresponding author was contacted to resolve the issue. The author was unable to provide a satisfactory explanation for the bands, and because of the age of the article, the original data were no longer available. The institution was asked to investigate; a summary of the case was provided and the similarities in the bands using an open source tool were highlighted.
When the publisher received a copy of the investigatory committee’s report, it was clear that the institution had focused on the use of the software tool exclusively. The institution concluded that the software was not a validated tool, and so there was no basis for concluding that the blots in question were duplicated or improperly altered. The contact person also stated that it was not the institution's place to comment on whether the data in the publication were sound and trustworthy.
The publisher pointed out that the software was not used to detect problems with the paper—it was simply a tool to provide a visual demonstration of the similarities between the blots. The publisher stated that they would have raised this issue regardless of whether the tool was available. They explained their expectation and experience that institutions initiate inquiries into potential ethics cases raised by journals and comment specifically on whether the conclusions are still sound. The publisher asked again that the committee investigate the scientific issues raised about this paper; the institution declined.
Next step being considered are sending the paper to one of publisher’s editors who has relevant scientific expertise, or to an independent adviser, asking them to advise on whether the conclusions are still supported if the blots in question are unreliable. The publisher is also considering sending the paper to an independent ethics expert to verify that there are potential problems with the blots.
If it can be verified independently that there are potential problems with the blots, there are two courses of action: (1) if the adviser finds that the conclusions are still sound, issue an expression of concern/publisher's note highlighting the specific blots and detailing the steps taken so that readers can make their own decision about the data; (2) if our adviser finds that the conclusions are not sound, retract the paper. The publisher would tell the institution the route they plan to take.
Question(s) for the COPE Forum
Are the publisher’s plans reasonable, or is there a better course of action?
Regardless of whether an expression of concern/publisher's note is published, or the paper is retracted, is it reasonable to quote from the report of the institution so that readers know the institution refused to investigate?
Should the publisher consider contacting the relevant funding agencies?
The Forum suggested that if an institution is not willing or unable to investigate, one potential option might be to contact the original funders listed in the paper, or to contact any regional integrity offices, if these exist.
COPE’s retraction guidelines state "When editors or journals have credible grounds to suspect misconduct, this should be brought to the attention of the authors’ institutions as early as possible, but the decision to correct or retract an article should be made by the journal and does not necessarily depend on an institutional finding of misconduct." This scenario is common—often institutions do not conduct investigations or do not provide a definitive answer to questions raised by the journal.
If the editor feels that the data are unreliable or might be misleading, then the paper should be retracted. Getting further expert opinion to support the concerns of the editor is good practice. If the editor decides to retract, the retraction notice should explain why the journal believes that the findings are unreliable. The editor should inform the institution and the authors in advance, with the wording of the notice, and give them a chance to respond.
However, if the editor is uncertain of the integrity or the data or cannot resolve the concerns because the data are not available, then an expression of concern could be published, which could change to a retraction if the institution confirms there has been misconduct. The institution would need to investigate further. The expression of concern could state that the institution has been contacted but that the concerns have not been resolved.
Another option might be to ask the reader who brought up the issue to write a commentary and allow others to dig deeper into the issue.
In general, journals or publishers cannot always depend on an institution when deciding whether or not to retract an article because standards differ across institution. A journal needs to adhere to its own policies and not necessarily to what the institute thinks is appropriate.
The editor prepared an expression of concern for publication in the journal and is awaiting the authors’ agreement on the wording.
A journal operated double blind peer-review, so the reviewers do not know the identity of the authors, and vice versa. However, the anonymity of the authors is not guaranteed, as the reviewers may discover the identity of the authors (because of the area of research, references, writing style, etc). But rarely can the authors identify the reviewers.
The journal received a request from a reviewer to share a post on twitter, which may disclose the reviewer’s identity to the authors.
Question(s) for the COPE Forum
Does the double-blind peer-review process apply after publication?
What should be the position of a journal when reviewers ask to share their report or experience on social media?
The journal’s course of action in this case needs to be guided by the objective. The point of double blind peer review is to reduce bias during the review process. While of course anonymity of the authors ends upon publication of the work, anonymity of the reviewers’ identity in a double blind peer review process typically continues after publication because of the contract that the journal has made with its reviewers. As the right of confidentiality lies with the reviewer, if the reviewer wants to reveal the information, then it is reasonable to consider granting that request. However, many journals require permission from the author after their paper is published if the reviewer is going to disclose information, and this is considered to be a good practice to follow.
An author has contacted the journal enquiring about the need for institutional review board approval for a survey. The survey is not derived from a specific institution but rather out of the personal interest of the author(s) who are targeting a point of wide scientific interest. The authors have a broad reach in social media.
The topic is of significant interest to the field, and there is a high potential for publication once the data are gathered and analysed. There are no patient data involved or publicised.
Question(s) for the COPE Forum
What is the policy on institutional review board approval for social media surveys or research?
The Forum agreed that institutional review board (IRB) approval is required for social media surveys or research. The Forum suggested that if the authors are associated with an institution, they should be using the institutional IRB for approval of the research. If researchers are gathering data about people, and social media is just a means of collecting the data, then some form of ethical oversight is needed.
The editor told the Forum that the response from the institution was that because the study did not involve an intervention on a patient, they were not responsible for oversight of the study. The Forum noted that often IRBs are only interested in interventional research, and they will not consider survey, qualitative or quality improvement research as part of their remit. In the USA, the American Association for Public Opinion Research (https://www.aapor.org/) has information on standards, ethics and suggested IRB forms. But ultimately, it is the university's responsibility to approve the research.
Surveys might be asking questions about people’s health, sexual orientation or criminality, for example, and the survey could involve vulnerable groups. An IRB would be concerned about these aspects and so the survey would clearly require ethical review in these circumstances. Most universities have a distinction in terms of light touch versus heavy touch institutional review, where the IRB might review the research questions, who the researchers are talking to, is private information being requested, are the individuals identifiable? Interacting with people online could also be considered an intervention and hence ethical approval would be required.
A handling editor rejected a paper without review, after consulting with a senior editor. The corresponding author sent an appeal about 2 weeks later where he requested that the paper be given a second chance and be sent for peer review. He added that, in case of a new decision to reject without review, the editor should provide a detailed response to a number of questions and comments raised in the appeal letter. He also mentioned that, in order to illustrate the importance of the study, he had done a social media poll asking whether the paper in question was more relevant to the journal’s readership than another paper whose link he provided in the poll and that had recently been published in the journal. The appeal was also read by another senior editor and it was agreed to reject the paper again without providing any detailed explanations as the behaviour was considered borderline bullying.
Three weeks after the second rejection, the corresponding author contacted the journal expressing his disappointment with the decision and threatened a freedom of information request to access the correspondence between the editors that led to the editorial decision. Moreover, he suggested he would be writing about his negative experience with the journal.
The handling editor perceived this as aggressive and litigious behaviour and shared the correspondence with the head of the research section of the journal, who responded to the author and copied the senior author in the correspondence. The senior author responded by acknowledging the inappropriate behaviour of the author and promising to take action internally.
Question(s) for the COPE Forum
Did the journal handle the case appropriately?
Could something else or something different have been done?
How can this type of situation be prevented?
The Forum agreed that the journal behaved appropriately and handled the case correctly.
In terms of what the journal could do for future situations, the COPE Audit stresses the need for an appeals process, and that the process is clearly described in the author guidelines or on the journal's website. The journal might wish to look again at their instructions to authors and include a statement about the editorial decision making process in the appeals process, stating that the associate editors make recommendations to the editor, if appropriate, and that the final decision rests with the editor. The journal might also wish to add prominently to the author guidelines that the deliberations and decisions are, in general, confidential, and that any specific enquiries would have to requested formally by a lawyer.
The Forum suggested that in retrospect, perhaps the journal should have involved the other co-authors, given that it was the corresponding author who made the threats. It is possible the co-authors may not have been aware of the corresponding author’s threats.
Also, with the benefit of hindsight, it is possible that after the author had done the social media poll, and was asking for more detail, it might have been possible to de-escalate the situation by giving more detail on why the appeal was declined.
Another suggested approach was to look at this from the point of view of a difficult personality with misdirected enthusiasm, someone who does not understand the process well, but is engaged and enthusiastic, who might respond to direction and education from the journal.