Shortly before publication, I received an email from the authors of a systematic review telling me that a version of the paper as first submitted to the journal for peer review had appeared on the website of a campaign group based in the USA. It was clear that the version of the document posted on the website was the same as the version supplied to the journal's peer reviewers. Further investigation showed that one of the three peer reviewers (reviewer A) who initially advised on the paper is also named as a member of the board of directors of the campaign group. The journal operates an anonymous peer review system.
I emailed all three peer reviewers asking for an explanation as to how the confidential draft appeared on the website. Reviewers B and C replied within a few hours, disclaiming all knowledge, as I expected. Reviewer A has failed to reply. I also emailed the senior directors of the campaign group, asking them to remove the confidential draft from their website, and inviting them to replace it with the definitive paper, which had in the meantime been published. They did not reply. The directors have since been sent a letter from our publisher's lawyers asking for the confidential document to be removed—with reviewer A also sent a copy—on the grounds of breech of copyright. They have not replied. The lawyers are continuing to pursue legal avenues for getting the draft removed from the website.
In normal circumstances, I would contact reviewer A's institution and request an investigation. However, reviewer A is unaffiliated, so I cannot follow this course. On our manuscript tracking database, we have removed reviewer A's role as a peer reviewer, with a note explaining the circumstances, so that he should not be used as a peer reviewer again. I have received frequent emails from the lead author of the paper, asking for a resolution of the matter. The author has requested that I give her the name of reviewer A, so that she can ask that he is excluded from peer reviewing her papers in the future. I have declined to do this on the grounds that it would be a further breach of confidentiality.
Question for the COPE Forum Is there any more that can be done to obtain an explanation from reviewer A, or to satisfy the authors that we have investigated the matter to the limits of the journal's powers?
This case was not discussed at the Forum. Council instead gave the following advice on this case.
Council agreed that the editor had done all he could in trying to contact reviewer A and eliciting a response from him, and in attempting to have the paper removed from the website of the campaign group.
Council agreed that the emphasis should now be in dealing with the aggrieved author and in correcting the public record. The suggestion was to add a notice of concern to the paper on the website giving a clear account of the events. The editor should state the facts in a dispassionate manner: - the paper appears on the website of a campaign group with neither the authors’ nor the journal’s agreement; - this occurred during the peer review process and without the authors’ permission; - the journal has repeatedly asked for the article to be taken down.
The editor should also respond to the author telling him that he plans to make a public statement on the website and stating that he now feels that he has done all that he can to progress this case. The editor might like to list all the steps he has taken to have the article removed, detailing the times he has tried to contact the reviewer and the campaign website.
COPE would advise against releasing the names of reviewers for journals that have a confidential peer review system, even if a breach of confidentiality is suspected. COPE also suggested that editors should exercise caution when using reviewers who are not affiliated to a university.
As recommended by COPE, the editor’s posted a note on the case in the journal, presenting an account of the events.
A reader emailed a society, which forwarded the message to the journal office, noting that he can read the name of a patient in a figure in a published letter to the editor. The letter was published online 3 months earlier and had just appeared in print; it was the print version the reader saw. The reader asked if the patient's name could be removed.
The journal’s author instructions already stated that no identifying patient information should be included. At all stages following submission (journal office review of initial submission, publisher production of processed manuscript, copyeditor review, and author review of proof), the patient’s name was not noticed.
Within 2 days of the reader’s email, the publisher had replaced the figure with a version that did not include the patient’s name. It was agreed that an erratum would not be issued so as not to draw attention to the matter.
Both the journal office and publisher have since instituted new procedures in reviewing figures to detect any patient information. Additionally, new text has been added to the author instructions: “Patient’s identity must be removed in all figures (ie, x-rays, MRIs, charts, photographs, etc). Informed written consent is required from any potentially identifiable patient or legal representative, and should be presented in either the methods section or the acknowledgements”.
The publisher and its legal counsel also created a patient consent form (the rural clinic in another country where the patient was treated did not have one) and we able to contact the author who asked her patient to sign the form, post-publication. The patient agreed and signed the form, and the matter is now closed.
Questions for the COPE Forum (1) Were we right in deciding not to issue an erratum? Is there any other text that you would recommend adding to the author instructions?
The Forum agreed that the editor should not issue an erratum. Correcting the literature is very important, but patient confidentiality is overriding in this case. No useful purpose would be served by issuing an erratum, particularly as written patient consent has now been obtained, and in fact it would draw attention to the name of the patient. A poll of the Forum audience indicated that only a few people would issue a correction—the majority would not. But some argued that in the interests of transparency, perhaps there should be some acknowledgement that a change was made, even if the change is not specifically mentioned.
The Forum discussed having a universal consent form, which has been discussed by COPE in the past. Hence if a patient consented to publication for one journal, if the article was then rejected and submitted to another journal, another consent form would not have to completed. From a poll of the Forum, there was some support for a universal consent form. About a third of the audience currently use a specific consent form for publication that requires the authors to have gained written consent from the patient before any identifying material can be published.
The Forum suggested an editorial note on the importance of preserving patient confidentiality might be useful, as a reminder to authors. The editor might also like to check that their instructions to authors are clear and up to date on this issue.
The editorial team updated their instructions to authors.
Author A of a 2008 review article in our journal claims her article was used as the "framework" for a 2013 review article on the same subject in an open access journal by a former student of hers, author B. There was no verbatim overlap but the format (comparison of two common conditions) was indeed similar (differential diagnosis, management, pharmacotherapy, and implications for practice).
Author A sent me the articles for comparison and stated that she thought this was plagiarism and that, furthermore, her student had no experience caring for these patients so she had misrepresented herself as an authority on this topic. The student (author B) was the first author, the second author was a physician who was well published on this topic, and "writing assistance" had been provided by a professional medical writer and paid by a pharmaceutical company that manufactures drugs in this therapeutic class. I checked both papers through iThenticate and there was no verbatim overlap between the two. I had nine members of my editorial board review and compare the articles in question along with the complaints of author A. I asked for specific comparisons (quantity and quality) of overlapping material and whether or not any overlap constituted plagiarism of ideas (not words). The editorial board concluded, as did I, that this format is fairly standard for clinical articles; content overlap likely resulted from similar content in practice guidelines for these conditions; neither article is ‘conceptually original’; and that updates of clinical review articles are a common practice (there was a 5 year gap between the articles). We found multiple articles in the literature on the same or related topics with similar resources, content, and format.
Meanwhile, author A contacted the open access journal stating that she was consulting a lawyer and she wanted author B's article “pulled and reviewed for integrity and rigor”. Within 8 days of the complaint, I wrote to author A stating that we did not find evidence of plagiarism and that I would not contact the open access journal with a claim to protect the article copyright because I did not believe it had been violated. Author A was not pleased with my response and claims she has "confirmed" with two colleagues that there are striking similarities between the articles. I reiterated based on COPE guidelines and definitions of plagiarism, there was nothing more I could do. Meanwhile, the open access journal responded to author A's email that they have "removed" the offending article by author B from their website (in fact it is still there) and they suggested she contact the author because authors retain the copyright. I referred author A to my publishing manager, who has been appraised of this investigation since the beginning, if she wishes to pursue this further.
Questions for the COPE Forum (1) Do I have an obligation to contact the open access journal with my findings? I am reluctant to do so given there are legal implications (lawyer contacted by author A); author B's paper has not actually been removed; and there are professional medical writers and a pharmaceutical company involved in author B's paper. I had never contacted the open access journal myself and they have not contacted me but I "feel" that I might have some responsibility to let them know that we are not making any claim.
The editor updated the Forum that the paper by author B has now been removed from the publisher’s website, with no notice of formal retraction, although it is still possible to find the paper by a search of PubMed.
The Forum suggested that the style of writing of review articles may mean that this type of issue arises. Author B may have been commissioned to write the review and asked to format it in a specific way. The Forum noted that it is possible to have plagiarism of ideas and not just words, although harder to prove, and author A may feel this is the case in this instance.
But in reality, this is an issue for the open access journal, not the editor’s journal. The editor feels that the open access journal has genuinely tried to do the right thing but has just not handled the situation correctly. Should the paper in fact have been removed at all? Was there any plagiarism? By removing the paper, without issuing a retraction, the literature has not been corrected, and if the paper was not plagiarized, then what might have been a reasonable paper is no longer available. Was the editor of the open access journal pressurized into removing the paper by author A and/or its publisher because of the threat of legal action?
Is author B aware that his paper has been pulled from the journal’s website? Author B and his colleagues may have legal redress against the open access journal. But it is up to the open access journal to inform author B.
Hence a suggestion was for the editor to reach out to this other editor, and perhaps discuss how this might have been handled differently. On a poll of the Forum audience, more than half agreed that the editor should reach out to the other editor, obtain their side of the story and perhaps then establish how proper correction of the literature can be done.
At the suggestion of the COPE Forum, the editor wrote to the managing editor of the online journal clarifying that the journal did not find any plagiarism with their published article and that the editor would not pursue any claims against the journal. The editor also noted that the article in question was missing from the home page of the journal on the publisher’s website but that it remained available on the PubMed Central site for their journal. The editor asked that the journal update her if they were conducting an investigation themselves and offered information on the COPE guidelines.
The managing editor responded thanking the editor for the clarification and explaining that the decision had been made by the publisher to remove the article in question from their website to “avoid legal complications,” which had been threatened by the complaining author. He stated he did understand that removal of the article was not recommended by COPE but because the article was still listed and retrievable on the PubMed site for their journal, they thought this was a reasonable solution. He stated he would forward the editor’s letter to the editor-in-chief and the publisher to see if this would change the decision; however, the situation remains the same. There has been no retraction of the article and the editor has not heard back from either the journal managing editor or the editor-in-chief.
FOLLOW UP (December 2014):
There has been no change in the status of the article in question and no further communication from the authors or the open access publisher. The article remains widely available and discoverable. The editor considers the case now closed.
The director of a research laboratory contacted our journal regarding an article published earlier this year. The director claimed that the documents and data used in the article were collected at his research laboratory and used by author A without his knowledge and permission.
At the time, author A was a visiting scholar at the director's laboratory. The director also claimed that author B and author C (both PhD students under the director's supervision) were listed as coauthors without their knowledge. Additionally, he claimed that author D (author A's supervisor at his primary affiliation) was not in any way involved in the research described in the article and should be removed from the authors list. The director stated that he wishes for the article to be withdrawn.
In his email to our journal, the director forwarded us his previous correspondence with author A to corroborate his claims. In their correspondence, author A basically admits his mistake, apologizes and assures the director that he already contacted our journal in order to withdraw the paper. The correspondence between the director and author A occurred approximately 3 months before the director contacted us. Our journal never received a request to withdraw the paper from author A.
However, even though the forwarded correspondence clearly incriminates author A, as far as we know it is not possible to determine whether the forwarded emails are authentic or edited.
After receiving the director's message, we contacted all of the authors in an attempt to resolve the case. At the time of submission, author A was affiliated with institution 1 and institution 2. Author D is affiliated with institution 1, while author B, author C and the director are affiliated with institution 2. Author A stated that he included author B and author C as coauthors due to their help with language editing, but he agreed with their request to be removed from the authors list. When asked to comment on his previous correspondence with the director, he claimed in vague terms that the misconduct allegations stem from some personal disagreement between the director and author D during their collaboration on a research project.
Author B requested his removal from the authors list as well as withdrawal of the article. Author B also claimed that some of the data in the article were not valid. He did not respond to our request to clarify in what way were the data were flawed. Author C requested his removal from the authors list as well as withdrawal of the article. Author D was contacted a week later than the others due to a faulty email address. We informed him that author B and author C expressed that they wish to be removed from the authors list and he agreed with their request.
As all of the authors have reached a consensus regarding authorship, we intend to correct the record and remove author B and author C from the author’s list.
The director was asked if he could provide some other proof of his allegations besides the forwarded email correspondence between himself and author A. He did not provide any other proof and demanded that the article be removed at once and that author A's institution (institution 1) be notified of his scientific misconduct. Additionally, he claimed that author B performed the majority of the research presented in the article as author A had insufficient experience in the field.
Author A was asked to comment on that claim, but he maintained that he wrote the article and did not use data collected in the director's research laboratory.
We do not have the means necessary to pursue further investigation of this case by ourselves, which is why we are seeking advice from the COPE Forum.
Questions for the COPE Forum (1) Should the forwarded email correspondence between the director and author A be considered conclusive evidence of alleged scientific misconduct on author A's behalf? (2) Should we retract the article based on the scarce information we have managed to gather? (3) Should we first publish a correction in order to rectify the misattributed authorship and deal with the data ownership issues separately? If so, should we try to further resolve the data ownership issues ourselves or refer the case to author A's institution? (4) Should we publish an expression of concern detailing the alleged misconduct, inform author A's institution about the allegations, request an institutional investigation and wait for the results of their investigation before making a final decision about this case? (5) Does the COPE Forum have any other suggestions on how to proceed with this complicated case?
The Forum agreed that the editor has reached the point where he cannot investigate this further or hope to resolve this issue, and hence he should now contact the authors’ institutions and ask them to investigate the matter. The Forum suggested contacting both institution 1 and 2, providing them with as much information as possible. The editor cannot resolve the issue of who owns the data. As the editor has concerns about the article as it stands, it was suggested that he publish an expression of concern, alerting the readership that there may be problems with this paper. However, others cautioned about the timing of publishing an expression of concern—should the editor wait until after the investigation by the institutions? On polling the Forum audience, the majority agreed that they would wait for the results of the institution’s investigation. However, the Forum reiterated that this must be an editorial judgement, taking into consideration whether the editor has a reasonable expectation that the institution will investigate the matter in a timely fashion.
The Forum suggested the editor might like to consult the COPE retraction guidelines for guidance on when to issue an expression of concern.
Unauthorized use of data came up as a prime issue in a recent study of the re-classification of the COPE cases in the past 10 years. Also, the Montreal statement on research integrity in cross boundary research collaborations came out of this year’s World Conference on Research Integrity (http://www.wcri2013.org/Montreal_Statement_e.shtml), and this statement addresses these types of issues. Editors may wish to refer authors to their guidance.
After efforts to investigate the alleged misconduct had failed, the journal referred the case to the institution where the misconduct reportedly occured. The editor was subsequently informed that the reported issues had been discussed internally and that it was ultimately decided that no further action or investigation would take place.
Since there is no conclusive evidence of misconduct, the journal will not be taking any action with regards to the issue of allegedly unauthorized use of data. However, action will be taken to rectify the reported and confirmed authorship issues.
Two of four reviewer reports received by the editor-in-chief of a journal contained a significant amount of verbatim textual overlap. Although of the same native (not English) language, the two reviewers are affiliated to institutions in different countries. The reports were submitted to the journal within 5 days of each other. Both reviewers suggested rejection of the submission.
Separately, contacted by the editor-in-chief, both reviewers categorically denied that they communicated with anyone (including any other reviewer) about the paper and their review work. One reviewer explained the similarities in the reviews as appearing “due to the fact that I have worked with [the other reviewer] as a co-editor for a special issue … a few months ago. To ease the review work, we prepared a checklist … . It seems that we are still making reference to this checklist when we review papers on the same topic, and this explains the similarities in the terminology and approach that we used in our … reviews. Moreover, I think that the convergence of our opinion about the overall quality, strengths and weaknesses of the paper is due to the fact that we are actively collaborating on the topic … and therefore have similar ideas about what it takes to provide a good contribution in this field of research”.
The other reviewer offered the following explanations: “[The other reviewer] and I have coauthored several papers … and, as a result, share many ideas about the ... literature; as a result of working together on several papers on the subject, we use the same perspective in assessing how a study fits into the literature and the contributions that it makes; potential overlaps in the terminology can be due to the fact that we developed for an old special issue that we guest edited a checklist for paper review …, that we shared with each other. Some of the common terminology in our review can be found in this checklist; … neither one of us is a native English speaker. This is why some expressions (common in … but unusual in English) appear in both of our reviews”.
Questions for the COPE Forum (1) Should the editor-in-chief rely on the reports of the two reviewers? (2) Should the editor-in-chief invite in the future the two researchers to review other submissions in the field?
The Forum suggested that the editor should consider that the explanations of the reviewers could be feasible and may in fact be true, particularly as their reviews were not dissimilar to the two other reviews of this paper in terms of content and recommendations. The editor noted that he has seen the checklist and that it does look useful and well designed, and could possibly be shared with other reviewers. In the end, it has to be a judgement call by the editor. Whether or not the editor decides to invite these researchers to review other submissions depends on whether he accepts their explanations.
One suggestion was to use plagiarism detection software on the reviewer reports and the special issue as a background check. This may give some indication of the overlap. Another suggestion was to allow the reviewers to continue to review other submissions but to monitor and score them so that their performance can be tracked over a period of time. The editor might also like to suggest that they refer to the COPE Ethical Guidelines for Peer Reviewers.
Polling the Forum audience in relation to who uses structured review forms and expects their reviewers to use them revealed that about a third do use them, but there was not much support among those not using structured forms to introduce this practice
A manuscript was submitted to our journal describing a study of a new drug. The manuscript had only one author who gave their affiliation as a company that we can find no record of online. It describes a study in which they appear to have developed a new drug, carried out a toxicology study in mice and then, because no adverse effects were seen, tested it on one patient and five healthy volunteers. There appear to have be no stages in between. There is no statement of informed consent in the manuscript. There is a statement that says the study was reviewed by the institution’s human subjects committee but we cannot find a record of the institution.
We had ethical concerns about the study so we asked the authors for more information, specifically: the details of the ethics committee that approved the study; whether they had informed consent from the patient and healthy volunteers; whether the trial had been registered before it commenced; how the patient and controls were recruited; what information the patient and controls were given before they agreed to participate; where the study took place; what safety/monitoring was in place in case of any adverse effects; what approval was obtained (eg, from the country’s drug regulatory body) before this drug was injected into a human for the first time; and what other research had already been carried out on this new drug? The author responded to our email asking to withdraw the manuscript but did not answer any of our questions. We responded that we had serious ethical concerns and therefore would not be withdrawing the manuscript at this time. We informed the author that we would be investigating the potential ethical issues and asked again for answers to our questions. We have heard nothing from the author since.
The author is based in a country that does not appear to have a national medical board and is not affiliated to an academic institution or hospital. The affiliation given is the company that we can find no record of. The author’s email address is not an institutional or company email address. We have contacted the professional society for the medical specialty of the author but they have informed us that the author is not a member and therefore they cannot investigate. We have also searched for the author on the registry of the regional medical board for the region in which the author is based, and they are not registered with them either. We do not want to reject the manuscript until an appropriate body has agreed to investigate but we are struggling as to how else to report this.
Questions for the COPE Forum (1) Does the Forum agree that we should continue to try and find someone to investigate this before we reject? (2) Does the Forum have any suggestions on how we can report this?
The Forum agreed that the editor had made a tremendous effort in trying to resolve this case. The Forum reiterated that in instances where a paper is rejected or withdrawn, there is still a responsibility to pursue any suspicions of misconduct. In this case, where the author wishes to withdraw the paper, it was agreed that the editor had probably done as much as he could. In some countries, this type of behaviour might be considered criminal, and a last resort might be to inform the legal authorities in that country.
The Forum advised that there is always the possibility that the paper is a hoax, but the editor has to assume, until otherwise proven, that the author has submitted the paper in good faith and should investigate this as far as possible. This is a particularly difficult case as it is a single author paper. If there had been more than one author on the paper, the journal could have applied the revised criteria of the International Committee of Medical Journal Editors (ICMJE). The fourth criterion states that all authors are accountable for all aspects of the work and are responsible for ensuring that questions related to the accuracy or integrity of any part of the work are appropriately investigated and resolved. However, this is not applicable in this case as there is only one author.
The only other suggestion was for the editor to write an editorial on this topic, emphasizing that this type of behaviour is unacceptable.
After the case was discussed at the forum, the journal made one further attempt to report the unethical research. This was successful and the case is now being investigated by the relevant governmental department in the country where the research was carried out. The editor also discovered that while he had been trying to resolve this case, the article had been published in another journal. He informed the editor of that journal of the duplicate submission and his concerns.
Follow up (June 2014):
After the relevant governmental department agreed to investigate, the manuscript was rejected by the journal. The journal did not receive a response from the editor of the other journal in which the article had been published.
A paper was published in our journal. A reader contacted us and informed us that the whole of the introduction of the paper was copied directly from another publication. The editor-in-chief suggested retracting the paper immediately. However, the author insists on publishing a correction. They do not want to publish a retraction as this will affect their future career development. Questions for the COPE Forum (1) What can we do? (2) Can we retract without the approval of the author? The author has threatened legal action if we retract.
The Forum agreed that this was a clear case of plagiarism, and as another journal was involved, there may also be copyright issues.
The Forum stressed that according to the COPE guidelines, an editor does not need the approval of the author to retract an article. If the editor feels there are grounds for retraction, he/she can retract the article without the author’s permission. In this case, half of the Forum favoured retracting the article, on the grounds of plagiarism and breach of copyright.
However, others argued that there are different degrees of plagiarism with different severities. Plagiarism can sometimes occur among authors whose first language is not English and who do not realise that plagiarism is unacceptable in this situation. In this case, the data are not corrupt and the plagiarism seems to have occurred solely in the introduction. If data were corrupt, the editor would be correct in reporting this to the author’s institution and retracting the author, irrespective of what the author thinks. But this case seems to be more of a mixture of naivety and lack of understanding of language on the part of the authors. Hence the advice was to publish a correction or expression of concern, and write a stern letter to the authors explaining that this type of behaviour is unacceptable.
Hence the Forum was evenly split between recommending retraction versus publishing a correction together with a firm rebuke to the authors. In the end, it is the editor’s decision, but the editor should inform all of the authors of what action he plans to undertake.
A case series of 89 patients with a relatively rare condition was accepted for publication by the journal following due process through the peer-review system. The paper was published online within days of being accepted. A few days later the editor of the journal received an email from a professor (Professor X) from the same country from which the paper was submitted to say that one of the cases was "his case" and that he wanted the case and the clinical photograph of his patient to be withdrawn from the paper; alternatively, he requested being made a coauthor on the paper. The editor circulated the letter from Professor X to the publisher, the editor-elect and the editorial office. It was decided that the editor should contact the corresponding author to ask them to consider this approach and to give their response. The letter to the corresponding author included the name of the professor who had written, and the exact details of the complaint and the two possible outcomes he was requesting (withdrawal of his case or his inclusion as a coauthor). The editor went on to say "If the patient is indeed Professor X's and he (Professor X) meets the authorship criteria (as per the International Committee of Medical Journal Editors (ICMJE http://www.icmje.org/)) we can still, if all coauthors agree, add him as a coauthor. If he does not meet the authorship criteria then it would be possible to offer acknowledgement."
The editor went on to highlight the ICMJE criteria as follows: (1) Substantial contributions to conception and design or acquisition of data or analysis and interpretation of data; (2) Drafting the article or revising it critically for important intellectual content; (3) Final approval of the version to be published. Authors should meet conditions 1, 2 and 3.
Additionally, the editor sent an e-mail to Professor X saying that he had contacted the authors for their comments, and in the meantime this paper had been held (as online only) until this matter had been resolved.
The editor also e-mailed the publisher to request that the paper "be pulled" until the issue was sorted. The publisher responded by saying that it was not possible to simply "pull" the paper and that it would need to remain as online only.
A few days later the first author replied to the editor of the journal as follows: "Actually, Professor X provided the picture and clinical data regarding this patient and I should have included him as coauthor. It was my mistake." This explanation was accepted by the editor and a revised version of the manuscript and authorship consent was submitted. (Comment: The journal does not require coauthors of papers to state explicitly what they have done to merit inclusion as a coauthor.) It is hard to believe that Professor X would satisfy the ICMJE authorship criteria on the basis of the information available to the journal. Despite this, he and all the coauthors signed the new authorship declaration forms and assignment of copyright. Questions for the COPE Forum (1) Were the responses and procedures for the journal appropriate for the issue? (2) If not, how might the journal and editorial team have behaved differently? (3) Do the COPE Forum recommend that the journal tries to gather more information relating to omitted author’s contribution to a manuscript before passing the issue over to the authors of the paper?
The Forum agreed this was a difficult case, and in such circumstances it is not always easy to know what to do. A few members of the Forum would have handled the situation differently and the majority of the Forum agreed that Professor X did not qualify for authorship.
One view was that this was a case of gift authorship. Some argued that Professor X only partially fulfilled condition (1) of the ICMJE criteria and hence should not have been listed as an author. People who contribute patients or data do not automatically qualify as authors. In this case, perhaps the person could have been put in the acknowledgement section for his contribution of the specific patient data rather than included as an author. The editor should have stood firm and refused to allow Professor X’s inclusion as an author. This also raises the question of how many of the other authors on this paper contributed substantially?
The editor noted that the journal does not require coauthors of papers to state explicitly what they have done to merit inclusion as a coauthor. The Forum suggested that the journal might like to revise this policy and in future ask authors to state their exact contributions. The Forum noted that this case highlights the whole issue of the role of authorship and contributorship. Editors, authors and funders frequently struggle with these issues and they are being actively discussed in forums such as http://projects.iq.harvard.edu/attribution_workshop
The editor submitted the case more as a learning point about what to do to avoid this happening in the future. He is grateful for the advice of the Forum.
A reviewer of our journal noticed similarity between a published paper (P1) and a manuscript under review (P2). At the same time, a member of the editorial team noticed similarity between another accepted manuscript for publication (P3) and both paper P1 and manuscript P2. All three papers were submitted by the same authors based on the same trial, reporting three different endpoints measuring the same effect. The earlier paper P1 reported the results on the most accepted and validated efficacy measures. The latter manuscripts reiterated the findings of the published paper but did not cite the same.
The editor-in-chief decided to hold P2 and P3 and follow the COPE guidelines. The editorial team asked clarifications from the authors, who in reply stated their ignorance about publication practices and argued that the two other efficacy measures will substantiate the results of P1. The results of the papers were contradictory to current practices and hence the editorial team decided to be lenient with the authors. The editors suggested combining the two manuscripts under review (P2 and P3) into one short communication and asked the authors for appropriate modifications (eg, reporting ancillary data).
The authors modified the manuscript but quoted a guideline for analysis, which had not used before, was not present when the authors completed their study and was not related to the topic. This raised questions about the overall integrity and reliability of the authors. The editorial team decided to hold the manuscript and refer to the COPE Forum for consultation.
Questions for the COPE Forum (1) What should be the stand of the editorial board, especially if authors want to withdraw the paper? (2) Should the editors share the review information with editors of other related journals? (3) Should we disclose the names of the authors to other journal editors in the sector? (4) Should we have an alert list of such authors?
The Forum agreed that even if the authors wish to withdraw the paper, and they have every right to do so, this does not mean that the issue is gone away or is resolved. If the editor has concerns, he/she retains the right to follow-up with the author and/or the institution. The editor can still contact the author’s institution and ask them to investigate. COPE always advises that even if a paper is rejected or withdrawn, the editor has a duty to follow-up any issues relating to suspected misconduct. The editor may like to explain this to the authors.
It may be necessary to share the information with related journals, but the editor may need to assess the scale of the problem first by doing a search for other articles by the same authors and determining what other journals are involved.
Regarding an alert list, COPE always advises against blacklisting authors or sharing alert lists with other editors because of the risk of litigation and the danger of harming other innocent associated authors.
The editor asked the authors for clarification, but did not get a reply even after several reminders. The editor also contacted the author’s institution and asked them to investigate the case but received no reply. The article was rejected on the grounds of compromised publication ethics.
The case was discussed by the editorial team members. The journal has improved the editorial review methods of the journal to filter out possible cases of plagiarism and salami slicing. The editor discussed the case (without revealing any of the author's details) with editors of related journals who said that they also experienced similar cases and expressed the need for efforts to create awareness to avoid publication misconduct. The editor acknowledges the guidance from the COPE website in strengthening the journal's editorial processes.
A manuscript was published in journal X, submitted by several co-authors, including one of the editors in chief of journal X, Dr A (the article was handled by another editor in chief at the journal). Another researcher, Dr B, has claimed that this article should be withdrawn because it contains unauthorized data from him (Dr B).
A few years previously, Drs A and B worked and published jointly, but at some point there appeared to be a divergence in points of view on the interpretation of results (obtained in a large part by Dr B and his team) in a manuscript co-written by both Drs A and B (and the teams of both Drs A and B). Dr A decided that Dr B and his team must agree to the publication of the manuscript or they would be removed from the co-author list. The paper was then submitted as an appendix in an internal report for their funding agency.
Later, a similar paper was published by Dr A and his team (only) with similar content to the previous disputed paper in journal X. Dr B and his team are acknowledged in the text but have not been asked or listed as co-authors. The paper contains the results from Dr B’s team, very important results, that people now refer to as from Dr A’s team.
Dr B thinks this is a violation of the rules of good scientific practice and has asked advice from a third independent party. The third party recognized the violation of the rules of good scientific practice and suggested publishing an erratum. Dr B refuses to agree to an erratum because his team do not necessarily wish to be co-authors, as they disagree with the interpretation. Dr B wishes to have this published article withdrawn.
Question What should the editor of journal X do?
The Forum agreed that the current paper cannot stand in its present form—some form of correction of the literature needs to be done. It is clear that the data are the intellectual property of Dr B, but this is essentially an authorship dispute, and it is up to the authors to resolve it. Although the results of the paper are not in dispute, the editor could decide to retract the paper and tell the authors that they must resolve their dispute themselves. So the editor could present the issues to both authors and tell them that some form of drastic action might happen if they cannot resolve the issue and ask them to find an independent arbitrator whose decision they agree to abide by. As a third party is already involved, would both authors agree to abide by the decision of this third party, given that it was author B who asked for advice from this third party? A better solution might be for the authors to agree on another independent party who could arbitrate on the case.
But if the authors cannot come to any agreement, the editor could suggest that author B is allowed to write a letter or article explaining his interpretation of the results.
One other suggestion was to have a revised paper, with all of the authors listed, and with two separate discussions. The readers could then make up their mind which interpretation they preferred. However, the original paper would have to be retracted.
The majority agreed that the best way forward was to present the issues to both parties and tell them the journal is prepared to retract the article unless the authors can resolve the case.
The editor had further communications with Dr B. The editor again explained that it was not the journal’s decision to make but was up to Dr B, his employer and the authors to sort out. The editor has now stopped corresponding with Dr B.