The editor of an international journal is bothered: he has received a gift that looks expensive, though it might not be.
The sender is an author of a paper submitted to the journal; he has just received a “major revisions necessary” decision. In previous emails, the author has suggested hosting the editor in “his native beautiful city”, an invitation the editor has acknowledged, saying he had already visited the city, and it was indeed beautiful! The author identified himself as a student in further emails, thanking the editor in flattering tones for the reviews.
The editor needs of course to acknowledge the gift (no letter was included), or perhaps to return it, but feels very uncomfortable with the situation. The possibilities for this gift range from an innocent gesture of a proud citizen, to one expecting something in return.
The publisher’s code of ethics and business conduct does cover this subject, but its provisions apply to the publisher’s employees, officers and directors, and not to its editors.
The editor therefore asks his publisher, and through him, COPE, for comments, advice and guidance.
There was general agreement from the Forum that the author should return the gift with a polite note. Although there are no general rules on the acceptance of gifts, some believe that the apparent value of the gift should be considered and whether or not it would be deeply offensive to return it. Often there are cultural issues and the editor should avoid causing offence. However, in this instance, all agreed that it would be wrong to accept any gift while a paper is still in the process of being reviewed. One option would be for the editor to say that his company has a policy that he would have to declare a conflict of interest at the bottom of the paper if he accepted the gift so he thinks it is better to return it.
The editor concurred with the Forum's recommendation, and felt that while returning the gift after an unavoidable delay might lead to offence, the guidance would be invaluable for any future occurrences.
Approximately 1 year after publication of an article, we received a letter from one of the authors saying that they had not seen the reviews of the paper, the revisions of the paper or approved the final manuscript for publication. This was subsequently confirmed by the other authors who said that contact with the complainant had “broken down” and that the corresponding author had indicated that all named authors had given their approval for publication (then current journal practice) but in truth had not explicitly sought the approval of the complainant. An additional relevant fact is that one of the authors was editor-in-chief of the journal at the time the paper was processed. The complainant did not wish the paper to be withdrawn but wanted the opportunity to publish a correction or addendum following sight of the reviewers’ comments.
We understand that this matter has also been taken up by the employing institution of the co-authors (at which the complainant was previously an employee but has since left) but do not yet know of any outcome.
At the time, journal policy was for the corresponding author to sign an exclusive license form that stated “You hereby warrant that in the case of a multi-authored article you have obtained, in writing, authorisation to enter into this agreement on their behalf and that all co-authors have read and agreed the terms of this agreement”.
Following correspondence between the various parties the journal took the following actions:
1. Changed journal policy so that all authors sign an authorship declaration form, asserting that they meet the criteria for authorship (as outlined in the first half of the form) and that they have read and approved the final version of the manuscript for publication to avoid this situation arising in future.
We are now proposing to do the following:
2. Offer the complainant sight of the reviewers’ comments and the opportunity to publish an addendum or comment if they have points additional to those made in the paper.
3. Publish an apology by the authors for knowingly proceeding with publication without approval of the complainant. This apology explicitly acknowledges the role of the former editor-in-chief, as follows:
“The co-authors accept that these mechanisms were not adhered to in this case. The authors apologise to the complainant for not following journal procedures and publication best practice in the way that they submitted and subsequently handled this manuscript as it underwent the journal review process and upon its eventual acceptance. Furthermore, when this paper was processed one of the co-authors was editor-in-chief of the journal and apologises for knowingly departing from the journal procedures for which he was at the time responsible.”
The journal would like advice on whether our proposed response to this situation has been satisfactory. We assume that matters relating to professional conduct will be within the remit of the investigation by the employing institution of the co-authors.
The Forum were reassured that the paper had been dealt with blindly, and so there was no issue of misconduct on the part of the editor-in-chief. The Forum suggested that for online submissions, the editor should ensure that the email addresses of all authors are recorded. Some journals, including the BMJ, copy in all authors when contacting the corresponding author. Other suggestions were to ask all of the authors to sign the copyright form. This is usually done by the publishers and can be another assurance that all authors have seen the final version of the paper. As the institute is already aware of the situation, there is no point in contacting them. The Forum agreed that publication of the apology would be a sufficient reproach for the editor-in-chief.
After taking legal advice from the publisher’s and the association’s solicitors it was felt that the word “knowingly” might be interpreted as meaning “malicious” and that the following (see below) was more acceptable. This latter version has been agreed with the authors and Prof YYY. The solicitors noted that since it was an apology from the authors and Prof YYY it was important for them to be comfortable with the wording (initially suggested/drafted by me as current EiC). The apology is a personal one from the authors and Prof YYY and not the journal.
“At the time the journal had mechanisms, in particular the Exclusive License Form (ELF) signed by the corresponding author on behalf of all named authors on manuscript acceptance, that were intended to ensure both that scientific integrity is upheld as a manuscript undergoes the peer review process and to protect authors’ intellectual property rights. Dr XXX’s co-authors (AAA, BBB, CCC and DDD) accept that these mechanisms were not adhered to in this case. The authors apologise to Dr XXX for not following journal procedures and publication best practice in the way that they submitted and subsequently handled this manuscript as it underwent the journal review process and upon its eventual acceptance. Furthermore, when this paper was processed, Prof YYY was Editor-in-Chief of the journal. S/he apologises for departing from the journal procedures for which s/he was responsible at that time.”
An associate editor received a letter claiming harassment (from an author from another country) by the editor. The author submitted a manuscript which was repeatedly sent back for changes in format but not rejected. Eventually, the author withdrew the article and submitted it to another international peer reviewed journal with a good impact factor where it was accepted immediately with high priority. He informed the editor and the associate editor of the irregularity and that he suspects foul play. The associate editor informed the editor that there was indeed a conflict of interest as another similar manuscript from another author close to the editor was under review process but he was asked, verbally, to stay away from the matter. The editor refused to discuss the matter in editorial board meetings and has threatened to have the associate editor sacked.
Does this constitute editor misconduct and, if so, what is the course of action? Is there any ethical binding on the associate editor to have the matter investigated further?
The committee agreed that there the associate editor did have an ethical responsibility to take action but to take the pressure off the associate editor, it was suggested that any member of the editorial board could raise the issue and press for a discussion at the editorial board meeting. The editorial board has an obligation to ask the editor-in-chief for an explanation of his actions. If there is no satisfactory explanation, the next step could be to contact the society committee, as the journal is owned by a society. The associate editor could ask them to investigate the matter. Other advice was that the journal should formulate a specific policy on conflict of interest so that in the future such issues may not arise.
A week after receiving a paper on a study for consideration for publication, the Editor received an email from person X claiming to have been the principal investigator of the study for the previous five years, up until he recently parted company in acrimonious circumstances from the hospital Trust in receipt of the NHS R&D funding for the study. Person X sent supporting evidence of his involvement as principal investigator, yet the submitted study made no mention of his involvement or his name. In addition, person X alleges that he contacted the funders before he left the Trust and they agreed that he should remain the principal investigator. To complicate matters a little, the Editor had been asked to serve on the steering committee for the study3-4 years previously, and did attend one meeting of the committee in the summer of 2003, since when he had heard no more about the study. The Editor could send the paper out for review, and leave it for person X to resolve the dispute with his co-authors; however, having been made aware of person X’s significant role in the study, and the Editor’s previous (albeit minor) involvement in the study’s steering committee, the Editor feels this may not be the most suitable action to take.
What action should the Editor take regarding the processing of this article?
The editor had subsequently written to the corresponding author of the submitted article, drawing attention to the fact that he had been contacted by someone claiming to be the study’s principal investigator. It was therefore suggested that the author’s response should be awaited before taking any further action. However, the principal investigator for the study should be listed in the protocol and, as this was an NHS funded study, this information may be available in the public domain. It was felt that it would be quite acceptable for the editor to request a copy of the protocol from the authors of the paper, to confirm the name of the PI. If the editor is worried by his (minor) involvement with the study, he should let his deputy editor deal with the case.
This journal specialises in one form of treatment. It is the only Medline listed journal that is widely accessed in Europe by people who use this form of treatment. No international journals provide a suitable alternative. In the USA, the one journal most similar to this is much less specialised and hardly ever accessed in Europe.
The journal editor is a leading researcher in this form of treatment. He therefore has a clear conflict of interest in deciding whether to submit, as an author, a report of original research to his own journal. He wishes to establish a means of dealing with this conflict of interest, and would value the experience and advice of COPE.
The journal’s current peer review policy for this type of article is to have two reviewers, at least one of whom is external. It would clearly be possible to change this to two external reviewers for articles from the editorial board. However, there is a conflict of interest even in the choice of external reviewers. “I personally have no problem in selecting “severe” reviewers, but how can I make this be seen to be objective?”
I can find no case discussing this conflict of interest on the COPE website.
The issue here basically revolves around whether it is acceptable for editors to publish their own work in their journals; if it is, then the review process must be made as transparent and rigorous as possible. Certainly there are examples of editors publishing studies in their own journals, particularly in those circumstances where the choice of journals is limited, as in this case. Provided every effort is made to minimise any bias in the review process by having another associate editor handle the peer review procedure independently of the editor (recognising that it would be impossible to remove bias completely), and the process is absolutely transparent, then this would be the most appropriate route to take. It was suggested that the editor send the article out for review without any names on it, but he said the subject field was so narrow and specialised that any reviewer would know who had written the paper. As an extra precaution, if and when the article in question is published, the editor might like to publish an accompanying commentary showing how transparent the reviewing process had been.
The editor was grateful for the advice which is now journal policy.
In 2003 a paper was published in a specialist surgical journal following proper peer review. The paper summarised the experience of a group of clinicians concerned in treating malignancy in the Head and Neck using a novel method of therapy - and was a case series of 25 patients. The paper was not considered to be one of high priority but was published because of the paucity of information concerning this method of treatment in the literature. The principal author had 3 co-authors all of whom signed the relevant documentation stating that they had played a substantial part in the preparation of the manuscript and stating that there were no conflicts of interest to be declared. Copyright, following publication, was ascribed to the publishing journal.
In May 2005 the editor of a prestigious journal in the United States sent an e-mail to the current editor in this country stating that he had been in receipt of a manuscript, submitted electronically, which appeared to be an attempt at duplicate publication. He requested that a pdf file of the original article was sent to him and, in due course, confirmed that the new manuscript that he had received was a re-write of the already published paper with the addition of one extra case. The original paper was not cited in the new manuscript. The co-authors had mostly changed but the senior author and one co-author were common to both papers. Once again a covering letter had been received alleging that a substantial original input had been made by all the authors and stating that there were no conflicts of interest outstanding.
The American editor has now written to the senior author of the received manuscript requesting an explanation for this attempt at duplicate publication. To date no response has been received. He, together with other senior editors in the United States, has already published an editorial stating that plagiarism or proven duplicate publication would be punished by denying the individuals concerned access to publishing rights in the major American journals. No tariff was laid out in this editorial and the exact time for which those proven of fraud or fraudulent behaviour would be denied publication in the United States was not proscribed.
The situation is further complicated since the editor in this country is a professional colleague of the senior author who is alleged to have attempted this duplicity. In addition to this the senior author has already, in the past, been suspended from clinical practice for a period of four months while an untoward clinical incident was investigated and a Royal College of Surgeons inquiry was instituted.
Pending further explanation the senior editor in this country has already been in touch with the other British publication covering the same topic areas and both are agreed that they will, in principle, follow the American lead and will deny publication to those proven to have been engaged in duplicate publication or plagiarism. Both have also agreed to write a joint editorial on this issue once the outcome of this case is known.
However I would be grateful if advice could be given to us concerning the appropriateness of such action and also if some insight could be offered as to whether alternative action might prove preferable in this instance.
The committee thought that this was almost tantamount to blacklisting. COPE has never suggested blacklisting as a method. The journal should decide if there should be a notice of duplicate publication and then notify the authors.
The committee thought that it is not right to ban authors, blacklists raise a myriad of legal difficulties and also have a lack of due process. A better route is to contact the institution.
At the subsequent committee meeting in December 2005, the previous advice from COPE regarding the “blacklisting” of authors who attempt duplicate publication—namely, that such action could have serious legal implications and publishers and editors should be very cautious of going down this route—was re-emphasised by the chair. Any attempt to deny authors access to journals might put the publishers of those journals at risk of legal action. Faced with this problem of duplication publication, another less risky route might be for editors to develop a “grey list” of those authors who may have transgressed in this regard, in order that special attention may be paid to articles they submit.
A review article by an expert group plagiarised an article from another journal. It was largely a direct translation, involving large slabs of the text. Some of the authors are on the editorial board of the journal where the paper was published. There was no declaration that this was a translation of another article.
The editor is potentially in a very difficult situation, and someone will have to search through the work of the entire group to see if this has happened before.
The minimum charges here are that the authors have received gift authorship.
Write to all the authors separately and ask for an explanation.
Write to the authors’ institutions.
Inform the advisory board.
Retract the article.
Check all the articles from the authors.
Remove the offenders from the editorial board.
The paper was retracted by the authors, who gave all sorts of explanations, from trying to get around the allegations, to saying they shouldn’t have been listed as authors. The editor wrote an editorial on the paper, which attracted considerable media coverage. Members of the editorial board were removed and the institutions involved took the matter very seriously.
A new Editor was appointed to a society journal in a minority medical specialty. An officer of the society immediately handed him an anonymous letter from a reader of the journal complaining that an article recently published was unethical. The Editor is a personal friend both of the previous editor who accepted the paper, and the author of the paper. The paper is by a single author who gives no affiliation to an academic organisation. The report describes a cohort study of patients to whom he had given treatment X over previous years. In the world literature, treatment X has been reported to cause endocarditis in a small number of patients, the majority of whom had risk factors. The author invited his patients back for a clinical examination together with blood and urine tests for markers of endocarditis, and echocardiogram. He did not seek permission for the study from an ethics committee, and did not obtain informed consent formally from the patients, though the study’s purpose was discussed with them all. The report is of considerable scientific and clinical importance, being the first in which the presence of endocarditis after treatment X was systematically sought, and its results (no cases were found) provide some supporting evidence that the risk of endocarditis after treatment X is low. The author said that the project grew out of his initial concern for the wellbeing of his patients, and he did not realise he had passed the threshold of requiring ethics approval. The Editor’s close personal involvement at several levels makes it very difficult for him to make a decision on what action should be taken.
The committee discussed whether or not this was a retrospective cohort study without informed consent or ethics committee approval. The committee felt that this could also be an example of good clinical practice by the author in that having read about the potential for adverse effects of treatment X in patients with specific risk factors, he/she called back those patients at risk for a check up. The paper could then be said to arise from the writing up of the clinical practice. On balance the committee felt that the case as presented provided no cause for concern.