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.
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.
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.
We received a complaint of plagiarism by Dr A concerning a book that has just been published. This case is ongoing since January 2012.
Authors B and C published a new, very extended edition (+1000 pages), on a topic that previously was covered in part in an English book by author B (published in 2006). Part of this book was based on a German book published back in 1993 by Dr A and author B. The English book was taken off the market by the publisher because of alleged "plagiarism" by author B. The publisher apologized to author B for this withdrawal which seemed to have been a mistake (but there is no written documentation on this). Copyright of this book was transferred to author B. Dr A has made a complaint of plagiarism for this book too. Copyright of the German book was transferred to both authors (Dr A and author B). It is therefore unclear what exactly has been plagiarized (in the 2006 book and the revised edition).
As the publisher, we sought two independent reviews. Unfortunately, the publisher asked the authors to come up with the names of the “independent” reviews, so we are a little hesitant to rely on both reviews. However, the reviews are respected scientists, and both state that “similarity is inevitable because of the involvement from the same author (author B) and overlap in the topic treated. It is also clear that the book is not based on new material, but it brings together existing material in a presentable form, but has a different formulation form and interpretation of material”.
Authors B and C mention that they have included all appropriate quotes/references to the previous book. Dr A has received parts of the text for review, and the authors have been willing from the start to rewrite anything that comes close to the original text of Dr A, should there be any similarity.
The lawyer, hired by author B, informed all parties, based on both reviews, that this is not a case of plagiarism. Dr A in the meantime has also hired a lawyer because he is not in agreement. So far we have not heard anything from this lawyer. Dr A now requests a statement from publisher on the case.
We believe there are strong personal issues at work here. With books, there is no editor-in-chief that can investigate the case or make a decision with help of his editorial board/associate editors or other body in the form of a society.
At the moment we, as the publisher, will make the new book (of over 1000 pages) available to Dr A so that he can indicate which sections show overlap with the 1993 German book (published by him and author B) and probably the 2006 English book.
Is there any advice from the Forum on this complex case?
The Forum agreed that this is a complex copyright issue rather than an ethical issue. This may have to be resolved by lawyers. The Forum supported the editor’s actions of making the new book available to Dr A so that he can indicate which sections show overlap with the 1993 German book and the 2006 English book. It was suggested that following this, independent advice should be sought from an independent expert. It was also suggested that the editor may be able to obtain agreement in advance on the use of an independent arbitrator who would review the case and whose opinion the authors would abide by.
The editor has been informed that the complaining author is trying to ‘organize’ the community in order to ‘discredit’ the book. So far nothing has been heard from his lawyer. Dr A has not provided any detailed information of where the plagiarism has occurred despite the fact that he requested a copy of the book in order to look at the chapters and the book was sent to him for comparison with the request to send his findings to the editor.
Ten years ago, the author published a paper on the same subject in his country’s specialty journal. The first report was short and the product of the author’s graduate work. The publication was in their country’s language. (Recently, the journal has been translating the abstracts of their previous publications into English, but the body of the text is still in their language.) Subsequently, the author submitted to our journal a more extensive article on the same subject, which included more data. This went through our peer review process and was published last year.
We were made aware of this problem several months ago. We consulted with the editor-in-chief of the original journal and he feels that it is a double publication and should be withdrawn. At the same time, we contacted the President of their country’s specialty organization, who thinks that this is a new publication and the author has done nothing wrong.
Initially, my feeling was that if the original journal felt that this was an infringement on their copyright, then the paper should be withdrawn. However, the comments from the President of their specialty association have left me and our editorial staff in a quandary. We are unsure how to proceed.
The author has been contacted and feels his more extensive publication should stand. He feels that the original publication is a more abbreviated version and received only regional exposure.
We would welcome the Forum’s opinion.
The Forum agreed this is a very common problem. The main issue here is one of transparency and disclosure. It is acceptable to publish a longer version of a paper that was published previously as an abstract, as long as the original abstract is cited. If there are significant new data, then duplicate publication may not be an issue, but the original material must be cited. Hence, in principal, this is not duplicate publication but the problem here is the transparency issue and the lack of disclosure by the author.
There may also be a copyright issue, which the editor needs to discuss with the editor of the first journal. A suggestion was that if the editor is confident that this is not duplicate publication, he could publish a correction.
The editor is preparing a correction that acknowledges the previous publication. The correction will indicate that it is a more extensive presentation of the data, but there is some redundancy. This will make the issue transparent to the reader.
On initial assessment of a submitted review paper with a single author, the editor checked some of the references to the author’s own work that were cited in the paper. The author mentioned in the covering letter that he had written extensively on some of the specific themes of the paper, as the references made clear, but he claimed that the paper was an original synthesis of the material.
Examination of four or five easily accessible references revealed an unacceptably high proportion of direct replication: many phrases and sentences and some complete paragraphs. The paper was rejected with an explanation that this practice of self-plagiarism is unacceptable, and that the journal would be contacting the head of research ethics at the author’s institution.
The author appealed against the decision, saying that he had been open about previous publications and questioning why he is not allowed to repeat arguments and ideas, even when they were first published in little known publications with limited circulation in other fields. The journal’s decision was upheld.
The journal then contacted the institution’s director of research integrity. His response quoted a section from the national code for the responsible conduct of research: “It is not acceptable to repeat the reporting of identical research findings in several different publications, except in particular and clearly explained circumstances, such as review articles, anthologies, collections, or translations into another language.” The institution’s decision was that the author had clearly explained that the paper was a critique and that he has published before on some of the themes, drawing attention to relevant references. The conclusion was “I am of the strong opinion that the author has not committed a breach of the code for the responsible conduct of research.” The issue of direct replication was not addressed in this response. Is there anything else the journal should do?
Some members of the Forum expressed sympathy for the author. However, the article was submitted as original work (not solicited by the journal) and the author failed to mention the other papers in his covering letter. Some Forum members commented that it may be legitimate to present the same material for different audiences and both articles may therefore have a place. All agreed however that this was a question of transparency. Authors should declare if they have published previous papers, as well as citing them in the text. There may be a question of breach of copyright and the editor might want to remind the author of copyright law. Otherwise, the Forum agreed that the editor has done all he can but he should ensure that his instructions to authors are very clear regarding this matter.
We wrote to the head of research governance at the author’s institution saying that the case was taken to the COPE Forum and the Forum disagreed with the author’s opinion that self plagiarism is acceptable in the context of a review paper. We wrote that we believe it is not sufficient that “an author who submits … work similar to work already published, must disclose this at the time of submission”. The important issue is not disclosure, but that publication of such work would be redundant. The previously published material remains in the public domain and is generally subject to copyright. Discussion of the work is, of course, acceptable, but not replication of whole sentences or paragraphs. No further action is contemplated, but we strongly suggested that they reconsider their policy in relation to this issue. We have not received a reply but we hope they may at least be reconsidering their policy.
An author submitted an article to my journal. The editorial board discovered that the author had already published his article in another journal. The editorial board communicated with the author and he defended himself stating that they were two different articles with different titles. However, the editorial board could find no significant difference between the two papers.
There are two issue related to this article. (1) The author did not notify us, prior to his submission to another journal.
(2) Almost all of the text is the same, indicating duplicate publication. Can this be taken as salami publication? How should we handle this issue?
The advice of the Forum was for the editor to assess the degree of overlap between the two papers. If the editor judges it to be major overlap, he should reject the paper. If it is minor overlap, the editor should contact the authors for an explanation. It was suggested that the editor could consult the “sample letters” on the COPE website which deal with “Overlap of figures or text with a manuscript submitted or published elsewhere”. There is also an issue of copyright, as the same figure appears in both papers. Hence the editor’s journal could be in breach of copyright if it published this paper. It is clear that the authors have not been transparent in their submission of the paper and some advised that the editor could report their behaviour to their institution. Ultimately, it is up to the editor to decide if the paper is sufficiently novel to warrant publication. How much extra value is there in the second paper?
Authors A and B submitted a paper PV1 to an international conference which was accepted by the editor E of the conference proceedings. The copyright of the paper was assigned to the publishers PC of the conference proceedings. The editor E of the conference proceedings is also the editor of an international journal J published by PJ. The editor E invited author A to consider submitting a revised and extended paper for possible publication in journal J
Author A submitted the revised paper PV2. The paper was reviewed and accepted by editor E for publication in journal J. The proof of paper PV2 was posted on the journal’s website by publisher PJ.Shortly afterwards Author C contacted Editor E claiming that he was also an author of the paper PV2 and further claimed that he should have been listed as the first author. Author C expressed his annoyance at being excluded from the authorship of the paper by contacting the Vice-Chancellors of the universities of authors A and B. Author C claimed that Authors A and B had passed off his work as their own.
Editor E invited all authors A, B and C to contact him and to provide him with any information they thought relevant.Authors A and B confirmed that Author C had worked with them as a research associate but left before the end of his contract. On looking at the information provided by the authors, the Editor E noticed an interesting discrepancy between the information provided. Author A claimed that an earlier related paper ERP had been published in another journal J2 with the authors names as A, B and C whereas Author C claimed that they were in the order C, A, B. Editor E checked the paper ERP and found that the printed version had the author names in the order A, B and C whereas the web based abstract had the authors names in the order C, A and B. Editor E contacted the publisher of journal J2 and was told that this arose because Author A had asked for the names to be reordered in the late stages of the pre-press of the paper ERP. The original order on the web based abstract had not been corrected. Editor E concluded that there had been a longstanding dispute between Author C and Authors A and B. The evidence provided by A, B and C relating to the authorship of paper PV2 appeared inconclusive to Editor E.
Editor E informed all three authors that he decided that paper PV2 should not be published in journal J until the authorship has been agreed by all three authors. He encouraged the authors to start communicating to agree on the matter. The Editor has not heard from Author C but Author A engaged a solicitor who has written formally to Editor E. The solicitor seeks to encourage Editor E to arrange publication of the paper PV2. The solicitor claims that the copyright of PV2 rests with Authors A and B forgetting that they originally assigned it to publisher PC.
The Editor has had numerous emails from Authors A and B. Their complaint is that Author C has stopped the publication of their paper. It is clear that a disaffected research collaborator could maliciously stop further publications by his erstwhile coworkers by claiming authorship of all of their future papers. On the other hand, authors who leave a research team should be given appropriate acknowledgement for their efforts. What is appropriate in this case is unclear, but Author C was not given any acknowledgment because Authors A and B did not think it appropriate.The usual advice to authors is that they should agree authorship prior to submission but in this case Authors A and B claim that Author C is not an author so that they have nothing to agree.
The Forum agreed that the editor has done all he can in this messy authorship dispute. As the institution has been unhelpful, it was suggested that what was needed was an independent arbitrator or the funding agency that could liaise between the authors and come up with a solution. The Forum did not think there was a legal case for the journal to answer, and in any case the journal should be indemnified by the publisher.
What is important here is the fact that the paper has been published, as it was published on the website. It also has a DOI number, which means that it is citable. COPE’s view is that it is wrong for a publisher to take a paper down from the website without due process (for example, a formal retraction). COPE would advise the publisher to put the paper back on the website. The Forum agreed that a notice should be attached to the paper to the effect that the paper will not be published in print until the author dispute is resolved. In the meantime, the advice was to tell the authors it is up to them to sort out the dispute and suggest they allow a third party, someone they all agree upon, to arbitrate and hopefully resolve the situation.
I am a trainer and author of books on medical writing. It was brought to my attention that a chapter in a German-language book published in Switzerland was based almost entirely on my teaching. The first author is director of a privately funded research institution and the second author a member of staff. The second author attended one of my courses. There is a general statement at the beginning of the chapter where the authors ‘refer to’ me (with a reference to one book and my website) and one other specific reference when they talk about macro and micro editing. However, there is one diagram copied from a course overhead and some original research published without reference, including a table reproduced directly from one of my books without acknowledging the source. Descriptions of several other specific concepts from my work (eg, storyboarding, 2-7-7-6) that appear in the chapter to be theirs, not mine. At one stage they write ‘We recommend’ giving a clear implication that it is theirs to recommend.
The authors did not seek permission from me or the publisher of my book. Their publisher has been contacted, and says that the work is not a piece of plagiarism but a homage, that the two references are sufficient, and that the author’s only mistake is leaving off an acknowledgment on one of the tables, which they will remedy at the next printing.
(1) Have the authors acted unethically? (2) Do I have an ethical duty to take this further, or should I just continue to enjoy my retirement?
The Forum unanimously agreed that the authors’ actions were unethical. Failure to ask permission is a form of misconduct. Some argued that it would be reasonable to sue for breach of copyright and that the author should contact his publisher and international distributor. The Forum agreed that this is a form of plagiarism but that there are degrees of plagiarism so the question arises as to how much harm has been done. The Forum reasoned that whether or not the complainant takes this matter forward by informing the plagiarists’ employers depends very much on how much he cares about protecting his intellectual property.
The publishers have now written an erratum in German that will be inserted in all remaining copies of the book. The statement says that the publisher and authors “thoroughly regret not having made it clear” that the chapter in question largely consists of a summary of book and course material. “We did in no way intend to question [the author’s] copyright and apologise to him for not having obtained the required permissions.” The author's institution has not been formally informed in the light of COPE's view that it would not be necessary to do so.