An article was submitted to our journal (journal A) in March. According to the journal’s working policy, the article was initially reviewed inhouse and comments were sent to the author. The authors replied to the comments but did not agree to the suggestion to convert the article to a short report. A rather impolite letter was sent by the author criticising the policies of the journal. We sent a reply that if the authors were not happy with the journal’s decision, they could withdraw the article according to the guidelines which are clearly given on our website.
The authors did not follow the journal procedures for withdrawing the article—they did not submit the withdrawal form signed by all authors. According to journal policy, the copyright of any manuscript remains with the journal, unless it is withdrawn in the proper manner.
The authors submitted the article to another local journal (journal B) where it was immediately published.
As the file was not closed at journal A, multiple reminders were sent to the authors. We wanted to remove the file from our database if the authors were no longer interested in publication. The authors wrote back that the article was published in July.
We first wrote to the authors that this was unethical and amounted to dual submission. We again received a rather impolite reply. We then wrote to the editor of the journal in which the article was published. Apparently, this journal does not ask for a non-submission undertaking from the authors. The editor was quite vague in his reply. We sent him the details of dual submission to which he sent a two line reply asking as to what should be done. We suggested that the copyright of the article is still with us so he should remove the article from the journal’s website until the article is withdrawn in the correct manner. The editor has not taken any steps and the article is still displayed on the other journal’s website.
Question(s) for the COPE Forum
Should we do nothing about the authors’ wrongdoing?
If no action is taken, will it encourage the authors to misbehave in the future for the sake of convenience
Should we pursue the matter with the editor of the journal who has made the mistake but is not responding.
It seems the authors did not follow the preferred journal policy, but the behaviour is not necessarily unethical. The editor told the Forum that copyright is transferred to the journal on submission. The Forum noted that although copyright does formally belong to journal A, the journal does not have the article or the revisions, and hence they are holding copyright on an article that they do not want to publish. Manuscript submission systems can be very cumbersome and inconvenient, and it seems harsh to punish the authors for a technical issue. Perhaps a production editor could help with the process if an author decides to withdraw their paper.
Although the authors’ behaviour was impolite, using copyright as a reason to have a claim on a paper is not reasonable. The behaviour was impolite, but it was not unethical. The journal may wish to modify their policies so that withdrawing an article does not involve this technical hitch.
A suggestion was for the journal to revise their policy of requiring copyright transfer on submission. It is unusual internationally, and it can in effect hold the authors hostage. Another suggestion was to email the authors explaining their error, and then letting the matter rest. The editor might also contact the editor of the other journal one last time to discuss the matter. Perhaps journal Y did have a discussion with the authors and from their perspective they may think the authors correctly withdrew their paper.
Advice on follow up:
As suggested by the COPE Forum, we wrote to the editor of journal B demanding an action in the form of contacting the authors and asking them to withdraw the article from our journal. Eventually the editor did convince the authors and they submitted the withdrawal form. The case is now closed.
Author A contacted us claiming that an article published in the journal recently by author B was stolen from an article author A had earlier submitted to two different publishers, publisher A in 2016 and publisher B in 2017. Author A provided the PDFs of the manuscripts they had submitted to those other publishers. The version submitted to us 2018 by author B was very similar to that submitted to publisher B.
We contacted publisher B who confirmed the details of the submission to them by author A in 2017. Author B is listed publicly as a reviewer for publisher B's journal, but publisher B could not confirm that they had direct access to this particular submission. Author B said their PhD advisor, now apparently deceased, had given them the article but they recently had doubts that this had been their advisor's work. They agreed to retraction.
Author A has asked whether instead of retracting we might publish a correction to replace author B with the rightful author, Author A, because the article has already been peer reviewed and accepted.
Question(s) for the COPE Forum
• Is correcting a stolen article to list the correct authors a potential solution? If so, should we correct the article metadata too?
• Is there any precedent for such a total correction of authorship?
• How might we detect and prevent the publication of stolen articles? They do not show up on Crossref Similarity Check because they are unpublished.
Copyright is with the assigned author and it is not appropriate to simply transfer it to another author. The Forum advised that there are clear authorship guidelines from COPE and other organisations. There are real duties and responsibilities that come with authorship and hence it is not appropriate to just change the authorship list. The new author(s) have not been involved in the preparation of the article for publication (submitting, revising, etc) and the author(s) who stole the paper may have made changes to the paper. The editor may wish to direct the author to their authorship criteria and peer review process to explain why transferring authorship is not appropriate.
To prevent theft of a paper, one idea put forward was for the DOI to be reserved in advance, with the title and names of the authors, and then part of the CrossRef similarity check would extend to looking up the titles and authors in the DOI database to see if anything similar is already on file.
An editor received a query from an author: “Your guidelines are clear that presenting data at a society meeting does not preclude publication. But what if the society records the presentation, retains copyright of that recording, and posts it online? Is asking presenters to turn over copyright of a recording of data presented at a prepublication stage and disseminating the recording as they see fit crossing the "prior publication" line?”
Question(s) for the COPE Forum • Are presentation audiotapes considered prior publication? • If tapes are copyrighted, does that preclude publication?
Copyright laws are there to protect publishers and they cover only the presentation of something and not the underlying research or data. In the case of audiotapes, the organisation only owns the audio rights not the paper rights, so the editor should check the copyright that has previously been assigned. It is also possible that the audiotapes are behind a paywall for members only, so the distribution of the material might be very limited. There is a need, however, to seek legal advice in such cases and the editor should consult the legal department of the publisher if there is any question. Additionally, when a paper is presented, it is not generally presented in the same format as a scholarly paper submitted to a journal, so there might be significant differences between the audio and the written material, with the exception of the data presented. The main concern is duplicate publication; however, audiotapes are not generally considered primary sources for the purpose of reviews of the literature.
There is a similar situation with dissertations. Do poster presentations have the same copyright rules? Generally, previous presentations in the form of papers presented at a conference are allowed although there might be some text overlap with the abstract, which is usually all that is printed. In other situations, a published abstract in English might accompany an article written in another language, but with appropriate credits, a complete translation of that article might be appropriate for publication.
The parameters of prior publication are a journal decision. For example, journals can decide to publish papers arising out of a dissertation or an audit that has been circulated internally in an institution, but they should be transparent and disclose previous publication or copyright of any portion of the material. One view from the Forum was that copyright issues support paternalistic ideas of protecting people from something that has not been peer reviewed, and this might be an issue for certain disciplines. Another question journals might consider relates to their policies of issuing press releases. Some journals employ the Ingelfinger Rule and embargoes to preclude the spread of misinformation, particularly in research related to public health and safety.
The matter was resolved in the author’s favour. The association changed its policy requiring presenters to have presentations taped and to hand over copyright.
We have received a number of manuscripts involving a published scale where the scale’s developer is known to comb the literature and ask those who used the scale for research to pay for a retroactive license, sometimes asking for very large sums of money.
We have started asking authors on all submissions where the scale is used to provide a copy of the license agreement with the scale’s developer. In most cases, the authors do not have the agreement and are not receiving prompt responses from the scale’s developer and his team when they contact him to ask about the license. We have had to withdraw these manuscripts from submission until authors can provide evidence to indicate that the scale’s developer has granted them a license.
In a more complicated case, we found an accepted (but not published) manuscript that used the scale. We asked the authors, after acceptance, to obtain the correct permissions (they had not done so initially). They subsequently acquired the correct license, but the scale’s developer came back with a number of comments on the paper that he was requiring the authors to make prior to publication. This included adding three of his own papers to the reference list (but not indicating where they should be cited in the text). He also added his name and contact information to a number of places in the paper, most notably in the acknowledgments section.
The scale’s license contract and copyright agreement include a number of ‘copyright requirements’ that the authors must agree to. One of these is that all manuscripts using the scale that are being considered for publication must be submitted to the developer first to check that all copyright requirements are included. We felt it would be editorially irresponsible to allow these changes to the manuscript after peer review and have had to withdraw the manuscript (the developer also indicated that he "will not allow" the authors to publish the version of the manuscript that was accepted). The authors were very understanding about withdrawing their paper as they had been having a difficult time dealing with the scale’s developer and his team.
We have another case where the authors are removing data from their manuscript relating to the published scale but adding a note to indicate why they have done this. As such, the reporting of results will be incomplete.
We disagree with the actions of the researcher and his enforcement of copyright on the tool. We are currently only publishing articles that have a license permitted by the scale’s developer because we do not want to be sued or have to retract the articles.
Question(s) for the COPE Forum
• How should we be handling cases where this scale is being used?
• Should we be taking any action relating to the developer’s conduct?
The Forum asked if the journal had sought legal advice. There are copyright and licensing issues here that need to be addressed. Who holds copyright on the scale? Is the right to use the scale also copyrighted? What are the legal claims and what is required by the license (for example, is it use of the scale, reporting of the scale, etc). Perhaps consulting with inhouse lawyers could determine if the demands of the developer are reasonable. The Forum agreed this is a very difficult issue, with no easy solution.
A suggestion was to write an editorial, highlighting this issue. It seems that there may be many journals who are experiencing similar problems. The editor might consider contacting other editors and producing a joint editorial or opinion piece, highlighting the issues around this type of behaviour and holding authors to ransom in this way, and emphasizing the fact that this is not good for the advancement of scientific knowledge or in the public interest.
A researcher has published a paper in our journal using a scale published in 2008. She wrote to the scale developer in 2014/2015 at least three times (emails are on file) before the start of the project, but the scale developer did not respond despite repeated email reminders. No indication of the need for a license was received. In 2017, when the researcher published the paper using the above scale, she was contacted by a person claiming that he was representing the scale's developer and asked for a retrospective license and license fee, and threatened that if the she did not apply for a retrospective license and pay the license fee, she may need to take legal responsibility and retract the published paper. He also said that if she does not pay the fee, then the team’s lawyer would contact her. The name of the lawyer is given, with a gmail account. No firm name or any other information is provided. The researcher has searched the internet and found examples of this person asking other people to apply for a retrospective license and receiving money.
Eventually an email from the scale developer was received, asking the researcher to comply with what his 'chief investigator' is requesting. Thinking that this might be a scam, the case was presented to the dean of the faculty where the scale developer was based. The response from the dean was that ''I am saddened to learn about what has occurred. Our institution does not hold this license and does not support the actions the scale developer is taking''. The scale was published in 2008 and its development was funded with public funding. The scale was modified from the original scale, which was published in 1986 and its development was also publicly funded. These two scales are in the public domain.
A number of people have paid a fee, often variable and often in the many thousands of dollars. Some institutions have decided to retract the article instead. The team is using bullying and aggressive tactics to persuade the researchers to pay the fee (they have not told the researcher in question what the fee is yet, but through the internet blogs this seems to be a very variable amount). They have also sent emails to the president of the researcher’s university, deputy president and vice president for research, as well as to our journal where the paper is published. They are sending 3-4 threatening emails per day (although this seems to have stopped after a couple of weeks).
Question(s) for the COPE Forum
· What do I do as an editor? Do I ask the author to produce a license, or otherwise we will need to retract the article? The author has applied for permission to use the publicly available scale three times with no response from the scale’s developer.
· As this scale is publicly available, is this adequate for someone to use it with the appropriate acknowledgement/reference? There was no mention this was a licensed material in the publications.
The Forum noted that generally, if scales are in the public domain, and there is no explicit licensing information, they are published with the intention that other scholars will use them. The advice to the editor was to consider obtaining legal advice from its publisher, or getting the lawyers from the publisher involved. Retracting the paper would be unfortunate, as this would unfairly penalise the author. If the editor does not have a legal representative, they could ask for help form the author's institution.
One option might be to publish an erratum, with an acknowledgement of the scale developer and with details of the scale. Perhaps if the scale developer just wants some form of credit, this may be a solution to preventing legal action.
Another possible solution could be that if the institution where the scale was developed has confirmed that the scale is in the public domain (ie, it can be reused without paying a licence fee), then the author could ask the institution for an official letter to that effect which they can forward to the team claiming a licence fee or threatening legal action against the author. Perhaps this might deter the team from sending any more emails.
It may be helpful to distinguish the author's responsibility from the publisher's responsibility with regard to the legal threat from the scale author. This is a separate issue from whether it is ethical to require a license for the use of a scale, but it can help to define the editor's responsibility. It might be useful to find out the legal claims and determine exactly what is required by the license (for example, is it use of the scale, reporting of the scale, etc).
The author withdrew the paper. The journal considers the case closed.
We received a request by an author who states not to have contributed to an article published in 2015. The author claims that his name was used without his knowledge and that the corresponding author has been retired for several years and can no longer be reached. At the time of submission, we received a copyright transfer signed with the author’s name (we request all authors to sign the form). We are not in favour of withdrawing the article as we feel we have a signed copyright form.
Questions for the COPE Forum • How should we reply to the author requesting withdrawal of the paper?
• We believe a copyright transfer form signed by all author has legal value for us: is this the case?
The presenter told the Forum that the author claims that he did not sign any copyright transfer form. The Forum asked if the journal was confident that the letter is from the author. It might be worthwhile confirming who he is, and obtaining his full affiliation and contact details in case he has been confused with a different author with the same name. The Forum noted that it is very difficult for the journal to work out exactly what has happened, so the advice was to contact the institution for help. The institution can determine the facts of the case and determine if the signed copyright form was faked, which would be fraud. The journal could consider publishing a correction when the correct authorship of the paper is verified.
This case raises the issue of how journals communicate with authors after submission of papers. COPE advises that it is good policy for journals to copy all authors, not just the corresponding author, in their written communications and emails regarding papers submitted for publication. The Forum would advise handling papers in this way in the future.
The Forum advised that if the journal decides to disregard the author’s request, they should seek legal advice first.
The editor contacted the author but received no further comments. The editor considers the case closed.
The journal was contacted with a claim to first authorship of a paper currently published online ahead of print. Print publication was put on hold pending the result of the investigation. The claim to first authorship was based on the claimant stating that they had obtained most results published in the paper during their PhD studies under the supervision of the corresponding author, and contributed to the writing of the text. The claimant provided evidence of this in the form of screenshots of a submission confirmation email and subsequent rejection email from another journal for a manuscript with a similar title, a Word document labelled as the claimant’s PhD thesis and details of overlap with the published paper, and a screenshot of an email reported to have been sent by the claimant to the corresponding author in 2013 containing images used in the published paper.
The corresponding author was contacted and declared on behalf of all authors that the claimant had not contributed to the experiments or writing, and that none of the results shown in the article were performed by the claimant. They explained that the claimant was discharged from the PhD programme before successful completion. The claimant indicated that they wished to dispute this, and the institution was asked to investigate and resolve the dispute.
The institution informed the journal that the knowledge generated during state funded projects was the property of the institution, and only the institution has the ability to agree a copyright transfer in agreement with the corresponding author, and that the corresponding author had full legal and institutional support to determine the author list of papers resulting from the project. They stated that a graduate student may or may not be included as an author on papers deriving from projects to which they have contributed, and according to institutional guidelines, in order to be included as an author, a student must successfully complete their studies within a defined timeframe. The decision to remove the claimant as a co-author was confirmed to have been made because they were dismissed from the graduate programme before successful completion.
The institution did not comment on the extent of the contribution of the claimant to the research results and discussion presented in the published paper. The journal considers that ICMJE/COPE guidelines do not hold non-completion of studies as a valid reason for disqualification from authorship.
Question for the COPE Forum
• Should the journal operate according to ICMJE/COPE guidelines for determining authorship in the face of contradictory institutional authorship criteria and against the wishes of the corresponding author and institution? • If so, how can the right to authorship of the claimant according to ICMJE/COPE guidelines be now confirmed independently of the institution? • If a copyright transfer has already been agreed between the publisher and the institution/corresponding author, is this agreement affected if a separate correction article is published detailing an authorship change?
The Forum noted its seems punitive on the part of the university regarding their decision to exclude the student from being an author because they did not complete their studies within a defined timeframe. If the student was in the middle of their training and had submitted a paper, would the institution have handled the case differently? Was the claimant's role acknowledged in the published article? If not, might the claimant and authors agree to a correction to publish an acknowledgment?
Otherwise, a suggestion was to contact a higher authority at the institution—perhaps a committee on research integrity at the institution— or an oversight body and ask them to investigate and try to resolve the authorship issue. The Forum noted that it is up to the journal to set their own guidelines for authorship, and to clearly state that they follow the ICMJE and COPE guidelines, for example. The journal guidelines should take precedence.
Following advice from the COPE Forum, the journal approached the highest authority within the university to specifically confirm that the authorship of the paper was determined according to the criteria set by ICMJE/COPE, which they did. No further action was taken. The editor considers the case closed.
Our journal has been contacted by an author who would like to submit a review article. The author responded to a request for an invited review from a predatory journal without realizing it was a predatory journal. The author submitted the article only to receive an unexpected invoice and clear evidence of no peer review. The author investigated the journal and then realized the predatory nature of this journal.
To remove the submitted manuscript from this journal, the author communicated via email, phone and certified letter, and also contacted members of the editorial board, but has received no return communication. Periodically, the manuscript has disappeared from the journal’s website, only to reappear in a later issue. The author never signed a copyright agreement and never paid the journal to publish the article. The author would like to have the manuscript published in a legitimate journal but does not wish to be guilty of duplicate publication.
As the former editor-in-chief of the journal, the only advice I could offer was to contact the present editor-in-chief of the legitimate journal to which the author wishes to submit the manuscript, explain the situation and see what advice is given. If accepted and published, a statement could be included that this is the only valid version of the paper.
Question(s) for the COPE Forum
• What advice can be given to the author about submitting the manuscript to a legitimate journal without the author being guilty of duplicate publication?
The Forum agreed with the advice of the former editor-in-chief. As there was no copyright transfer, the paper could be published in the legitimate journal, ideally with an editorial note on the paper explaining what has happened. Otherwise, the author may have to write off this paper to experience and lessons learned.
The Forum noted that this case highlights the importance of the Think.Check.Submit. initiative, which provides tools to help researchers identify trusted journals for their research.
Another suggestion was to threaten legal action—the predatory journal may back down if legal action is threatened.
The editor conveyed the Forum’s advice to the author. She sent another letter via certified mail to the predatory journal, but it was returned unopened (as no one was present at the address to accept the letter). She did not threaten legal action because her university’s legal counsel would not endorse that approach and she was unable to obtain a response from anyone at the journal via phone, email or certified letter in order to communicate that threat effectively. However, she then sent a message to the publisher of the predatory journal: “Immediately remove my article from your website. If you do not do so immediately, I will take legal action”. The publisher responded by asking her for the article title and associated journal. The author provided this information and indicated she would proceed with legal action if the article was not removed from the journal’s website by a given date. She will now proceed with submission to a legitimate journal, and the editor of the legitimate journal is comfortable that duplicate publication is no longer a problem.
The author X of a paper published by journal A complained to the editor-in-chief of journal A that his/her paper has been plagiarised by a paper that has been published later by journal B. Moreover, the authors of the paper in journal B allegedly did not respond to letters sent by author X asking for an explanation about the apparent plagiarism.
The editor-in-chief of journal A compared the two papers and confirmed the plagiarism. Then s/he tried to contact the editor-in-chief of journal B, but no response was received, even after several reminders. Similarly, no more successful were attempts by a representative of the publishing house of journal A to contact any representative of the publishing house of journal B.
Author X continues to ask what journal A (where his/her plagiarised paper has been published) can do for him/her. Journal A is considering publishing either an expression of concern or a ‘note of plagiarism’ on its paper that would inform the community that the paper in journal A has been plagiarised by a paper in journal B.
Question(s) for the COPE Forum • Is journal A entitled to publish an expression of concern or ‘note of plagiarism’ in the absence of any reaction from the author/editor-in-chief/publisher of paper B? • Can this expression of concern/note be published based only on the assessment of the editor-in-chief of journal A?
The Forum agreed that there is often little that the editor can do in these situations when another journal refuses to engage.
One suggestion was to contact the publisher of journal B if there is no response from the editor. The publisher should responsibility in these cases so escalating the issue to the publisher level should be considered. If journal B is a member of COPE, a complaint to COPE could be lodged. The editor could also consider contacting the institution of the author who had plagiarised the work.
There could be copyright issues here, with violation of copyright by journal B (if copyright was transferred to journal A by the author). Therefore, legal action could be considered.
There are instances where unscrupulous journals do not respond to these requests and in these circumstances the Forum would advise journal A to post a note on the paper. The note would also clarify which of the papers is plagiarised. The note should be worded in neutral terms. However, it is unlikely that author X would be satisfied with a note in journal A; he probably wants the paper removed from journal B. If journal A holds copyright to the plagiarised paper, then legal action may be the only option.
Our journal recently approved a commentary article for publication, after the manuscript had been substantially revised during the editorial process. In the course of preparing the text for the article proof, the copy editor discovered that the authors had published the revised manuscript on an external public website, just prior to receiving notification from our system of our formal acceptance for publication. Although formally accepted, the article has not yet be been published (neither online nor in print).
In our journal, authors are required, at the time of submission of a manuscript, to confirm that the manuscript has not previously been published in other media, that they consent to giving our journal exclusive rights to represent, duplicate and publish the manuscript, and that written consent for subsequent use of the manuscript must be obtained from the Journal.
Immediately after submission of a manuscript, all authors receive a confirmation email in which we repeat that the content/manuscript must not be discussed in any form of media until the manuscript is published by the journal, without a specific exception from us. This message is repeated in several subsequent communications, including at the time of acceptance for publication.
The timing of the publication of this manuscript on an external website falls at an unusual intersection between submission of a revised manuscript, acceptance of a final version of the manuscript and publication of the final manuscript. We judge the situation as somewhat different from the COPE flowcharts for redundant publication. We have informed the authors that we have postponed publication until we receive the COPE Forum's recommendation. In the meantime, we have asked the authors to remove the content of the manuscript from the external website.
Question(s) for the COPE Forum • Is it acceptable to permanently withhold publication of this otherwise accepted manuscript?
The editor updated the Forum that the author has now removed the manuscript from the external public website, stating that it was a technical error.
The Forum suggested that this case highlights the lack of knowledge of some authors with regard to the consequences of posting on blogs, websites, etc, and that education is needed around these issues to reinforce the message that this constitutes publishing.
The Forum noted that this was not redundant publication but could have been a breach of copyright, if the paper had not been taken down from the website. With so many publishing models available, is it conceivable that the authors were confused? Editors should ensure their journal policies on permissible duplicate publication are up to date. For some journals, publication of manuscripts on preprint servers, for example, is permissible, but this should be clearly indicated on the journal website. In the present case, the journal does not have an open access policy and at the time of submission the journal assumes copyright of the article.
The Forum agreed that the authors were in the wrong here, but the right thing to do now is for the journal to publish the paper. If the editor feels she would like to do more, she could consider contacting the authors’ institution as a way of educating the authors and providing a gentle reminder of the appropriate behaviour in such instances, and the contract and copyright issues involved when authors submit a paper for publication.
The authors were understanding of the journal's concerns and removed the content from the external website. The journal proceeded to publish the manuscript.