A meta-analysis was published in a journal ahead of print, and then subsequently in print. Several months later, the journal was contacted by a faculty member at a university not connected with the study. The reader outlined three general concerns with the meta-analysis. The concerns were discussed by the editorial team, including the statistical editor, and it was decided that the overall results of the meta-analysis were not affected. The complainant persisted in the critique, which was relayed to the authors of the original article. The first author provided a detailed response to the issues raised; the journal did not request an erratum at that time.
A discussion followed between the complainant and the editorial office about the extent to which the issues raised were errors or ‘a matter of opinion’. One error was clear and was corrected by an erratum. In the journal’s view, the other issues raised were open to interpretation. The complainant was invited to write a letter to the editor, but they declined and persisted that an erratum should be published or that the journal should consider retracting the article.
Because some of the points of critique were of general interest to the field, and also in an effort to resolve the issue of the continued critique by the complainant, the journal decided to publish an editorial comment authored by the editor in chief and the statistical editor. The editorial comment paraphrased the complainant’s concerns and added a few additional considerations relevant to the interpretation of the meta-analyses. The complainant was given the opportunity to review the editorial comment and the journal also asked his permission to be acknowledged for bringing the issue to the journal’s attention. The complainant gave his feedback, which was incorporated, and also his permission to be acknowledged. The journal also gave the authors of the original article the opportunity to respond to the editorial comment. The authors wrote a scholarly response and also provided re-analyses of the data when excluding the contested studies. The editorial comment was published, together with the acknowledgment, the author’s response and the erratum.
Before the publication of the editorial comment, the journal held a conference call with the complainant. The complainant had published a paper on a related issue in the preceding year, but the study published in the journal was different from the previous meta-analyses from the complainant’s own group. This had not been disclosed to the journal previously. It became also clear that the complainant had not contacted the authors of the article to share his concerns, and the journal encouraged him to do so.
Subsequently, the complainant raised new issues with the original meta-analyses, which they discussed with the authors. The complainant insisted that an additional erratum was needed; the authors of the meta-analysis are now preparing a second erratum. The complainant was again invited to write a letter to the editor, and again declined.
The journal is concerned that the second erratum will not satisfy the complainant and that this issue will not end unless the journal agrees to retract the original article. The assessment of the journal is that there are insufficient grounds to retract this article. One of the complainant’s recent emails to the authors says that they will contact the authors’ university and colleagues and the funding agencies that support the work of this research group about the purported errors made by this team. The complainant has also requested that the journal involves the publisher’s "ethical committee dealing with the publication process".
Question(s) for the COPE Forum
What is a journal’s responsibility to minimise potential damage that readers can do to the reputation of the author where the reader disagrees with the editorial team and the authors of the original article on whether an error has been made versus a difference in opinion?
What are the options for a journal to respond to (unreasonable) requests from readers regarding the content published in the journal and/or request to retract a paper if the editorial team considers the concern not sufficiently problematic to result in retraction?
What could the editorial team have done to better respond to the reader’s concerns?
The Forum noted that although it is honourable to want to protect the authors from this complainant, it is not the journal’s responsibility. The editor has a responsibility to protect the scholarly record, and to publish errata or retractions, based on the data and peer review process of the journal. In this case, it would seem that this is becoming more of a matter of a personal vendetta between the complainant and the authors. The Forum suggested that the editor could consider contacting the authors’ institutions and asking them to investigate.
The Forum mentioned that often journals encounter individuals who are persistent—they raise one issue, the journal addresses and potentially corrects the issue, but the complainant is not satisfied and refuses to accept that the issue has resolved. All journals can do is follow due process: the journal should have a process, have documentation of having followed that process, be transparent, and keep good records. Ultimately, editors have the right to decide what they publish, and the editor's and publisher’s decision is final. Has the journal communicated this clearly to the complainant? The complainant requested that the journal involve the publishers’ ethics committee, so the editor might consider this option, if an ethics committee exists at the publisher.
These situations can be very difficult for journals, especially with a persistent complainant. If the journal has completed its due process and determined that the article stands, with or without an erratum, then due process has been done. If the complainant comes back with new concerns or issues that were not considered or were not covered by the prior assessment, that might be a reason to look at the article again. But if they are simply reiterating the issues that were raised previously, it is reasonable for the editor to say they have already considered those issues and that the case is closed.
What is the journal's responsibility to minimise damage? The journal’s responsibility is to the content of the article. What the reader does external to the journal cannot be managed by the journal.
An author submitted a manuscript and stated that he was the sole author. The manuscript received a favourable peer review and eventually was accepted. Some time after the article was published, a co-author told the author to contact the journal to correct the author list. The author of record (AOR) did this and supplied co-author names to the journal.
The editor worked with the author group to determine the source of the error and to resolve the list and order of authors. The AOR acknowledged that he should have credited additional authors. All authors agreed with the corrected list of authors, but the AOR insisted on being the first author and the other authors did not agree.
Pursuant to COPE guidelines, the editor contacted the university of the AOR for assistance and found that the author had left and was now a resident of another country. The university was unable to assist in resolving the authorship issue. The AOR then contacted the journal and stated that due to disagreement on the order of authorship, he was requesting a retraction of the article.
One more attempt was made by the editor and a co-author to resolve the dispute, but the AOR refused to acknowledge any other lead author. However, the AOR agreed that, following retraction, the manuscript could be resubmitted with another lead author. Attempts to negotiate another solution and education about the consequences of retraction have been unsuccessful in resolving the problem.
Question(s) for the COPE Forum
Are there any remaining options other than retraction?
What is the recommendation should the authors wish to resubmit to the same journal, as has been expressed?
Aside from the existing extensive author guidelines required by the journal, is there another way to prevent this in the future?
What other steps should be taken to address the authors in the case?
The Forum agreed that the editor followed the correct route in terms of handling this case. If the article itself is sound and there is nothing wrong with the research or the integrity of the data in the article, it is usually not appropriate for an article to be retracted for an authorship dispute. The purpose of retraction is to rectify the scientific record not to resolve an authorship dispute.
Also, it is not the role of publishers or editors to resolve authorship disputes. These issues need to be investigated and resolved by the authors’ institutions. The editor may wish to push this request back to the institution and indicate that the journal will not retract the article unless specific reasons for retraction are given.
The COPE retraction guidelines include a section on “Should retraction be applied in cases of disputed authorship?” The guidelines state that “If there is no reason to doubt the validity of the findings or the reliability of the data, it is not appropriate to retract a publication solely on the grounds of an authorship dispute.” The ideal situation would be for the authors to agree on a course of action. Failing that, the institution should be asked to investigate. If the institution fails to investigate, or does not respond, the journal should consider publishing an expression of concern or a corrigendum, which transparently states that the journal has become aware that there is an ongoing authorship dispute.
Another view was to consider if there are grounds for retraction based on copyright infringement or some other legal issue (eg, libel, privacy). If the publisher finds there is infringement on the other authors' rights to have been included as authors on this list, retraction might be justified. The Forum would advise the publisher in consultation with their legal department to determine if there is a serious legal issue that necessitates that the article be retracted. Whether the article is republished with another author list is another issue that would need to be resolved but it would mean that the research is not lost but the authorship is corrected.
For future submissions, the journal may wish to update their instructions to authors to state that a signed statement by all of the authors is required on submission, recognising the order of authorship, that there is no one else that should be included as an author in the manuscript and that manuscripts will not be retracted on the sole basis of an authorship dispute.
Thejournal chose to republish the article with a corrected author list and a corrigendum. The corrected article has been published online and will later appear in a print issue of the journal.
A publisher is responding to allegations about a particular group of authors. The complainants have accused this group of authors of wide scale research fabrication and misconduct, relating to a large number of their papers across many different journals (published by a variety of publishers).
The publisher and the journals that are investigating and responding to these claims have referred the concerns to the institution responsible for the research governance of the authors. The institution said they would investigate and respond by a certain date, but their response is slightly overdue.
Question(s) for the COPE Forum
Should an expression of concern be published while waiting for the outcome from the institution?
One of the journals has received another submitted paper by the same group of authors. Should the paper undergo normal peer review, or should it be delayed because of the unresolved investigation about the other papers?
Should different publishers/journals share information with each other about cases that involve multiple papers and journals? If so, how should the information be shared with others?
COPE typically advises that cases should be handled and judged individually. A new submission should not automatically be dismissed from being peer reviewed, but the editor may wish to consider additional precautions in its review. One suggestion is to ask the author to provide all of the raw data or any underlying images. The journal may wish to do additional statistical analysis to see whether there are unlikely patterns in the data.
Communication with other editors might be fruitful where there are duplications among different papers in different journals across publications. Otherwise, the editor should try to respect confidentiality. The editor should look at their own journal independently of other journals. It is not appropriate to correct or retract a paper just because there are problems with other papers.
After a delay, the journal heard back from the authors’ institution who carried out the investigation. However, the institution’s response has not given the journals enough information to fully evaluate the articles. The publisher is reaching out to other publishers who have been affected by this case to see whether the institution has given other publishers any more information that might be useful. The journal is waiting to receive responses.
The case has been with two publishers for more than a year. Journal A at publisher A published article A by author A, affiliated to institution A and institution B (in another country), and author B affiliated to institution B. Journal B at publisher B then published article B, by the same authors and affiliations. The two articles are on closely related research.
Shortly after publication of article A and before publication of article B, a senior colleague of author A at institution A contacted publisher A asking for article A to be retracted. The claimant said author A had left institution A after the submission to journal A but before publication. The claimant alleged that author A used other researchers’ data without permission and used the affiliation without approval (breaching an agreement signed by author A), some data were unverified by institution A, and author B and institution B were not involved in the research. The other researchers alleged to have been involved were not acknowledged. These allegations were confirmed by the head of department at institution A.
Author A disputed this, saying they did do the work and were still affiliated to institution A (as confirmed by a letter signed by an institutional representative and a court document), and they were no longer subject to the agreement they were said to have breached because it had been terminated. Author B has not commented on the allegations and institution B has been uninvolved in the investigation.
Publisher A asked institution A to formally investigate. Institution A’s preliminary investigation confirmed grounds to suspect misconduct and they began a further investigation. At this point, institution A asked for the publication of an expressions of concern (EoC) to inform readers of the investigation, which both publishers agreed to. Author A asked for the EoCs to not be published due to ongoing legal action against institution A and the claimant and asked to be allowed to add comments to the EoCs if they were published, but each publisher posted the EoC without author A’s comments.
Several months later, an institutional representative asked for retraction based on author A not providing data to the investigation and doubts that the named authors were the only ones who contributed to the research. Institution A said author A had taken further legal action against institution A, but nevertheless asked for the articles to be retracted due to misconduct by author A. Institution A stated that there will be no further investigation of, or action against, author B.
The publishers have not been given details of the investigation report or findings. Author A still denied misconduct and said they had not been given evidence of this, and confirmed their ongoing legal action against institution A.
Question(s) for the COPE Forum
One option may be to update the EoCs to note the finding of institution A’s investigation of misconduct and their request for retraction. Is this reasonable in the absence of detail on the institution’s findings and in light of the ongoing legal action (which the institution admits is continuing)?
Institution A is pressing for retractions and presumably legal proceedings could be dragged out by author A. Does institution A have the authority to force retractions while civil legal proceedings are underway?
Can the publishers insist on seeing the findings of the institutional investigation?
Generally, it is best if journals do not get involved in legal arguments. The advice would be not to proceed with the requested retraction while there are ongoing legal proceedings. The Forum acknowledge this is not a perfect solution as legal proceedings can be lengthy.
However, the journal might take the stance that until the institution or the author who complained states exactly what is wrong with the article, the article will stand, and no action will be taken. It is unreasonable to ask a journal to retract an article or take action without a clear explanation of the problems with the content of the article. Also, it is not the journal’s role to be a mediator or to follow the demands of any one party. Hence the journal should be cautious about making a permanent decision while there are ongoing legal proceedings.
The Forum advised the journal to follow the advice of their own legal team.
The publisher informed the institution and the author that no further action would be taken while legal proceedings are ongoing. The institution did not reply. The publisher asked the author to provide the full document of the application to the court and expected timings, but those details have not been provided yet. Further delays due to the COVID-19 pandemic are expected.
A publisher was alerted to possible issues with band duplication in an article (more than 10 years old) by a reader. The corresponding author was contacted to resolve the issue. The author was unable to provide a satisfactory explanation for the bands, and because of the age of the article, the original data were no longer available. The institution was asked to investigate; a summary of the case was provided and the similarities in the bands using an open source tool were highlighted.
When the publisher received a copy of the investigatory committee’s report, it was clear that the institution had focused on the use of the software tool exclusively. The institution concluded that the software was not a validated tool, and so there was no basis for concluding that the blots in question were duplicated or improperly altered. The contact person also stated that it was not the institution's place to comment on whether the data in the publication were sound and trustworthy.
The publisher pointed out that the software was not used to detect problems with the paper—it was simply a tool to provide a visual demonstration of the similarities between the blots. The publisher stated that they would have raised this issue regardless of whether the tool was available. They explained their expectation and experience that institutions initiate inquiries into potential ethics cases raised by journals and comment specifically on whether the conclusions are still sound. The publisher asked again that the committee investigate the scientific issues raised about this paper; the institution declined.
Next step being considered are sending the paper to one of publisher’s editors who has relevant scientific expertise, or to an independent adviser, asking them to advise on whether the conclusions are still supported if the blots in question are unreliable. The publisher is also considering sending the paper to an independent ethics expert to verify that there are potential problems with the blots.
If it can be verified independently that there are potential problems with the blots, there are two courses of action: (1) if the adviser finds that the conclusions are still sound, issue an expression of concern/publisher's note highlighting the specific blots and detailing the steps taken so that readers can make their own decision about the data; (2) if our adviser finds that the conclusions are not sound, retract the paper. The publisher would tell the institution the route they plan to take.
Question(s) for the COPE Forum
Are the publisher’s plans reasonable, or is there a better course of action?
Regardless of whether an expression of concern/publisher's note is published, or the paper is retracted, is it reasonable to quote from the report of the institution so that readers know the institution refused to investigate?
Should the publisher consider contacting the relevant funding agencies?
The Forum suggested that if an institution is not willing or unable to investigate, one potential option might be to contact the original funders listed in the paper, or to contact any regional integrity offices, if these exist.
COPE’s retraction guidelines state "When editors or journals have credible grounds to suspect misconduct, this should be brought to the attention of the authors’ institutions as early as possible, but the decision to correct or retract an article should be made by the journal and does not necessarily depend on an institutional finding of misconduct." This scenario is common—often institutions do not conduct investigations or do not provide a definitive answer to questions raised by the journal.
If the editor feels that the data are unreliable or might be misleading, then the paper should be retracted. Getting further expert opinion to support the concerns of the editor is good practice. If the editor decides to retract, the retraction notice should explain why the journal believes that the findings are unreliable. The editor should inform the institution and the authors in advance, with the wording of the notice, and give them a chance to respond.
However, if the editor is uncertain of the integrity or the data or cannot resolve the concerns because the data are not available, then an expression of concern could be published, which could change to a retraction if the institution confirms there has been misconduct. The institution would need to investigate further. The expression of concern could state that the institution has been contacted but that the concerns have not been resolved.
Another option might be to ask the reader who brought up the issue to write a commentary and allow others to dig deeper into the issue.
In general, journals or publishers cannot always depend on an institution when deciding whether or not to retract an article because standards differ across institution. A journal needs to adhere to its own policies and not necessarily to what the institute thinks is appropriate.
The editor prepared an expression of concern for publication in the journal and is awaiting the authors’ agreement on the wording.
Follow up (September 2020)
The journal is about to publish an expression of concern. The editor did not hear back from the authors despite numerous attempts at contacting them. The journal considers the case closed.
An institutional review recommended retraction of certain works by a highly prolific and influential author who has since died. The institutional review focused on a relatively small portion of this author’s work. The institution recommended retraction based on deeming the articles unsafe and identifying several concerns, including that the articles' conclusions were implausible.
As a publisher, we are moving forward with reviewing potential retraction of the articles identified by the institutional report. We are questioning whether we should also review the other articles written by the author in the journals' backfile, based on the following:
1. The institutional report cited serious systemic concerns with the research and findings.
2. The author was highly influential.
3. Many of the articles were published in the 1970s/1980s or earlier.
4. Other areas of the author's work/findings seem contrary to current scientific standards (and potentially harmful).
Question(s) for the COPE Forum
When responding to an institutional report recommending retraction of certain articles, should editors review the other works of an author as part of their response (and depending on the reasons the retraction was recommended and the potential relevance to the author's other articles, issuing an editor's note or expression of concern to reference the concerns identified in the report findings for the separate retractions).
With respect to articles in the journal's historic backfile that reference findings that have since been overturned by later works and do not meet current scientific standards (and are potentially harmful or are supportive of a practice that has since been prohibited), is it appropriate for journal editors to initiate their own review of these articles? Should these articles be retracted, or would these cases be more appropriately handled with a “statement of concern” alerting readers to the concerns with the article's findings
Is retraction an appropriate action so long (decades) after publication?
The Forum agreed this is a difficult case and one that increasingly arises in historic papers with questionable data practices. This is a reflection of a wider problem of how far back to go if there are problems with the data. Data maintenance practices in the past may not always have been very good. It is up to editors to have a look at the papers and see if there's anything very obviously wrong that could be investigated but if it is a general suspicion that the data might not be correct but there is no way to validate this, then an expression of concern might be appropriate.
There is a presumption that the institution must have had specific reasons why the 10 papers should be retracted and not the other ones. If the data are not available and it cannot be proved that there was any manipulation or whether the findings are correct for the other papers, then retraction would be inappropriate, and a statement of concern should be considered, given that the author cannot reply. If an author has committed misconduct, does that mean their whole body of work is invalid? The Forum suggested applying retraction to the 10 articles. For the other articles, a statement of concern for the other papers is appropriate if there is clear evidence of misconduct. Retraction for these articles is not appropriate unless the institution provides sound evidence that the data sets were manipulated or fraudulent.
For the 10 publications that the institution has suggested retracting, are there any living co-authors that could provide more information? The editor might consider contacting any co-authors for more information.
Regarding the fact that the findings of the previous articles may be unsafe, from the institutional perspective, this may not mean a danger to public health. Sometimes institutions use the term unsafe with regard to relying on the data that back the study. Perhaps unsafe means that there is little to support the actual findings and they should be disregarded or looked at it from an historical perspective. The advice was for the editor to apply common sense. There are many practices and treatments (eg, cancer treatments) that have changed dramatically over time and would be considered completely unsafe today, but we would not consider retracting those papers.
Two journals had published 10 articles that were identified by the deceased author’s institution as “unsafe” and recommended for retraction. The editors of these two journals reviewed the institution’s findings and agreed with the recommendation to retract. A retraction notice was issued by each journal for the related articles. The editors of these two journals also issued an expression of concern linked to the other articles by the author that were not identified in the institutional report. The expression of concern alerts readers to the separate institutional report and findings, informing readers that the articles linked to the expression were not part of the institutional review.
Several other journals published articles by the author that were outside the area of research by the institutional review and therefore not listed in the institutional report. The editors of each of these journals were alerted separately to the institutional report so that they could review the articles published in their journals and determine if any action was appropriate. To date, none of the editors have published an expression of concern or taken any other action.
A manuscript was published in our journal in 2015, and at the time of publishing (as now), the author was a faculty member of a university. The author's affiliation was not declared in the article, just the author's qualifications. Now the author wishes us to correct the paper and list her affiliation in the article.
Question(s) for the COPE Forum
What is the Forum's advice?
Should the journal correct the affiliation of the author in the paper after publication?
Correcting the paper is important for maintaining the accuracy of the published record and to maintain consistency and clarity. Authors make mistakes all the time. There is nothing unethical in a missed affiliation. A formal correction/erratum is appropriate here. It is considered good practice that author affiliations should be published for all articles. This information is important for identifying conflicts of interest.
Downloaded versions of the paper may be available, and therefore a formal erratum, linked directly to the online article, should be done. The correction should state the facts, that the affiliation was not included in the original paper, but it was the affiliation at the time and remains the affiliation now. Issued corrections are good for a journal as they provide proof that the journal is doing what it must do to keep the public record straight, accurate and transparent.
The journal might like to consider requiring all authors to use ORCID IDs. This way, affiliations can be updated, but the ORCID ID stays the same.
Following the advice from the Forum, the journal complied with the author’s request. The journal changed the affiliation in the online version and re-uploaded the article on the journal’s website.
In 2016, group A published manuscript X in our journal. In early 2017, group B submitted a comment critical of the published manuscript. Following peer review, in accordance with the journal’s then active policy, the comment was rejected from further consideration. The policy allowed for the author of the original article to be one of the peer reviewers of the comment.
The lead author of group A, acting as one of the three referees for the comment, indicated in their confidential comments to the editor that group A would be submitting a correction to address issues arising from the comment. Group A duly submitted and published a correction to manuscript X. Soon after, the journal was contacted by a legal representative of group B to express their concern over the publication of the correction by group A. The representative indicated a concern that the unpublished comment submitted to the journal contributed in part to the submission and publication of the correction. Group B researchers considered that the submission of their comment under the journal’s then active comment/reply policy had allowed the authors of the correction to prepare their manuscript using material that they had been privy to only via their involvement in the peer review of the comment, and that this fact had not been acknowledged in the correction.
Group B requested the journal withdraw the correction and re-open the peer review of the comment. As the journal’s management team considered that the first request would leave an error in the scientific record uncorrected and the second request was unlikely to result in a change of outcome, the journal instead investigated the matter raised by the representative Group B, with the goal of preparing a new correction for publication to take into account the facts of the matter following the investigation.
The investigation identified an error on the part of the administrative team that contributed to this situation; namely, failing to ensure the authors of the correction provided due acknowledgement of the provenance of the correction. As part of the investigation, the journal contacted group A for their input. The authors agreed they should have included an acknowledgement, but not having seen similar acknowledgements on other corrections published by the journal declined to include one in their correction. However, group A also noted that they had exchanged email correspondence with group B, prior to the submission of the comment, about some of the matters subsequently included in the comment. Group A have been at pains to stress that their correction was not primarily prompted by the comment.
The journal has engaged with both parties to find a mutually agreed statement on the chain of events that contributed to the publication of the correction, with a view to republishing the correction to clarify both the scientific record and the sequence of events. This has resulted in a great deal of time and effort being expended on several draft statements prepared by the journal over the previous 14 months.
As the matter remains unresolved between the two groups, the journal’s team has elected to publish nothing at all. The groups have been informed of this, and that the journal remains amenable to publishing a statement if the two parties are able to agree a form of words between themselves.
Nevertheless, the publisher regularly reviews its working practices and editorial policies, and this case has contributed to a change of the policies enacted by the publisher to reduce the likelihood of similar sequences of events and outcomes in future. Taking our experience in this case into account and aiming to address potential future conflicts of interest in submitted comments, a new comment/reply policy has been adopted. In hindsight, the previous comment/reply policy was problematic for a number of reasons, including the potential conflict of interest in having the author of the original paper being involved in the peer review of the submitted comment.
Question(s) for the COPE Forum
• Given the apparent impossibility of the two parties agreeing a form of words, and the threats of legal action and publishing their own version elsewhere, is the journal justified in choosing NOT to publish anything? Would it be better to publish the journal’s view anyway and accept the potential risks?
• While recognising the publisher’s original comment/reply policy contributed to this matter, does the Forum have any advice on how the publisher/journal could or should handle similar disputes in future? The policy has been amended to reduce the possibility of conflicts of interest.
• How far should the publisher go in trying to resolve disputes between groups (especially where, as in this case, only one party has actually published in the journal)?
The Forum agreed with the way the journal had handled this difficult situation, and that the editors had done a good job here.
One suggestion was that when the journal changed its policy, it may have been a good idea to explain why, in an editorial, which could have included anonymised details from the case and the reasons for the change in policy.
Another suggestion was that the journal could have been more transparent upfront when rejecting the comment. They may have been able to head off the dispute if they had informed the authors their reasons for doing so and explained what the journal then intended to do.
No subsequent correspondence from the affected parties has been received. The editor considers the case closed.