We received an email from a whistleblower notifying us about possible plagiarism in two chapters published by us, both authored by the same two authors. The whistleblower accused the authors of substantial plagiarism.
In both chapters there were, indeed, certain unattributed parts of the text, although the majority was properly attributed. Some of the unattributed parts were authored by the authors themselves, while some were taken from third parties. The whistleblower highlighted some properly cited parts of the text, as he claimed they were directly copied from other sources.
As a first step we contacted both authors for an explanation. The authors admitted their mistakes but also explained that they did not have any malevolent intention, and that it was a simple oversight on their behalf. They explained that they were willing to correct (publish a correction of) their chapter.
We then contacted the editor of the book. In his opinion this was not a case of substantial plagiarism and suggested publishing a correction. The whistleblower was not satisfied with the opinion of the editor.
Question(s) for the COPE Forum
Is this misconduct serious enough to warrant a retraction, or would it be sufficient to publish a correction?
The Forum advised that a correction is probably appropriate in this case, as there does not seem to be any malicious intent or pattern of deceit.
The whistleblower should not be the main consideration—the journal’s main concern should be to consider whether or not the literature needs to be corrected.
One of the main challenges in book publishing is the lack of established retraction/correction processes for books. It is not considered by book authors or editors as a standard process. While plagiarism in books seems to be common, there are no clear guidelines on how to handle it. However, the Forum would still advise following the COPE flowcharts on plagiarism and contacting the institution if appropriate.
The journal decided to publish a correction and asked authors to prepare a draft. Once they receive the draft, the journal will publish the correction.
Journal A accepted a manuscript with six authors in June 2017, which was published in January 2018. Several months later, the editors of journal A found that journal B had published paper B, which shared striking similarities to paper A. Journal B accepted paper B in November 2017 and published it in February 2018. The first author of paper B was different but the remaining four authors were from paper A.
The editorial board of journal A concurred that papers A and B were written (i) in an identical manner or format of presentation; (ii) under the same study design with only minor changes that would make little clinical difference; and (iii) with extensive use of recycled texts which covered most of the papers, including the majority of the materials and discussion sections.
Had the editors of journal A known that the authors had submitted or planned to submit paper B to another journal, they would have rejected paper A. The claim now is that the authors have self-plagiarised the manuscripts, with potential salami publication.
Question(s) for the COPE Forum • When self-plagiarism and suspected salami publishing is found in a published article, what can the editor do? • Should the editor inform the other journal editor? • In such cases, should the article be retracted from both journals?
Articles should be retracted to correct the literature not to punish the authors. The Forum advised that it is up to journal B to retract the paper for redundant publication or salami publishing because journal A published the article first. Hence it is journal B’s responsibility here to address the misconduct. The editor should contact journal B and inform them of the issue.
Is it possible that the authors were inexperienced and did not think their paper was going to be accepted by journal A because of the time between acceptance and publication? The authors may then have slightly altered the paper and submitted it to journal B? The advice from the Forum was to give the authors the benefit of the doubt, and to contact the authors for an explanation. It is always best to first ask the authors to explain how this has happened. It may be that this is an educational opportunity.
The Forum advised that salami publishing is difficult to prove, and is a judgement call on the part of the editor. In this case, it is a judgement that journal B needs to make.
The editor followed the COPE flowchart on what to do if you suspect reductant publication, asking the authors for an explanation. After receiving an explanation, the editorial board made a final decision and informed the authors of their decision.
The editorial board found that redundant publication, or salami slicing, was not applicable in this case. Regarding text recycling, however, the board found that this case did meet its definition, based on the excessive volume of verbatim sentences shared between the two articles. In the light of this development, a note was added on the front page of the article to this effect. The editor also notified journal B of their decision.
After publication of an article, Author A contacted the journal asking to correct their surname. Author A’s name consists of two parts, but only one was included in the publication. The editor accepted this request but asked all authors to agree to publication of an erratum. Author B (the corresponding author) immediately replied, disagreeing with publication of such an erratum. Author A informed the journal that he had a similar ongoing disagreement with Author B over Author A’s name in another journal. Author A also provided proof of legal name. According to our records, Author A’s name was incorrect on submission and Author A did not ask to correct it before publication (and had confirmed that the submission details were correct). When asked for an explanation of this, Author A claims not to have noticed the mistake at that time.
The journal asked Author B to explain the reason for objecting to the erratum. Author B instead replied with an accusation that Author A did not contribute to the experiments or writing of the article and therefore should be removed from the author list. The journal contacted all authors reminding them of the ICMJE authorship criteria and asking for each of them to confirm their contributions to the article. It was also explained to them that the journal was not able to judge authorship and, if the authors are unable to come to an agreement, the case would be referred to their institution for further investigation.
Author B replied insisting they have the final say on the authorship list as senior and corresponding author. Authors A and B continued to disagree over email, including the journal in this correspondence. Author A did not provide a very detailed statement of contribution. The other authors provided some statements of varying detail. Some of the authors who are still based at Author B’s institution provided identical statements, agreeing that the corresponding author can decide who should be named an author on a publication.
As the authors were unable to agree authorship among themselves, the journal contacted the institution where the research took place (also where author B is currently affiliated). Author A, and some of the other co-authors, have since left the institution. The institution discussed the case with the authors still at this institution, but stated they were not allowed to contact authors who had left (including Author A). The institution forwarded the journal a statement signed by Author B and the other authors still at the institution with a similar statement to those received previously stating that Author A did not meet authorship criteria.
The journal is concerned that the institutional investigation was perfunctory as it did not consult with the original complainant, Author A. However, the journal is not in a position to judge who should and should not be an author. In the meantime, Author B had contacted the editor asking to stop the investigation and not make any changes to the article. This was not acceptable to the editor as Author A’s name is still incorrect. The journal therefore restated the plan to publish an erratum to correct the name of Author A, but Author B strongly disagreed again, and again claimed that Author A should not be an author.
Question(s) for the COPE Forum
• Given that the authors are unable to agree on authorship of this article, the institutional investigation did not consider the opinions of all authors and Author B strongly disagrees with the publication of an erratum, the journal is considering publishing an Expression of Concern. This would state that Author A has informed the journal that their name is incorrect and include the corrected name. It would also state that authorship is under dispute and that the results of an instructional investigation were inconclusive as it was only possible to speak to the authors still at the institution. Would the Forum agree that this is a reasonable solution?
• Are there any suggestions on further action the journal can take?
The Forum noted that there are two issues here: the name change and the erratum notice being clearly indicated. If the decision is made to remove the author, there is the issue of eligibility of authorship. Did the author qualify for authorship? Should he be included in the authorship list? Hence the Forum agreed that the editor cannot resolve this issue and it is best to refer the matter to the institution.
The editor’s immediate concern is that by changing the name, did that escalate the position of the other authors? The editor needs confirmation from the authors of who did what and the correct order of the author list. The Forum suggested that a table at the end of the appendices of the article, with clear descriptions of authorship and contributorship, would be useful. Asking each author to specify their contribution. CRediT (Contributor Roles Taxonomy) could be useful here.
Competition for last author place is increasing in some geographic areas and some disciplines. Changing authorship order or removing an author without adequate institutional investigation is not advisable, however, the correction of the one author’s name could be corrected with an erratum simply stating the correction. Because there is an ongoing dispute as to who actually participated as an author, the case needs to be further investigated by the institution and if the institution is unresponsive, the case should be escalated to a regional or national authority if available. The editor could inform the authors that the journal plans to issue an Expression of Concern about the authorship dispute, pending an investigation by the institution. This may encourage the authors to come to an agreement.
The journal is going ahead with the publication of: (1) an erratum to correct the surname of Author A; and (2) an Expression of Concern stating that there is a dispute among the authors over whether Author A qualifies for authorship and that the institution has been unable to contact all the authors to resolve the dispute.
We published two peer-reviewed articles—one protocol and one paper with the results of a comparative analysis comparing a group of people associated with a specific “complementary medicine health care organization” (CMG), with the general population, which concludes that the group has “unusual health indicators” (more favourable than the general population).
The papers originally contained a conflict of interest (COI) statement stating that the authors were “insiders, in that they attend CMG events. However, they have received no funding, reimbursement, or other consideration from CMG or its stakeholders, and no instructions or directions of any kind from CMG or its stakeholders. No other competing interests exist.”
Our freelance copyeditor edited this statement out, to read “Conflicts of interest: None declared”, because “attending events” is not normally something that would be considered a COI. The authors approved the galleys and did not object to these copyediting changes.
Shortly after publication, we received a 12-page letter from a journalist, detailing extensive undisclosed COIs of the authors. The letter was also addressed to another journal which published another protocol from the group, as well as to the university (the lead author is associated with the university). In the letter, the CMG movement is characterized as a controversial, multimillion dollar international enterprise. The healing modalities promoted by CMG do not appear to be evidence based. In the letter, evidence was provided showing that all researchers are long term public promoters of the CMG enterprise, as well as being spiritual adherents to the CMG ‘religion’. One author is a former CMG company director. The letter also says that the lead researcher is the spouse of a current CMG “company director” (which is disputed by the author). The corporation is owned by another corporation which in turned is owned by the founder of the CMG enterprise.
As alleged in the letter (and confirmed by our own internet searches), all authors are influential persons within the CMG spiritual and business community. We confronted the lead author with these allegations and asked the authors to provide a more detailed COI statement for a possible correction of the original papers. In response, the lead author submitted a 1-page revised COI statement detailing that all four authors have varying degrees of association with the CMG and are members of the “Practitioners’ Association” which is the body regulating practitioners who are qualified to practice CMG modalities. Two authors have “occasionally offered paid private healing sessions”. The revised COI by the author also alleged that “all authors have experienced substantial health benefits since they started visiting CMG events”. In addition, they all have published blogs on CMG associated websites. The wife of the lead author is—according to the revised COI—involved in “voluntary activities around producing content for a CMG associated company and is a “company secretary” of the CMG associated company and “does this in an honorary capacity. She is not a director or shareholder” and “does not receive any financial incentives” from CMG.
We consulted the original peer reviewers, showing them the updated COI. They said they would not have accepted the manuscript had they known about these extensive COIs. We suggested to the authors that we feel that both articles should be retracted, and we would prefer to do this with their consent.
The lead author rejected this with the argument that “we originally submitted a COI statement which the journal removed. Subsequently, you falsely asserted that my wife, is a Director and employee of a CMG associated company when she clearly isn’t and has never received any fund from CMG.”
We checked the company registration and the spouse is actually listed as company secretary, which is considered an ‘officer’ of a corporation in the country of registration, so they have many of the same duties and obligations as directors. Our concerns with the COI of the lead author (and his spouse) go beyond financial COIs, as in his blog the lead author describes how meeting the CMG founder “changed our lives profoundly”, and his spouse is describing “seemingly miraculous changes” as a result of CMG. This level of passion for CMG and their involvement may affect the authors’ scientific judgement.
The university has launched an investigation as a result of the journalists’ letter, but the investigation is not complete. Meanwhile, the case has also been picked up by the mainstream media, who is putting pressure on the university to distance themselves from CMG, which is described by the media as a “cult”.
Question(s) for the COPE Forum
• Should we publish the updated COI statement as a corrigendum, perhaps with a notice of editorial concern, and wait for the outcome of the university investigation to decide on further steps.
• Or should we retract the papers due to non-disclosure of COI (and also due to concerns over the content and practices of the CMG enterprise, the scope of which neither reviewers nor editor were aware of when accepting the paper)?
• Is there any third option we have not thought of?
The Forum advised that there do not appear to be grounds for retraction. The COPE guidelines on retraction state that “Retraction should usually be reserved for publications that are so seriously flawed (for whatever reason) that their findings or conclusions should not be relied upon.” A conflict of interest is not in itself a reason to retract an article, particularly in an original research paper, unless there are serious concerns with the data. Hence the Forum would agree with the publication of an updated COI statement as a corrigendum, perhaps with an editorial notice. The Forum also suggested collaborating with the institution on their investigation. If the institution finds there are fabricated or serious flaws in the data, then the editor may wish to consider retracting the article. But a retraction at this stage is not appropriate.
The journal published two expressions of editorial concerns and corrections (one for the protocol and one for the final paper, correcting the conflict of interest disclosure as well as correcting the data, as per the corrigendum submitted by the authors). Regarding the third paper, a protocol published by another publisher, to our knowledge they have not taken any action, such as publishing an expression of editorial or updating the conflict of interest. The journal is collaborating with the authors' institution which is currently still investigating this case and will await their recommendation on whether or not the paper should be marked as retracted.
How should journals use expressions of concern? They are “used to raise awareness to a possible problem in an article”. They are a relatively new, rare, and non-standardized type of editorial notice compared to corrections or retractions and “considerable differences in policy and practice remain between journals”. Journals are grappling with when expressions of concern are appropriate and what happens if the concerns are later found not to be valid.
This is an extract. Refer to the PDF for the full discussion.
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.
Author Elizabeth Wager, Virginia Barbour, Steven Yentis, Sabine Kleinert on behalf of COPE Council Version 1 2009 Version 2 2019 How to cite this
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An allegation of data fraud was not satisfactorily resolved by correspondence with the authors. We then went to the lead institution and asked for an investigation. Within 10 days we had a report clearing the authors, but interestingly using some of the exact same phrases the authors used in their responses to us. We felt that the report was too superficial and approached the other institution involved.
A new investigation was started; this investigation took many months. The report said there was insufficient justification to take the matter to formal assessment and the institution was not minded to investigate further.
We remain concerned. The second investigation asked the authors to provide some data for re-analysis: that came out close enough for the committee to be reassured. However, provision of the same data for re-analysis is likely to produce the same result. In our previous experiences, only checking of at least some of the case report forms would uncover fraudulent data. We are therefore not reassured that the paper is sound and we have no direct evidence (CRFs) that the data are genuine.
Questions for the COPE Forum • When two institutional reviews have failed to investigate thoroughly enough to reassure editors, what further investigations might be warranted? And by whom?
• Is there sufficient doubt remaining for an expression of concern? Or should we accept the results of the investigations even if we consider them inadequate?
The Forum suggested that if the original data cannot be produced, it would be reasonable to retract the paper. No access to the primary data are grounds for retraction. The Forum asked if it would be possible for the journal to have access to the anonymised data?
The Forum agreed that an expression of concern would be appropriate if the journal believes that the institution has not done due diligence. It is not within the journal’s remit to carry out an investigation. The COPE retraction guidelines state that editors are welcome to issue an expression of concern if the investigation by an institution has not been fair or conclusive.
A suggestion was to contact an organisation that oversees these types of investigations at the institution. Is there a national body than could be contacted?
The role of the editor is to safeguard the literature and prevent readers from being misled, so an expression of concern is entirely warranted in this case.
A reader contacted the journal to raise concerns about a paper containing a potentially manipulated figure. The editor-in-chief agreed with the assessment that the figure had been manipulated and attempted to contact the corresponding author, without response. Following further contact with the co-authors and institution, it was established that the corresponding author had retired after publication of the paper, and no current contact details could be found.
No co-authors were able to confirm how the figure was constructed, but explained that it was an old image that was made by or for the corresponding author, and that the location of the raw image or original data was not known due to the corresponding author’s laboratory being dismantled on retirement. The figure is also present in a previous publication from 2007. The figure manipulation does not appear to affect the scientific results or conclusions of the paper.
Question for the COPE Forum • Given that the corresponding author cannot be contacted to confirm if the nature of any figure manipulation merits retraction, would it be appropriate to publish an expression of concern which will remain in place if no additional information is forthcoming?
The Forum advised that as there is no true confirmation of the evidence that the figure was manipulated, a retraction does not seem to be warranted without further investigation. A suggestion was to contact the journal of the previous publication, as there may be an issue of duplicate publication or copyright issues related to the figure. The editors can then discuss together how to deal with this issue. The other journal may have the original data. If the copyright resides with the first journal, then the editor may have to have a different type of notice on the paper.
The Forum agreed that the most reasonable solution would be to publish an expression of concern, explaining the issues. An expression of concern provides an opportunity for further information to be made available at a later date, and then any further action, if necessary, may be taken. A different view expressed was to remove the figure and publish a correction—if other researchers have re-done the work on the subject it may be possible to replace the figure with a citation.
Following advice from the COPE Forum, the editor contacted the journal of the previous publication. The journal is proceeding with an expression of concern to explain the issues. The editor considers the case closed.
A journal published a paper that is now under investigation by the host institution for misconduct. All authors signed that they agreed authorship and took responsibility for the content of the paper. After the investigations started, an author asked to be removed from authorship.
Questions for the COPE Forum • What should the journal do in this situation? • Should the journal permit the author to withdraw, or does agreement to authorship have irrevocable responsibilities?
The Forum agreed that the best course of action is to postpone any decision until after the investigation. In the meantime, the journal could consider publishing an expression of concern stating that an investigation on the paper is being conducted but avoiding stating that there is an authorship dispute. The journal should await the outcome of the investigation before making any changes to the paper.
The Forum suggested this could be thought of in terms of an authorship dispute and so the journal should handle it as it would for changes in authorship. Hence the journal may need to go back to the institution, as for an authorship dispute.
Are all the authors from the same institution? The author may have a legitimate reason for wanting to be removed if he is from a different institution. A suggestion for the editor was to ask the author why he wishes to be removed from the article.
The presenter of the case confirmed that the author signed the agreement in good faith and that the signature was genuine. Hence the author signed and consented to publication. According to the International Committee of Medical Journal Editors (ICMJE) guidelines (4th criteria), (http://www.icmje.org/recommendations/browse/roles-and-responsibilities/defining-the-role-of-authors-and-contributors.html) all authors have responsibility for the data and agree to help in any investigation: “Agreement to be accountable for all aspects of the work in ensuring that questions related to the accuracy or integrity of any part of the work are appropriately investigated and resolved.”
Most of the Forum agreed with a robust “no” to the request and with contacting the institution.
If the editor decides not to allow removal of the author following the investigation, he could give the dissenting author the option of publishing a comment on the published paper.
The journal found the advice from the Forum very useful and intends to follow the advice. The journal considers their concerns resolved.