A journal appointed a new editor-in-chief to their journal. He had previously been on the editorial board of the journal for 10 years and the editorial registrar for 5 years. During the handover period, it came to the journal’s attention that he was due to appear in front of a tribunal for research fraud. By agreement with the journal, he stepped down until the outcome of the tribunal, and the editor-in-chief of another journal took over as acting editor-in-chief in the interim.
The outcome of the tribunal was that many of the charges against the editor were upheld, so he has stepped down permanently. The charges that the tribunal found him guilty of (which did not relate to any papers published in the journal) included fabricating data, accessing electronic patient records without permission, breaching patient confidentiality, submitting a paper knowing that his coauthors had not approved it as a final version, forging his coauthors’ signatures on copyright forms, and referencing a particular fictitious individual in the acknowledgments (apparently as a private joke).
During his time on the editorial board, he published numerous articles in the journal, including two original research articles, nine reviews, three editorials/commentaries and one case study. As far as the journal is aware, there are no substantive issues with any of these papers, which underwent the usual review procedures, but several reference the fictitious person in the acknowledgements.
During his time as editorial registrar, he had input in editorial decisions, as a reviewer and associate editor, and by assisting the then editor-in-chief with decisions on the two categories of papers in our journal which undergo internal review rather than full double-blind peer review. During the weeks when the editor-in-chief role was being handed over, before he stepped down, he made the final decision on several manuscripts as editor-in-chief.
Questions for the COPE Forum
• To what extent should the journal consider the editor’s previous publications in the journal as 'suspect'? The journal will publish a correction relating to the fictitious acknowledgments; should they publish any additional note of editorial concern against his papers? • To what extent should the journal revisit editorial decisions he has previously been involved with during his 10 years' association with the journal? • The acting editor-in-chief has not been appointed editor-in-chief according to the stringent procedures recommended by COPE/ICMJE. Is there anything the journal can do to mitigate this situation during the process of appointing a new editor, which may take several months?
The Forum noted that thankfully this is a relatively rare event. The journal needs to handle this well to avoid reputational damage. Hence the journal needs to think in terms of a public explanation or statement of what has happened
The Forum agreed there needs to be a thorough investigation. Previous papers written by the editor need to be handled on a case by case basis—hence all of the papers should be looked at if practically possible, in particular if any have medical/patient implications. The journal will need to carry out due diligence for these papers. While the acknowledgement issue is relatively minor, it is very unprofessional behaviour. The core issue is whether there is any likelihood of problems with the papers that were written by the editor. This is not dissimilar to institutional handling of research misconduct—is the misconduct a one-off or a systemic problem?
Regarding his input in editorial decisions, as a reviewer and associate editor, and in assisting the then editor-in-chief, the advice was to do a spot check of, say, 10% of the decisions, so the journal is reassured there are no problems with the process or the outcome of any of the decisions. In particular, decisions he took himself or where he went against a decision of the reviewers, for example, should be looked at carefully.
The journal needs to reassure potential authors that they have processes in place to be confident in what they have published in the past—otherwise the journal risks serious reputational damage.
The Forum suggested that this may be too difficult and indeed inappropriate to handle only internally and the journal might consider engaging an external, independent group of people to deal with the issue on behalf of the journal.
The journal needs to develop a process to appoint a new editor-in-chief that ensures that this situation does not happen in the future. Again, it is essential to have external people in the selection process.
An intentional satire of a randomised controlled trial was published in a journal. In addition to multiple overt clues that the article was fake in the text, the article ended with a clear and direct statement in the acknowledgments that it was satire.
Investigators conducting a systematic review on the topic inadvertently included the satire article in their review as a legitimate manuscript, including generating a table based on some of the ‘data’ from the satirical article. This systematic review was eventually published in another journal. The authors of the satirical article saw the published systematic review and immediately contacted the editor of the journal in which it appeared to explain the situation. The editor of the other journal blamed the authors of the satirical article for the situation and demanded that they apologise to the authors of the systematic review and retract the original satirical article. The editor’s argument was that there is no room for ‘nonsense’ in scholarly publishing, and that such articles take publication space away from real scientific articles that could be published in their place.
The authors of the satirical article responded that there has always been a place for humour in scholarly publishing, and several established medical journals regularly publish satire. They commented that the authors of the systematic review failed to thoroughly read the satirical article and did not fulfil their scholarly responsibility in performing the review.
Question(s) for the COPE Forum • Does the publication of satire in a scholarly journal usurp space that should be reserved for legitimate investigations? • Is the journal that published the satirical article at fault when authors performing a systematic review do not thoroughly read and vet the articles they cite? • Is it reasonable for the other journal editor to request the retraction of the satirical article?
The Forum noted that it is up to individual editors or publishers to decide what they publish, and if publishing these types of articles is a valuable use of their page budget. Editors should not be told by other editors or journals what they can and cannot include in their journal. Hence it is not reasonable for the other journal editor to request retraction of the satirical article. There are no grounds for retraction.
The Forum agreed that there should not be editorial censorship but journals and publishers have an obligation to tag satirical articles clearly. They need to be appropriately and responsibly flagged up as such. A view expressed was that in this era of “fake news”, editors have an increased responsibility to ensure that the scientific record is not corrupted and co-opted, and that satire does not end up having unintended consequences on public discourse, including development of public policy. It was suggested that the metadata should also be tagged so that a machine can quickly understand that this is satire. This is especially relevant in terms of text mining ecosystems so that anyone designing a study would have a very easy means of filtering out articles that have been tagged as satire.
From a legal standpoint, journals need to meet a reasonable standard of not being misleading. If the article is clearly marked, with clear headings, and no suggestion this is proper research, then the reader has a responsibility to read things carefully.
The authors of the systematic review are at fault for not carrying out their methodology correctly and should have read the paper properly. The journal that published the systematic review needs to take steps to correct the systematic review.
The journal did not retract the article and agreed with the Forum that the onus was on the researchers to read the paper, which clearly indicated that it was satire.
The journal will take the Forum’s other recommendations into consideration on future articles of this type (eg, ensuring metadata indicate that it is satire in addition to noting in the article type and within the article itself).
A reader, Dr A, wrote to the editors explaining a number of concerns she had with some of the figures in a paper published in the journal. The editors sought the advice of an associate editor with more expertise in the subspecialty of the paper. The associate editor concurred with Dr A’s opinion of the paper and the authors were invited to respond. After some back and forth correspondence, the authors agreed with the editors that an erratum should be published containing the revised figures.
Out of courtesy, the erratum was sent to Dr A, who replied stating that she did not feel the erratum to be adequate and voicing more concerns about the modified figures. After further lengthy back and forth discussion with the authors and Dr A, the editors decided that the erratum should first be published and that Dr A should write a formal letter for publication in the journal expressing her concerns about the paper, with the authors then being given the right of reply to this letter.
Dr A duly wrote a letter but the nature of the concerns she raised has led the editors to conclude that this approach might never resolve the matter, and that the issue should best be handled by correspondence directly between Dr A and authors. The editors have therefore decided that the matter should be formally closed in public by publishing the erratum, and that any subsequent discussion should be handled privately between Dr A and the authors. The erratum has not yet been published.
Question(s) for the COPE Forum • Have the editors handled the situation reasonably? • Could the editors have handled it differently? • How might the journal prepare for dealing with similar situations in the future?
The Forum questioned the decision by the journal to invite Dr A to write a formal letter to the editor. It may have been more useful for the editor to make it clear to Dr A that any letter to the editor would go through the normal peer review process.
If concerns are raised by a reader, the usual approach would be to contact the authors regarding these concerns and to determine whether there are errors, and hence an erratum is needed, or if there is just a difference of opinion. If the latter is the case, the editor could suggest that Dr A submit a comment on the paper, which would go through the normal peer review process, with the authors given the chance to submit a reply. The comment and reply can then be published in the journal. In this way, the full discussion on the article is in the journal, giving clarity to the reader and enabling them to draw their own conclusions.
Some journals have a stated policy that allows no more than one letter to the editor from one specific reader on any one particular article, to avoid ongoing dialogue.
The journal took the following actions: 1. They proceeded with the course of action previously described, writing to Dr A and the authors to let them know that the journal would first publish the erratum and then one exchange of correspondence between Dr A and the authors. The editor made it clear that this concluded the matter as far as the journal was concerned and that any subsequent exchange of correspondence should take place privately between Dr A and the authors. 2. The journal added the following statement to their editorial policy on items of correspondence: “Only one letter may be submitted by any single author or group of authors on any one published paper”.
A paper was accepted in 2012 but there was a lengthy disagreement between the four authors regarding the order of authorship. The authors were advised that the paper would not be published unless all authors could sign a written agreement on the order of authorship and copyright form.
An agreement was received in 2015 that specified the order of authorship and named one of the authors as “the final corresponding author to see the paper through the rest of the process for the paper’s publication”. At the end of the agreement it was stated, “Please address any correspondence to all authors."
Subsequently, the corresponding author attempted to make ‘minor’ changes and another author, author B, rescinded his acceptance of the agreement. The corresponding author later agreed not to make changes at that time and author B stated the terms of the agreement could stand.
During the production process, the proofs were sent to the corresponding author. Changes were made during the proofing stage which author B has subsequently disputed. The corresponding author stated that all authors (including author B) were given multiple opportunities to provide specific changes and comments on the changes that other co-authors suggested.
The paper was published on early view later in the year. In 2016, author B requested retraction of the paper immediately, alleging that the agreement was voided by the changes made during proofing. The paper is still on early view and has not been included in a print issue.
The journal has corresponded with all four authors and advised them that they need to agree on the final version of the article or the journal will be forced to retract the paper because of irreconcilable differences among the authors. The correspondence has not produced any agreement so date and the authors have individually raised the prospect of litigation.
Question(s) for the COPE Forum • On balance, would the Forum agree that an ethical choice in this difficult situation would be a decision to retract with an option to resubmit with a new author byline? • What other options or advice would the Forum suggest?
The Forum advised referring this to the institution, and asking the institution to verify who should be authors on the paper and what the authorship order should be. It is not up to the editor or journal to investigate this issue. As three of the authors are based at one institution, it would be reasonable to ask the institution to mediate in this situation.
There may be copyright issues, if the dissenting author no longer agrees with the content of the article, as all authors have joint copyright. Again, the institution needs to resolve this—this cannot be decided by the editor.
One view was to tell the authors that unless they sort out their differences their manuscript will be retracted. However, another view was that if there are no scientific concerns with the paper, it would be difficult to make a case for retraction. If the journal is confident that the data are valid, then there are no grounds for retraction, but an Expression of Concern could be published stating the concerns of all of the authors. Another suggestion was to issue a correction notice stating which authors support and which authors do not support the current version of the paper, thereby avoiding having to retract the paper in what is essentially an authorship dispute.
Does the journal ask for contributorship statements from the authors? This may clarify the issues around authorship.
Authorship order is a common problem and the issue of who should be listed in what order differs by discipline. There can also be cultural differences as well as different practices in different countries. Hence it can be difficult for authors to navigate.
The journal has reached agreement in principle with the authors on a revised author order and statement regarding the research, but to date, only one author has returned the sign off sheet. The journal is hopeful to receive the rest shortly.
An article was published in July. In October, a corrigendum was published to correct large sections of unattributed text. Two weeks later the journal and publisher received a complaint from a reader who accused the author of the published article of using text from an unpublished collaborative manuscript on which the published author was participating. This participation on the collaborative work was initiated and ongoing during the time that the manuscript was being prepared for publication at the journal. The unpublished collaborative work has not yet been published.
The reader requested retraction of the published article, with the possibility of a republication only when all collaborators of the unpublished work were in agreement with the article content.
The publisher and journal initiated the procedure outlined in the COPE flowchart 'Suspected plagiarism in a published manuscript'. The editor-in-chief has requested feedback from the published author on the reason for the large overlap in text.
Question(s) for the COPE Forum
• Should the publisher and journal publish an 'expression of concern' while continuing with the investigation? • Is this the correct approach in this situation?
The editor told the Forum that she had checked the articles and the degree of overlap of text was nearly 20%. The Forum warned that percentages can be misleading, and the editor needs to look carefully at where the overlap occurred (in the introduction and methods may be fine, but it can be more problematic in the results or conclusion sections).
The institution(s) may need to be involved in this case.
The Forum would advise against an expression of concern on the article as these are generally used for ongoing unresolved cases. In this case, there is nothing proven or finalised —it may ‘end’ in a correction or a retraction. Hence it may be premature to publish an expression of concern and the editor should wait for a response from the authors. There is also the issue of the negative connotations of an expression of concern and/or stigma for the author, which may be unwarranted
A suggestion was for a less permanent ‘Editor’s note’ on the article for now, written in neutral terms.
The journal’s review of the guidelines on text recycling led to the conclusion that the scientific content was not disputed, and in fact the article adds to the body of knowledge. Also, the text recycling was not in the discussion or conclusions but rather in the methodology. The journal decided not to publish an expression of concern or retract the publication. The editor considers the case closed.
A group of unspecified members of an organisation have written an expression of concern (letter via email) to the editors wherein they request that an article previously published in the journal be retracted since they believe it is biased and inaccurate about regulation details within the organisation. They are further requesting that their letter be published in the journal.
The editors of the journal are unsure how best to proceed with this request. They believe the article should not be retracted (no unethical misconduct was committed by the author as far as they are aware, and the article did go through peer review with two reviewers having minor corrections and recommending the editors publish the article, which they accepted), as the reasons stated in the letter for requesting the retraction are not grounds for doing so. The reasons given are:
1) The absence of important information on the organisation's accreditation and professional regulations 2) The calling into question of the organisation's ethical standards and practices 3) The general misinformation about the organisation's business model 4) The overall poor research methodology and writing standards Note: not all members of the organisation were aware that the letter was sent (one of the editors is a member of this organisation), and the author of the article and certain members of this organisation have a history of disagreeing on previous articles that the author has published in other journals on the same topic (furthermore, the author once had a submission accepted at this organisation’s conference and after a disagreement they uninvited him).
The editors have shared the expression of concern letter with the author and the publisher. The author has responded to all the points in their letter with counter arguments. The editors have also crafted a response letter to this organisation (standing by their decision). The publisher does not believe the article should be retracted, but instead that the editors should respond to the complaint with an explanation about when retractions are appropriate and also the nature of how the paper was accepted/published.
However, the editors are considering whether they should publish the letter with the responses (if it would benefit the community, which is a very close knit group). The author has also requested that his response be published in the journal.
Question(s) for the COPE Forum • Is it wise/is there justification to publish the letter? (it could be beneficial if it is conducted in a scholarly manner but also could be unproductive if major disagreements sit on both sides historically.) • If COPE recommends publishing on this topic, how does it suggest the editors do so (what format/are there procedures that should be followed)? • If COPE suggests responding to the organisation via email is best, are there any other steps the editors should take to resolve this disagreement? • Has a situation like this one occurred before/been handled successfully?
The Forum agreed that there does not seem to be a case for retraction, but the editor may wish to consult the COPE Guidelines for retracting articles (http://publicationethics.org/files/retraction%20guidelines_0.pdf). The advice was to have the conversation played out in the journal and allow the exchange to be published. It would be reasonable, if time consuming, to do the following: have the letter peer-reviewed by a qualified reviewer who can evaluate the accuracy of the claims in the article; have a peer-review of the response of the author; and if both get through the review process (with revisions if necessary) then publish them both.
This is an editorial judgement call. COPE would not have a “publication ethics” position here, besides that contained within its regular guidance for publishing (ie, to manage transparency, permissions, conflicts of interest, etc). Publishing letters or debate papers would make the process transparent. If the journal decides to publish the letters, the Forum recommended ensuring that the letter from the organisation is signed by an individual or individuals. The journal should not publish an anonymous letter.
The Forum noted that in cases such as these, it is very important to choose reviewers carefully. Selection of objective reviewers is especially important when organisations are involved.
A short research article described a new method and tested the method, showing proof-of-concept that the method worked; the idea for the method is presented as the authors’ own.
On publication, the paper receives an overwhelmingly positive response from the community. Shortly after publication, the editorial team is contacted by a PhD student and their supervisor who had published the idea for the method on a blog 2 years earlier. Side by side comparison shows a significant overlap (approximately 25–30% of the article) between the blog and the article, in particular in the rationale for, and description of, the method. The text is rephrased in many places, but there are large sections that are structurally very similar between the article and the blog with some terminology and phrases being identical. Furthermore, the method is unique in its concept and no similar proposals seem to exist in the published scientific literature (on PubMed), so it seems obvious that the blog was the main source for the overlapping sections.
When challenged by the editorial team the authors acknowledged the existence of the idea and that they should have given credit to the blog but argued that their paper is about the empirical testing of the method. It seemed obvious that credit must be given in the article to the student for proposing the method and that there is no difference between a scientific article and a blog in this respect.
In the first instance, a correction was published with rewritten text and clear reference to the blog throughout the article, making clear the origin of the idea for the approach. The team’s interpretation of the COPE Retraction Guidelines was that this is a partial duplication (thereby treating the grey literature as part of the 'scientific literature' – see question 4 below) and, given that the article adds testing of the method and hence the proof-of-concept, that readers are best served with a correction. It seemed that a retraction, as demanded by the PhD student and his/her supervisor, would more serve to punish the authors (which the editorial team understood is not the purpose of a retraction) than to correct and benefit the literature.
It is worth noting that although three referees approved the article (in open peer review), the student and supervisor and some others who commented publicly have also questioned the scientific validity of the way in which the proof-of-concept was demonstrated in the article.
Question(s) for the COPE Forum
• Where does the journal's responsibility to protect the student's rights lie and does it need to go further than the correction and retract?
• Is this a clear case of plagiarism that demands a retraction?
• How much does the structure and text need to be the same to count as plagiarism? Is this a case that needs to be investigated by the authors’ institution?
• Given that retractions and corrections are primarily meant to correct the scientific literature, is there any difference between a blog and a scientific paper when it comes to 'partial duplication'?
Both a correction and a retraction would protect the student’s rights and correct the record. The question then arises—what is the purpose of a correction or retraction? If it is primarily to correct and benefit the literature, then a correction does that. However, the Forum acknowledged that this will probably not satisfy the student and their supervisor.
The Forum discussed blogs as a source of the scientific literature. Blogs are often not cited because they are not seen as permanent. But is there a difference between a blog “grey literature” and an article “published literature”? The Forum agreed that the blog should be considered as published content and although websites change and the blog does not have a DOI, it should still have been cited in the original article.
A suggestion was that for the original blog post, the student could ensure that the blog has a DOI or it could be written up for a journal, particularly if there is more work done by the student.
On a poll of the Forum audience, the majority agreed that a correction seems to be the appropriate (non-punitive) action (compared with a handful who favoured retraction); a correction also serves the student’s rights by indicating clearly where the ideas originated, and maintaining in the literature the work that validates those ideas. The Forum believed that the editors were correct in the course of action they took, and the requirement that the blog concept be clearly recognized.
The Forum discussed if this was plagiarism. There was certainly plagiarism of ideas and the Forum noted that there should be awareness of “ownership of ideas”. Transparency is key in these scenarios and ideas need to be properly credited. Some argued that the article adds something new (validation) and major correction (to address the unattributed copying via proper reference and attribution) undoes the “harm” done by the absence of attribution.
However, some of the members of the Forum were concerned about the apparent deception—the authors did present the method as their own. They recommended that the journal contact the author’s institution. However, it is a judgment call for the editor as to whether the institution is contacted. The institution might appreciate knowing so they can build guidance on citing grey literature into their teaching/training.
The editorial team took the feedback from the COPE Forum on board and notified the corresponding author’s institution of the allegations; the case is still being considered by the research integrity team at the institution. In addition, an editorial note has been added to the article to alert readers that concerns had been raised about the overlap between the original article and the student’s blog (and that the case has been referred to the author’s institution).
Follow up (January 2017):
The journal did not receive any further information from the author's institute on whether or not they will pursue this further. The editor considers the case closed.
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.
A university institutional review board (IRB) investigation found that there was extensive data fabrication in connection with a clinical research study. Three articles and one abstract reporting results from this clinical study were published. Our journal published the abstract, which we intend to retract. The three articles have been retracted by the journals that published those articles.
Given the serious and extensive nature of the data fabrication, and the fact that the research involved infants, a very vulnerable group of subjects, we are very concerned about the fact that several other articles by this author have been published in our journal. Although the research reported in these articles was not within the scope of the university IRB investigation, the research was conducted at that institution and by the same individual. We feel we have a responsibility to alert the readers of these articles to the findings of the IRB report.
Question(s) for the COPE Forum • Is there justification to publish an expression of concern about articles that report research not specifically reviewed in the IRB investigation?
The Forum advised against making a unilateral decision to publish an expression if there is no concrete evidence or proof of misconduct related directly to these papers. This could have huge implications for the editor and the journal.
Is the institution conducting an investigation at present? If the editor has concerns about these papers, then he should contact the institution or the review board who initiated the original investigation and inform them that there are concerns with these papers and ask them to investigate. It would be premature to post an expression of concern without first contacting the institution. Also, if there is no ongoing investigation, it would be inappropriate for the journal to publish an expression of concern.
The editor should also consider the fact that there may be innocent co-authors.
One suggestion was for the journal to consider conducting their own investigation and getting a review board to look at all of the author’s work.
The majority of the Forum agreed that going back to the institution and asking for an investigation was worthwhile; if the institution agrees, then the editor can publish an expression of concern.
In November 2014, the first author of a decade old paper in our journal and a 15-year-old paper from another journal informed us that he faked the data in two figure panels in the paper in our journal and one figure panel in the paper in the other journal. The main gist of the manipulation was loading unequal amounts or delayed loading of gel lanes.
Self-admission of data falsification is a serious charge that is difficult to disprove, and we felt a challenge to identify evidence to counter or support this type of allegation. As general guidelines, we felt there were three types of evidence that could help resolve the standoff: (1) compelling original raw data with evidence for or against unequal or delayed gel loading; (2) verified replication already existing within the published literature; and (3) as a last resort, a replication study performed by a wholly independent laboratory.
In December 2014, we asked the first author to contact the corresponding author of both papers and the institute, but he refused. We informed the first author that we would inform the corresponding author of the papers and this might result in violating his confidentiality. In January 2015, we informed the corresponding author that we had received self-admission of fraud from the first author and asked the corresponding author to retrieve original raw data for the figures in question and provide them to us. We also urged the corresponding author to engage the institute ethics committee and get in touch with the first author in gaining a deeper understanding of the challenges.
In February 2015, we spoke with the corresponding author by telephone. The corresponding author did not believe that the first author had faked the data. We discussed potential ways to counter a compelling self-admission and agreed that the corresponding author would provide us with the raw data by the end of March 2015 and would inform his institute.
In March 2015, we were contacted by his institute. On request, we provided the contact information of the first author to the institute’s investigation committee after obtaining permission from the first author. The corresponding author told us that he has located all of the raw data. In contrast with what we agreed by telephone, he told us that he would not be sending us the raw data directly but would pass them to the committee. The first author provided both us and the committee with data that he said was contemporaneously produced and showed a different result from what was published, that he said was without manipulation with gel loading and showed no experimental effect.
In April 2015, we asked the committee to share their investigation results with us and also asked the corresponding author to provide the copy of the raw data to us. But the corresponding author and committee refused to share any useful information with us. The committee told us by email that they have an obligation to protect the corresponding author’s reputation.
In May 2015, we spoke with the research integrity officials of the institute by telephone and they agreed to share more information with us. In early June 2015, we received a summary but not the full version of the committee report, which cites that no further action is warranted because the evidence they gathered can neither support nor refute the first author’s self-admission. We were not provided with any of the original data. The summary report included information such as promotion schedules of both the first and corresponding authors, but these seemed irrelevant to us. We felt it essential that we have access to the full scientific information on which the committee based its recommendation.
In late June 2015, the institute shared with us the full report of their investigation. We were able to understand from this that their conclusion that no further action is warranted was based on the fact that there was no recorded falsification in the laboratory notebook. We feel this reason is not sufficient to counter self-admission of fraud as someone who intentionally fakes data would not likely record it in their laboratory notebook. We therefore were unsatisfied with recommendation to take no further action.
In July 2015, we interviewed the first author via Skype and asked him to describe again how he generated the data and how he intentionally manipulated the data to fake the results. What he described over Skype was consistent with what he has described to us in previous correspondences.
In July 2015, we also spoke with an institute senior official and explained again that only contemporaneous data collected by the first author, contemporaneous data collected by other members of the laboratory, or direct replication of the data by an independent laboratory reported in the published literature would be necessary to counter the first author’s self-admission of fraud. Since none of these avenues turned up evidence to counter the self-admission, we suggested that the experiments in question could be independently repeated by a third party or the paper will need to be retracted.
In August 2015, the corresponding author agreed to proceed to have the data in question independently repeated by a third party. We are now instructing the corresponding author to reach out to a laboratory to start repeating the experiments. While he agreed in principle, the corresponding author is dragging his feet and we are uncomfortable sitting on a serious allegation and eager to move forward with a resolution in a timely and responsible manner.
Question(s) for the COPE Forum • What are COPE's recommended procedures for handling self-admissions of fraud? • What is the journal’s responsibility when one author self proclaims fraud and another author says no fraud occurred? • What is the responsibility of the journal if the journal thinks an institutional investigation was not evidence based.
The Forum noted that this was a very unusual case, both fascinating and alarming. At its heart it would appear to an authorship dispute, and the journal was correct in involving the institution. The Forum suggested contacting all of the authors and asking for their input. It would seem that the only clear way of resolving the issue is to replicate the study and try to reproduce the results.
The Forum questioned why it has taken the corresponding author 10 years to contact the journal, as it would seem to be professional suicide. The Japanese government has recently issued guidelines to institutions to clean up their act following the Japanese stem cell scandal—could this be a factor?
The Forum acknowledged that the journal has handled this correctly by taking the allegations seriously. The Forum suggested publishing an expression of concern. The expression of concern should be worded in a neutral manner without apportioning blame or accusing the author. This also may prompt the corresponding author into action.
The Forum suggested continuing to work with the corresponding author to replicate the study. The only way to resolve this completely is to try to replicate the study, and it is in the interests of the corresponding author if he wishes to stand by his allegations. The journal does have a responsibility to pursue an independent investigation if the journal thinks the institutional investigation was not evidence based. The journal should give the corresponding author a time limit, after which the journal should review the situation and either amend the expression of concern or retract the paper.
The journal has published an expression of concern and will keep readers updated when the results of the investigation are available.
Follow up (October 2016):
The journal has now published two editorial expressions of concern and followed up with two editorial notes, explaining that the results of the independent investigations were inconclusive. The editor considers the case closed.