A subject editor, who oversaw a manuscript, was invited by the authors to become a co-author after the first review round. After inviting the subject editor to become an author (and adding his name to the author list), the revised version of the paper was submitted to the journal. The authors expected that a different subject editor would handle the paper in the next review round.
However, when the revised version was submitted, no one (including the subject editor himself) noticed the addition of the subject editor’s name to the revised paper, and the subject editor took "automatic" care of the revised manuscript when it was assigned to him by the editor-in-chief, who also had not noticed the addition of the subject editor’s name to the paper.
The second revision was directly accepted by the editor-in-chief. During proof corrections, no one noticed that the subject editor was listed as an author and also as the communicating editor (it is standard practice on the journal to name the subject editor on the published paper—ie, "Communicated by ...").
Thus the article was published online before the authors became aware of the problem and contacted the editor. The editor-in-chief believes the subject editor was acting in good faith, but is very concerned about the situation and the breakdown of the journal process. The manuscript managed to slip through two rounds of the journal’s editorial process.
The authors are also very concerned about this awkward situation, which looks like preferential treatment, and have asked the journal what can be done to avoid this impression.
Question What can the journal do?
The Forum agreed this was a failure of journal processes and the editor in chief must take responsibility for this. The change was not detected but there should be processes in place when any change in the authorship of a paper is noted. Authors should be required to clearly state when any changes in authorship are made after the initial submission, and the journal needs to ensure it tightens its processes to detect this. So the journal should reinforce the processes it has in place and make any necessary changes.
The editor confirmed that a conflict of interest statement was signed by the corresponding author on behalf of all of the authors. The Forum suggested that, in future, the journal may like to consider asking each author to sign an individual conflict of interest form. If this had been done in this case, for example, the addition of another author would have been spotted.
The advice from the Forum was to publish an erratum, with the editor in chief as the “Communicated by” editor, and also explaining clearly what happened in this case. The journal may also have to publish a correction to its conflict of interest statement on the paper.
The Forum also advised that the journal should have a written process in place for what to do when an editor becomes an author and wants to publish in his journal.
The journal added a note to the paper from the editor in chief, stating that due to an unfortunate technical mistake when handling the article, one of the authors was also a subject editor at the same time. The editor in chief also stated that he guaranteed that the scientific standards and honesty had not been violated in any way.
A paper was published in July 2012. The author was told by their institution that one of the figures had to be replaced, in the interests of national security. Failure to do this would result in imprisonment. The editor checked with one of his reviewers who said that replacing the figure will not affect the results or conclusions of the paper.
So, can we replace the published version directly in order to avoid further dissemination of this figure or should we republish this paper? Or should we withdraw the paper? Is it possible to block the paper to avoid further dissemination and then republish this paper with the new figure?
As we were unable to contact this editor on the day, it was agreed that COPE council would provide advice and forward it to the editor.
Council advice was as follows.
This is a confusing cases and several council members were concerned that they were not clear what the whole story was and suggested that the editor needed to be really sure that they agreed the figure needed to be removed. The suggestions below are mostly about process therefore.
There are several options to that the editor could consider.
Most council members agreed that once a paper is published, even if the first publication is online, it should not be changed without a clear notice of a correction as this undermines the integrity of the publishing record. If something subsequently needs to be changed, a corrigendum must be submitted to address an inaccuracy, omission.
Another suggestion was to withdraw the current paper and publish the new one after the manuscript has been peer reviewed. But all of authors on the original paper would need to agree. However, the problem with “withdrawing” a paper and publishing a new one is that the publication record becomes rather confused. Will the new version have the same DOI/citation or a different one? If the same, how will readers know that they are not looking at the same version as the one someone else perhaps saw and referenced last week? Therefore COPE council does not recommend this action.
In this specific instance the editor could replace or remove the figure provided that the overall conclusions are not affected (this is really critical). Two possible processes are outlined below based on what different journals do in correcting errors
Some journals institute an erratum process that involves changing the online version so as to eliminate the error. At the time the corrected version goes live, publish an erratum stating what the error was and that the online version is being corrected. The corrected version of the article itself also carries a statement that it has been corrected and when.
Other journals would remove the figure with a corrigendum, without replacing the full paper.
The editor agreed to follow the advice of the COPE Forum. He will replace the published paper with a corrected figure, and also include a note explaining why this has been replaced. The editor also plans to publish a separate correction notice.
Ten years ago, the author published a paper on the same subject in his country’s specialty journal. The first report was short and the product of the author’s graduate work. The publication was in their country’s language. (Recently, the journal has been translating the abstracts of their previous publications into English, but the body of the text is still in their language.) Subsequently, the author submitted to our journal a more extensive article on the same subject, which included more data. This went through our peer review process and was published last year.
We were made aware of this problem several months ago. We consulted with the editor-in-chief of the original journal and he feels that it is a double publication and should be withdrawn. At the same time, we contacted the President of their country’s specialty organization, who thinks that this is a new publication and the author has done nothing wrong.
Initially, my feeling was that if the original journal felt that this was an infringement on their copyright, then the paper should be withdrawn. However, the comments from the President of their specialty association have left me and our editorial staff in a quandary. We are unsure how to proceed.
The author has been contacted and feels his more extensive publication should stand. He feels that the original publication is a more abbreviated version and received only regional exposure.
We would welcome the Forum’s opinion.
The Forum agreed this is a very common problem. The main issue here is one of transparency and disclosure. It is acceptable to publish a longer version of a paper that was published previously as an abstract, as long as the original abstract is cited. If there are significant new data, then duplicate publication may not be an issue, but the original material must be cited. Hence, in principal, this is not duplicate publication but the problem here is the transparency issue and the lack of disclosure by the author.
There may also be a copyright issue, which the editor needs to discuss with the editor of the first journal. A suggestion was that if the editor is confident that this is not duplicate publication, he could publish a correction.
The editor is preparing a correction that acknowledges the previous publication. The correction will indicate that it is a more extensive presentation of the data, but there is some redundancy. This will make the issue transparent to the reader.
A meta-analysis was conducted of about 1000 patients included in a number of small trials of a drug for emergency management administered by route X compared with route Y. The report concluded that administration by route X improves short term survival.
The paper was submitted to our journal in September 2011 and after peer review was returned to the authors for revision in November 2011.
In the letter sent to the authors, the editor stated: “Before coming to a final decision on your paper we will need to see your responses to our referees' comments. We will also need you to discuss the preliminary results of the large randomised controlled trial (RCT) recently presented at a national meeting which conflict with and may negate the conclusions of your meta-analysis.”
The revised version was sent back to us in January 2012. It contained only one mention of the large RCT without quoting any of its findings. The covering correspondence discussed the RCT findings that had been recently presented and speculated as to why they appeared different from the findings of the meta-analysis.
We accepted the meta-analysis in January 2012. We considered that the differences described by the authors were irrelevant, because the large RCT had not, at that time, been published in a peer-review journal and the only information available was from data presented at a meeting.
We now know that the authors of the meta-analysis were fully aware of the findings of the large RCT at the time they submitted the revision because the RCT paper had already been accepted by a high profile journal and the lead author was co-author on the meta-analysis submitted to our journal. None of this was revealed to the journal prior to accepting the meta-analysis
In March 2012, the high profile journal published the large RCT which randomized more than 2000 patients to drug treatment by the two different routes. The main conclusion was of no difference in survival for route X versus route Y. This finding rendered meaningless the finding of the meta-analysis accepted by our journal 6 weeks previously.
The authors of the meta-analysis were then emailed asking if they would now update their meta-analysis with inclusion of the RCT data.
The response was negative but an email from another co-author (who wrote the editorial accompanying the RCT in the high profile journal) agreed “it makes no sense to report a meta-analysis claiming death reduction considering available data”. He then copied us in an email he had sent to the lead author of the meta-analysis in January 2012, before it was sent back to our journal: “just to let you know that I am finishing an editorial on (the RCT) which will likely come out very soon with the main Ms....I would suggest that you try to include (the data from the RCT) into your meta-analysis ASAP”
The authors chose not to include the data from the RCT in the revised version of the meta-analysis they submitted to our journal, even though they had available those data. Since then the authors of the meta-analysis have steadfastly refused to update their paper. Meanwhile the editorialist for the high profile journal has asked that his name be removed from the meta-analysis in our journal.
The authors of the meta-analysis, one of whom was the lead author of the high profile journal report, had full access to the RCT data at the time they were preparing their revised paper for our journal. They knew that the main finding of the RCT contradicted the conclusion of their meta-analysis and ignored the suggestion of a co-author (the editorialist) to include the RCT data in their revised paper to our journal.
COPE states that journal editors should consider retracting a publication if they have clear evidence that the findings are unreliable. The authors of the meta-analysis knew their findings were unreliable at the time they submitted their revised paper and we now wish to have the paper retracted
The Forum agreed there were grounds for retraction of the paper. Clinical decisions are often based on meta-analyses and the editor cannot rely on all readers being aware of the newly published meta-analysis in the other journal. However, the ideal situation would be for the author to correct the published paper. Although the author has refused to do this, the Forum suggested that the editor should contact the author again, asking him to correct the paper. The editor should tell the author that if he refuses to correct the paper, then the editor will be left with no option but to retract the paper.
The Forum suggested that the fact that the editor did not ask the authors to wait until the results of the RCT were available before submitting their final paper has contributed to the confusion surrounding the case. Going forward, the editor should consider revising journal policy to request authors to send any related papers under submission to them when they submit an article.
Following the Forum’s advice, the editor emailed the corresponding author of the paper, copying in the co-authors, stating that he hoped the authors would agree to update the meta-analysis whereupon the matter would be concluded. He told the authors that if they did not agree to provide an update, he would retract the paper. The editor received no reply and therefore retracted the paper. The retraction notice stated that the findings of the paper were unreliable because they failed to address data from the large RCT, to which the authors had access prior to submission and which contraindicated the paper's conclusion. The notice said that authors were asked to update the paper to include the RCT findings but, with the exception of one of the authors, they declined. Owing to this difference of opinion, this author asked to be removed from the list of authors, a request to which the journal acceded. The notice stated that under these circumstances, the matter was considered by COPE who recommended retraction and this paper has now been withdrawn.
Some years ago our journal published a paper reporting concentrations of a substance in an organ in a small number of people of a particular occupational group who had died of a rare disease. The results have been reanalysed in two subsequent papers and discussed in five pieces of correspondence in two journals. The original paper contributes to a body of evidence used by the defence in some compensation claims in the USA. One of the authors of the original paper is prominent as an expert witness in such cases.
In the course of one of these compensation cases, some original laboratory results behind the original paper were disclosed to a court and were published in another journal. A lawyer complained to us that they undermined the original paper, which the complainant said should be retracted.
We have examined the original paper and the newly published data, and have concluded that the paper is consistent with the new data and the complaint cannot be upheld. However, in the course of this we noticed a completely independent problem: important statements made in the discussion in the paper do not agree with the results presented in the tables in the paper. Although this seems clear once it is pointed out, it has apparently not been noticed by authors of the seven subsequent publications on the data. Our conclusion is that we should not have accepted the original paper in its present form.
The heart of the inconsistency is that the text makes statements which it says are true of all the cases observed, but inspection of the results makes it clear that there is at least one exception, which weakens the impact when there are only a few cases anyway.
Close examination of the original paper also discloses that many of the measurements must have been at low levels, close to the limit of detection, and subject to large uncertainties which make the conclusions insecure statistically. The low level of the results is confirmed by the newly disclosed laboratory data. The paper does not discuss these uncertainties, and they have been ignored in references to the findings in later papers. Although this reinforces our view that we were wrong to accept the original paper as published, there is always room for argument about statistical analysis, so we regard this as a less serious problem than the inconsistency between the discussion and the tables.
The paper was processed before we started using online submission, and the reviewers’ and editor’s reports no longer exist.
We believe that this inconsistency would justify a notice of correction to the original paper, by the criteria in the COPE guidelines. However, the case does not fit the usual pattern because we are not responding to new information but to a realisation that we made a mistake and that we published a paper which was seriously flawed in parts—we would like to correct the paper because we have changed our mind about it.
Has the COPE forum any comments please?
The Forum suggested issuing a notice of correction but the editor should perhaps consult with the publisher’s legal department before publication. As the problem occurred nearly 10 years ago, another suggestion was to write an accompanying editorial explaining the whole case. The journal can issue a notice of correction without the approval or consent of the authors, but the advice was to contact the authors in the first instance and try to agree on the wording of a correction that is acceptable to all. The journal could draft the notice and send it to the authors for their comments. If agreement on the wording cannot be reached, the editor could suggest an arbitrator or panel of arbitrators. The editor could also allow the authors a chance to reply or comment further in the journal.
As advised by the Forum, the journal discussed the issue with their publisher's legal advisers and wrote to the authors proposing a notice of correction. They have just received a reply. The editor is trying to avoid involving arbitrators. Meanwhile, the editor has had a new submission from a third party reanalysing the original data.
Follow up (September 2012): The author has proposed simply updating the table, and has given an explanation of all the inconsistencies except one. The faults in the paper have moved into the area of what the editors consider to be poor scientific judgement rather than deceit or factual error. The editors regret that these questions of judgement were not dealt with before publication, but in view of the age of the paper they have decided to accept the author's proposal just to correct the table, and to leave discussion of the paper's conclusions to other authors.
We were contacted by a reader who told us that he had spotted a number of cases of image duplication and mislabelling of fluorescent tags that had occurred over the past 4 years. These involved two papers published in our journal, and two other papers published in two different journals. The two papers in our journal were both reviews, and the one that had the most occurrences involved a poster (associated with the review) that we had recently published. Although each paper had different authors, there was one author, author X, common to all the papers. The reader provided extensive evidence.
I checked all the evidence myself, looking up the original sources and concurred with the reader that there was at least image duplication (I could not verify myself whether mislabelling had occurred). I also discussed the case with our publisher. I then contacted the head of author X’s institute, copying in author X and his co-authors on the poster article. I told the institute head that I was making no assumptions about wrongdoing but presented the evidence and asked for an explanation.
The matter was referred by the institute head to Dr Y, the Associate Vice President for Research of the university, who appointed a Committee of Inquiry. This committee found reason to launch a full investigation, and so an Investigatory Committee was appointed. I was told that I would receive their report.
While I was waiting for their decision, the editors of the two other journals in question approached me to ask that I keep them informed. I told them about the Investigatory Committee and recommended that they contact Dr Y if they wanted to be kept abreast of the outcome.
Almost 2 months later, I received an email from author X, copied to Dr Y, with an explanation of what had happened. He could not provide an explanation for the error in the first paper. There was one image in that paper that claimed to show something labelled with a particular fluorescent tag, but a different, although similar, tag was in fact used. He said he spoke with his co-authors, who agreed that the error did not affect the scientific conclusions of the paper and that he could either correct the tag name or provide a new correct image.
For the poster, he said that there were a number of images mislabelled, and that this occurred, in essence, because he used ‘placeholder’ images while creating the poster but forgot to replace them with the correct images. He offered to redo the poster with the correct images and also wanted to replace some other images that were correctly labelled because he had ‘better versions’ of them. He assured me that the text did not need to be changed and again said that his co-authors agreed that the scientific conclusions of the paper were unaffected.
After again conferring with our publisher, we have come up with a plan:
I have contacted Dr Y and asked him to verify that the Investigatory Committee has accepted author X’s explanation and found no evidence of fraudulent intention.
I have asked author X to have his co-authors on both papers contact me directly to confirm that the scientific conclusions of the papers were not compromised and that they are satisfied with the replacement images author X is proposing.
I will ask author X to provide a replacement image for the first article.
I have told author X that it is not acceptable to replace correctly labelled images with ‘better versions’ and that we will only deal with those that are incorrectly labelled.
I plan to issue corrections for both papers. On the poster article, because it involved 10 images, I also plan to include, with the correction, a statement to the effect that a committee was appointed by author X’s institute to investigate the mislabelling and that they found no evidence of malicious intent (I’m wary of the wording I use here).
I also want to reprint the poster and send a copy of it to each of our print subscribers as they will have received a copy of the incorrect version. I am talking to our online hosts about how we can provide a link to the corrected version of the poster because, although I feel strongly that the original should remain online as it is, a correct version should be available.
I will ask author X to cover all costs associated with the redesign, printing and mailing of the poster, in addition to the costs of the corrections themselves.
I am not convinced by author X’s explanation and did look to see whether there were any other published corrections associated with author X’s previous publications but did not find any. If the Investigatory Committee confirms that they did not find evidence of fraudulent intent, however, then I feel I have to accept that decision and will proceed according to our plan outlined above. I would very much appreciate COPE’s advice on how we have handled the situation so far, and whether our plan of action could be/have been improved.
The Fourm agreed that the editor had done all he could and had handled the case well. The institution has investigated and found no fraudulent intent. The editor should publish corrections, stating the facts and avoiding accusing any of the authors, and then let readers draw their own conclusions. Regarding the whistleblower, the editor does not have a duty to keep him/her informed of all of the details of the case. The whistleblower cannot expect to be involved in the case. The whistleblower can contact the institution if they want. The editor should keep correspondence with the whistleblower as formal as possible, reply only to direct questions and not involve him/her in the investigation.
The editor followed the plan that he outlined, taking into consideration the advice received from the Forum. Corrections were published for both of the articles involved, with agreement from all co-authors, that stated the facts; a link to a corrected version of the poster was provided (keeping the original in place as published) and print copies were sent to all print subscribers (all costs covered by the author). The whistleblower was contacted only to confirm that corrections had been published. The editor considers the case to be resolved.
The corresponding author as well as the co-authors admit that they have omitted one author (author X) who was responsible for a major part of the work in their study.
Author X insists on having full acknowledgment in the authorship line and would not be satisfied with an erratum.
What should I do? Please advise also about whether author X will appear in different citation trackers as one of the co-authors.
The Forum agreed that you can change the author list of a paper that is published online, even if it has a DOI number. As the paper has been published online, it cannot be withdrawn as it is already published. It would have to be retracted, which would not be appropriate in this instance. The editor should issue a correction, with the new authorship line, but he must first make sure that all of the authors agree to the correction.
The changed authorship line will not appear on PubMed—the original list will still appear—but the correction will be associated with the paper. The editor should check whether other indexing systems follow the same procedures as PubMed.
In a recent and very prominent case of publication misconduct resulting in the retraction of 12 research papers (to date), many journals have been included in ‘round-mails’ from the whistleblower and other scientists. Our journal (a reviews and features journal) has published a review from the main author associated with the misconduct, which contains reference to six of the retracted papers.
As editor, I have been urged a number of times via email (the true sender of which was not always clear) to retract the said review. At first—before the full extent of the retractions was confirmed—I could do no more than wait, rather than react prematurely, although even at that stage, tracking and trying to verify the claims took some time. Now I have analysed the review—which took a significant chunk of time—and identified the parts that cite the six references. Those constitute around 18% of the body text, mainly the more novel insights.
Qualitatively—and that is clearly more important than quantity—it is exceedingly hard to judge whether the retraction of the six articles nullifies those conclusions and insights. I should furthermore assume that the rest of the review is in order unless (till) proven otherwise. In fairness, I think that if any corrective measure is to be taken, it amounts to a corrigendum noting that the said references have been retracted.
However, I am concerned about the additional workload that investigating the impact of retractions could have if we generally adopt the procedure of publishing corrigenda for every article that they affect. An alternative way of looking at the problem is to acknowledge that retracted references are registered as ‘retracted’ in the scientific indexes (although only if the journal concerned is indexed), and in the venues of publication, and hence on tracing a reference to its source, the reader of the review in which it is cited will see that the particular section of text is no longer supported by a published article.
I am in a quandary between providing the most up to date information in immediate connection with an article and getting into something that could consume significant amounts of already very stretched editorial resources, and then, more importantly, require further corrigenda on the same article if more references are found to be faulty at some point in the future: a seemingly never-ending story...
What is COPE’s advice?
The Forum agreed that the main priority is to inform the journal’s readers of the situation. The advice was to issue an expression of concern, stating the facts, that around 18% of the review text relates to retracted papers. It is then up to readers to evaluate the review and draw their own conclusions. The Forum questioned if the editor believed the article is tainted because the author has already been associated with misconduct. Some suggested contacting the author and asking him if he would like to retract the paper, or contacting the institution for a ruling.
Another suggestion was that the editor could write an editorial discussing the issue and whether removal of the six references alters the conclusions of the paper.
All agreed that the main issue was to alert the readers by way of an expression of concern rather than a correction.
The editor decided to publish an expression of concern which listed the papers referenced in the review article that had since been retracted by the respective journals.
A few months we were contacted by a dean of an institution who informed us about misconduct of one of the senior scientists in that institution. An investigation launched by the institution showed that author A and coauthors reused the same images to show controls in many figures in their different publications. This problem was found in three publications in our journal.
We decided to treat the three articles on a case by case basis. We launched our own investigation and contacted the original referees. One of the advisors felt that the authors could not be trusted anymore and we should retract the articles because of the authors’ misconduct. The original referee R1 confirmed that the images were indeed duplicated but did not feel that the main findings of the papers and their general merit depended on those images.
Based on that advice, we decided to give the authors an opportunity to provide corrected images and publish corrections rather than retract the articles. The authors provided new control images and corresponding results for most of the figures in question. However, two of the three articles had some images for which only the control panel was new, and the image showing the corresponding results was the same (ie, the entire experiment had not been repeated). The original referee R1, approached for further advice, felt that the corrected articles could be published and the fact that some results were not repeated was acceptable because it would involve a huge amount of work and it was not necessary.
We also sought a second opinion from an editorial board member (R2) who, in contrast to R1, felt that the three articles should be retracted due to fraudulent behaviour and the authors’ results were not credible.
Since allowing the authors to provide potential corrections on specific gel images, the case of author A has received extensive publicity in various journals, which has made the decision in this case difficult and may have influenced our advisors. Also, the past behaviour of the author in several publications casts doubt over whether the revisions are trustable. We now feel we have three options on how to proceed: 1) Retract the articles because the authors have lost credibility; we have confirmed their misconduct and scientific dishonesty in duplicating control images and the authors have not repeated all the experiments that were questioned in two out of three articles. 2) Publish a correction notice on each of the articles to warn the readers that we have found that some of the control images have been duplicated and the results of specific figures should be treated with caution but state that the main message of each article is not changed. This would have to be issued as a ‘correction’ but the text would amount to an ‘expression of concern’. 3) Publish the corrections supplied by the authors (or at least the one with all the images corrected).
We are leaning towards the second option because we have somewhat conflicting advice on the value of the corrections supplied by the authors and we would like to warn the readers that the control images were duplicated.
Would the Forum agree with this course of action or does it have any other views?
The Forum agreed that the articles should be reviewed on a case by case basis. All agreed that the editor needs clarification of what is going on, perhaps by obtaining further expert opinion on the validity of the work. Is the duplication a result of laziness? The editor needs to establish whether the scientific record needs to be corrected. At the moment, the editor does not have enough evidence. The advice was to go back to the institution and ask them for the actual findings of the investigation. Why did the authors use duplicated images? Does the institution believe it was misconduct on the part of the authors? Depending on the findings of the institution, the Forum agreed that the editor should follow option (1) or (2).
The editors contacted the authors’ institution with a request for more detail on the actual findings of their investigation. Unfortunately we have not heard back from the institution despite sending several chases. We also sought further and more detailed advice from the editorial board member (R2), who still felt that all three articles should be retracted because of the authors’ misconduct and loss of credibility. After further discussion of the available advice we decided to retract the two articles where not all of the questioned experiments have been repeated, and publish a correction for the article where the authors provided new results and controls for all the questioned experiments.