A meta-analysis was published in a journal ahead of print, and then subsequently in print. Several months later, the journal was contacted by a faculty member at a university not connected with the study. The reader outlined three general concerns with the meta-analysis. The concerns were discussed by the editorial team, including the statistical editor, and it was decided that the overall results of the meta-analysis were not affected. The complainant persisted in the critique, which was relayed to the authors of the original article. The first author provided a detailed response to the issues raised; the journal did not request an erratum at that time.
A discussion followed between the complainant and the editorial office about the extent to which the issues raised were errors or ‘a matter of opinion’. One error was clear and was corrected by an erratum. In the journal’s view, the other issues raised were open to interpretation. The complainant was invited to write a letter to the editor, but they declined and persisted that an erratum should be published or that the journal should consider retracting the article.
Because some of the points of critique were of general interest to the field, and also in an effort to resolve the issue of the continued critique by the complainant, the journal decided to publish an editorial comment authored by the editor in chief and the statistical editor. The editorial comment paraphrased the complainant’s concerns and added a few additional considerations relevant to the interpretation of the meta-analyses. The complainant was given the opportunity to review the editorial comment and the journal also asked his permission to be acknowledged for bringing the issue to the journal’s attention. The complainant gave his feedback, which was incorporated, and also his permission to be acknowledged. The journal also gave the authors of the original article the opportunity to respond to the editorial comment. The authors wrote a scholarly response and also provided re-analyses of the data when excluding the contested studies. The editorial comment was published, together with the acknowledgment, the author’s response and the erratum.
Before the publication of the editorial comment, the journal held a conference call with the complainant. The complainant had published a paper on a related issue in the preceding year, but the study published in the journal was different from the previous meta-analyses from the complainant’s own group. This had not been disclosed to the journal previously. It became also clear that the complainant had not contacted the authors of the article to share his concerns, and the journal encouraged him to do so.
Subsequently, the complainant raised new issues with the original meta-analyses, which they discussed with the authors. The complainant insisted that an additional erratum was needed; the authors of the meta-analysis are now preparing a second erratum. The complainant was again invited to write a letter to the editor, and again declined.
The journal is concerned that the second erratum will not satisfy the complainant and that this issue will not end unless the journal agrees to retract the original article. The assessment of the journal is that there are insufficient grounds to retract this article. One of the complainant’s recent emails to the authors says that they will contact the authors’ university and colleagues and the funding agencies that support the work of this research group about the purported errors made by this team. The complainant has also requested that the journal involves the publisher’s "ethical committee dealing with the publication process".
Question(s) for the COPE Forum
What is a journal’s responsibility to minimise potential damage that readers can do to the reputation of the author where the reader disagrees with the editorial team and the authors of the original article on whether an error has been made versus a difference in opinion?
What are the options for a journal to respond to (unreasonable) requests from readers regarding the content published in the journal and/or request to retract a paper if the editorial team considers the concern not sufficiently problematic to result in retraction?
What could the editorial team have done to better respond to the reader’s concerns?
The Forum noted that although it is honourable to want to protect the authors from this complainant, it is not the journal’s responsibility. The editor has a responsibility to protect the scholarly record, and to publish errata or retractions, based on the data and peer review process of the journal. In this case, it would seem that this is becoming more of a matter of a personal vendetta between the complainant and the authors. The Forum suggested that the editor could consider contacting the authors’ institutions and asking them to investigate.
The Forum mentioned that often journals encounter individuals who are persistent—they raise one issue, the journal addresses and potentially corrects the issue, but the complainant is not satisfied and refuses to accept that the issue has resolved. All journals can do is follow due process: the journal should have a process, have documentation of having followed that process, be transparent, and keep good records. Ultimately, editors have the right to decide what they publish, and the editor's and publisher’s decision is final. Has the journal communicated this clearly to the complainant? The complainant requested that the journal involve the publishers’ ethics committee, so the editor might consider this option, if an ethics committee exists at the publisher.
These situations can be very difficult for journals, especially with a persistent complainant. If the journal has completed its due process and determined that the article stands, with or without an erratum, then due process has been done. If the complainant comes back with new concerns or issues that were not considered or were not covered by the prior assessment, that might be a reason to look at the article again. But if they are simply reiterating the issues that were raised previously, it is reasonable for the editor to say they have already considered those issues and that the case is closed.
What is the journal's responsibility to minimise damage? The journal’s responsibility is to the content of the article. What the reader does external to the journal cannot be managed by the journal.
An author submitted a manuscript and stated that he was the sole author. The manuscript received a favourable peer review and eventually was accepted. Some time after the article was published, a co-author told the author to contact the journal to correct the author list. The author of record (AOR) did this and supplied co-author names to the journal.
The editor worked with the author group to determine the source of the error and to resolve the list and order of authors. The AOR acknowledged that he should have credited additional authors. All authors agreed with the corrected list of authors, but the AOR insisted on being the first author and the other authors did not agree.
Pursuant to COPE guidelines, the editor contacted the university of the AOR for assistance and found that the author had left and was now a resident of another country. The university was unable to assist in resolving the authorship issue. The AOR then contacted the journal and stated that due to disagreement on the order of authorship, he was requesting a retraction of the article.
One more attempt was made by the editor and a co-author to resolve the dispute, but the AOR refused to acknowledge any other lead author. However, the AOR agreed that, following retraction, the manuscript could be resubmitted with another lead author. Attempts to negotiate another solution and education about the consequences of retraction have been unsuccessful in resolving the problem.
Question(s) for the COPE Forum
Are there any remaining options other than retraction?
What is the recommendation should the authors wish to resubmit to the same journal, as has been expressed?
Aside from the existing extensive author guidelines required by the journal, is there another way to prevent this in the future?
What other steps should be taken to address the authors in the case?
The Forum agreed that the editor followed the correct route in terms of handling this case. If the article itself is sound and there is nothing wrong with the research or the integrity of the data in the article, it is usually not appropriate for an article to be retracted for an authorship dispute. The purpose of retraction is to rectify the scientific record not to resolve an authorship dispute.
Also, it is not the role of publishers or editors to resolve authorship disputes. These issues need to be investigated and resolved by the authors’ institutions. The editor may wish to push this request back to the institution and indicate that the journal will not retract the article unless specific reasons for retraction are given.
The COPE retraction guidelines include a section on “Should retraction be applied in cases of disputed authorship?” The guidelines state that “If there is no reason to doubt the validity of the findings or the reliability of the data, it is not appropriate to retract a publication solely on the grounds of an authorship dispute.” The ideal situation would be for the authors to agree on a course of action. Failing that, the institution should be asked to investigate. If the institution fails to investigate, or does not respond, the journal should consider publishing an expression of concern or a corrigendum, which transparently states that the journal has become aware that there is an ongoing authorship dispute.
Another view was to consider if there are grounds for retraction based on copyright infringement or some other legal issue (eg, libel, privacy). If the publisher finds there is infringement on the other authors' rights to have been included as authors on this list, retraction might be justified. The Forum would advise the publisher in consultation with their legal department to determine if there is a serious legal issue that necessitates that the article be retracted. Whether the article is republished with another author list is another issue that would need to be resolved but it would mean that the research is not lost but the authorship is corrected.
For future submissions, the journal may wish to update their instructions to authors to state that a signed statement by all of the authors is required on submission, recognising the order of authorship, that there is no one else that should be included as an author in the manuscript and that manuscripts will not be retracted on the sole basis of an authorship dispute.
Thejournal chose to republish the article with a corrected author list and a corrigendum. The corrected article has been published online and will later appear in a print issue of the journal.
My initial introduction to COPE many years ago occurred when, as an editor of a peer reviewed journal, a reviewer called to my attention, a blatant example of fabrication in a manuscript in which years and volumes of references had been altered to make them more current. I contacted COPE, presented the case at a Forum, and received excellent advice and consultation. This ultimately resulted in numerous retractions of manuscripts published by this researcher, across three journals.
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.
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”.
Mistakes in research are inevitable, and publishing corrections is vital for the integrity of the literature. These errata rarely require a retraction, and are therefore considered a lesser concern. This perception might be wrong, however, because the actual prevalence, nature and impact of errors across disciplines are unknown. Indeed, while several large studies have looked at retractions, existing studies on errata are small, limited in scope and rather different in methods and aims.
A reader emailed a society, which forwarded the message to the journal office, noting that he can read the name of a patient in a figure in a published letter to the editor. The letter was published online 3 months earlier and had just appeared in print; it was the print version the reader saw. The reader asked if the patient's name could be removed.
The journal’s author instructions already stated that no identifying patient information should be included. At all stages following submission (journal office review of initial submission, publisher production of processed manuscript, copyeditor review, and author review of proof), the patient’s name was not noticed.
Within 2 days of the reader’s email, the publisher had replaced the figure with a version that did not include the patient’s name. It was agreed that an erratum would not be issued so as not to draw attention to the matter.
Both the journal office and publisher have since instituted new procedures in reviewing figures to detect any patient information. Additionally, new text has been added to the author instructions: “Patient’s identity must be removed in all figures (ie, x-rays, MRIs, charts, photographs, etc). Informed written consent is required from any potentially identifiable patient or legal representative, and should be presented in either the methods section or the acknowledgements”.
The publisher and its legal counsel also created a patient consent form (the rural clinic in another country where the patient was treated did not have one) and we able to contact the author who asked her patient to sign the form, post-publication. The patient agreed and signed the form, and the matter is now closed.
Questions for the COPE Forum (1) Were we right in deciding not to issue an erratum? Is there any other text that you would recommend adding to the author instructions?
The Forum agreed that the editor should not issue an erratum. Correcting the literature is very important, but patient confidentiality is overriding in this case. No useful purpose would be served by issuing an erratum, particularly as written patient consent has now been obtained, and in fact it would draw attention to the name of the patient. A poll of the Forum audience indicated that only a few people would issue a correction—the majority would not. But some argued that in the interests of transparency, perhaps there should be some acknowledgement that a change was made, even if the change is not specifically mentioned.
The Forum discussed having a universal consent form, which has been discussed by COPE in the past. Hence if a patient consented to publication for one journal, if the article was then rejected and submitted to another journal, another consent form would not have to completed. From a poll of the Forum, there was some support for a universal consent form. About a third of the audience currently use a specific consent form for publication that requires the authors to have gained written consent from the patient before any identifying material can be published.
The Forum suggested an editorial note on the importance of preserving patient confidentiality might be useful, as a reminder to authors. The editor might also like to check that their instructions to authors are clear and up to date on this issue.
The editorial team updated their instructions to authors.
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.