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.
In May 2011 a letter from the Vice-Rector for Personnel of a reputable university was sent to the editor mentioning that two articles published in the journal contained two statements not supported by documented evidence. The two statements related to: (1) approval of the local ethics committee and (2) representation of the experimental evidence.
With regard to point (1), the authors stated in the article that they had approval in 1995 for their research protocols but the authorities state that there is no written documentation of this agreement and that this cannot substitute for formal approval of the research. The journal and the university rules indicate that formal approval of an ethics committee is required.
With regard to point (2), a statement in both articles cannot be sustained for one of three patients in one of the articles and for one case in the second article. Laboratory analysis revealed contradictory evidence from the authors’ statements in the articles. The authors gave three reasons why they ignored this information. Unfortunately, the samples kept in the authors’ laboratory were destroyed in a fire.
According to the letter from the academic authorities, “the authors have been kept informed of these facts, which are in breach of the rules of good scientific conduct”.
One of the articles is coauthored by three colleagues from another university. They have asked the journal that their names be removed.
The author of the articles, who received a copy of the letter from the Vice-Rector, asked to have some time to send in his rebuttal of the accusations. For both issues the answers provided by the authors were submitted to the university and were judged as unsatisfactory.
Long discussions within the publications committee of the journal with representatives of the publisher and the scientific society led to the decision that an “expression of concern” should be published. Prior to publication, the expression of concern was sent to the authors and the university for their comments. Just before the deadline, a letter arrived from the university (signed by the Vice-Rector and the Rector). The conclusion of the letter was that the university believed an expression of concern was not needed. The university believed that the authors recognized that they made mistakes in relation to both issues but since they acted “in good faith” the university had closed the case and did not consider an expression of concern appropriate.
So the journal was faced with an author admitting two serious “mistakes” in two articles. The institution that originally raised the concerns backed off in the end. After consulting with the editorial team I wrote to the author asking him to send a letter to the editor signed by all authors correcting the serious mistakes in the literature. A confidential draft letter was received from the author, and edited and completed by the editor so that both issues were mentioned. This letter was signed by all authors at this author’s institution. Three authors at a different institution refused to sign the letter as they believed that the letter to the editor did not clarify the situation. These three authors confirm their initial position and encourage the other authors to retract both articles. A copy of the email correspondence between the author and a spokesman for the other institution indicates that the author does not want to do this.
A possible conclusion would be to publish the letter to the editor signed by the authors from the institution of the first author as well as a letter to the editor from the three authors from the other institution. This would be accompanied by an expression of concern or an editorial by the editor, highlighting the necessity of proper ethics approval and reporting all experimental data.
An additional question to COPE: should other editors be informed of this? In a sister journal, an article was submitted mentioning the same very outdated ethics approval.
The Forum agreed that this was a very interesting but complicated case. There are two issues here: (1) approval of the local ethics committee and (2) representation of the experimental evidence.
Regarding the first point, the Forum suggested that if the validity of the ethics approval is not in question, then this may not be an issue. The editor does have a right to expect a higher standard from the authors, but they do not seem to have broken the rules as at the time of submission (in 1995), formal approval was not considered mandatory.
In terms of the data, the Forum agreed that the editor needs to decide whether the basic findings of the study are sound. By leaving out some of the data, were the readers mislead? If the data that have been omitted are incidental and do not change the findings of the study, then the advice was for the editor to issue a correction. If however, the editor feels that the study is flawed and the findings were presented in a misleading way, then the article should be retracted.
Some felt that as the authors at the second institute want the article retracted, then the editor should consider retracting it (since these authors no longer stand by the findings). As these three authors believe there are grounds for removing their names because they were unaware of the lack of ethics approval and the omitted data, then the editor should consider this option too.
In the end, it is up to the editor to decide. If s/he decides to issue a correction, s/he could detail in the correction notice which authors were aware of (or responsible for) the errors that occurred. But if the editor has doubts about the underlying science, then s/he should retract the paper.
After the COPE Forum discussion, a decision was taken to correct the literature by publishing two letters to the editor. The first letter from all of the authors recognises the errors made and explains the reason why the omission of the experimental evidence did not put into question the validity of the work. The letter was signed by all of the authors except the three authors from the other institution; they had asked that their names be removed as authors and they explain in a letter to the editor why they requested this. An editorial was written in relation to these two letters, reiterating the facts and insisting that proper ethical approval is required and that all experimental evidence needs to be reported. The conclusion of the editorial is that the journal decided not to retract the paper but to publish a correction. Both letters to the editor and the editorial will be linked to the two articles in the literature.
A reader contacted us with evidence that a number of western blots in a manuscript published by us in 2007 had been duplicated from other published papers; in one case, the same gel was duplicated in the paper itself. I compared the original papers and agreed with the reader. Some of the blots had also been duplicated in other papers but all had been published previous to being published in our journal. In the meantime, I received a forwarded email from the reader in which the editor of another journal, apparently involved, told this reader that the two affected papers in its journal were being retracted by the author.
I then contacted the two senior authors, Dr X and Dr Y (both listed as corresponding authors), as well as the heads of department (two departments listed) of Dr X. I could not find similar information for the institute of Dr Y (I later learned that Dr Y is the president of that university). I presented the evidence I had received and requested an explanation.
Dr X contacted me to say that he had started to investigate the issue a few weeks earlier (presumably after being contacted by one of the other journals). He said that it appeared that all "scientific wrongdoings identified so far" were caused by his laboratory staff. Although he had recently reproduced the data published in our journal and in other journals, "the mistakes have already appeared in these papers". He said he was willing to take full responsibility for this 'misconduct' and had decided to withdraw all papers involved, including the one in our journal. Dr Y contacted me to say that he and all the other co-authors agreed that Dr X would take responsibility for answering the required questions. I did not hear from either of the heads of the institutes.
I then emailed Dr X, copying in Dr Y and the heads of the institutes, with suggested text for the retraction, asking him to make any changes he felt necessary. He instead wrote back to ask that we consider allowing him to publish a correction, showing the correct bands for each of the relevant experiments. He said that the results in the paper are accurate, and he had all of the original data available for inspection. He had also reproduced the experiments, achieving the same results. He cited a number of papers by other groups in which some of his findings had been replicated. He again admitted that there was ‘misuse’ of bands, and gave a number of explanations for what might have happened (based on inexperience of his technicians). He said that, ultimately, however, he took full responsibility for what happened, but would like the opportunity to publish a correction. Dr Y also emailed me to support Dr X’s request, vouching for Dr X as an honest scientist. Again, I have not heard from the heads of the institutes.
Although I think, in principle, the article should be retracted because of redundant publication of data, does it best serve readers if the conclusions are, in fact, sound? This paper has been well cited in the literature, and some results do indeed seem to have been reproduced by others.
I would very much appreciate advice on whether we should retract this article, issue a notice of redundant publication or involve the original handling (academic) editor and the editor-in-chief. In the latter case, I would most likely ask Dr X's institute to verify the results based on the documentation provided by Dr X, and then ask the the editor and editor-in-chief for their opinions. If the editor and editor-in-chief agree that the data are still sound, then we would issue a correction.
The Forum suggested that this was a case not only of redundant publication but also of image manipulation and fraud and agreed with the editor that the paper should be retracted. The author admitted wrongdoing, the editor has the evidence, and if he believes there are grounds for retraction, then he should retract the paper. However, the Forum did caution that it was unusual not to wait for the results of the investigation being carried out by the institution. Although the author blamed his laboratory staff and claimed the data were sound, the Forum agreed that the editor does not have to include this information in the retraction notice. In any event, the principal investigator is ultimately responsible for the data and if the gels were duplicated then clearly the principal investigator was not involved enough in the study. The Forum agreed this was a difficult case but the editor had handled it correctly.
We retracted the article on the basis of redundant publication and image manipulation, avoiding any finger pointing. The institute completed their investigation and told us that they would have requested that we retract the article anyway. The PI was fired from his post.
You can listen to the podcast of this case from the menu on the right
The rector at author D’s institution contacted the editor of journal A stating that they have found what they evidently consider to be serious misconduct in an article written by author D and the rector requested author D to retract the paper from journal A but author D refused to do so. The institution contacted journal A to say that the institution’s name should not be connected with the article and the institution believes that this misconduct should be known to journal A’s readers immediately. The suspected misconduct by author D was that in figure X each lane was taken from different gels that were combined together, according to the rector.
Journal A investigated the situation by communicating with author D. Journal A confirmed that the ‘representative’ western blot image of figure X in the accepted version is a composite photo comprising band images from different gels. Journal A requested author D to retract the paper. However, author D refused to do so. Instead, author D is proposing to publish an addendum containing a new gel figure with all of the controls. Author D has admitted that figure X was a composite from different gels; however, author D’s apparent view is that the data are not flawed. Journal A knows that the journal has a right to retract the paper at their discretion according to the COPE guidelines but journal A would not like to retract the paper. At the same time, journal A feels that this misconduct also should be known to readers immediately as suggested by the rector at the author’s institution.
Journal A believes this fits the situation where an ‘Expression of concern’ should be published, according to COPE’s guideline as author D’s institution and author D have not reached common ground.
Journal A replied to author D’s institution that they will publish an ‘Expression of concern’ instead of retracting the paper for now, as author D is refusing to retract the paper. Also, journal A told the rector that if author D keeps refusing to retract the paper, journal A will publish an addendum as author D requests. The rector at author D’s institution replied to journal A that they still believe that the paper should be retracted and that the institution’s name could not be associated with the article.
Following communication with the authors and the institution, journal A is now thinking it is time to publish an expression of concern anyway as the authors and institution cannot reach agreement and this should be known to readers as soon as possible.
Our question to COPE is:
Would it be appropriate to publish an expression of concern in this situation?
The Forum was told that the editor has now decided that he would like to retract the article. According to the COPE retraction guidelines, an editor can retract an article even without the author’s consent. In the current situation, it is a question of whether the editor feels that there is a mistake in just this one figure or if there are problems with other aspects of the paper. He must decide if the best way of setting the record straight is to retract or correct. If he feels that only the figure is incorrect, but the rest of the paper is reliable, then he should publish a correction. However, if the editor has more serious concerns, they he should consider retracting the paper.
The Forum suggested that as the institution is involved, the editor should ask the institution if they have conducted a formal investigation. If they have not, the editor should request that the institution conduct an investigation into this matter. The editor could base the wording of the retraction on the results of this investigation. The Forum noted that the retraction notice does not have to accuse the author of deliberate misconduct. It should simply state the facts. The retraction notice can also list which authors have agreed to the retraction and so the editor was advised to contact the other authors and ask them for an explanation and see if they are aware of the situation.
The Forum warned against publishing an expression of concern. An expression of concern should only be published if there is an unresolved, ongoing investigation or if the evidence is inconclusive. Most agreed that the evidence was strong here, but the editor needs to get the institution to investigate. Another suggestion for the future was to publish guidance to authors on how to present images when submitting a paper.
The journal published a retraction. The editor considers the case now closed.
I became involved in this issue after reports from doctors in a developing country that three papers in a systematic review published by my company may have been fabricated.
The papers in question had co-authors in two other countries and so I contacted them.
One co-author replied that he had concerns, but as none of the studies was conducted in his country, he had no data. He said he was unaware of the papers until Dr X told him they had been accepted in the journals.
Another co-author was unaware of when or where the studies took place. He said that Dr X had been suffering from depression for several years and had committed suicide. He had been included as a co-author on his last three articles more out of friendship than any active scientific cooperation.
A third co-author explained that his role was “philosophical” rather than clinical. To his knowledge the study was conducted personally by Dr X, probably in his own country, and he only helped him with discussions and text revisions.
Because several of Dr X’s papers were published by Journal A, I wrote to the editor of Journal A to see if he had any concerns. He replied that he had doubts about the validity of the data, which were raised in an editorial by Dr Z. I am waiting to hear if the editor of Journal A is willing to help investigate the papers. I also contacted Dr Z and raised the possibility of fraud with him. He said that he had “serious concerns about the work” but declined to help me investigate.
We have withdrawn the review until we can find out if the data are real. I have written to the National Committee on Ethics in Research in the author’s country but have had no reply. An international expert on the statistical detection of fraud is currently looking at the papers. He has some concerns but his investigation is ongoing.
Dr X was a prolific researcher with about 16 of his own first authored papers cited in his clinical trial reports. It appears that many doctors suspect misconduct but none has been prepared to voice their concerns or to take any action.
I would greatly appreciate COPE’s advice.
This complicated case provoked much discussion. The advice was to reinstate the review but without the three disputed papers, adding a note to say that there is a potential problem with these three papers. It was felt that if the data are fabricated, there was a responsibility on the part of the editor not to publish the data as there might be a significant risk to patients if the trial was repeated.
As there has been no useful response from the other journal editors who published other papers by this author, it seems there is no point in pursuing this line of enquiry. However, the editorial procedures in these journals must be criticised as the editors strongly suspected that the data were fabricated but still went ahead and published the papers. COPE could take some action if they were members, but they are not.
The committee agreed that the best approach for the editor would be to seek a retraction of the papers from the co-authors on the basis of gift authorship. The advice was to write to the co-authors, ask for the data, and if not provided, ask them to withdraw the papers. In this way, it is not necessary to say that the data are fraudulent, with all its legal implications. It was felt that the co-authors must take responsibility for the data as their names are on the paper. It is not acceptable to say that their contribution was merely “philosophical”. Gift authorship is not acceptable. Also, the co-authors’ institutions should be contacted and informed of the situation. In this instance, the editor should write to the co-authors informing them that he has contacted their institutions.
Following COPE’s advice, the living co-authors were contacted to see if they would retracted the reports in question on the basis that they were gift authors and could not take responsibility for the results. However, when this was raised with them they did not agree that they were gift authors and declined to seek retraction, arguing that the papers were published in an international peer reviewed journal, that the first author had taken responsibility for their content and that they knew the first author well and believed that “he would never have been able to do something false.” They persist in this view despite the fact that the stated deceased lead author’s affiliation has been contacted and they confirmed that the lead author was never employed by the university. It seems that the co-authors want it all ways—they claim that they are not gift authors but yet they refuse to take any responsibility for the content, even in the presence of evidence that the lead author gave incorrect information about his affiliation. The matter is ongoing.
Further update This case has been the subject of an article and an editorial in the BMJ. The articles outline the details of the case and consider the wider implications of the case, a summary of which is given here:
We are left with serious doubt about important studies but with no way of determining with confidence whether the results are fabricated or real. The main author is dead. There is no institution to investigate. The implications for patients are serious. They are being treated on the basis of potentially unreliable evidence. It is plausible that this drug in high doses may worsen rather than alleviate the condition. Shortly after the withdrawal of the review, the journal was contacted by US researchers preparing guidelines for the management of this condition and by a UK group asking about the outcome of our investigation because the authors’ results were about to be incorporated into guidelines.
If it wants to retain the confidence of the public and politicians, the scientific community needs to do better. Only a minority of countries have an effective national system for responding to scientific misconduct. However, research is a global enterprise and a strong case exists for an international body to respond to the problem of research misconduct.
The authors of a paper are in disagreement over whether the paper should be retracted. One group of authors (group 1) wishes to publish a correction, and another group (group 2) feel that is inadequate, and the paper should be retracted. Group 2 is concerned that one of the authors, author X, in group 1 is guilty of scientific misconduct. The remaining group 1 authors do not support this claim. The institution under whose auspices the research was conducted has carried out an investigation, and has apparently found evidence to believe that scientific misconduct has occurred. The institution has contacted the group 1 authors and has demanded that the authors retract the paper. The group 1 authors do not feel that the investigation has been properly conducted, and have declined to retract the paper. The institution now plans to contact the journal to request that the paper be retracted.
If the journal does not retract the paper, what other options are available to highlight the dispute between the authors?
Should this dispute be brought to the attention of readers, given that that case for retraction is inconclusive?
With the two institutions involved being in two different countries, this has not helped to improve communications between the two groups of researchers. It was suggested that the editor should contact the institution where the group 1 investigators are located, informing them of the dispute between the two groups of authors, and pointing out that there has been an investigation at the group 2 authors’ institution into the matter. The editor should also try to obtain the results of the investigation carried out by the group 2 authors’ institution before making any decision regarding whether to retract the paper or publish a correction. Publication of a statement of concern might be a consideration at this time, but such statements should only be published when there is very strong supporting evidence to take such action. Ideally, the two institutions need to contact one another and carry out a full investigation. Only when all the facts are available and agreed upon by both parties can the editor make a final decision.
The main institution has had two people review the case, and they agree that there are corrections that need to be published, but disagree about whether there is any misconduct. The institution is now proposing that we publish a correction, possibly with a statement from a couple of the authors to the effect that they are removing their names from the paper because they no longer feel that the conclusions are justified. We are now waiting for the institution to finalise this with the authors and then we will publish the correction.
A journal published an animal study on the use of drug X for the treatment of clinical condition A. The authors did not declare any competing interests. A few months after publication, a journalist contacted the editors to say that the corresponding author had several patents on drug X, was listed as an inventor of the drug, and that the public charity of which he is the director recently announced that they were seeking approval for clinical trials of drug X in condition B. He also said the corresponding author co-owned a commercial company with whom the charity does business. The authors were asked to clarify any competing interests, and were directed to the journal’s policy, which is posted online as part of the instructions for authors. The corresponding author replied saying that the commercial company was a subsidiary of the charity and had no ownership rights to the drug. He did not specifically say whether there were any competing interests to declare. Instead, he wanted to know how this matter had come to light. During a telephone conversation he confirmed that the charity had applied for a patent for the use of the drug for the treatment of clinical condition A, but it was yet to be approved. He also said that no company had been licensed to develop/manufacture the drug for either condition. However, he also said that if the drug was ever licensed, the charity might choose to pass on some of the royalties to the inventors. It was suggested that the following competing interest statement should be published: “Authors 1, 2 and 3 are employees of the not for profit institute, which has applied for a patent for the use of drug X in the treatment of clinical condition A. The institute is a public charity that currently holds patents for the use of drug X in other clinical conditions, with Author 1 listed as an inventor.” - Should the authors have included a competing interest declaration on the manuscript? - If so, should it be any different to what was suggested? - In general, what should be done about studies on drugs that are potentially lucrative? Should the authors declare if they “might” make money? - In this case, what does “not-for-profit” really mean? - And what does all this mean for researchers at universities that make money through spin-off companies?
- In the interests of transparency the authors should have declared a conflict of interest. - The holder of a patent should declare that they hold such a patent even if any profits made go elsewhere, because they stand to derive an intangible benefit from being associated with that patent. - There is nothing wrong with having a conflict of interest, but it must be declared. This allows readers to decide for themselves the relevance of the conflict of interest to the paper’s conclusions. - It is good practice for journals to ensure that they have a clear policy on conflict of interest. - Some journals send the paper back to the original reviewers and ask them to comment on whether the conflict of interest would have changed their opinion on the paper. - Retraction of a paper for an undeclared conflict of interest would only be considered in very serious cases where this seemed to undermine the validity of the data. - The publication of a correction about the undeclared conflict of interest is usually the most appropriate course of action. - The reference to the not-for-profit institution was a red herring as there was a potential for the authors to still receive both financial and non-financial benefits from the product. - The editor should publish a correction stating the nature of the undeclared conflict of interest. - The journal should also consider whether they need to state their conflict of interest policy more clearly.
A new correction was drafted, which excluded the authors’ affiliation to a non-profit organisation. The editors contacted the corresponding author to let him know of the change, why it had been done, and to ask for his approval of the reworded correction. The new correction read as follows: “In our recent article, we failed to declare the following competing interests: A, B, and C are employees of X Institute, which has applied for a patent for the use of drug N in the treatment of haemorrhagic fever. The Institute currently holds patents for the use of N in other clinical conditions, with D listed as an inventor.” The corresponding author said that he would not agree with a declaration that did not mention that his institution is a public charity. He also stated that he felt the guidelines for declaring competing interests posted in the instructions for authors were not explicit enough. The editors responded that the “non-profit” status of the institution was not relevant, potential competing interests might still exist, and that it should be declared. The author refused to consent to a declaration that did not mention “non-profit” and wanted to contact COPE to discuss the matter in more detail. The author also threatened legal action if the editors proceeded to publish the correction without his consent. He suggested a new draft for the text of the correction. In our recent article , we did not declare the patent rights related to N technology. Since they may potentially be viewed as non-financial competing interests, despite the fact our employer is a non-profit public charity, we are now providing the following supplemental information: A, B and C are employees of X Institute, which has applied for a patent for the use of N in the treatment of haemorrhagic fever. X Institute currently holds patents for the use of N in other clinical conditions, with D listed as an inventor.” To clarify the journal’s position, the editors decided to post the following comment on the correction, which the author also agreed to: “[The publisher] thanks the authors for clarifying their competing interests and wishes to make clear its view that even employees of non profit public charities may have competing interests (financial or otherwise) and that it is always best to err on the side of declaring these. However, at the time of publication of the original article, our competing interests policy was not sufficiently explicit on this point. We will, therefore, be updating it in due course.”
A review by three authors, with Dr X as the lead author, was published in Journal A. Five months later, the editor of Journal A was informed by Professor W that a figure in the review by Dr X had originally appeared in a research paper, co-authored by Professor W in Journal B in 1990. The professor also said that Dr X had published the same or very similar figures in journals C, D (research papers), and E (review). The Journal C paper was reference 5 in the Journal A review. Dr X denied that he had “stolen” the figure. However, after an “expert review” Journal C concluded that the figures were the same and the journal’s editors retracted Dr X’s paper. Dr X has since started legal proceedings against one of the editors of Journal C. Professor W is pushing for a complete retraction of the review in Journal A. Dr X is willing to voluntarily retract the paper, but his co authors do not support this, because the figure in question makes no difference to the uncontroversial conclusions of the review. Journal A published a statement noting the retraction by Journal C, and Journal E has published a similar statement. Journal D recruited an expert to examine Professor W’s original pathological material. Journal A has collaborated with this investigation. The expert concluded that the figures published by journals A and D are the same as Professor W’s original slides. Dr X has been told by journals A and D that they will request his institution to investigate the allegations made against him. This case refers to the same disputed figure brought to COPE by another member journal in case 02/02.
_ If the figure was originally Professor W’s and published in 1990, then the original journal would have copyright over the figure. _ If the review was adequate without the figure, then the journal could either withdraw the figure or acknowledge the original copyright holder. _ The original slide would have to be studied to make a correct assessment of the professor’s claim. _ How could a figure belonging to one author come into the possession of another? The journal has been told that Professor W and Dr X were collaborators in the past and that the image had been entered into a database of clinical images and had allegedly been extracted from there. _ Had any copyright documents been associated with the deposit of the image on the database? _ If Dr X’s co authors do not wish to retract the paper, then the journal could publish an addendum/erratum explaining the issues surrounding the figure ownership, acknowledging the original copyright holder. _ It is not the journal’s duty to resolve the dispute between Professor W and Dr X. _ The editor could decide on a course of action after hearing the results of Dr X’s institutional investigation. _ The editor should try to get more information on the Trust’s investigation. _ The editor should take his concerns to the doctor’s and medical director’s regulatory body, notifying the doctor and the Trust of his intentions. As a registered physician, the editor has a duty to report any serious concerns to the regulatory body. _ The editor is a member of the regulatory body. which imposes a higher duty to report his concerns and act on them. _ The editor’s case for reporting was strengthened by the fact that he had taken the advice of COPE on the matter.
A research letter was submitted from a team of investigators,A, B, C, and D. In their covering letter they reported that: A was involved in planning the study, collecting patient samples, and in writing the manuscript; B measured IL-10 polymorphisms and analysed the results; C was involved in supervising the measurement of polymorphisms and in writing the manuscript; D was involved in planning the study and writing the manuscript. The letter was peer reviewed and published. The corresponding author was D. Ten days later a letter was received from B and C who work at a different institution from D, inviting us to publish an erratum. Their substantive corrections were noted, together with the comment that “in addition, we wish to point out that B and C contributed equally to the content of this report”. C also enclosed a copy of a letter to D stating that he was very unhappy about the fact that the others had never seen the proofs so that the mistakes,as shown enclosed, could have been corrected. C considered it unethical not to show coauthors the proofs. Further strong comments about the breakdown of the research collaboration followed. D replied “surprised and saddened.”He argued that in the collaboration “the idea for this research was therefore entirely generated by us”. Furthermore, he said, B and C “saw and agreed to all the changes in the short manuscript and the final version that was submitted to the journal with all our signatures.” He went on: “I had to review the proofs within 24 hours and fax them back. There was no time to send this to the other authors for their approval (and we do not do this routinely in our department as it is usually the responsibility of the corresponding author). I am very concerned that you have sent off a letter to the journal without the courtesy of letting us see it beforehand. This is most unusual behaviour and can only have a damaging effect. The erratum is curious as these changes should have been made in the original manuscript.” What do we do about the alleged and apparently disputed erratum? Should journals have a clear policy about authors (all, some, the senior, or only the corresponding) seeing galley proofs? If so,what should the policy be?
There is responsibility to ascertain if there really is an error. The editor thinks that if there is, then it is an interpretive rather than a substantive error. The authors did not see the edited manuscript. It was agreed that it is the corresponding author’s job to clear changes with other authors. D removed B and C from the collaboration. This whole situation is not the fault of the journal, but the authors themselves. The editor should: either: invite B and C to write a letter to the editor and show it to A and D for comment. This way, the editor can ventilate this problem as a duty to readers; or: go back to the authors’ institution and have them resolve the dispute.