A journal published a paper that is now under investigation by the host institution for misconduct. All authors signed that they agreed authorship and took responsibility for the content of the paper. After the investigations started, an author asked to be removed from authorship.
Questions for the COPE Forum • What should the journal do in this situation? • Should the journal permit the author to withdraw, or does agreement to authorship have irrevocable responsibilities?
The Forum agreed that the best course of action is to postpone any decision until after the investigation. In the meantime, the journal could consider publishing an expression of concern stating that an investigation on the paper is being conducted but avoiding stating that there is an authorship dispute. The journal should await the outcome of the investigation before making any changes to the paper.
The Forum suggested this could be thought of in terms of an authorship dispute and so the journal should handle it as it would for changes in authorship. Hence the journal may need to go back to the institution, as for an authorship dispute.
Are all the authors from the same institution? The author may have a legitimate reason for wanting to be removed if he is from a different institution. A suggestion for the editor was to ask the author why he wishes to be removed from the article.
The presenter of the case confirmed that the author signed the agreement in good faith and that the signature was genuine. Hence the author signed and consented to publication. According to the International Committee of Medical Journal Editors (ICMJE) guidelines (4th criteria), (http://www.icmje.org/recommendations/browse/roles-and-responsibilities/defining-the-role-of-authors-and-contributors.html) all authors have responsibility for the data and agree to help in any investigation: “Agreement to be accountable for all aspects of the work in ensuring that questions related to the accuracy or integrity of any part of the work are appropriately investigated and resolved.”
Most of the Forum agreed with a robust “no” to the request and with contacting the institution.
If the editor decides not to allow removal of the author following the investigation, he could give the dissenting author the option of publishing a comment on the published paper.
The journal found the advice from the Forum very useful and intends to follow the advice. The journal considers their concerns resolved.
A journal received an enquiry from a reader stating that they had found some discrepancies in the spectra published in the electronic supporting information for a published paper. They suggested that the discrepancies would be consistent with the spectra being manually ‘cleaned’. If this were true, the characterisation and purity of the compounds reported in the paper would be called into question.
The editor checked the spectra in close detail and verified that the discrepancies that the reader had identified were a reasonable cause for concern. The editor also checked the author’s related papers in the journal and identified a total of four papers that were affected by similar discrepancies in the spectra. When the editor contacted the lead author to discuss the concerns, they explained that ‘cleaning’ spectra to remove impurity peaks was not a practice that was carried out by their research group, and they did not believe that it had occurred in this instance. However, the researcher who had carried out the analysis had now left the group and the original data files where no longer available.
As a comparison with the original data files could not be made, the journal approached an independent expert to obtain a second opinion on the evidence available in the published spectra. The expert confirmed that there was clear evidence that the spectra had been altered and that this could be consistent with an attempt to overestimate the yields for the reported reactions.
Following this, the journal contacted the director of the institute to request their assistance in determining whether the spectra had in fact been altered. The director consulted with the lead author and the head of their facility. They confirmed that it was not possible to locate the original data due to a limitation of their archival system. They stated that their internal review had not found any ‘intentional altering of the spectra’. They stated that on that basis, the papers should not be suspected and should be allowed to stand.
This recommendation runs contrary to the evidence that we believe can be seen in the spectra, but in the absence of the original data files it is difficult to make a conclusive judgement.
Question(s) for the COPE Forum • What action should the editor now take to resolve this matter? The journal is considering two options: —accept the research institute’s recommendation that without evidence to prove deliberate manipulation of the data no further action should be taken. —publish an expression of concern notice on each of the affected articles stating that discrepancies in the spectra were identified, the institute was asked to investigate, but that the original data were not available and they found no evidence of deliberate manipulation of the spectra.
The Forum acknowledged it is difficult for the editor to decide on whether to accept the institution’s conclusions on the case or if in fact the journal should do more and work on their own investigation, involving the editorial board and/or their independent expert.
The Forum questioned the type of investigation the institution carried out. If it was a thorough research misconduct investigation, the journal should be able to rely on the results of that investigation as this usually involves multiple levels of investigation, an enquiry, with a faculty board reviewing all of the data that are then made available to the journal. However, if the journal received a relatively rapid response from the institution, then perhaps the internal review is not very reliable.
The Forum asked if the journal had a data availability policy—does the journal require the data from a study to be made available on request? The real issue is why the original data were not available. The lack of the original data is a serious concern. The minimum requirement of an institution is to curate and preserve the data, and it would be expected that any reputable institution would normally comply with data being available for a period of time after the end of the research (usually about 5 years). Hence this a failure of the institution. This alone could be grounds to retract the paper or publish an Expression of Concern.
If the editor is confident that there is a problem with the paper, and confident in the advice of their experts, then the journal should consider publishing an Expression of Concern, detailing the facts of the case, and pointing out the discrepancies between the findings of the institution and what the editor believes.
If the journal has a post-publication comments section, another suggestion was to encourage the reader to post their concerns, giving the authors a chance to respond as well as allowing more participation from readers. This would also allow for more transparency of the issue.
The journal followed-up with the institute to outline their concerns and explain that the journal would like to publish an Expression of Concern linked to each of the affected articles. The institute was supportive of that approach and so the journal is now following-up accordingly to issue the notices.
A paper was accepted in 2012 but there was a lengthy disagreement between the four authors regarding the order of authorship. The authors were advised that the paper would not be published unless all authors could sign a written agreement on the order of authorship and copyright form.
An agreement was received in 2015 that specified the order of authorship and named one of the authors as “the final corresponding author to see the paper through the rest of the process for the paper’s publication”. At the end of the agreement it was stated, “Please address any correspondence to all authors."
Subsequently, the corresponding author attempted to make ‘minor’ changes and another author, author B, rescinded his acceptance of the agreement. The corresponding author later agreed not to make changes at that time and author B stated the terms of the agreement could stand.
During the production process, the proofs were sent to the corresponding author. Changes were made during the proofing stage which author B has subsequently disputed. The corresponding author stated that all authors (including author B) were given multiple opportunities to provide specific changes and comments on the changes that other co-authors suggested.
The paper was published on early view later in the year. In 2016, author B requested retraction of the paper immediately, alleging that the agreement was voided by the changes made during proofing. The paper is still on early view and has not been included in a print issue.
The journal has corresponded with all four authors and advised them that they need to agree on the final version of the article or the journal will be forced to retract the paper because of irreconcilable differences among the authors. The correspondence has not produced any agreement so date and the authors have individually raised the prospect of litigation.
Question(s) for the COPE Forum • On balance, would the Forum agree that an ethical choice in this difficult situation would be a decision to retract with an option to resubmit with a new author byline? • What other options or advice would the Forum suggest?
The Forum advised referring this to the institution, and asking the institution to verify who should be authors on the paper and what the authorship order should be. It is not up to the editor or journal to investigate this issue. As three of the authors are based at one institution, it would be reasonable to ask the institution to mediate in this situation.
There may be copyright issues, if the dissenting author no longer agrees with the content of the article, as all authors have joint copyright. Again, the institution needs to resolve this—this cannot be decided by the editor.
One view was to tell the authors that unless they sort out their differences their manuscript will be retracted. However, another view was that if there are no scientific concerns with the paper, it would be difficult to make a case for retraction. If the journal is confident that the data are valid, then there are no grounds for retraction, but an Expression of Concern could be published stating the concerns of all of the authors. Another suggestion was to issue a correction notice stating which authors support and which authors do not support the current version of the paper, thereby avoiding having to retract the paper in what is essentially an authorship dispute.
Does the journal ask for contributorship statements from the authors? This may clarify the issues around authorship.
Authorship order is a common problem and the issue of who should be listed in what order differs by discipline. There can also be cultural differences as well as different practices in different countries. Hence it can be difficult for authors to navigate.
The journal has reached agreement in principle with the authors on a revised author order and statement regarding the research, but to date, only one author has returned the sign off sheet. The journal is hopeful to receive the rest shortly.
An article was published in July. In October, a corrigendum was published to correct large sections of unattributed text. Two weeks later the journal and publisher received a complaint from a reader who accused the author of the published article of using text from an unpublished collaborative manuscript on which the published author was participating. This participation on the collaborative work was initiated and ongoing during the time that the manuscript was being prepared for publication at the journal. The unpublished collaborative work has not yet been published.
The reader requested retraction of the published article, with the possibility of a republication only when all collaborators of the unpublished work were in agreement with the article content.
The publisher and journal initiated the procedure outlined in the COPE flowchart 'Suspected plagiarism in a published manuscript'. The editor-in-chief has requested feedback from the published author on the reason for the large overlap in text.
Question(s) for the COPE Forum
• Should the publisher and journal publish an 'expression of concern' while continuing with the investigation? • Is this the correct approach in this situation?
The editor told the Forum that she had checked the articles and the degree of overlap of text was nearly 20%. The Forum warned that percentages can be misleading, and the editor needs to look carefully at where the overlap occurred (in the introduction and methods may be fine, but it can be more problematic in the results or conclusion sections).
The institution(s) may need to be involved in this case.
The Forum would advise against an expression of concern on the article as these are generally used for ongoing unresolved cases. In this case, there is nothing proven or finalised —it may ‘end’ in a correction or a retraction. Hence it may be premature to publish an expression of concern and the editor should wait for a response from the authors. There is also the issue of the negative connotations of an expression of concern and/or stigma for the author, which may be unwarranted
A suggestion was for a less permanent ‘Editor’s note’ on the article for now, written in neutral terms.
The journal’s review of the guidelines on text recycling led to the conclusion that the scientific content was not disputed, and in fact the article adds to the body of knowledge. Also, the text recycling was not in the discussion or conclusions but rather in the methodology. The journal decided not to publish an expression of concern or retract the publication. The editor considers the case closed.
We received a claim that several authors were removed from an article published in one of our journals before the article was submitted. None of those said to have been removed were acknowledged.
The claimant requested retraction. They said the article was previously submitted to other journals, listing them as an author. They provided what they said was an earlier version of the article submitted to another publisher, which listed those additional authors, including themselves. The articles were the same, with small differences in language. They provided what they said were rejection letters from other journals, including the additional authors.
The claimant was reluctant to be named and expressed concern about repercussions; we explained the claim could not otherwise be investigated by the institution. They agreed we could contact the authors and institution. We did, and the claimant stated the authors threatened them. The submitting author said the claimant should not have been an author and the claimant agreed to this, and provided signed statements from the other removed authors agreeing to being removed. We contacted these removed authors and they each confirmed they participated in the work, but did not want to be listed as authors.
The submitting author did not show us the agreement from the claimant to not be an author. The claimant informed us that one of these other people said they were presented with a pre-written statement to sign in English, which is not their native language.
We asked the institution to investigate. After several months, the institutional committee informed us of their decision: the claimant provided an email statement agreeing not to be listed as an author; our published author list was correct; the claimant would be penalised professionally for harming the institution’s reputation.
We asked to see a copy of the claimant’s email in which they agreed not to be an author, but this was not provided despite repeated requests. The institutional contact told us they had left their post and directed us to contact the article’s senior author. The claimant informed us this earlier statement applied to a different article. The claimant said we should have investigated this claim ourselves and by not doing so we exposed them to negative consequences; they suggested they might take legal action against us. We referred them to the COPE guidelines, 'Request for addition of extra author after publication'. They said they would consider legal action against the institution.
We let the institution know, through another contact, that an option for contributors who do not meet criteria for authorship is to be acknowledged and we confirmed the investigation is confidential so will not have affected their reputation; we did not receive a reply.
Question(s) for the COPE Forum • Could the claim involving authorship have been made anonymously? • Could we have investigated further before involving the authors and/or institution? • Should COPE rules be revised when dealing with uncooperative or potentially biased institutional review committees? • Is there anything further we can or should do now?
The Forum asked if there is a national body or research integrity office that the journal could contact and ask them to investigate?
The Forum agreed that it is almost impossible to deal with an authorship dispute without revealing the names of those involved, and that there was little else the journal could have done under these circumstances. The Forum did not believe the journal could have investigated any more.
The journal could use this as an opportunity to say to the institution that they expect all institutions to cooperate and to have good processes in place for such issues, and remind them that they are ultimately publicly responsible for decisions on authorship.
One suggestion was that the journal could consider issuing an expression of concern, which may allow the author to have some form of acknowledgement and it also may induce the institution to follow-up.
Another suggestion was for the editor to write an editorial on this issue.
Dealing with uncooperative or potentially biased institutional review committees is an issue COPE could explore further with institutions.
The journal attempted to contact oversight bodies, but have not received a response. The claimant says they have taken legal action against the authors. The journal separately received a legal claim regarding the contents of the article, but could not verify the contact details of that claimant and they did not respond to our queries.
The author X of a paper published by journal A complained to the editor-in-chief of journal A that his/her paper has been plagiarised by a paper that has been published later by journal B. Moreover, the authors of the paper in journal B allegedly did not respond to letters sent by author X asking for an explanation about the apparent plagiarism.
The editor-in-chief of journal A compared the two papers and confirmed the plagiarism. Then s/he tried to contact the editor-in-chief of journal B, but no response was received, even after several reminders. Similarly, no more successful were attempts by a representative of the publishing house of journal A to contact any representative of the publishing house of journal B.
Author X continues to ask what journal A (where his/her plagiarised paper has been published) can do for him/her. Journal A is considering publishing either an expression of concern or a ‘note of plagiarism’ on its paper that would inform the community that the paper in journal A has been plagiarised by a paper in journal B.
Question(s) for the COPE Forum • Is journal A entitled to publish an expression of concern or ‘note of plagiarism’ in the absence of any reaction from the author/editor-in-chief/publisher of paper B? • Can this expression of concern/note be published based only on the assessment of the editor-in-chief of journal A?
The Forum agreed that there is often little that the editor can do in these situations when another journal refuses to engage.
One suggestion was to contact the publisher of journal B if there is no response from the editor. The publisher should responsibility in these cases so escalating the issue to the publisher level should be considered. If journal B is a member of COPE, a complaint to COPE could be lodged. The editor could also consider contacting the institution of the author who had plagiarised the work.
There could be copyright issues here, with violation of copyright by journal B (if copyright was transferred to journal A by the author). Therefore, legal action could be considered.
There are instances where unscrupulous journals do not respond to these requests and in these circumstances the Forum would advise journal A to post a note on the paper. The note would also clarify which of the papers is plagiarised. The note should be worded in neutral terms. However, it is unlikely that author X would be satisfied with a note in journal A; he probably wants the paper removed from journal B. If journal A holds copyright to the plagiarised paper, then legal action may be the only option.
A university institutional review board (IRB) investigation found that there was extensive data fabrication in connection with a clinical research study. Three articles and one abstract reporting results from this clinical study were published. Our journal published the abstract, which we intend to retract. The three articles have been retracted by the journals that published those articles.
Given the serious and extensive nature of the data fabrication, and the fact that the research involved infants, a very vulnerable group of subjects, we are very concerned about the fact that several other articles by this author have been published in our journal. Although the research reported in these articles was not within the scope of the university IRB investigation, the research was conducted at that institution and by the same individual. We feel we have a responsibility to alert the readers of these articles to the findings of the IRB report.
Question(s) for the COPE Forum • Is there justification to publish an expression of concern about articles that report research not specifically reviewed in the IRB investigation?
The Forum advised against making a unilateral decision to publish an expression if there is no concrete evidence or proof of misconduct related directly to these papers. This could have huge implications for the editor and the journal.
Is the institution conducting an investigation at present? If the editor has concerns about these papers, then he should contact the institution or the review board who initiated the original investigation and inform them that there are concerns with these papers and ask them to investigate. It would be premature to post an expression of concern without first contacting the institution. Also, if there is no ongoing investigation, it would be inappropriate for the journal to publish an expression of concern.
The editor should also consider the fact that there may be innocent co-authors.
One suggestion was for the journal to consider conducting their own investigation and getting a review board to look at all of the author’s work.
The majority of the Forum agreed that going back to the institution and asking for an investigation was worthwhile; if the institution agrees, then the editor can publish an expression of concern.
In November 2014, the first author of a decade old paper in our journal and a 15-year-old paper from another journal informed us that he faked the data in two figure panels in the paper in our journal and one figure panel in the paper in the other journal. The main gist of the manipulation was loading unequal amounts or delayed loading of gel lanes.
Self-admission of data falsification is a serious charge that is difficult to disprove, and we felt a challenge to identify evidence to counter or support this type of allegation. As general guidelines, we felt there were three types of evidence that could help resolve the standoff: (1) compelling original raw data with evidence for or against unequal or delayed gel loading; (2) verified replication already existing within the published literature; and (3) as a last resort, a replication study performed by a wholly independent laboratory.
In December 2014, we asked the first author to contact the corresponding author of both papers and the institute, but he refused. We informed the first author that we would inform the corresponding author of the papers and this might result in violating his confidentiality. In January 2015, we informed the corresponding author that we had received self-admission of fraud from the first author and asked the corresponding author to retrieve original raw data for the figures in question and provide them to us. We also urged the corresponding author to engage the institute ethics committee and get in touch with the first author in gaining a deeper understanding of the challenges.
In February 2015, we spoke with the corresponding author by telephone. The corresponding author did not believe that the first author had faked the data. We discussed potential ways to counter a compelling self-admission and agreed that the corresponding author would provide us with the raw data by the end of March 2015 and would inform his institute.
In March 2015, we were contacted by his institute. On request, we provided the contact information of the first author to the institute’s investigation committee after obtaining permission from the first author. The corresponding author told us that he has located all of the raw data. In contrast with what we agreed by telephone, he told us that he would not be sending us the raw data directly but would pass them to the committee. The first author provided both us and the committee with data that he said was contemporaneously produced and showed a different result from what was published, that he said was without manipulation with gel loading and showed no experimental effect.
In April 2015, we asked the committee to share their investigation results with us and also asked the corresponding author to provide the copy of the raw data to us. But the corresponding author and committee refused to share any useful information with us. The committee told us by email that they have an obligation to protect the corresponding author’s reputation.
In May 2015, we spoke with the research integrity officials of the institute by telephone and they agreed to share more information with us. In early June 2015, we received a summary but not the full version of the committee report, which cites that no further action is warranted because the evidence they gathered can neither support nor refute the first author’s self-admission. We were not provided with any of the original data. The summary report included information such as promotion schedules of both the first and corresponding authors, but these seemed irrelevant to us. We felt it essential that we have access to the full scientific information on which the committee based its recommendation.
In late June 2015, the institute shared with us the full report of their investigation. We were able to understand from this that their conclusion that no further action is warranted was based on the fact that there was no recorded falsification in the laboratory notebook. We feel this reason is not sufficient to counter self-admission of fraud as someone who intentionally fakes data would not likely record it in their laboratory notebook. We therefore were unsatisfied with recommendation to take no further action.
In July 2015, we interviewed the first author via Skype and asked him to describe again how he generated the data and how he intentionally manipulated the data to fake the results. What he described over Skype was consistent with what he has described to us in previous correspondences.
In July 2015, we also spoke with an institute senior official and explained again that only contemporaneous data collected by the first author, contemporaneous data collected by other members of the laboratory, or direct replication of the data by an independent laboratory reported in the published literature would be necessary to counter the first author’s self-admission of fraud. Since none of these avenues turned up evidence to counter the self-admission, we suggested that the experiments in question could be independently repeated by a third party or the paper will need to be retracted.
In August 2015, the corresponding author agreed to proceed to have the data in question independently repeated by a third party. We are now instructing the corresponding author to reach out to a laboratory to start repeating the experiments. While he agreed in principle, the corresponding author is dragging his feet and we are uncomfortable sitting on a serious allegation and eager to move forward with a resolution in a timely and responsible manner.
Question(s) for the COPE Forum • What are COPE's recommended procedures for handling self-admissions of fraud? • What is the journal’s responsibility when one author self proclaims fraud and another author says no fraud occurred? • What is the responsibility of the journal if the journal thinks an institutional investigation was not evidence based.
The Forum noted that this was a very unusual case, both fascinating and alarming. At its heart it would appear to an authorship dispute, and the journal was correct in involving the institution. The Forum suggested contacting all of the authors and asking for their input. It would seem that the only clear way of resolving the issue is to replicate the study and try to reproduce the results.
The Forum questioned why it has taken the corresponding author 10 years to contact the journal, as it would seem to be professional suicide. The Japanese government has recently issued guidelines to institutions to clean up their act following the Japanese stem cell scandal—could this be a factor?
The Forum acknowledged that the journal has handled this correctly by taking the allegations seriously. The Forum suggested publishing an expression of concern. The expression of concern should be worded in a neutral manner without apportioning blame or accusing the author. This also may prompt the corresponding author into action.
The Forum suggested continuing to work with the corresponding author to replicate the study. The only way to resolve this completely is to try to replicate the study, and it is in the interests of the corresponding author if he wishes to stand by his allegations. The journal does have a responsibility to pursue an independent investigation if the journal thinks the institutional investigation was not evidence based. The journal should give the corresponding author a time limit, after which the journal should review the situation and either amend the expression of concern or retract the paper.
The journal has published an expression of concern and will keep readers updated when the results of the investigation are available.
Follow up (October 2016):
The journal has now published two editorial expressions of concern and followed up with two editorial notes, explaining that the results of the independent investigations were inconclusive. The editor considers the case closed.
The editor of journal A was alerted to the fact that an article published in journal A had been previously published in journal B and constituted a duplicate publication. The editor contacted the authors who explained that they had tried to withdraw the article from journal B but their request was ignored and the article was published against their wishes.
The authors contacted journal B with a request to retract the article. Journal B removed the article from its website but did not publish a retraction notice or any explanation as to why the article had been removed. The article published in journal B was not indexed in any indexing services, but the title can still be found by a search in Google Scholar.
The editor of journal A wonders if they need to alert the readership to the fact that a reference to the same article in journal B can be found. They feel that retraction of the article from journal A is not the correct course of action in this case because the article is scientifically sound, and currently only the version published in journal A is available. However, readers may still be misled by references to journal B that can be found on the internet.
Question(s) for the COPE Forum • Should journal A publish an ‘Expression of concern’ to highlight the duplicate publication in the past. However, the article in journal B is no longer available. Perhaps a comment in the comments system of journal A would suffice?
COPE does not seem to have clear guidelines in one place on how and when to use Expressions of concern (although we appreciate they are referred to in various Cases and in the Retraction Guidelines). It is also not clear whether they should be used as temporary notes or permanent publications (or can be both?). Different publishers use them on a case-by-case basis in an inconsistent way. PubMed recognizes an Expression of concern as a type of comment. We thought that it may be useful to discuss Expressions of concern in one of the future COPE discussion Forums to gather opinions from different publishers with a view to develop a more detailed set of guidelines for editors.
The Forum discussed issues relating to punishing the author and correcting the literature. Retractions or corrections should only be used to correct the literature—not for “punishment” In the first instance a notice needs to go on the article in journal A, which could be an expression of concern. Under normal circumstances, the article in journal B should be the one that remains, but the article is currently only available in journal A. Hence the only way of having transparency around this case is for a formal note to be added to journal A. It is essential that the formal note is a form that can be indexed and is citable. It could be an addendum, if that is linked to the article or an expression of concern.
The Forum also noted that the authors should be made aware that simultaneous submissions then withdrawing an article from one journal because you wish to publish it in another journal is not acceptable behaviour, if that is what happened in this case.
COPE agreed to consider the topic of expressions of concern for a Forum discussion.
The editor of journal A followed COPE advice and published a permanent notice in journal A (an expression of concern that is indexed and citable) explaining the duplicate publication that was removed from journal B and linking the note to the original publication in journal A. The editor considers the case now closed.