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.
In 2008, our journal published a phase 2 randomised controlled trial of a new medicine. In 2011, the regulatory authority in the country where the study was performed decided to undertake routine monitoring of completed studies and this trial was selected for random inspection. The author informed the journal of the inspection and provided a translation of the report (independently verified as accurate by our journal).
The following concerns were raised by the regulatory authorities: (1) There was no medical involvement in the process for informed consent, which was delegated to a non-medical practitioner. The country’s regulations require that a medical practitioner informs a participant and confirms this. The local ethics committee has been informed by the regulator about this lapse. (2) The integrity of blinding was questioned in an earlier inspection in 2007 and because of comments about the treatment’s efficacy and side effects by one of the investigators while the trial was underway. (3) The recording and assessment of adverse events was incomplete and the inspectors felt that the table of adverse events published in our journal did not reflect the clinical records for product safety.
The manuscript had two rounds of peer-review (seven reviews by four clinicians and a statistician). The only point of relevance to the above concerns was the comment that “the main weakness of the study is inadequate data on safety and adverse effects (in part unsurprising as this was a proof of efficacy study) and a rather overly positive presentation of the data”. The manuscript was revised and re-reviewed by this reviewer and a statistician; both were satisfied that the points had been addressed in the revision. After publication of the research article, our journal published two letters as correspondence. In one, the possibility of certain adverse events was raised, to which the authors replied that these had not been observed.
The authors have submitted a correction that states incorrect instructions by the contract research organisation resulted in under-reporting of adverse events for headache, migraine, stress and depression in people who had experienced these conditions before enrolling in the trial. They also state that comments about the medicine made to local media were based on another study. The editors are concerned that taken in their totality, the issues raised by the regulator question the soundness of our publication. As we gather more information and await the ethics committee’s decision about the process for informed consent, the editors would be interested in learning what actions COPE would recommend.
The Forum advised that if the editor cannot decide what to do, a statement of concern could be published in the interim. If the editor thinks the methodology was insufficient (to detect side effects), then he should consider retracting the paper. Clearly a correction needs to be done. The expression of concern should mention the fact that the table of side effects may not be correct, in addition to the issue relating to consent. The editor told the Forum that he does not believe there has been any misconduct and the authors wrote the paper in good faith. On a show of hands, nine people suggested that the editor should do an expression of concern detailing the chain of events. Only two people thought the paper should be retracted. Hence the consensus was that it would be appropriate to put a statement of concern on the paper.
The journal has received a letter from the author that responds to the expression of concern and the inspection report. At present, the precise wording is being negotiated with the author.
Update (September 2013):
The journal published an expression of concern and a letter from the authors that responded to the expression of concern and the inspection report. Although there was insufficient evidence to retract the publication, the editors felt that uncertainties about the study persisted and therefore decided that the expression of concern should remain part of the published record.
Following publication of an article, a reader posted a comment raising some questions about the data analysis in the study and the availability of the dataset. We followed-up with the authors and they offered to share the dataset with the reader—the dataset involves genetic information from potentially identifiable patients and as a result the authors indicated that the deposition of the data was not possible due to patient privacy concerns. After several months the reader indicated that he had not received the dataset from the authors and that he had discussed the study with a member of the editorial board who shared the concerns about the reliability of the results reported. We further followed-up with the authors to reiterate the request for the dataset and they made the dataset available to the editors and the reader.
The reader has re-analyzed the datasets provided by the authors and he indicates that his results do not support the conclusions reported in the article. The re-analysis has been evaluated by the editorial board member who previously commented on the article and he agreed that the reliability of the findings in the article is compromised by the results of the re-analysis. We asked the authors to provide a response to the results of the re-analysis and we indicated that, in the light of the concerns raised, it may be necessary to consider retraction of the article. The authors have replied and offered to collaborate with the reader in further analyses, however they suggest that the differences in the results may be due to the different methodologies employed for the analyses and they have not formally agreed to retract the article.
We have offered the reader to submit his re-analysis for publication but he is not interested in doing this; he is however willing for us to make his re-analysis publicly available via a public notification on the published article if we decide that such a notification is necessary.
In the light of the concerns raised about the study, should we post a formal public notification on the article in order to alert readers of the concerns about the validity of the findings? If so, would it be appropriate to proceed with a retraction or given that the authors have not agreed to this, consider instead the publication of an expression of concern?
The Forum suggested that a better course of action would have been if the editor had asked the authors for their comments on the re-analysis, and then submitted the results of the re-analysis and the authors comments to an independent expect to review.
Although the reader is happy to have the re-analysis attached to a commentary, this will not be formally indexed or linked to the original article. The Forum agreed that ideally, the reader should publish the re-analysis. The suggestion was for the editor to try to persuade the reader to publish the results of the re-analysis. Getting the re-analysis published formally is the best option. If the reader still refuses to publish, then the editor should ask the authors to respond to the re-analysis and then ask an independent reviewer to look at all of the data and then publish this as a comment on the article itself.
In the light of the advice provided by the COPE Forum, the editor followed-up with the reader and he has agreed to submit his re-analysis for publication. The editor is awaiting the submission of the piece describing the re-analysis.
A manuscript was published by journal X and submitted by author A (last author). Author B claims that fraud occurred in relation to authorship for the following reasons.
(1) Author A did not take part in producing the data for the paper and has never been a co-author on any version of the manuscript. (2) A paper with very similar content ,which was part of the PhD thesis of author C (first author), was accepted for publication in journal Y. (3) The figures in the paper published in journal X were identical to the figures in author C’s PhD thesis. (4) The name of author B was misspelt in the paper published in journal X to avoid identification of the article search in PubMed.
The editor of journal X contacted all of the authors by email and they responded as follows: author C (first author), author D and author E agreed with author B (claiming author). Author F did not respond, despite receiving five emails.
In addition, author B sent us a letter signed by the Vice-Rector at his University, agreeing and supporting the point raised by author B.
Author A (last author) disagreed with all of the allegations and pointed out the following. (1) Author A declared that he was the principle investigator of the project in country Z during 2004–2009, and the role of author B was to help in the analysis of the samples in his laboratory, located in country W. (2) Author A submitted an official complaint to author B’s university, alleging that they (authors B, C and D) had no right to use data without notifying or asking his permission. In addition, they did not have any patient consent. (3) The paper published in journal X was the original manuscript and it was circulated to all of the authors. (4) The name of author B was misspelled in journal X by mistake.
Author B requests that the paper must be retracted from journal X, and he also demands that the editors ensure that the paper will disappear from PubMed.
In summary, all of the authors confirm that the data are correct but they disagree regarding the issue of authorship?
Because of the quality of the phone line, it was not possible to discuss this case at the forum. Council instead gave the following advice on this case.
All agreed it was a complicated case and it would be useful to know which paper was submitted and published first, X or Y, although it seems likely it was X. Also what is the role of author F, is he/she affiliated with the institution of author A or authors B, C and D? Before dealing with the authorship dispute, it is essential to confirm whether patient consent was required and obtained. There are grounds for retraction of the paper if the study was not conducted ethically. Is journal Y aware of this dispute? As both parties disagree on the fundamental points, such as whether author A was involved at all in the study, official documentation and, if available, email conversations need to be produced to consider how to proceed. Hence more information gathering and a request for a formal investigation by the institution should be undertaken to find out exactly what the real issues are first. It might be useful for the journal to check or ask for information from both parties on national regulations and institutional policies for transfer of biological material and data sharing in this case of collaborative research.
The paper cannot “disappear” from PubMed, but at this point, most agreed that an “Expression of Concern” should be issued immediately and the editors need to investigate further the issues of (1) patient consent, (2) overlapping content and (3) the roles of each author on both manuscripts. Institutional input is also needed and the editor should clarify if the statements from the university vice rectors resulted from a formal inquiry.
The ethical issue can be compounded by the policy by some universities that if they conduct research outside of their own country, they require dual ethical approval by (1) that university and (2) whatever ethical system is in place in the countries where the research is undertaken.
The editor published an expression of concern in his journal, stating that one of the authors had questioned the authorship of the corresponding author. The submission is on hold and the authors have been all informed of the claim. The investigation by the journal has not yet reached a conclusion. Pending the results of the investigations, the journal decided to publish an expression of concern to alert readers to the fact that serious questions have been raised about the authorship of the paper.
Update (June 2013):
The paper was first submitted in journal Y, but it was first published in journal X.
Author F is affiliated with the institution of author A.
The institutional input from university of author B (Vice-Rector) stated that authors B, C and D are the legitimate owner of the data, and confirmed that authors B, C and D were not informed about the submission to journal X.
Ethical approval by the university in both countries was presented by author B, but not by author A.
Authors B, C and D stated that there has been no contact with author A for more than 7 years, and the research was performed long after author A left the research collaboration.
Further questions to COPE:
Author B stated that author A committed plagiarism and requested that the paper must be retracted. There is considerable evidence that plagiarism may have occurred by author A. What would the COPE suggest we do?
Advice on follow up:
(COPE council provided the following advice.) Publication of an expression of concern was the correct route but this now needs a resolution. It appears to Council that there is sufficient evidence that the paper should be formally retracted at this point.
Provided the editor is confident that the account they have is correct, ie, that there is no further information available from the institution, they could consider retraction on the following grounds according to the COPE guidelines: • “The findings have previously been published elsewhere without proper crossreferencing, permission or justification (ie, cases of redundant publication).” In this case the findings were not published previously but were submitted earlier. • “This constitutes plagiarism.”
However, it would be essential for the editors to do a timeline, listing the issues, so that the retraction statement is clear and accurate and can be agreed by the authors and the institution(s) involved before issuing the retraction, even if it is likely that only authors B, C and D will agree to the retraction notice. The retraction notice much also note who agrees to it.
On noticing a high volume of submissions from corresponding author A, editor X flagged up concerns with the preferred reviewers being suggested and their comments. Author A had in most cases suggested the same preferred reviewers for each submission, preferred reviewer accounts had non-attributable email addresses, comments were being returned very quickly (within 24 hours) and were often brief and positive, largely restricted to grammatical changes. All preferred reviewers favoured immediate acceptance or acceptance subject to minor revisions.
Author A was asked to provide further information on the preferred reviewers and admitted that these were either dummy accounts or associates of author A. The dummy accounts had email accounts accessible by author A and/or author A’s students or collaborators. Author A asked the preferred reviewers (or the people behind the accounts) to submit favourable reviews of the papers and turn them around quickly or author A submitted the reviews via the dummy account. Author A admitted employing this system for a number of papers, but not every paper, although we found similar patterns of peer review activity for these also. Author A states that the papers’ co-authors were not aware of this activity.
Author A has agreed to retract published papers for which they admit to influencing the peer review process and we are planning retraction notices for these. We are now seeking advice as to what to do about the remaining published papers to which author A has not admitted influencing the peer review process. We suspect the peer review of these other articles was compromised through use of preferred reviewers suggested by author A, but we have no evidence that these preferred reviewers used dummy accounts or that the article content is flawed. We are therefore considering issuing an expression of concern for these papers.
We have attempted to make contact with all co-authors to explain the problem and seek their approval for the chosen course of action. Only three co-authors have responded, two supporting our decision, and one (whose paper we planned to issue an expression of concern for) replied that it was unfair on the co-authors without any concrete evidence. Author A’s institution has been contacted but we have received no response.
We respectfully ask COPE to provide advice on managing those papers author A has not agreed to retract and, in particular, the case where a co-author disagrees with our intention to issue an expression of concern
The Forum agreed that there are many issues involved here, not least a serious form of misconduct which may even be criminal, as the author was impersonating the reviewers and committing fraud by using colleagues as false reviewers and, possibly impersonating other reviewers. In addition, as the author has admitted fraud, can the editor trust the validity of any of the papers?
The advice was to contact the author’s institution and inform them of the situation, explaining the author’s inappropriate and possibly criminal behaviour. The editor should also contact the reviewers who were the associates of the author who provided favourable reviews and contact their institutions.
The Forum advised re-reviewing the remaining published papers to which author A has not admitted influencing the peer review process. If the journal wishes to stand by these papers, then it is essential that all of the papers are re-reviewed. In the meantime, an expression of concern should be issued for all of these papers. One suggestion was to inform the author of the course of action that the journal is going to undertake and see if he wishes to retract all of these papers.
The Forum noted that the journal should take some responsibility for failure of their peer review system. Good practice is always to check the names, addresses and email contacts of reviewers, and especially those that are recommended by authors. Editors should never use only the preferred reviewer.
The journal has now published (or is in the process of publishing) retraction notices for all of the papers that the corresponding author agreed to retract. The journal has taken the suggestion from the Forum of ‘re-doing’ the peer review process for the other papers seriously and are planning on doing this
The institution contacted us and wants to discuss the details of what we found out as they investigate the author.
There are still two outstanding issues: (1) the other non-retracted papers; and (2) the decision of the author’s institution on what action they will take.
Following publication of an article, the editors noticed that the paper reported results of a clinical trial, but no details of trial registration were included in the article. (The journal does have careful checks on trial registration by staff at submission but this paper was not well written and it took careful reading to work out that it did in fact report on a clinical trial).
We contacted the authors to request details on trial registration and the study protocol, which are journal requirements for clinical trials. The senior author (co-chair A of his institution) eventually acknowledged that the trial had not been registered and they provided a document for the study protocol which we considered unsatisfactory. The authors at that stage requested ‘withdrawal’ of the article.
We replied to the authors to indicate we had the intention of issuing a notice of concern based on lack of trial registration. Given the new issue about the lack of a satisfactory protocol for the study reported, we then requested a copy of the letter of approval issued by the ethics committee/institutional review board cited in the article. Around this time, we were spontaneously contacted by co-chair B of the authors’ institution (who is not an author on the paper) expressing serious concerns over the work reported given that:
(1) they considered the description of the work as potentially misleading given it fulfilled the criteria for a clinical trial; and (2) the ethics committee/institutional review board cited in the article does not exist at the authors’ institution.
Co-chair B indicated they would like to remain anonymous but would be willing to publicly outline their concerns as part of an internal investigation if a formal request for an enquiry was sent to the institution. We did not hear back from the authors for some time after our request for a copy of the ethics committee approval, so we posted a comment on the article to make the readers aware about the fact that the article did not adhere to the journal’s requirements for clinical trials and replied to the authors to explain the implications of a retraction—versus a ‘withdrawal’—and also reiterate the request for the letter of approval issued by the ethics committee.
In a further development, the authors finally then contacted us to say that the study was not in fact done at their institution but in a separate part of the country, that they did have approval from an ethics committee other than the one stated in the paper and provided a copy of that ethical approval in a non-English language. They provided no explanation for the discrepancies in study setting and ethical approval. It is not clear to us who recruited the participants as no authors seem to be based at the institution now claimed as providing ethical approval.
We have been unable to independently verify the authenticity of the claimed ethical approval and have concerns about the discrepancies in the various accounts of what took place. We think it is important to retract the paper and propose to do that, highlighting the lack of trial registration, lack of an appropriate protocol and that the ethics committee named in the article did not seem to give approval.
Is it adequate to proceed to retract the article on the basis of the concerns raised and the lack of an adequate response from the authors, given that we have been unable to establish whether the trial did or did not receive ethical approval? We also propose to submit a formal request for investigation to co-chair B of the institution (who currently wishes to be an anonymous complainant) and update the retraction later should we receive further clarification from them.
The Forum agreed that the editor certainly has enough grounds to issue an expression of concern. However, most agreed with the suggestion that the editor should submit a formal request for an investigation to be carried out by the institution. If the investigation provides evidence of misconduct, then the editor should retract the paper.
However, some of the Forum argued that there are already grounds for retraction and that retraction is justified on the basis of the lack of appropriate protocol, lack of trial registration and possible lack of ethics committee approval. Hence, although ideally a formal investigation should be conducted and the editor should wait for the outcome, if the institution does not respond or if the response is unsatisfactory, the editor should retract the paper anyway.
The editor wrote to the co-chair of the institution to ask for a formal investigation, and received an acknowledgement to say this would be done. The editor has not yet received any further details from them but is following up to find out more.
The journal plans to issue an expression of concern and have had to set up the ability to do this as a new type of article in their production systems.
Follow up (December 2011):
We heard from the institution's investigation committee, which determined that the trial had not been conducted by the authors of the paper published in our journal. Rather, the authors of our paper had received samples from the investigators who had conducted the trial, and were reporting results of analyses done on those samples. The individual named in the investigation committee report as the principal investigator for the trial was not named in the manuscript published in our journal, either as an author or as an acknowledged person. The investigation committee reported that the oversight and conduct of the trial had been appropriate, but that ethics approval had in fact been given by a different ethics committee from the one named in the manuscript published.
The investigation committee reported that the trial, funded by a commercial company, had in fact been carried out at the company, recruiting as participants employees of the company. We were not aware of this fact when we published the paper and the setting and participant recruitment for the trial were not well described in the manuscript. The investigation committee reported that they would not have expected this study to have been registered as a trial, bearing in mind their country's local laws. This was because the intervention used in the trial was an approved medicinal product —essentially it was a postmarketing study. In that country, such studies do not need to be registered.
The journal editors have decided to proceed with an expression of concern, noting that the ethics committee named in the paper as giving approval in fact did not, and that a different ethics committee gave approval. We plan to describe the setting for recruitment of participants and state that the company employees were participants. We would like to state that the trial was not registered and should have been, under our journal's criteria and ICMJE criteria, even though it may not have been a legal requirement in that country.
The editorial office of journal A was contacted anonymously by an individual who made allegations against two papers, both published by the same author. Paper 1 was alleged to be a duplicate publication, with the paper previously having been published in journal B. The editorial office of journal A, in accordance with the COPE flowcharts, contacted the author informing them of the allegations and asking for a response/explanation. The author freely admitted to the duplicate publication and paper 1 is in the process of being retracted.
The allegation against paper 2 was image manipulation consisting of false bands being included in an assay figure. The editorial office reviewed the images and believes that they have been manipulated. As such they would like to retract the paper from journal A. When the author was contacted he admitted that some of the figures had been made by copy/paste but he maintained that the conclusions of the article are correct.
Numerous other journals have been contacted about similar alleged misconduct by this author, who believes that the accusations must be politically motivated.
The editorial office carried out further investigation of other papers published by the same author in journal A and found another instance of apparent image manipulation (paper 3). When contacted, the author made the same statement as above. When a co-author of this paper at another institution was contacted for his position, he defended the corresponding author and stated that it was inconceivable to him that serious claims of scientific misconduct made by an unidentified accuser could be applied here. Moreover, he claimed that none of the experiments was performed in his laboratory.
As the author denied any real wrongdoing, but to the editorial team it seems quite obvious that the figures have been manipulated, the editors of journal A contacted the author’s institution and asked for a response within 3 months. They have not received a reply from the institution.
The editorial team is certain that the figures have been manipulated to provide false data and would therefore like to retract the relevant articles (papers 2 and 3) despite the author’s denial of any wrongdoing and no contact from the author’s institution. In consultation with the publisher for journal A, it is felt that the best way to proceed would be to issue a non-specific notice of retraction for the relevant papers, thus avoiding potential charges of defamation.
Would the Forum agree with this course of action or does it have any other views?
The Forum questioned whether the editor had contacted the correct person at the institution. Ideally the case should be investigated by the institution so perhaps the editor should keep pursuing the institution. The editor could send a registered letter if email has elicited no response. If there is a funding body or ethics committee, this could be another avenue to pursue.
Ideally the editor should issue an expression of concern and then issue a retraction if there is evidence of misconduct after an investigation has been conducted by the institution. The Forum would advise against issuing a non-specific notice of retraction. However, if there is no response from the institution and the editor wants to retract the article, he should state all of the facts in the retraction notice, in a non-accusatory way, with his reasons for retraction, and mention that the institution has failed to respond.
As one of the authors is from a different institution, another suggestion was to contact that institution and request an investigation on the basis that all authors should take responsibility for published work.
The articles involved were retracted from the journal.
In a recent and very prominent case of publication misconduct resulting in the retraction of 12 research papers (to date), many journals have been included in ‘round-mails’ from the whistleblower and other scientists. Our journal (a reviews and features journal) has published a review from the main author associated with the misconduct, which contains reference to six of the retracted papers.
As editor, I have been urged a number of times via email (the true sender of which was not always clear) to retract the said review. At first—before the full extent of the retractions was confirmed—I could do no more than wait, rather than react prematurely, although even at that stage, tracking and trying to verify the claims took some time. Now I have analysed the review—which took a significant chunk of time—and identified the parts that cite the six references. Those constitute around 18% of the body text, mainly the more novel insights.
Qualitatively—and that is clearly more important than quantity—it is exceedingly hard to judge whether the retraction of the six articles nullifies those conclusions and insights. I should furthermore assume that the rest of the review is in order unless (till) proven otherwise. In fairness, I think that if any corrective measure is to be taken, it amounts to a corrigendum noting that the said references have been retracted.
However, I am concerned about the additional workload that investigating the impact of retractions could have if we generally adopt the procedure of publishing corrigenda for every article that they affect. An alternative way of looking at the problem is to acknowledge that retracted references are registered as ‘retracted’ in the scientific indexes (although only if the journal concerned is indexed), and in the venues of publication, and hence on tracing a reference to its source, the reader of the review in which it is cited will see that the particular section of text is no longer supported by a published article.
I am in a quandary between providing the most up to date information in immediate connection with an article and getting into something that could consume significant amounts of already very stretched editorial resources, and then, more importantly, require further corrigenda on the same article if more references are found to be faulty at some point in the future: a seemingly never-ending story...
What is COPE’s advice?
The Forum agreed that the main priority is to inform the journal’s readers of the situation. The advice was to issue an expression of concern, stating the facts, that around 18% of the review text relates to retracted papers. It is then up to readers to evaluate the review and draw their own conclusions. The Forum questioned if the editor believed the article is tainted because the author has already been associated with misconduct. Some suggested contacting the author and asking him if he would like to retract the paper, or contacting the institution for a ruling.
Another suggestion was that the editor could write an editorial discussing the issue and whether removal of the six references alters the conclusions of the paper.
All agreed that the main issue was to alert the readers by way of an expression of concern rather than a correction.
The editor decided to publish an expression of concern which listed the papers referenced in the review article that had since been retracted by the respective journals.