Shortly after publishing a short report, another group involved in similar work accused one of the authors (A) of the short report of fabricating and/or stealing data from their lab. The other group also stated that author A’s conclusions about an image published in the short report were wrong.
We asked to see author A’s original data and talked to his co-authors and the institution where his studies were reportedly carried out. We were satisfied that the data presented in the short report were real and the author’s own, and there was no evidence of data fabrication or theft.
We asked for expert opinion on author A’s interpretation of the image. Three experts thought that the author could not draw the conclusions he had based on the scan he presented in the publication and that reference images produced from the original data were needed to support his conclusions. We went back to author A, told him we were satisfied that there was no evidence of data fabrication or theft, but that we did think he needed to provide more data to support his claims. He did provide some additional images. However, our experts’ view was that the data provided did not verify the author’s claims. He had used images from published articles as reference images, and not reference images from his original data.
In the meantime, the other group submitted a correspondence article explaining how their own studies conflict with author A’s claims. This was sent for review. The reviewer felt that author A’s article should not have been published, but that the other group needed to provide some more experimental detail and data. At this point we approached author A telling him that we did not think the data he provided supported his claims and that he might want to consider retracting the article. Author A responded by sending us several opinions from ‘experts’ he had found arguing that the article should not be retracted. None of these ‘experts’ is an expert in the imaging technique used. He also said he would now be able to provide reference images from his original data, although we have not seen them and do not know, without checking with our experts, whether or not they would be enough.
The short report describes an invasive clinical intervention and makes claims about its efficacy. This is a controversial area of research, and our concern is about leaving something that may not be accurate in the public domain, but we also do not feel that the author has intentionally misled us or the public. We feel at this point that the best course of action is to publish the critic’s correspondence article, along with the authors’ response, and let the public judge for itself. However, given the clinical nature of the short report and the doubts raised about the veracity of author A’s claims, we would like the committee’s opinion on whether the publication of the correspondence piece and the authors’ response is enough, whether we would be justified in publishing an expression of concern about author A’s article or whether there are grounds to retract.
The Forum agreed that the editor had done the right thing by allowing the authors to comment. Exchange of correspondence is ideal in such cases as this will be linked permanently to the original article and so the debate will be in the public domain. The Forum did not think the article should be retracted. Also, the Forum advised against publishing an expression of concern as this indicates that there is something wrong with the data. All agreed that the editor had done all he could except perhaps to write an editorial on peer review and post publication comment.
We did not publish an expression of concern but encouraged the ‘other group’ to submit their revised correspondence. They decided they did not want to, so we have not taken any further action.
I received a phone call from the first Author (A) of a case report published in our journal in 2005, who informed us that he had received a letter from an Author (B) of a research letter which had been published in another journal in 2000, stating that 12–15 sentences from the research letter had been copied in the case report.
Having compared the papers, about 50% of the introduction (the whole of one paragraph and 60% of another), about eight sentences from the midsection, and the entire conclusion from the research letter have been used in the 2005 case report. The layout of a table in the case report is also similar to the one published in the research letter. No data have been copied and we have been reassured by Author A that the data are genuine.
Author A wrote to Author B apologising for the incident. Author A phoned me again to say that Author B had requested that the case report be withdrawn from our journal. At no time has Author B communicated directly with me.
Following discussions with his/her Director of Research and Education, Author A had been advised that the best solution was to withdraw the case report voluntarily. Author A wrote to me requesting formal withdrawal of the case report. However, before I received this letter, Author A telephoned again to say that having taken legal advice he wished to retract this request and leave it with me to decide on the appropriate course of action.
The journal subsequently received a letter from the Director of Research & Education at Author A’s institution summarising the situation and informing us that Author A has been asked to step down from some of his responsibilities while his other publications and research activities are investigated. In this letter, it was also pointed out that most of the discussion in the 2005 case report had been duplicated from a review article published previously in our journal by Author A (sole author).
Our journal operates in an area of medicine which is very close knit and as Editor, I personally know both Author A and, to some extent, Author B, which is the main reason for submitting this case to COPE for independent evaluation and recommendation. I would be very grateful for your advice.
As the author is being investigated by his institution, there is little more that the editor can do in this respect until the results of the investigation are available. It is up to the institution to confirm whether or not the case report is genuine. If it is found that the case report is not genuine, then it must be retracted. If the case report is genuine, then the editor should publish either an expression of concern about plagiarism or a letter of apology from the author. The Forum suggested finding out if one or both of the authors were involved in the plagiarism. The Forum noted that it is important that the published paper, if genuine, is linked to some form of formal correction, which could be either an expression of concern of a letter of apology.
I confirmed independently that the case was genuine and wrote an “expression of concern” that will be published in the October issue of my journal. The advice provided by COPE was very helpful in resolving this issue.
About a month after our journal (Journal A) published a paper (Paper X), the journal received emails from readers that Paper X was very similar to a paper (Paper Y) that had just been published by another journal (Journal B). Some of these emails were sent to both journal offices. Paper X was submitted to Journal A a few days before Paper Y was submitted to Journal B and Paper X was published in Journal A about 3 weeks before Paper Y. The two paper superficially do not look similar and Paper X contains results that are not in Paper Y. However, the two papers also contain highly similar results and make similar key conclusions. Truth be told, all of the additional results presented in Paper X were added during revisions. The authors of Paper X knew that Paper Y had been accepted by Journal B by the time they submitted the first revision of Paper X to Journal A
The authors of these two papers overlap significantly and the two co-corresponding authors are the same. We contacted the authors. The authors pointed out the obvious differences between the two papers and a few minor differences that most readers would not detect, and insisted that the results reported in these two papers were obtained separately rather than the same results reported in two papers. In addition to those readers who sent emails to us, the reviewers of Paper X and a few editorial board members of Journal A who read these two papers all agreed that the two papers were highly similar.
We contacted the office of Journal B and the Editor, and received a message from the managing editor of Journal B that the Editor of Journal B had asked for and received an explanation from the authors and was satisfied with the explanation.
I would like the Forum’s advice on how to handle this case, in particular as it seems that Journal B will not take any further action.
(1) Given that the paper was submitted to Journal A earlier and published in Journal A earlier than in Journal B, albeit only a few days, would retraction by Journal A be appropriate?
(2) If the authors indeed did something wrong, would a simple Concerns on Duplicate Publication be sufficient? Would banning the authors from publishing in Journal A for a few years be appropriate?
(3) Are there other options?
The Forum agreed, regardless of what the other journal does, the editor should publish a notice of concern. If it becomes clear that the data are the same, then the editor should consider publishing a notice of duplication. It is COPE’s policy not to encourage banning authors or to apply any other sanctions, partly because of the risk of litigation.
The Forum was interested in whether or not journal B was a member of COPE, as if this were the case, the chair of COPE would be prepared to write to the editor.
August 2008 The case is being investigated by the author’s institution.
May 2009 As mentioned in the last update to this case, this case was being investigated by the authors’ institution. A response was received from a Pro-Vice-Chancellor and Vice-President of the university. According to this letter, the investigation group consisted of one external expert (who coincidentally is a member of Journal A’s editorial board) and two university professors. The Group’s report was discussed by the Vice-Chancellor and some senior leaders of the university, including the Pro-Vice-Chancellor and Vice-President who sent a response to the editor, and has been accepted by the university. Because this response was sent as a hardcopy instead of an electronic file, a summary of the key findings and conclusions of this investigation are shown below by directly copying appropriate statements from the response.
“The Group was informed by (the authors) that the two studies—were conducted in two consecutive time periods with completely different patients, and the number of cell lines used were not the same.” “The Group saw some raw data supplied by (the authors)”. “Based on the findings reported by the Group, the Vice-Chancellor and I are satisfied with the explanation that the data reported in the two papers came from two sets of experiments, and there is no evidence that the data were altered for the purpose of publication in two different papers”. “(The) Group pointed out that there appeared to have been significant double publication of a large portion of the (Journal B) paper’s data in the (Journal A) paper”. “Yet, the Investigation Group noted the defence of the co-corresponding authors—that the two studies had been conducted with two different patient groups in two different time periods, with the second study having some modifications of protocol and methodology”. “The Group’s report stopped short of saying that duplicate publication of the same data had indeed happened, although the Group made it clear that reporting similar data in different publications without proper referencing was not good practice, which the university entirely agrees.” “Our Vice-Chancellor intends to issue a letter of reprimand to the lead/co-corresponding author” “Another letter will be sent by the Vice-Chancellor to the other co-corresponding author reminding him of his proper responsibilities as a senior author and a department head in ensuring that commonly accepted codes of practice in the academic and research community, not to mention the university’s relevant policy, should be followed by researchers under his guidance.” “The university has accepted the Group’s report, and has advised the authors of the (Journal A) paper of the University’s decision accordingly.”
Journal A is satisfied with this investigation conducted by the authors’ institution, and the communication regarding proper author/researcher conduct in publications from the authors’ institution to these authors.
After peer-review, a general medical journal published a household survey of violence following a coup against the country’s elected President. The survey revealed high levels of violence and human rights abuses, only a small minority of which were attributed to supporters of the deposed regime. The manuscript stated that none of the interviewers had political affiliations and the authors declared that they had no conflict of interest.
Within days of publication the Editor was contacted by an expatriate from the country and by a local aid worker who expressed incredulity over the fact that the findings attributed so little of the violence to supporters of the deposed President’s political party, It was also pointed out that one of the authors was acquainted with the deposed President and had previously published pieces under a different name which were supportive of him. Some of these pieces were cited in the manuscript.
The author admitted that she had done this and the co-author, her thesis supervisor, stated that he was aware of these facts and did not consider them a conflict of interest.
Not satisfied by the responses from the authors, the Editor asked the Dean of the authors’ institution to undertake an internal investigation to verify that the data had been coded accurately. Results are expected by the end of 2006.
This interesting case prompted much discussion. The committee felt that the conflict of interest should have been identified in the peer-review process and were surprised by the reviewers’ responses and their failure to pick up on the political bias. The committee agreed that the editor has a duty to his readers to inform them that an investigation is ongoing. He should tell his readers that there have been allegations made about the paper but that it is not possible to establish the truth as yet. Hence the advice was to issue a statement of concern in the journal or possibly write an editorial highlighting all sides of the issue.
Following discussion of the case, a statement was published in the journal, a summary of which is given below.
In response to credible allegations that one author’s former activities might constitute an undisclosed conflict of interest, the journal began an inquiry. The authors’ institution was asked to investigate the matter, and the issue was referred to the Committee on Publication Ethics (COPE).
The institution audited 100 questionnaires selected by computerised randomisation. Outcome details on the original handwritten records corresponded with the project’s computerised database. The overall distribution of rapes and murders were re-analysed according to alleged perpetrators, and the results agreed with the published findings. Outcomes were then compared by political affiliation of the interviewer and for the author’s own data (as an interviewer). Again, there was no evidence of systematic bias. On the basis of this investigation, the journal has confidence in the authors’ findings as published.
COPE recommended that readers should be made aware that the author had published as a reporter under another name, and that failure to disclose a separate name, under which relevant material had been published and cited in her paper, constitutes an undeclared conflict of interest. The journal’s position on transparent disclosure of potential conflicts of interest is in accordance with guidelines established by the International Committee of Medical Journal Editors. The journal has made this position prominently available to readers and to authors, and stated clearly that incomplete disclosures will be amended in a published statement in the Department of Error section, which will also be linked electronically to the publication in electronic databases. Such a correction for this study appears in today’s journal.
To realise their full potential to benefit populations, research findings must influence practice. Intelligent debate is part of that process. The journal encourages genuine debate, and will always consider seriously allegations of scientific misconduct. It is unfortunate, however, that in this case much of the debate was aimed at exploiting historical divisions in the country in question. That process has obscured the message of the authors’research and detracted from the real issue—the welfare of civilians in that country—to whom attention should now turn.
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.
The authors of a paper published in another journal wrote to the editor of Journal A, complaining of apparent blatant plagiarism of their work by N et al. , whose paper had been published in the journal earlier in the year. Further investigation revealed that the text of the two papers was almost identical. S et al. had used one drug and N et al. had used a different one of the same class. The published results in the second paper closely matched those of the first. The paper also seemed to have been copied entirely from the first paper, including the ethics committee approval. The editors wrote to N et al. asking for an explanation, evidence of the raw data, and copy of the ethics committee approval. The time line of ethical approval, submission, and publication meant that it would have been difficult to have recruited for, and completed, an eight week treatment study. N responded, stating that ethical approval was not required even though it was a double blind, placebo controlled study in children, and so had not been sought. The author also claimed that the lack of response from the ethics committee was synonymous with approval. The author then claimed to have sought ethical approval retrospectively, and a letter from the ethics committee was sent to the editors. When the editors attempted to contact this committee they were passed onto another ethics committee in a different area. The letter was sent to the author’s institution head. Unsigned letters and emails, purporting to be from the co-authors’ head of institution, were sent to the journal, and the author supplied an Excel spreadsheet detailing data from just 15 patients. A review of the author’s publication history revealed that s/he had changed “routes” over the past 5-6 years, publishing only fairly brief reports.
- The letter from the ethics committee chairman might have been fabricated. - A spreadsheet on 15 patients is unacceptable; the original data should definitely be available for such recent research. - The editors should write directly to both the current and previous institution heads. - The editors should also consider contacting the author’s regulatory body. - The journal should also write to the co-authors’ head of institution as they seemed to have taken complimentary authorship. - The journal should retract the article if it felt that there was sufficient evidence to suggest fraud; but if not, it should certainly publish a notice of concern.