Session on retractions at the European Seminar 2019, chaired by Heather Tierney, COPE Council, with a review of the updated Retraction Guidelines from COPE. During the session we also heard from Thed Van Leeuwen and Catriona Fennell. Links to their presentations are below:
Session on retractions at the European Seminar 2019, chaired by Heather Tierney, COPE Council, with a publisher's perspectives from Catriona Fennell, Director of Publishing Services, Elsevier. During the session we also heard from Howard Browman and Thed Van Leeuwen. Links to their presentations are below:
My initial introduction to COPE many years ago occurred when, as an editor of a peer reviewed journal, a reviewer called to my attention, a blatant example of fabrication in a manuscript in which years and volumes of references had been altered to make them more current. I contacted COPE, presented the case at a Forum, and received excellent advice and consultation. This ultimately resulted in numerous retractions of manuscripts published by this researcher, across three journals.
Author A contacted us claiming that an article published in the journal recently by author B was stolen from an article author A had earlier submitted to two different publishers, publisher A in 2016 and publisher B in 2017. Author A provided the PDFs of the manuscripts they had submitted to those other publishers. The version submitted to us 2018 by author B was very similar to that submitted to publisher B.
We contacted publisher B who confirmed the details of the submission to them by author A in 2017. Author B is listed publicly as a reviewer for publisher B's journal, but publisher B could not confirm that they had direct access to this particular submission. Author B said their PhD advisor, now apparently deceased, had given them the article but they recently had doubts that this had been their advisor's work. They agreed to retraction.
Author A has asked whether instead of retracting we might publish a correction to replace author B with the rightful author, Author A, because the article has already been peer reviewed and accepted.
Question(s) for the COPE Forum
• Is correcting a stolen article to list the correct authors a potential solution? If so, should we correct the article metadata too?
• Is there any precedent for such a total correction of authorship?
• How might we detect and prevent the publication of stolen articles? They do not show up on Crossref Similarity Check because they are unpublished.
Copyright is with the assigned author and it is not appropriate to simply transfer it to another author. The Forum advised that there are clear authorship guidelines from COPE and other organisations. There are real duties and responsibilities that come with authorship and hence it is not appropriate to just change the authorship list. The new author(s) have not been involved in the preparation of the article for publication (submitting, revising, etc) and the author(s) who stole the paper may have made changes to the paper. The editor may wish to direct the author to their authorship criteria and peer review process to explain why transferring authorship is not appropriate.
To prevent theft of a paper, one idea put forward was for the DOI to be reserved in advance, with the title and names of the authors, and then part of the CrossRef similarity check would extend to looking up the titles and authors in the DOI database to see if anything similar is already on file.
We published two peer-reviewed articles—one protocol and one paper with the results of a comparative analysis comparing a group of people associated with a specific “complementary medicine health care organization” (CMG), with the general population, which concludes that the group has “unusual health indicators” (more favourable than the general population).
The papers originally contained a conflict of interest (COI) statement stating that the authors were “insiders, in that they attend CMG events. However, they have received no funding, reimbursement, or other consideration from CMG or its stakeholders, and no instructions or directions of any kind from CMG or its stakeholders. No other competing interests exist.”
Our freelance copyeditor edited this statement out, to read “Conflicts of interest: None declared”, because “attending events” is not normally something that would be considered a COI. The authors approved the galleys and did not object to these copyediting changes.
Shortly after publication, we received a 12-page letter from a journalist, detailing extensive undisclosed COIs of the authors. The letter was also addressed to another journal which published another protocol from the group, as well as to the university (the lead author is associated with the university). In the letter, the CMG movement is characterized as a controversial, multimillion dollar international enterprise. The healing modalities promoted by CMG do not appear to be evidence based. In the letter, evidence was provided showing that all researchers are long term public promoters of the CMG enterprise, as well as being spiritual adherents to the CMG ‘religion’. One author is a former CMG company director. The letter also says that the lead researcher is the spouse of a current CMG “company director” (which is disputed by the author). The corporation is owned by another corporation which in turned is owned by the founder of the CMG enterprise.
As alleged in the letter (and confirmed by our own internet searches), all authors are influential persons within the CMG spiritual and business community. We confronted the lead author with these allegations and asked the authors to provide a more detailed COI statement for a possible correction of the original papers. In response, the lead author submitted a 1-page revised COI statement detailing that all four authors have varying degrees of association with the CMG and are members of the “Practitioners’ Association” which is the body regulating practitioners who are qualified to practice CMG modalities. Two authors have “occasionally offered paid private healing sessions”. The revised COI by the author also alleged that “all authors have experienced substantial health benefits since they started visiting CMG events”. In addition, they all have published blogs on CMG associated websites. The wife of the lead author is—according to the revised COI—involved in “voluntary activities around producing content for a CMG associated company and is a “company secretary” of the CMG associated company and “does this in an honorary capacity. She is not a director or shareholder” and “does not receive any financial incentives” from CMG.
We consulted the original peer reviewers, showing them the updated COI. They said they would not have accepted the manuscript had they known about these extensive COIs. We suggested to the authors that we feel that both articles should be retracted, and we would prefer to do this with their consent.
The lead author rejected this with the argument that “we originally submitted a COI statement which the journal removed. Subsequently, you falsely asserted that my wife, is a Director and employee of a CMG associated company when she clearly isn’t and has never received any fund from CMG.”
We checked the company registration and the spouse is actually listed as company secretary, which is considered an ‘officer’ of a corporation in the country of registration, so they have many of the same duties and obligations as directors. Our concerns with the COI of the lead author (and his spouse) go beyond financial COIs, as in his blog the lead author describes how meeting the CMG founder “changed our lives profoundly”, and his spouse is describing “seemingly miraculous changes” as a result of CMG. This level of passion for CMG and their involvement may affect the authors’ scientific judgement.
The university has launched an investigation as a result of the journalists’ letter, but the investigation is not complete. Meanwhile, the case has also been picked up by the mainstream media, who is putting pressure on the university to distance themselves from CMG, which is described by the media as a “cult”.
Question(s) for the COPE Forum
• Should we publish the updated COI statement as a corrigendum, perhaps with a notice of editorial concern, and wait for the outcome of the university investigation to decide on further steps.
• Or should we retract the papers due to non-disclosure of COI (and also due to concerns over the content and practices of the CMG enterprise, the scope of which neither reviewers nor editor were aware of when accepting the paper)?
• Is there any third option we have not thought of?
The Forum advised that there do not appear to be grounds for retraction. The COPE guidelines on retraction state that “Retraction should usually be reserved for publications that are so seriously flawed (for whatever reason) that their findings or conclusions should not be relied upon.” A conflict of interest is not in itself a reason to retract an article, particularly in an original research paper, unless there are serious concerns with the data. Hence the Forum would agree with the publication of an updated COI statement as a corrigendum, perhaps with an editorial notice. The Forum also suggested collaborating with the institution on their investigation. If the institution finds there are fabricated or serious flaws in the data, then the editor may wish to consider retracting the article. But a retraction at this stage is not appropriate.
The journal published two expressions of editorial concerns and corrections (one for the protocol and one for the final paper, correcting the conflict of interest disclosure as well as correcting the data, as per the corrigendum submitted by the authors). Regarding the third paper, a protocol published by another publisher, to our knowledge they have not taken any action, such as publishing an expression of editorial or updating the conflict of interest. The journal is collaborating with the authors' institution which is currently still investigating this case and will await their recommendation on whether or not the paper should be marked as retracted.
A manuscript was submitted by author A to our journal. The content of the paper was controversial. We sent this manuscript for peer review by two clinical reviewers. We wrote back to author A requesting major revisions to address the concerns and issues raised by the reviewers. A revised paper was submitted and accepted for publication.
Because the article was controversial, mini-commentaries were commissioned from authors B and C to be published together with the paper. Mini-commentaries are short articles with a word limit of 500 words and by invitation only, usually written by an editor or referee, although they can also be authored by a third party at the discretion of the editors. Their aim is to provide a clinical or research perspective relating to the manuscript being referenced in order to provide a different overview of the research findings (ie, they can be personal opinions in some cases). These are then published with the referenced manuscript in the same issue of the journal.
Author A’s manuscript was published together with the mini-commentaries. The mini-commentary by author C disputed the findings in the paper by author A and stated that in their opinion.
Three years later, we received a letter of concern from author A alleging scientific misconduct by author C and demanding that we retract the mini-commentary written by author C. Following discussion among the senior editors of the journal, permission was obtained from author A to allow author C to have sight of this letter in order to allow a response to be made to the accusations made by author A, which were somewhat intemperate in tone (including accusations of falsification, fabrication, duplication and violation of scientific integrity). Author C responded that the accusations raised by author A were absurd and recommended that the journal ignore them. Author C provided some publications supporting his views.
Question(s) for the COPE Forum
• Currently, the editors do not see any scientific reason why the opinions expressed by author C should be retracted. The views expressed are personal but there is scientific evidence to support them. Author C did not suggest that author A was fraudulent, merely mistaken. The editors currently consider that they have no need to adjudicate between two opposing scientific views, for which each protagonist can cite evidence. Does COPE agree?
• In view of its intemperate language, the editors currently feel that it would not be appropriate to publish the letter from author A criticizing the mini-commentary. While the editors wish to publish all letters within reason, we feel that it is justified to decline publication if we feel the author has not made a substantive point or if they use inappropriate language. Does COPE agree?
• Should we invite author A to submit a reasoned letter without accusations of scientific misconduct to see if this is then suitable for publication?
• If author A agrees to submit such a revised letter, we would plan to invite a reply from author C but publish one or both irrespective of the response from author C (eg, they might decline to reply). Does COPE agree that this is appropriate?
The Forum noted that unless author A has new evidence he can produce that would dispute author’s C criticisms of the original paper, is there any value in publishing further commentaries? Did the letter from author A have anything of value? However, in the interests of transparency, the editor could encourage author A to submit a more reasoned letter. The editor should stress that the letter needs to be scientific and not libellous. The editor can also edit the letter if necessary; it is acceptable to remove inflammatory or derogatory comments. If author A is prepared to follow this course, then an exchange of letters in the journal on scientific differences would be appropriate.
For controversial articles in particular, the journal may wish to consider sharing letters with the authors prior to publication, allowing them to correct any factual inaccuracies, to avoid a similar issue arising in the future.
After the discussion at the Forum, the journal decided not to take any further action. The consensus was that there were no grounds to retract author C’s mini commentary. There was not enough of value in author A’s letter to pursue the idea of publishing a version of it in the journal.
The editor communicated the decision to author A and eventually informed the individual that the journal would not enter into further correspondence regarding this matter. The editor considers the case closed.
A researcher has published a paper in our journal using a scale published in 2008. She wrote to the scale developer in 2014/2015 at least three times (emails are on file) before the start of the project, but the scale developer did not respond despite repeated email reminders. No indication of the need for a license was received. In 2017, when the researcher published the paper using the above scale, she was contacted by a person claiming that he was representing the scale's developer and asked for a retrospective license and license fee, and threatened that if the she did not apply for a retrospective license and pay the license fee, she may need to take legal responsibility and retract the published paper. He also said that if she does not pay the fee, then the team’s lawyer would contact her. The name of the lawyer is given, with a gmail account. No firm name or any other information is provided. The researcher has searched the internet and found examples of this person asking other people to apply for a retrospective license and receiving money.
Eventually an email from the scale developer was received, asking the researcher to comply with what his 'chief investigator' is requesting. Thinking that this might be a scam, the case was presented to the dean of the faculty where the scale developer was based. The response from the dean was that ''I am saddened to learn about what has occurred. Our institution does not hold this license and does not support the actions the scale developer is taking''. The scale was published in 2008 and its development was funded with public funding. The scale was modified from the original scale, which was published in 1986 and its development was also publicly funded. These two scales are in the public domain.
A number of people have paid a fee, often variable and often in the many thousands of dollars. Some institutions have decided to retract the article instead. The team is using bullying and aggressive tactics to persuade the researchers to pay the fee (they have not told the researcher in question what the fee is yet, but through the internet blogs this seems to be a very variable amount). They have also sent emails to the president of the researcher’s university, deputy president and vice president for research, as well as to our journal where the paper is published. They are sending 3-4 threatening emails per day (although this seems to have stopped after a couple of weeks).
Question(s) for the COPE Forum
· What do I do as an editor? Do I ask the author to produce a license, or otherwise we will need to retract the article? The author has applied for permission to use the publicly available scale three times with no response from the scale’s developer.
· As this scale is publicly available, is this adequate for someone to use it with the appropriate acknowledgement/reference? There was no mention this was a licensed material in the publications.
The Forum noted that generally, if scales are in the public domain, and there is no explicit licensing information, they are published with the intention that other scholars will use them. The advice to the editor was to consider obtaining legal advice from its publisher, or getting the lawyers from the publisher involved. Retracting the paper would be unfortunate, as this would unfairly penalise the author. If the editor does not have a legal representative, they could ask for help form the author's institution.
One option might be to publish an erratum, with an acknowledgement of the scale developer and with details of the scale. Perhaps if the scale developer just wants some form of credit, this may be a solution to preventing legal action.
Another possible solution could be that if the institution where the scale was developed has confirmed that the scale is in the public domain (ie, it can be reused without paying a licence fee), then the author could ask the institution for an official letter to that effect which they can forward to the team claiming a licence fee or threatening legal action against the author. Perhaps this might deter the team from sending any more emails.
It may be helpful to distinguish the author's responsibility from the publisher's responsibility with regard to the legal threat from the scale author. This is a separate issue from whether it is ethical to require a license for the use of a scale, but it can help to define the editor's responsibility. It might be useful to find out the legal claims and determine exactly what is required by the license (for example, is it use of the scale, reporting of the scale, etc).
The author withdrew the paper. The journal considers the case closed.
Editors should consider retracting a publication if:
They have clear evidence that the findings are unreliable, either as a result of major error (eg, miscalculation or experimental error), or as a result of fabrication (eg, of data) or falsification (eg, image manipulation)
It constitutes plagiarism
The findings have previously been published elsewhere without proper attribution to previous sources or disclosure to the editor, permission to republish, or justification (ie, cases of redundant publication)