A reader contacted the journal to raise concerns about a paper containing a potentially manipulated figure. The editor-in-chief agreed with the assessment that the figure had been manipulated and attempted to contact the corresponding author, without response. Following further contact with the co-authors and institution, it was established that the corresponding author had retired after publication of the paper, and no current contact details could be found.
No co-authors were able to confirm how the figure was constructed, but explained that it was an old image that was made by or for the corresponding author, and that the location of the raw image or original data was not known due to the corresponding author’s laboratory being dismantled on retirement. The figure is also present in a previous publication from 2007. The figure manipulation does not appear to affect the scientific results or conclusions of the paper.
Question for the COPE Forum • Given that the corresponding author cannot be contacted to confirm if the nature of any figure manipulation merits retraction, would it be appropriate to publish an expression of concern which will remain in place if no additional information is forthcoming?
The Forum advised that as there is no true confirmation of the evidence that the figure was manipulated, a retraction does not seem to be warranted without further investigation. A suggestion was to contact the journal of the previous publication, as there may be an issue of duplicate publication or copyright issues related to the figure. The editors can then discuss together how to deal with this issue. The other journal may have the original data. If the copyright resides with the first journal, then the editor may have to have a different type of notice on the paper.
The Forum agreed that the most reasonable solution would be to publish an expression of concern, explaining the issues. An expression of concern provides an opportunity for further information to be made available at a later date, and then any further action, if necessary, may be taken. A different view expressed was to remove the figure and publish a correction—if other researchers have re-done the work on the subject it may be possible to replace the figure with a citation.
Following advice from the COPE Forum, the editor contacted the journal of the previous publication. The journal is proceeding with an expression of concern to explain the issues. The editor considers the case closed.
An intentional satire of a randomised controlled trial was published in a journal. In addition to multiple overt clues that the article was fake in the text, the article ended with a clear and direct statement in the acknowledgments that it was satire.
Investigators conducting a systematic review on the topic inadvertently included the satire article in their review as a legitimate manuscript, including generating a table based on some of the ‘data’ from the satirical article. This systematic review was eventually published in another journal. The authors of the satirical article saw the published systematic review and immediately contacted the editor of the journal in which it appeared to explain the situation. The editor of the other journal blamed the authors of the satirical article for the situation and demanded that they apologise to the authors of the systematic review and retract the original satirical article. The editor’s argument was that there is no room for ‘nonsense’ in scholarly publishing, and that such articles take publication space away from real scientific articles that could be published in their place.
The authors of the satirical article responded that there has always been a place for humour in scholarly publishing, and several established medical journals regularly publish satire. They commented that the authors of the systematic review failed to thoroughly read the satirical article and did not fulfil their scholarly responsibility in performing the review.
Question(s) for the COPE Forum • Does the publication of satire in a scholarly journal usurp space that should be reserved for legitimate investigations? • Is the journal that published the satirical article at fault when authors performing a systematic review do not thoroughly read and vet the articles they cite? • Is it reasonable for the other journal editor to request the retraction of the satirical article?
The Forum noted that it is up to individual editors or publishers to decide what they publish, and if publishing these types of articles is a valuable use of their page budget. Editors should not be told by other editors or journals what they can and cannot include in their journal. Hence it is not reasonable for the other journal editor to request retraction of the satirical article. There are no grounds for retraction.
The Forum agreed that there should not be editorial censorship but journals and publishers have an obligation to tag satirical articles clearly. They need to be appropriately and responsibly flagged up as such. A view expressed was that in this era of “fake news”, editors have an increased responsibility to ensure that the scientific record is not corrupted and co-opted, and that satire does not end up having unintended consequences on public discourse, including development of public policy. It was suggested that the metadata should also be tagged so that a machine can quickly understand that this is satire. This is especially relevant in terms of text mining ecosystems so that anyone designing a study would have a very easy means of filtering out articles that have been tagged as satire.
From a legal standpoint, journals need to meet a reasonable standard of not being misleading. If the article is clearly marked, with clear headings, and no suggestion this is proper research, then the reader has a responsibility to read things carefully.
The authors of the systematic review are at fault for not carrying out their methodology correctly and should have read the paper properly. The journal that published the systematic review needs to take steps to correct the systematic review.
The journal did not retract the article and agreed with the Forum that the onus was on the researchers to read the paper, which clearly indicated that it was satire.
The journal will take the Forum’s other recommendations into consideration on future articles of this type (eg, ensuring metadata indicate that it is satire in addition to noting in the article type and within the article itself).
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.
A group of unspecified members of an organisation have written an expression of concern (letter via email) to the editors wherein they request that an article previously published in the journal be retracted since they believe it is biased and inaccurate about regulation details within the organisation. They are further requesting that their letter be published in the journal.
The editors of the journal are unsure how best to proceed with this request. They believe the article should not be retracted (no unethical misconduct was committed by the author as far as they are aware, and the article did go through peer review with two reviewers having minor corrections and recommending the editors publish the article, which they accepted), as the reasons stated in the letter for requesting the retraction are not grounds for doing so. The reasons given are:
1) The absence of important information on the organisation's accreditation and professional regulations 2) The calling into question of the organisation's ethical standards and practices 3) The general misinformation about the organisation's business model 4) The overall poor research methodology and writing standards Note: not all members of the organisation were aware that the letter was sent (one of the editors is a member of this organisation), and the author of the article and certain members of this organisation have a history of disagreeing on previous articles that the author has published in other journals on the same topic (furthermore, the author once had a submission accepted at this organisation’s conference and after a disagreement they uninvited him).
The editors have shared the expression of concern letter with the author and the publisher. The author has responded to all the points in their letter with counter arguments. The editors have also crafted a response letter to this organisation (standing by their decision). The publisher does not believe the article should be retracted, but instead that the editors should respond to the complaint with an explanation about when retractions are appropriate and also the nature of how the paper was accepted/published.
However, the editors are considering whether they should publish the letter with the responses (if it would benefit the community, which is a very close knit group). The author has also requested that his response be published in the journal.
Question(s) for the COPE Forum • Is it wise/is there justification to publish the letter? (it could be beneficial if it is conducted in a scholarly manner but also could be unproductive if major disagreements sit on both sides historically.) • If COPE recommends publishing on this topic, how does it suggest the editors do so (what format/are there procedures that should be followed)? • If COPE suggests responding to the organisation via email is best, are there any other steps the editors should take to resolve this disagreement? • Has a situation like this one occurred before/been handled successfully?
The Forum agreed that there does not seem to be a case for retraction, but the editor may wish to consult the COPE Guidelines for retracting articles (http://publicationethics.org/files/retraction%20guidelines_0.pdf). The advice was to have the conversation played out in the journal and allow the exchange to be published. It would be reasonable, if time consuming, to do the following: have the letter peer-reviewed by a qualified reviewer who can evaluate the accuracy of the claims in the article; have a peer-review of the response of the author; and if both get through the review process (with revisions if necessary) then publish them both.
This is an editorial judgement call. COPE would not have a “publication ethics” position here, besides that contained within its regular guidance for publishing (ie, to manage transparency, permissions, conflicts of interest, etc). Publishing letters or debate papers would make the process transparent. If the journal decides to publish the letters, the Forum recommended ensuring that the letter from the organisation is signed by an individual or individuals. The journal should not publish an anonymous letter.
The Forum noted that in cases such as these, it is very important to choose reviewers carefully. Selection of objective reviewers is especially important when organisations are involved.
A short research article described a new method and tested the method, showing proof-of-concept that the method worked; the idea for the method is presented as the authors’ own.
On publication, the paper receives an overwhelmingly positive response from the community. Shortly after publication, the editorial team is contacted by a PhD student and their supervisor who had published the idea for the method on a blog 2 years earlier. Side by side comparison shows a significant overlap (approximately 25–30% of the article) between the blog and the article, in particular in the rationale for, and description of, the method. The text is rephrased in many places, but there are large sections that are structurally very similar between the article and the blog with some terminology and phrases being identical. Furthermore, the method is unique in its concept and no similar proposals seem to exist in the published scientific literature (on PubMed), so it seems obvious that the blog was the main source for the overlapping sections.
When challenged by the editorial team the authors acknowledged the existence of the idea and that they should have given credit to the blog but argued that their paper is about the empirical testing of the method. It seemed obvious that credit must be given in the article to the student for proposing the method and that there is no difference between a scientific article and a blog in this respect.
In the first instance, a correction was published with rewritten text and clear reference to the blog throughout the article, making clear the origin of the idea for the approach. The team’s interpretation of the COPE Retraction Guidelines was that this is a partial duplication (thereby treating the grey literature as part of the 'scientific literature' – see question 4 below) and, given that the article adds testing of the method and hence the proof-of-concept, that readers are best served with a correction. It seemed that a retraction, as demanded by the PhD student and his/her supervisor, would more serve to punish the authors (which the editorial team understood is not the purpose of a retraction) than to correct and benefit the literature.
It is worth noting that although three referees approved the article (in open peer review), the student and supervisor and some others who commented publicly have also questioned the scientific validity of the way in which the proof-of-concept was demonstrated in the article.
Question(s) for the COPE Forum
• Where does the journal's responsibility to protect the student's rights lie and does it need to go further than the correction and retract?
• Is this a clear case of plagiarism that demands a retraction?
• How much does the structure and text need to be the same to count as plagiarism? Is this a case that needs to be investigated by the authors’ institution?
• Given that retractions and corrections are primarily meant to correct the scientific literature, is there any difference between a blog and a scientific paper when it comes to 'partial duplication'?
Both a correction and a retraction would protect the student’s rights and correct the record. The question then arises—what is the purpose of a correction or retraction? If it is primarily to correct and benefit the literature, then a correction does that. However, the Forum acknowledged that this will probably not satisfy the student and their supervisor.
The Forum discussed blogs as a source of the scientific literature. Blogs are often not cited because they are not seen as permanent. But is there a difference between a blog “grey literature” and an article “published literature”? The Forum agreed that the blog should be considered as published content and although websites change and the blog does not have a DOI, it should still have been cited in the original article.
A suggestion was that for the original blog post, the student could ensure that the blog has a DOI or it could be written up for a journal, particularly if there is more work done by the student.
On a poll of the Forum audience, the majority agreed that a correction seems to be the appropriate (non-punitive) action (compared with a handful who favoured retraction); a correction also serves the student’s rights by indicating clearly where the ideas originated, and maintaining in the literature the work that validates those ideas. The Forum believed that the editors were correct in the course of action they took, and the requirement that the blog concept be clearly recognized.
The Forum discussed if this was plagiarism. There was certainly plagiarism of ideas and the Forum noted that there should be awareness of “ownership of ideas”. Transparency is key in these scenarios and ideas need to be properly credited. Some argued that the article adds something new (validation) and major correction (to address the unattributed copying via proper reference and attribution) undoes the “harm” done by the absence of attribution.
However, some of the members of the Forum were concerned about the apparent deception—the authors did present the method as their own. They recommended that the journal contact the author’s institution. However, it is a judgment call for the editor as to whether the institution is contacted. The institution might appreciate knowing so they can build guidance on citing grey literature into their teaching/training.
The editorial team took the feedback from the COPE Forum on board and notified the corresponding author’s institution of the allegations; the case is still being considered by the research integrity team at the institution. In addition, an editorial note has been added to the article to alert readers that concerns had been raised about the overlap between the original article and the student’s blog (and that the case has been referred to the author’s institution).
Follow up (January 2017):
The journal did not receive any further information from the author's institute on whether or not they will pursue this further. The editor considers the case closed.
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.