Editorial office staff at journal A noticed possible image manipulation in two figures of a new paper submitted by author X. These suspected manipulations involved images of gels which appeared to contain multiple duplicated bands. This prompted editorial staff to look at the submission history of author X to journal A in more detail.
It was found that author X had previously submitted to journal A numerous times. All previous submissions had been rejected for reasons unrelated to the concerns raised here but one paper had been accepted for publication. Unfortunately, this author X paper which journal A had published appeared to contain possible band duplications in two gel images, as did an earlier submission which had been rejected at the start of 2015. As at least three papers received by journal A from author X has suspected image problems, authors X’s recent publication history was examined.
Similar possible gel issues along with a suspected image duplication relating to a photo of bacterial colonies were identified in three papers published in three different journals (journals B, C and D). Two members of editorial staff along with the editor-in-chief of journal A have considered all of the suspected issues and feel confident they are legitimate. As it currently stands, journal A has rejected the most recent submission from author X on the grounds of possible gel issues identified. However, the suspected issues identified in the four published papers in journals A, B, C and D were not mentioned in the rejection letter to allow time for an appropriate course of action to be decided.
As the paper was only recently (12 August) rejected by journal A, it has yet to hear back from author X, if indeed it does at all.
Journal A feels that it is important that journals B, C and D are made aware of the issues in the papers they have published. However, they also feel that it is important that they are made aware of all of the papers involved so they can appreciate the full picture as this may determine how they choose to handle the issues in their own respective journals.
Question(s) for the COPE Forum • Would COPE advise that journal A contacts journals B, C and D at this stage? If so, what sort of information could legitimately be provided to the other journals? Should Journal A provide journals B, C and D with copies of all of the papers involved, including the unpublished papers submitted to journal A which were rejected without review? Would this breech confidentiality or would the importance for full enclosure trump confidentiality concerns in this situation? As most of the suspected issues only become apparent when the brightness/contrast levels of images is adjusted, journal A has put together PowerPoint files for each respective paper involved to highlight the possible issues identified. Would COPE advise providing copies of these PowerPoint files to journals B, C and D so they are under no doubt about the possible issues identified or could this be considered a defamatory action in the (what we feel unlikely) event journal A is mistaken over these issues? • What type of action would COPE recommend the journals take should all agree with the issues identified? Would retraction be called for, considering the numbers of papers involved? Should author X’s institution be contacted? Journal A feels it is important that these issues are addressed but also feels somewhat uncomfortable with the idea of having a hand in potentially destroying someone’s career and livelihood. • Journal A has not looked any further beyond the papers mentioned above as every published author X paper examined appeared to have potential issues so a line had to be drawn somewhere. However, journal A suspects that there may be other papers from author X in the literature with similar possible issues. Who is responsible for checking the publication history of author X for issues? Would it be author X’s institution should you recommend this be referred to them?
The Forum warned against rejecting the manuscript at this stage as the paper will then be out of the jurisdiction of the journal, and it is likely the author will submit it to another journal.
The Forum advised contacting the other journals but the editor should not share specific data immediately with the other editors. The editor should share the minimum amount of information with the other editors but in a neutral manner, without accusations or blame. The COPE guidelines "Sharing of Information Among Editors-in-Chief Regarding Possible Misconduct" (http://publicationethics.org/files/Sharing%20_of_Information_Among_EiCs_...) provides practical guidance on this issue.
The Forum were in agreement that the matter should be reported to the institution. The institution is the only body with access to the data and it is up to them to investigate. The journal is not in a position to do this. The editor should inform them of the analysis, but not the results. It would send a stronger message if the editors of the other journals were also to contact the institution, or if all of the editors were to approach the institution together.
The published papers must be dealt with on a case by case basis, and handled by correction or retraction as appropriate.
For the future, the Forum suggested updating the journal's instructions to authors with a statement saying that the journal reserves the right to contact other editors or the authors' institutions in cases of suspected misconduct.
After further discussion with their publisher it was recommended that journal A should seek the opinion of an independent expert on the concerns raised about images in the published paper, the rationale being this would strengthen their case should the decision be made to retract. A suitable expert, who was unaffiliated with journal A, was approached and agreed with concerns about the images in the paper. As it was felt that the falsification of images raised sufficient doubt over subsequent interpretations of the data reported, the decision was made to retract the paper. A retraction statement is due for imminent publication in journal A.
When the retraction has been published, the editor-in-chief of journal A plans to contact the other journals involved and will make sure to follow the COPE guidelines for ‘Sharing of information among editors-in-chief regarding possible misconduct’.
Journal A will follow the Forum’s advice for updating the journal’s instructions to include a statement to the effect of “ the journal reserves the right to contact other editors or the authors' institutions in cases of suspected misconduct”.
Journal A has accepted a meta-analysis for publication. As is standard practice for many articles accepted in this journal, a key expert (Professor X) in the relevant field was invited to submit a commentary on the paper. Professor X expressed concerns to the journal that “we believe that some of the papers included in the review could be either fabricated or at best are heavily plagiarised”. The papers included in the meta-analysis are all primary studies published in peer-reviewed journals.
Journal A requested some evidence for the concerns raised by Professor X.
Professor X has already tried to investigate the potential research misconduct of the primary studies. He sent a comparison of five studies, three of which were included in the meta-analysis accepted by journal A. Professor X claims strong evidence of plagiarism, and questions whether the trials took place at all. He also notes that he has previously written to the authors of the trials but says that few have responded. Those that did respond, he believes, have failed to provide reassuring responses.
Example response from authors sent to Professor X include the following: “The work has been actually undertaken after proper clearance. And details of the same are available with the competent authority.” “We don't want to be get disturbed as I discussed with our main author.” “Excuse us..Bye”.
Journal A has now halted publication of the meta-analysis.
The editors of journal A are unsure how to proceed, as the potential research misconduct lies with research not submitted to the journal, but rather primary studies included as part of a meta-analysis submitted based on the “available data”.
Question(s) for the COPE Forum (1) How do we establish whether or not the primary studies are fabricated? (2) Is it journal A’s responsibility to pursue this investigation or should it be the responsibility of the journals in which the primary studies are published? (3) How should journal A proceed with managing the meta-analysis accepted for publication?
The Forum was told that the editor has not yet contacted the authors of the meta-analysis. The advice from the Forum was to raise the concerns with the authors initially. The editor has a responsibility to act on the information that he has, and the first thing to do is contact the authors of the meta-analysis.
The editor also needs to be sure that the evidence from the expert is sound, regarding the fact that some of the papers in the meta-analysis are fabricated or heavily plagiarised, before he draws any conclusions. The Forum suggested gathering more opinions on the meta-analysis and perhaps eliciting help from members of the editorial board. Why was the paper accepted in the first instance? Did the reviewers suspect anything untoward with the paper? The editor should go back to the reviewers and ask their opinions and also ask their advice on the response from the key expert.
The Forum cautioned against the practice of blindly re-analysing data for inclusion in a meta-analysis, without obtaining the original data, so the authors of the meta-analysis need to take some responsibility here.
Unfortunately for the authors, their paper is in limbo while there are questions over the paper. One suggestion was to ask the authors to re-do the meta-analysis using only the data that are not under suspicion.
Ultimately, it will be up to the journals in which the primary studies were published to investigate the fabricated and/or plagiarised papers, but journal A should initiate the investigation by contacting these journals. It will be the responsibility of the other journals to see that an investigation is carried out but journal A should follow the events. Of course, if the other journals refuse to investigate, there is little that the editor can do.
In summary, the Forum agreed that the editor should contact the authors and the reviewers of the meta-analysis in the first instance. If the editor has sufficient evidence that some of the papers are fabricated or heavily plagiarised, he should then contact the journals where the primary studies were published and ask them to investigate.
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.
Author A submitted a trial comparing the safety and feasibility of two delivery techniques in patients. The trial, which was done at author A’s institution, was assessed by inhouse editors, who decided to send it out for peer review.
During the peer review process, some reviewers pointed out that “this work seems premature, experimental and hard to believe”, and also expressed suspicion about the result (ie, 100% procedure success rate). One of the peer reviewers, reviewer X, who works with author A at the same institute in Europe, and who was also acknowledged in the author’s submission, provided further comment. In his letter to editor, he stated that “I have reviewed some of their manuscripts more than 10 times, and I have refused to be associated with their research, because I had no access to the raw data on which there is an embargo made by the military authority in this country.” He continued that “it is fair to say that the data are unbelievable, without a negative or positive connotation. If the data exist and are correct, they will deserve a Nobel Prize.....as a matter of fact, a fake document has been circulated and the hoax has been disclosed in a very elegant way by a young colleague”.
After discussion among editors at our journal, we decided to reject the manuscript and ask for an investigation by the author’s institute. However, since the European institute already seems to be aware of the likely fraudulent nature of these results, and we cannot find contact details for anyone at the institution, we would welcome your advice on to whom we might best direct the investigation.
The Forum cautioned that it is much more difficult to deal with authors and resolve an issue when you have rejected the paper, as the journal no longer has any say over the paper. It is much easier to obtain information from the authors before you reject the article. However, all agreed that this case should be pursued and the editor needs to give the authors an opportunity to respond to the accusations.
The advice was to give the authors one more chance to reply. The editor should contact all of the authors (not just the corresponding author) and inform them that because of the issues raised in peer review unless he hears back from them by a specified date, he will assume that the reviewer comments are correct and will then contact the author’s institution. The Forum advised contacting the institution if the authors fail to respond or if they respond in an unsatisfactory way. The European institute may be able to provide contact details for the initial institution. Also, the editor could ask the reviewer who works with author A at the same institute in Europe to provide contact details for the author’s present or previous institution. The Forum advised addressing the institution in a non-judgemental way, simply informing them of the facts of the case and asking them to investigate.
The editor continued to contact the institute about this matter, but there has been no response since February. The editor now feels there is little else he can do and considers the case closed.
A director of an institute in France has expressed concern about a paper published in our journal. One of the authors (not the corresponding author) of the paper, person A, visited his laboratory in France for 5 months in 2009 to carry out some work. The director says that some methods used and results obtained in his laboratory have now been included in the paper without his knowledge or permission. Researchers from another institute in a different country are co-authors of the paper, and the corresponding author is someone from that institute. The director in France acknowledges that the experiments could have been repeated in conjunction with this other group, but says that it is not very ethical to work in this way.
I would be grateful for any advice on how to proceed in this matter. We have replied saying that we would contact COPE for advice. In 2010, the editor-in-chief of another journal contacted the French group about a paper submitted by person A which included several members of the French laboratory as co-authors without their knowledge and permission. That editor-in-chief was concerned about apparent falsification of data by manipulation of a gel photo, which the French group were able to confirm. They contacted person A and the departmental head but have had no response.
The editor provided additional information that there was no formal contract between person A and the laboratory in France, and the director of the laboratory has replied that none of the data have been published previously.
The advice from the Forum was to contact person A, relaying the concerns expressed by the French institute, and ask for an explanation. If there is no response or an unsatisfactory response from person A, then the editor may consider contacting person A’s institution and asking them to investigate the matter. In the meantime, the editor may like to publish an expression of concern if an investigation is ongoing. However, as the director acknowledges that the experiments could have been repeated elsewhere and if he cannot prove that the published results were actually produced in his laboratory, it may be difficult for the journal to pursue this further. Further advice was for the editor to encourage the French institute to take up the matter with person A and her current institute. Or the French institute could contact the corresponding author of the paper, and then he/she should then be responsible for putting together a response on behalf of all authors. If it turns out to be a simple matter of ‘scientific discourteousness’, a letter exchange would be a good way to publicly apologise. Regarding the second paper, involving the other journal and possible falsification of the data, this should probably be set aside for the moment, in the interests of giving person A the benefit of the doubt. It is the other journal’s responsibility to pursue this matter.
The editor contacted the director in France who brought the case to their attention, and forwarded the recommendations of the Forum COPE, asking him how he would like to proceed. He asked the editor to try to contact person A to ask for an explanation. The editor emailed and sent a letter asking person A to respond. They are still awaiting a response.
It was brought to our attention that there is considerable overlap and duplication of data in two papers that a group of authors submitted and that were subsequently published in two different journals. The control groups are identical in the two papers although it is claimed that they were matched controls. The data in several columns in the tables are identical; one figure has been reproduced.
The response from the authors was as follows. Regarding the considerable overlap and duplication of data, I'd like to explain this:
In both papers the control group is the same.
One figure has been reproduced in both papers. The aim of including this figure in each paper is different, being in one case to show the difference against one option and in the other case to compare against a different technique, with their respective different discussion, implications and discussion.
Having this in mind, it is our opinion that this cannot be considered redundant publication as the rationale behind each of the papers aims to address a different hypothesis and the discussion dealing with the explanation of the results is largely different. Moreover, in the results section, representing the bulk of the achievements of our research, only one figure out of six is present in both papers.
Both papers are clearly different in their scope, bulk of results, discussion and clinical implications.
The Editor of the journal is not happy with this response, feeling that the author has explained why they did it but does not seem to be concerned that they did it. The editor and publisher of the other journal involved have not responded to our emails. We would like some advice from COPE on where to take this case and whether retraction is fair.
The Forum suggested there are two issues here: (1) possible fraudulent data as it is unlikely that both studies would have the same control group (if they were matched controls); (2) duplicate publication. It is the responsibility of the other journal to act, as they published second. The suggestion was for the editor to contact the second journal and ask the editor what he understands to be the case. It can also be more influential if two editors act together if they need to contact the author’s institution, for example.
It may be that the author needs to be educated regarding the fact this is unacceptable behaviour. The editor should write to the author and ask him to explain why the control groups were the same. The editor should give the author a specific deadline in which to respond and the author should be informed that if a response is not received, the editor will contact the institution. The Forum advised against retraction until the full facts of the case are known.
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.
A meta-analysis was conducted of about 1000 patients included in a number of small trials of a drug for emergency management administered by route X compared with route Y. The report concluded that administration by route X improves short term survival.
The paper was submitted to our journal in September 2011 and after peer review was returned to the authors for revision in November 2011.
In the letter sent to the authors, the editor stated: “Before coming to a final decision on your paper we will need to see your responses to our referees' comments. We will also need you to discuss the preliminary results of the large randomised controlled trial (RCT) recently presented at a national meeting which conflict with and may negate the conclusions of your meta-analysis.”
The revised version was sent back to us in January 2012. It contained only one mention of the large RCT without quoting any of its findings. The covering correspondence discussed the RCT findings that had been recently presented and speculated as to why they appeared different from the findings of the meta-analysis.
We accepted the meta-analysis in January 2012. We considered that the differences described by the authors were irrelevant, because the large RCT had not, at that time, been published in a peer-review journal and the only information available was from data presented at a meeting.
We now know that the authors of the meta-analysis were fully aware of the findings of the large RCT at the time they submitted the revision because the RCT paper had already been accepted by a high profile journal and the lead author was co-author on the meta-analysis submitted to our journal. None of this was revealed to the journal prior to accepting the meta-analysis
In March 2012, the high profile journal published the large RCT which randomized more than 2000 patients to drug treatment by the two different routes. The main conclusion was of no difference in survival for route X versus route Y. This finding rendered meaningless the finding of the meta-analysis accepted by our journal 6 weeks previously.
The authors of the meta-analysis were then emailed asking if they would now update their meta-analysis with inclusion of the RCT data.
The response was negative but an email from another co-author (who wrote the editorial accompanying the RCT in the high profile journal) agreed “it makes no sense to report a meta-analysis claiming death reduction considering available data”. He then copied us in an email he had sent to the lead author of the meta-analysis in January 2012, before it was sent back to our journal: “just to let you know that I am finishing an editorial on (the RCT) which will likely come out very soon with the main Ms....I would suggest that you try to include (the data from the RCT) into your meta-analysis ASAP”
The authors chose not to include the data from the RCT in the revised version of the meta-analysis they submitted to our journal, even though they had available those data. Since then the authors of the meta-analysis have steadfastly refused to update their paper. Meanwhile the editorialist for the high profile journal has asked that his name be removed from the meta-analysis in our journal.
The authors of the meta-analysis, one of whom was the lead author of the high profile journal report, had full access to the RCT data at the time they were preparing their revised paper for our journal. They knew that the main finding of the RCT contradicted the conclusion of their meta-analysis and ignored the suggestion of a co-author (the editorialist) to include the RCT data in their revised paper to our journal.
COPE states that journal editors should consider retracting a publication if they have clear evidence that the findings are unreliable. The authors of the meta-analysis knew their findings were unreliable at the time they submitted their revised paper and we now wish to have the paper retracted
The Forum agreed there were grounds for retraction of the paper. Clinical decisions are often based on meta-analyses and the editor cannot rely on all readers being aware of the newly published meta-analysis in the other journal. However, the ideal situation would be for the author to correct the published paper. Although the author has refused to do this, the Forum suggested that the editor should contact the author again, asking him to correct the paper. The editor should tell the author that if he refuses to correct the paper, then the editor will be left with no option but to retract the paper.
The Forum suggested that the fact that the editor did not ask the authors to wait until the results of the RCT were available before submitting their final paper has contributed to the confusion surrounding the case. Going forward, the editor should consider revising journal policy to request authors to send any related papers under submission to them when they submit an article.
Following the Forum’s advice, the editor emailed the corresponding author of the paper, copying in the co-authors, stating that he hoped the authors would agree to update the meta-analysis whereupon the matter would be concluded. He told the authors that if they did not agree to provide an update, he would retract the paper. The editor received no reply and therefore retracted the paper. The retraction notice stated that the findings of the paper were unreliable because they failed to address data from the large RCT, to which the authors had access prior to submission and which contraindicated the paper's conclusion. The notice said that authors were asked to update the paper to include the RCT findings but, with the exception of one of the authors, they declined. Owing to this difference of opinion, this author asked to be removed from the list of authors, a request to which the journal acceded. The notice stated that under these circumstances, the matter was considered by COPE who recommended retraction and this paper has now been withdrawn.
In early 2012, author A submitted a paper reporting on the gene mutated in a rare syndrome seen in a specific population. The paper was citing an earlier (2006) report by author B that had mapped the disease locus to a narrow chromosomal location but had stopped short of actually identifying the gene (which would have been laborious by the technology available at the time).
Author A’s submission independently replicated the mapping data of the earlier paper and proceeded to identify the gene by exome sequencing, a technology that had become widely available since the publication of the mapping paper in 2006. Since the mapping was independently replicated, the methodology used would have been sufficient to identify the gene whether any prior knowledge was available or not.
Author A requested that the editor exclude author B as well as author C (another researcher from a different institution) as reviewers. Because the earlier paper made it clear that author B was a competitor, and external referee expertise was readily available elsewhere, the request was granted. After some minor revisions, the paper was accepted for publication in the journal. On the day of acceptance (the timing being pure coincidence), two papers by authors B and C were published online in a different journal, reporting the same gene discovery, plus some functional data about the gene.
Author A’s paper appeared a month later and, shortly thereafter, the editor received an email from author B, requesting that author A’s paper be retracted. It was alleged that the work reported by author A had inappropriately used information, given to him confidentially by author B, in 2009. The information consisted of disclosing the identity of the mutated gene that author B had already discovered at the time but was not publishing, waiting for the functional studies to be completed. Author B alleges that the information had been confidentially given to author A at a closed meeting, to help in the clinical management and genetic counselling of the patients. No non-disclosure agreement or similar document was signed. It was also alleged that author A’s group included in their study three of the patients that they knew were already studied by author B.
The confidential nature of the meeting, attended by several physicians and researchers, is in dispute. Author A, in response to a request by the editor, said that the meeting was open to all but could not provide any copy of a public announcement. Author A learned about the meeting from a private email (from one of the attendees, not directly from author B). The email, a copy of which was provided to the editor, does not mention confidentiality but may be interpreted as an invitation to collaborate. Author B and his collaborators say that the meeting was by invitation only and the confidential nature of its content was made obvious. The clinician collaborators of author B did not respond to repeated requests by the editor to identify the three overlapping patients by their pedigree IDs in each of the two papers.
In his response to a query by the editor, author A stated that in 2006 (and, therefore, prior to the 2009 meeting), he had obtained funding to identify the gene. One fact is clear: in 2011, knowledge of the mutated gene was not necessary to perform the work reported by author A. The work reported by author A addresses the question “from scratch” using hypothesis-free methodologies and requires no prior knowledge.
The editor believes that, although the behaviour of author A may not have been the most collaborative and collegial, no misconduct justifying retraction of the paper has been committed.
The opinion of COPE would be highly valued in resolving this matter.
The Forum agreed that as the paper is scientifically sound, there are no grounds for retraction. It is important not to retract a paper where the data are not in question. Although author A may not have behaved well, there has been no misconduct. If the paper could have been written without the information gained from attending the meeting, then the complainant has no grounds for complaint.
The Forum suggested that the editor should invite author B to write a letter to the editor for publication in the journal. The readers will then be alerted to the issue and author A will have the opportunity to respond. The editor may wish to tell the authors that he has sought the advice of COPE.
The editor communicated the advice from the Forum to both authors. Author B and his co-authors decided not to write a letter on the matter.