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.
An article was submitted to my journal and was sent for peer review. An editorial board member realised that a number of the references were incorrect: publication dates had been changed to make them more current.
The author was contacted by email and telephone who said he/she had a number of students working for him (who were not listed as authors or in the acknowledgment) and they must have changed the dates because it was well known that faculty preferred current research. He was sorry and was happy to correct the references so the peer review process could move forward.
I told him the manuscript was rejected based on the grievous errors in the reference list. This author also had an accepted manuscript in the production queue. I reviewed that manuscript again after realising the issues above and found the same problems.
Because I had already accepted that manuscript, I gave the author the opportunity to correct the references and add the student's names who worked on the paper to the acknowledgment section. The managing editor and I had to review and further correct the references following his attempt, and this manuscript will be published.
Have other editors experienced similar problems and how does COPE recommend handling them?
The Forum agreed that this is serious misconduct and almost amounts to falsification of data. The Forum questioned the motivation of the author and nobody present had seen a similar case. The author’s behaviour seems extremely odd and it seems strange that the author did not realise that the incorrect dates would be spotted, either because of well-known papers or through reference checking and automatic linking. The Forum suggested that the editor should send a firm letter to the author, explaining that this type of conduct is unacceptable and that she will be contacting the author’s institution and informing them of the situation.
The Forum also suggested that in light of the misconduct and extremely unusual behaviour regarding the references, the editor should perhaps question the scientific veracity of the studies and perhaps this too needed to be investigated, not only in terms of the current paper, but also in relation to previous papers published by this author. The editor told the Forum that other journals had published papers by this author and the Forum advised the editor to contact these editors and share her findings. It may be that all of the editors could write to the institution if similar problems are found in other papers by this author.
The publisher is working with their legal department to determine the contents of a letter that will be sent to the author’s dean and will be signed by the editor and a representative from the publisher. The editor also decided not to publish a manuscript by the same author that had previously been accepted.
Follow Up (March 2011):
The editor discovered that there were also plagiarism issues in three other journals by the same publisher and the plagiarism involved both submitted and published manuscripts. There were also coauthors for several of these papers. The editor contacted the author's dean, as did another editor. The editor received an email from the dean thanking the editor for her efforts. The research compliance officer for the university became involved, the author admitted guilt for the plagiarism and he tendered his resignation in February 2011. The publisher’s legal department is reviewing the extent of the ethical issues and will decide what further action to take. It appears that the author has been involved in ethical violations of manuscripts for a long time.
In October 2000, a journal published a retraction of a February 2000 publication of a research paper. In the same issue the dean of the corresponding author’s medical school reported the findings of an investigational committee that found, contrary to what was stated in the paper:
There was no ethics committee approval for the study.
Written informed consent had not been obtained.
The signatures for the researchers in the release form had all been written by the corresponding author (note from ed: it is unclear what “release form” this is).
Only 101 of 135 case report forms from patients could be provided by the corresponding author to the committee.
Only 27 patients’ files could be retrieved from the hospital archive for data verification
The committee also noted that two co-authors were not involved in any misconduct because one did a single clinical assessment and the other was a statistician. The committee concluded that “some fabrication and falsification might have taken place”, but noted that the “issue will be finalised” by a higher education council and “later probably” in a court of law.
The co-author who did the assessment only also had a letter published in the October issue, stating that he was surprised to see his name on the paper as he was “totally unaware” of the patients enrolled, had done nothing in the running of the trial, and had not signed a copyright form. Two other co-authors also stated that they were unaware of the paper and they had not signed anything as a co-author.
A final letter in that group was by the corresponding author. He:
Admitted to writing signatures on the submitted manuscript for the two co-authors, about which he said “I do, however, now feel it was a mistake to write their names in my handwriting, even though they had approved the inclusion of their name previously” (that is, six years before the paper was submitted).
Pointed out that the acceptance letter had been faxed to this pair and they did not withdraw responsibility as co-authors.
Pointed out that this same pair had given press interviews about the study under the journal’s news embargo.
Pointed out that one of the pair co-authored (that is, with the paper’s corresponding author) an editorial in a foreign language journal (year 2000, date unknown, but it cited the main publication).
Said he signed the copyright agreement on his own.
Had been ambiguous about approval by the existing ethics committee in his hospital (a committee that did not exist at that time), whereas the “study was approved under the supervision of the ex-chief of one of the hospital departments”. He said his ambiguity was a mistake for which he apologised.
Pointed out that all patients had given oral informed consent (the paper said “written”, and he admitted this disparity was a mistake).
In May 2006, the corresponding author sent a letter for publication in the retracting journal, asking for a retraction of the retraction, on the grounds of a ruling by a series of high courts in his country. His covering note for the letter and/or the letter itself states that the court(s):
“Unambiguously declared” his innocence about any forging of signatures.
Felt it unimaginable that the co-authors had been unaware of the submitted paper.
Established that all 135 patients were registered at the hospital.
Found that the claim about fabrication and falsification of the data was invalid.
The retracting journal would appreciate guidance about what to do next.
The committee agreed that nothing should be done unless the claim of exoneration is verified. This would involve obtaining a transcript of the proceedings or at least the rulings of the High Court. It was also suggested that transcripts of the judgements from the original investigational committee should be sought, again in an effort to establish the veracity of the claims. The advice to the editor was not to retract the retracted paper until he was in possession of all of the details of the case.
The journal have had all of the High Court rulings translated. These were rulings only, not the proceedings. The rulings exonerate the author of the retracted paper in all matters, including: being innocent of forging signatures; no data falsification or fabrication; all 135 patients in the study had been “registered” at the hospital; and the co-authors did know about being authors. The courts also ruled that it was wrong for the main author to have been dismissed (I understand that he got his job back).
One court ruled that signing other people’s signatures was “according to ongoing practice”, an act that caused “no harm”. One court ruled that “there is no regulation that requires the permission of an ethical board”. One court ruled that the fact that not all the case files could be shown to the university’s investigational committee was “the fault of the administration” and not the main author.
We have been unable to obtain the report of the university’s investigational committee. The Faculty of Medicine’s Dean at that time told us, in January 2007, that his published letter (at the time of the retraction) was a translation of the committee’s decision, which included the suggestion of data falsification and fabrication.
The then Dean still maintains that misconduct occurred. As his published letter said: not all case report forms could be found, and only some patients’ files could be found in the hospital archive. The court ruled that all the patients were “registered” at the hospital, which is not the same as being randomised into a study there.
The two translated affidavits from patients that say they were being treated state that their “file from the archive” cannot be found and that they had been given a “template” file. Both affidavits (with virtually similar wording in translation) were made on the same day with the same notary; the wording makes no mention of being in a study, although that is implied. Neither patient says that they remain on the drug being tested (perhaps treatment should be limited anyway, perhaps the drug is not licensed or available). The retracted paper showed few losses over 12–65 months of follow-up: 67 were in the experimental group, 65 completed; 68 were controls, 65 completed. Our journal recognises that nothing in this paragraph proves misconduct.
We do not know why the author of the retracted paper published a letter in which he admitted misconduct. This letter appeared in the same issue of our journal as the retraction. The author admitted to writing signatures for co-authors, being ambiguous about ethics committee approval and saying that consent was written when it was oral. The author ignored the point about data falsification and fabrication.
Because a court of law has different standards of collecting and assessing evidence, and reaching a judgment, and because the author of the retracted paper has admitted three types of misconduct, our journal is not minded to retract the retraction.
A remaining option is to ask the retracted author why he made those admissions.
A sticky point for our journal is that, despite published letters that disown authorship, some of the co-authors do seem to have known about the paper before or at the time of publication (gave a press conference, co-wrote an editorial). We see that as a separate issue which no one has yet complained about. One of the co-authors is now dead.
Your advice would be appreciated.
Advice on follow up:
In this complicated ongoing case, the committee’s only advice was to perhaps ask the author again for an explanation as to why he published a letter in which he admitted writing signatures for co-authors, being ambiguous about ethics committee approval and saying that consent was written when it was oral. The general consensus was that the editor should publish the author’s letter about wanting a retraction of the retracted paper and perhaps an accompanying editorial could highlight the details of the case. It was also noted that courts’ decisions are based on different levels of evidence and dependent on local legal rules, and editors’ decisions might therefore differ.
Further update (August 2007)
The editor felt that for there were no grounds for retraction. The editor decided not to publish the letter requesting the retraction. The journal considers the case now closed
A paper reported a radioisotope test for diagnosis of a speci?c,acute,neurological disease with 100% accuracy. Replication studies failed to con?rm the ?ndings and suggested that the test is positive in about half those affected and in a similar proportion of normal controls.Other publications by the same authors produced results at variance with their claims and misreported their ?ndings. One author admitted that the data had been altered to show a better result. An earlier publication from the same department described another isotope test for detecting an unrelated disease with 100% accuracy. It was later proved to be without value for the diagnosis of that disease.
The allegations of unethical experimentation
The study involved injection of a large dose of isotope into patients with acute neurological injury, in whom cognitive function was likely to be impaired. There was no mention of ethics approval or informed consent. The authors later stated that approval was not required because the test was used for clinical management. There was no previous or subsequent publication demonstrating clinical utility. The employing authority was therefore asked to explain how the test could have been used for clinical management. They replied that it was only a preliminary study. When it was pointed out that such a study would require ethics approval,they stated that this had been obtained,although they had not mentioned this in the paper or subsequent correspondence. When asked to provide a copy of the approval form, they threatened legal action. It is believed that the institution did not have appropriate approval to administer the isotope.
Attempts to silence the whistle blower
The whistleblower failed to replicate the observations and noted discrepancies in other papers by the same group.He contacted the patients involved in the study.They described events at variance with those of the published paper and produced documents to prove it. He challenged one of the authors who admitted that data had been altered to give a perfect result. The whistleblower approached the institution and asked for an investigation. Shortly afterwards he was told that an internal enquiry had found no cause for concern. The whistleblower asked why he had not been asked for the names of the patients who disputed the events described in the paper or asked to produce documents. He was threatened with legal action and expelled from an MRC committee on which he sat. The committee chairman was one of the authors of the disputed study.The institution blocked a request from the whistleblower to use information on a national database which is managed,but not owned,by the institution:the database is theoretically open to all investigators in the ?eld.
Having received no satisfactory response to his request from the head of the institution,the whistleblower approached the journal which published the paper, requesting that the journal publish a paper from him explaining that there had been scienti?c fraud and unethical experimentation,followed by a response from the authors. The editor felt that there was a case to answer and asked the authors of the original paper to respond. The editor copied the request to the head of the institution.
The head of the institution, instead, referred the whistleblower to the GMC for disparagement. The GMC investigated the whistleblower for eight months before he was exonerated and the focus of the investigation turned to the authors.
What should the editor do now?
The institution must produce evidence of the investigation.
The editor should refer the authors to the GMC if they are registered because there are legitimate doubts about the ethical procedures for this study.
A copy of the referring letter should be sent to the head of the institution.
An international specialist medical journal has editors in the UK and abroad who function independently. An issue of a scientific journal in 1998 reported that the overseas editor had been dismissed from a university professorship because of scientific fraud. This had been documented in three published research papers.The report highlighted a particular paper, in which 27 references cited indicated the editor was the author or coauthor of 19 of the papers. Laboratory notebooks detailing the research had disappeared. The university committee stated that the study falsely presented data, and that these had been manipulated to produce the desired statistical results. The editor stated that there had been honest errors and that the laboratory staff had used poor research methods. The editor is attempting legally to overturn the university’s action. The UK editor wrote to the journal asking whether the incident discussed affects the editorial arrangements for the journal. Is there anything else the editor should do and does the problem affect his own position as an editor working in parallel with the overseas editor, as neither one is accountable to the other?
The overseas editor hired the staff who were subsequently criticised. The publishers are awaiting the results of an appeal by the overseas editor, and COPE feels that the editor should stand down or be suspended, pending appeal. If the overseas editor refuses to do this,the other editors should tender their resignations. The publishers must face up to their responsibilities.
The overseas editor resigned from the journal. It is understood that the overseas editor has not appealed, to date, over the dismissal by the university.