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:
Our journal received a manuscript which was a report of an evaluation and enhancement of an online clinical decision support system (CDS) for a specific population at risk of a disease. The online CDS had been developed by a national agency with a mission to support health promotion and disease prevention activities. Evaluation of the CDS was supported through contracts and sub-contracts. The first author was an employee of a university that was a sub-contractor on the project; the second and third authors were employees of a business that describes itself as providers of innovative scientific and technical solutions for national agencies through a consortium of more than 100 universities. The first author’s university was part of this consortium.
The manuscript was submitted to our journal 3 months after the project was finished. Project reports were also submitted to the national agency through the sub-contractors. The second author was the primary conduit of communication between the sub-contractors and the national funding agency.
As a result of the project report and evaluation, the national agency made changes to the online CDS, which included taking down the online version that was reported in the manuscript. When the manuscript was revised, the first author decided to include screenshots from the national agency which described the CDS even though it was no longer available online.
The revised manuscript was submitted, re-reviewed, and after a few small changes, accepted for publication. Shortly thereafter, the editorial associate for the journal contacted the first author to inquire about whether permission was needed to print the screenshots. The first author asked the second author to verify that the national agency was happy about the inclusion of the screenshots. She replied that the agency approved. During the proofing stage, when the second author did not respond to emails, the editorial assistant contacted the agency directly and was told that the programme officer was totally unaware of the existence of the manuscript. Questions surrounding the actions of the second author then emerged pertaining to the details of his communication with the national agency prior to the manuscript being submitted to our journal.
The first author contacted the journal and said the proofs had to be reviewed and approved by the primary funder. As editor, I replied that at the page proof stage, all edits/changes must be very minor. Substantial changes would require that the manuscript be taken out of the production process and depending on the nature of the changes, the entire submission and review process might have to begin anew.
During a telephone call with the first author she stated that she believed the second author had lied regarding eliciting input and obtaining permission from the national agency to submit and publish the manuscript in our journal. Further, the second author had been fired from his job for “ethical transgressions,” and was now doing work completely unrelated to his previous job for the sub-contractor. She believed he had contributed little to the original paper. The first author has been dealing with the fallout from this and the funding agency. She asked if she should withdraw the manuscript? Or if not, should the second author be listed as an author?
As editor, I am reluctant to have the second author remain on the manuscript, especially given the fact that he may have done less on the manuscript than he originally said and may not even qualify for authorship according to the ICMJE guidelines. The first author agrees with this, but she is concerned that he may take litigious action against her, the university where she works, or the journal.
Question(s) for the COPE Forum
Should the journal reject the manuscript? Is it unsalvageable at this point?
If the journal does not reject the manuscript, should the second author be removed? How could that be handled?
The editor provided an update to the Forum. Although the authors were originally working at the same agency, there was a change in employment and only the first author was now employed there. Through conversations with the third author, it became apparent that the second author had delegated manuscript writing to the third author, who was an intern at the time for the consulting agency. Subsequently, the second author had been fired from the consulting agency for unclear reasons.
The Forum agreed that it would be unwise for this paper to go forward given the authorship conflicts, the questionable timeliness or veracity of the data, the status of the permissions from the federal funding agency, and the lack of response from the second author (presumably because he had left the agency). The first and third authors could be encouraged to write a different paper in light of the problems. While the Forum recognized the editor’s wish to try and help the author get their paper published, the process should stop at the point of consent or lack thereof and when the authorship issues became questionable. Further changes by the programme officer would likely change the paper significantly such that it would need to be re-reviewed.
The majority of the Forum believed the paper should be rejected even though it is currently at the page proof stage. The editor asked if rejection should occur earlier in the process and suggested asking the author to withdraw the paper. Another suggestion was to check with the publisher if there is a technical term for suspending the paper at this point.
The editor raised the issue that this paper, because it is interesting, a timely topic, and has undergone peer review and revisions, and copyediting, might be published in a predatory journal so it was fortuitous that the issue was caught prior to publication.
The author withdrew the article from consideration. The author then revised the article, working with the funding agency. She is planning to submit it as a new manuscript (not a revised version of the previous paper).
An author submitted two manuscripts to our journal and the data were clearly fabricated, which was confirmed when we examined the original patient data files. The lead author admitted that they had only recruited a few patients and fabricated all of the remaining data and said that the co-authors had done this without their knowledge.
We reported this to the institution, who conducted an investigation. However, this investigation exonerated the lead author from misconduct, who went on to publish one of these manuscripts elsewhere and is still publishing suspicious manuscripts in other journals.
Question(s) for the COPE Forum • Should other journals be warned about this case so that they can take a view about further submissions? • Should anyone else be informed about this case?
The Forum suggested it may be appropriate to contact the journal who published the similar paper because the editor has specific information relating to that particular article, but a general communication about dissatisfaction with an author is not advisable. The Forum advised the editor to proceed with caution.
A journal received an allegation of scientific misconduct from an anonymous individual stating they were from the group that had written the paper (Institution-1, there are two institutions involved in this research). The email stated that the scientific bases of the article were unreliable. The paper was currently with the authors who were revising the paper after the first round of review, and additional experiments were required.
The editors followed-up with the whistleblower requesting more information and their identity. The whistleblower emailed back, concealing their identity, but provided additional information, highlighting a specific component of the research as unreliable.
Institution-2 (the one that was not claimed by the whistleblower) was informed of the whistleblower. Institution-2 responded by saying that the authors believed there was an initial problem with the data used, but these had been updated and were not fabricated. Institution-2, however, was not the institution that carried out the experiments in question.
The editors made the decision to obtain more information. On resubmission of the paper, the three original reviewers looked at the manuscript but were not told about the whistleblower. All three were satisfied with the changes made to the paper and approved publication. A fourth reviewer was asked to look at the paper and told about the anonymous whistleblower. This reviewer found no clear evidence of fraud, but he could not assess the experiments in question. This reviewer did, however, raise new concerns about technical deficiencies in the work. Aside from fraud, these new issues made it unsuitable for publication in the journal.
The editors requested outside assessment from researchers with knowledge of the work to redo the informatics analyses to see if the raw data (included with the paper) gave the same results as the processed data. Again, there was no clear evidence of fraud, but there was difficulty in complete reproducibility due to poor methods descriptions and lack of access to all of the data.
At this time the whistleblower sent an email recanting his/her original statement and saying they have assessed the work and the authors have made the appropriate changes to fix everything. This was an odd email as there had been no change in the manuscript since the resubmission.
The editors ultimately decided to reject the paper based on remaining concerns of misconduct and the heavy criticism of the fourth reviewer.
The authors from Institution-1 requested a meeting with the editors. At this meeting the authors: expressly denied misconduct; showed the editors pages of data from the experiments of concern; and provided the editor with a copy of an email from an anonymous whistleblower that the leader of the group had received 2 days before the journal editor had received their anonymous email. This anonymous individual claimed to be from Institution-1, and stated that one of the authors (from Institution-1) had visited their institution and removed data.
An additional oddity is that the email addresses from the whistleblower to the editor and to the authors were created to indicate they came from the institutions claimed. Investigation of the email origins showed that the two anonymous whistleblower emails came from the same individual, not two different individuals as claimed.
Question(s) for the COPE Forum
• How should editors act on a tip from an anonymous whistleblower, where there is uncertainty about the unknown person's goals and that, should institutions take punitive action without investigation of the whistleblower’s intent, careers could be heavily impacted.
• If the institutions, when informed, decide to take no action, do the editors have a responsibility to investigate to get a better sense of whether they should further push the institution given the authors can simply submit a paper elsewhere where those editors will not know about the potential for misconduct.
• Due to the importance for the career of individuals on this paper, can the editors aid the authors submitting elsewhere, given that the whistleblower lied, but there is no way to disprove fraud. Or should the editors provide the information about the whistleblower to the institution.
This was a very complicated situation and the editors have no clear means to further investigate beyond what they have done already. The editors had gone far beyond what is normally assumed to be the role of the journal in such cases. The advice from the Forum was for the journal to contact the head of the institutions and the ethics board. The editor can use the Office for Research Integrity (ORI) website to check affiliations if the institutions are outside the US (there are some listings of cooperating national ethics approval boards). The Forum advised contacting the authors first before informing the institution. The institutions should also be informed of the whistleblower’s behaviour and the apparent falsification of email addresses to create the appearance of two whistleblowers.
Suggestions for another journal and assistance with revision might be appropriate in some cases. Because of the issues raised by review #4, the article was not suitable for this journal but there are other journals in the field that might accept a revised article. The suggestions for revision already provided to the authors will help them modify the article and correct any errors.
The editor informed the authors of the overall discussions at the COPE Forum, saying that they had done all they could based on COPE guidelines in terms of trying to assess the veracity of the claims (and detailed the standard COPE guidelines). The editor told the authors that he felt that at this point, further investigation into the situation had to move to their institution if they wanted to pursue that avenue and gain some resolution. Because of the serious nature of this issue, the journal told the authors that they had an additional referee look at the work, one who was very familiar with the journal. He/she raised additional concerns about the work from the standpoint of suitability to the journal, and hence the decision was made that the work was not suited to the journal.
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At the 2017 COPE European Seminar, Iain Hrynaszkiewicz, Head of Data Publishing at Springer Nature, talked about research data in the context of challenges and opportunities for publication ethics.
Our COPE materials are available to use under the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs license https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc-nd/3.0/
Attribution — You must attribute the work in the manner specified by the author or licensor (but not in any way that suggests that they endorse you or your use of the work).
Non-commercial — You may not use this work for commercial purposes. No Derivative Works —
You may not alter, transform, or build upon this work. We ask that you give full accreditation to COPE with a link to our website: publicationethics.org
A journal received an enquiry from a reader stating that they had found some discrepancies in the spectra published in the electronic supporting information for a published paper. They suggested that the discrepancies would be consistent with the spectra being manually ‘cleaned’. If this were true, the characterisation and purity of the compounds reported in the paper would be called into question.
The editor checked the spectra in close detail and verified that the discrepancies that the reader had identified were a reasonable cause for concern. The editor also checked the author’s related papers in the journal and identified a total of four papers that were affected by similar discrepancies in the spectra. When the editor contacted the lead author to discuss the concerns, they explained that ‘cleaning’ spectra to remove impurity peaks was not a practice that was carried out by their research group, and they did not believe that it had occurred in this instance. However, the researcher who had carried out the analysis had now left the group and the original data files where no longer available.
As a comparison with the original data files could not be made, the journal approached an independent expert to obtain a second opinion on the evidence available in the published spectra. The expert confirmed that there was clear evidence that the spectra had been altered and that this could be consistent with an attempt to overestimate the yields for the reported reactions.
Following this, the journal contacted the director of the institute to request their assistance in determining whether the spectra had in fact been altered. The director consulted with the lead author and the head of their facility. They confirmed that it was not possible to locate the original data due to a limitation of their archival system. They stated that their internal review had not found any ‘intentional altering of the spectra’. They stated that on that basis, the papers should not be suspected and should be allowed to stand.
This recommendation runs contrary to the evidence that we believe can be seen in the spectra, but in the absence of the original data files it is difficult to make a conclusive judgement.
Question(s) for the COPE Forum • What action should the editor now take to resolve this matter? The journal is considering two options: —accept the research institute’s recommendation that without evidence to prove deliberate manipulation of the data no further action should be taken. —publish an expression of concern notice on each of the affected articles stating that discrepancies in the spectra were identified, the institute was asked to investigate, but that the original data were not available and they found no evidence of deliberate manipulation of the spectra.
The Forum acknowledged it is difficult for the editor to decide on whether to accept the institution’s conclusions on the case or if in fact the journal should do more and work on their own investigation, involving the editorial board and/or their independent expert.
The Forum questioned the type of investigation the institution carried out. If it was a thorough research misconduct investigation, the journal should be able to rely on the results of that investigation as this usually involves multiple levels of investigation, an enquiry, with a faculty board reviewing all of the data that are then made available to the journal. However, if the journal received a relatively rapid response from the institution, then perhaps the internal review is not very reliable.
The Forum asked if the journal had a data availability policy—does the journal require the data from a study to be made available on request? The real issue is why the original data were not available. The lack of the original data is a serious concern. The minimum requirement of an institution is to curate and preserve the data, and it would be expected that any reputable institution would normally comply with data being available for a period of time after the end of the research (usually about 5 years). Hence this a failure of the institution. This alone could be grounds to retract the paper or publish an Expression of Concern.
If the editor is confident that there is a problem with the paper, and confident in the advice of their experts, then the journal should consider publishing an Expression of Concern, detailing the facts of the case, and pointing out the discrepancies between the findings of the institution and what the editor believes.
If the journal has a post-publication comments section, another suggestion was to encourage the reader to post their concerns, giving the authors a chance to respond as well as allowing more participation from readers. This would also allow for more transparency of the issue.
The journal followed-up with the institute to outline their concerns and explain that the journal would like to publish an Expression of Concern linked to each of the affected articles. The institute was supportive of that approach and so the journal is now following-up accordingly to issue the notices.