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The director of a research laboratory contacted our journal regarding an article published earlier this year. The director claimed that the documents and data used in the article were collected at his research laboratory and used by author A without his knowledge and permission.
At the time, author A was a visiting scholar at the director's laboratory. The director also claimed that author B and author C (both PhD students under the director's supervision) were listed as coauthors without their knowledge. Additionally, he claimed that author D (author A's supervisor at his primary affiliation) was not in any way involved in the research described in the article and should be removed from the authors list. The director stated that he wishes for the article to be withdrawn.
In his email to our journal, the director forwarded us his previous correspondence with author A to corroborate his claims. In their correspondence, author A basically admits his mistake, apologizes and assures the director that he already contacted our journal in order to withdraw the paper. The correspondence between the director and author A occurred approximately 3 months before the director contacted us. Our journal never received a request to withdraw the paper from author A.
However, even though the forwarded correspondence clearly incriminates author A, as far as we know it is not possible to determine whether the forwarded emails are authentic or edited.
After receiving the director's message, we contacted all of the authors in an attempt to resolve the case. At the time of submission, author A was affiliated with institution 1 and institution 2. Author D is affiliated with institution 1, while author B, author C and the director are affiliated with institution 2. Author A stated that he included author B and author C as coauthors due to their help with language editing, but he agreed with their request to be removed from the authors list. When asked to comment on his previous correspondence with the director, he claimed in vague terms that the misconduct allegations stem from some personal disagreement between the director and author D during their collaboration on a research project.
Author B requested his removal from the authors list as well as withdrawal of the article. Author B also claimed that some of the data in the article were not valid. He did not respond to our request to clarify in what way were the data were flawed. Author C requested his removal from the authors list as well as withdrawal of the article. Author D was contacted a week later than the others due to a faulty email address. We informed him that author B and author C expressed that they wish to be removed from the authors list and he agreed with their request.
As all of the authors have reached a consensus regarding authorship, we intend to correct the record and remove author B and author C from the author’s list.
The director was asked if he could provide some other proof of his allegations besides the forwarded email correspondence between himself and author A. He did not provide any other proof and demanded that the article be removed at once and that author A's institution (institution 1) be notified of his scientific misconduct. Additionally, he claimed that author B performed the majority of the research presented in the article as author A had insufficient experience in the field.
Author A was asked to comment on that claim, but he maintained that he wrote the article and did not use data collected in the director's research laboratory.
We do not have the means necessary to pursue further investigation of this case by ourselves, which is why we are seeking advice from the COPE Forum.
Questions for the COPE Forum (1) Should the forwarded email correspondence between the director and author A be considered conclusive evidence of alleged scientific misconduct on author A's behalf? (2) Should we retract the article based on the scarce information we have managed to gather? (3) Should we first publish a correction in order to rectify the misattributed authorship and deal with the data ownership issues separately? If so, should we try to further resolve the data ownership issues ourselves or refer the case to author A's institution? (4) Should we publish an expression of concern detailing the alleged misconduct, inform author A's institution about the allegations, request an institutional investigation and wait for the results of their investigation before making a final decision about this case? (5) Does the COPE Forum have any other suggestions on how to proceed with this complicated case?
The Forum agreed that the editor has reached the point where he cannot investigate this further or hope to resolve this issue, and hence he should now contact the authors’ institutions and ask them to investigate the matter. The Forum suggested contacting both institution 1 and 2, providing them with as much information as possible. The editor cannot resolve the issue of who owns the data. As the editor has concerns about the article as it stands, it was suggested that he publish an expression of concern, alerting the readership that there may be problems with this paper. However, others cautioned about the timing of publishing an expression of concern—should the editor wait until after the investigation by the institutions? On polling the Forum audience, the majority agreed that they would wait for the results of the institution’s investigation. However, the Forum reiterated that this must be an editorial judgement, taking into consideration whether the editor has a reasonable expectation that the institution will investigate the matter in a timely fashion.
The Forum suggested the editor might like to consult the COPE retraction guidelines for guidance on when to issue an expression of concern.
Unauthorized use of data came up as a prime issue in a recent study of the re-classification of the COPE cases in the past 10 years. Also, the Montreal statement on research integrity in cross boundary research collaborations came out of this year’s World Conference on Research Integrity (http://www.wcri2013.org/Montreal_Statement_e.shtml), and this statement addresses these types of issues. Editors may wish to refer authors to their guidance.
After efforts to investigate the alleged misconduct had failed, the journal referred the case to the institution where the misconduct reportedly occured. The editor was subsequently informed that the reported issues had been discussed internally and that it was ultimately decided that no further action or investigation would take place.
Since there is no conclusive evidence of misconduct, the journal will not be taking any action with regards to the issue of allegedly unauthorized use of data. However, action will be taken to rectify the reported and confirmed authorship issues.
A manuscript was published in journal X, submitted by several co-authors, including one of the editors in chief of journal X, Dr A (the article was handled by another editor in chief at the journal). Another researcher, Dr B, has claimed that this article should be withdrawn because it contains unauthorized data from him (Dr B).
A few years previously, Drs A and B worked and published jointly, but at some point there appeared to be a divergence in points of view on the interpretation of results (obtained in a large part by Dr B and his team) in a manuscript co-written by both Drs A and B (and the teams of both Drs A and B). Dr A decided that Dr B and his team must agree to the publication of the manuscript or they would be removed from the co-author list. The paper was then submitted as an appendix in an internal report for their funding agency.
Later, a similar paper was published by Dr A and his team (only) with similar content to the previous disputed paper in journal X. Dr B and his team are acknowledged in the text but have not been asked or listed as co-authors. The paper contains the results from Dr B’s team, very important results, that people now refer to as from Dr A’s team.
Dr B thinks this is a violation of the rules of good scientific practice and has asked advice from a third independent party. The third party recognized the violation of the rules of good scientific practice and suggested publishing an erratum. Dr B refuses to agree to an erratum because his team do not necessarily wish to be co-authors, as they disagree with the interpretation. Dr B wishes to have this published article withdrawn.
Question What should the editor of journal X do?
The Forum agreed that the current paper cannot stand in its present form—some form of correction of the literature needs to be done. It is clear that the data are the intellectual property of Dr B, but this is essentially an authorship dispute, and it is up to the authors to resolve it. Although the results of the paper are not in dispute, the editor could decide to retract the paper and tell the authors that they must resolve their dispute themselves. So the editor could present the issues to both authors and tell them that some form of drastic action might happen if they cannot resolve the issue and ask them to find an independent arbitrator whose decision they agree to abide by. As a third party is already involved, would both authors agree to abide by the decision of this third party, given that it was author B who asked for advice from this third party? A better solution might be for the authors to agree on another independent party who could arbitrate on the case.
But if the authors cannot come to any agreement, the editor could suggest that author B is allowed to write a letter or article explaining his interpretation of the results.
One other suggestion was to have a revised paper, with all of the authors listed, and with two separate discussions. The readers could then make up their mind which interpretation they preferred. However, the original paper would have to be retracted.
The majority agreed that the best way forward was to present the issues to both parties and tell them the journal is prepared to retract the article unless the authors can resolve the case.
The editor had further communications with Dr B. The editor again explained that it was not the journal’s decision to make but was up to Dr B, his employer and the authors to sort out. The editor has now stopped corresponding with Dr B.
A sixth year medical student, with expected year of graduation of 2013 (Mr X), submitted 29 original articles and 17 letters to the editor in the period February 2012 to October 2012 to our journal. This amounted to an average of five submissions per month. Mr X is an author and corresponding author in every article. Of these, he is the first author of eight original research articles and 12 letters. In the remaining one he is a co-author. The articles are on very diverse subjects.
This set us thinking that, apart from his clinical work and studies, how he had time to conduct research, analyse the results and write the articles.
The journal first wrote to Mr X for the necessary justification. He responded promptly, “I am one of the best researchers of my country and have multiple publications in every field of medicine and have won multiple prizes”. He provided a list of 72 publications to his credit. He also provided the name and email of the chief of the research committee of the university.
We wrote to the concerned parties asking them to endorse the submissions as being ethical and valid for the purpose of publication. The chief replied that Mr X was a member of the student research committee with some research background in medicine which led to multiple awards and publications. He confirmed the research background in a vague manner and there were no more comments or endorsements of the submitted articles.
We then wrote to the vice chancellor of the university asking for verification and endorsement of the articles according to the ICMJE guidelines. The director of research affairs was also approached, who asked for details of all the articles submitted. These were duly sent.
In the meantime, Mr X contacted us stating that his e-mail had been hacked and someone else had sent letters and articles with his name. This was incorrect, as all mails had the same e-mail address. We also sent an email to the Publication Commission in our country on 6 March 2013. There has been no response.
We face a dilemma. The articles are lying unprocessed. It is a mystery as to why the higher authorities are not taking any action or replying to our emails.
Question What would the COPE Forum suggest we do?
The Forum suggested that it may be useful in this case to help rather than punish the author. As an initial approach, the Forum asked if there was any pastoral care available to the student, or whether the medical school has anyone who could talk to the student in a confidential manner. This may be more of a problem with the student, rather than research integrity concerns. The institution has a responsibility to its students and they need to ensure that students are sufficiently supported. So the editor should consider contacting someone in this role at the author’s university.
However, that still leaves the dilemma of the unprocessed articles and what to do with them. The Forum advised that the editor needs to be certain that the articles are all from the author and that he takes responsibility for them. If there is any doubt, then the articles should not be processed. However, if the articles are genuine and have scientific merit, then they should be processed in the normal way, as there are no grounds for rejection.
The Forum also suggested contacting any co-authors on the papers for an explanation and to confirm that the papers have all been written by the author. The editor should make it clear to the author that the papers are on hold while the issue is satisfactorily resolved.
Another suggestion was for the editor to consider contacting some higher authority or regulatory body, or ministry of research, and asking them to investigate the case.
As suggested by the Forum members, we did some investigations ourselves as the higher authorities, including the Vice Chancellor of the University to which the author belonged, were unresponsive.
As a sample, an Internet search was made for three of the articles. One was found to be copied in full from a similar article in another online journal.
A search was made for the correct names and email addresses of the coauthors, as those stated in the articles submitted to us were wrong. We spoke to two coauthors by telephone— one knew nothing about the concerned author or about his name being included as a coauthor. He also knew nothing about the article. Another senior coauthor spoke in favour of the author. He said, “ Mr X is a very intelligent and knowledgeable researcher and writes very well”. He could not justify how Mr X could write on such diverse topics.
We received only one email reply from a senior professor. He wrote : “I was really shocked to see the paper published without my knowledge. I do not know Mr X (author). I have never met him. He has never worked with me. He has stolen my published data. I am going to forward this message to the ethics department and make a complaint on the concerned person at the university”.
We have had no comment or reply to our queries from the officials of the university. From the Internet searches made by us, we can conclude that Mr X, the medical student (author) is: • Not only good at writing in English but is also excellent in fabricating and stealing data. • He has the support of one or two senior faculty members of his university. • He has been committing these unethical acts for quite a few years as there are a number of articles with his name. • The articles submitted to our journal had fake email addresses and names, even with incorrect spellings, making contact difficult. • The signatures of all authors were forged.
Questions for the COPE Forum (1) Should we just close all the files and bury the case? (2) If not, what steps should be taken?
Advice on follow up:
One view from the Forum was that, as suggested before, the editor should contact a higher authority, regulatory body, or ministry of research, and ask them to investigate the case, given the institution’s unwillingness or inability to engage with the editor on this issue.
However, others argued that it is the responsibility of the institution to deal with this student. Institutions not responding to editors’ requests is a common problem, and the advice was to contact the institution every 3 months, requesting a reply and including copies of the information on the case. The editor should say that he/she does not consider the matter closed and request that the institution investigate the case. If the institution does agree to an investigation, the editor should publish the findings of the investigation in the journal, using the text from the institution’s report.
The Forum advised the editor not to accept any more papers from this author. The editor should write to all of the authors of the submitted manuscripts to say that no further papers will be considered from this student.
Regarding the published papers, the editor should consider contacting the editors of the other journals that published papers by this author.
Update (December 2013): The Secretary National Ethics Committee updated the editor that the university was conducting an investigation. The Committee have confirmed that more misconducts had been detected against this author and the concerned authorities were still looking into the case. The Committee suggested that the journal should take an independent decision on the unprocessed articles in the journal’s office. The journal plans to make a final decision on the pending articles very soon.
Update (February 2014):
The Secretary National Ethics Committee told the editor that more misconduct cases had been detected against this author and the concerned authorities were still looking into the case. He suggested that the journal should take an independent decision on the unprocessed articles. We will make a final decision on the pending articles shortly.
Update (June 2014):
The decision of the editorial board of our journal was to close all 27 pending files on the grounds of fraud. The decision was also taken to debar the author. The Secretary National Research Ethics Committee of the author’s university was informed.
Shortly after publishing a short report, another group involved in similar work accused one of the authors (A) of the short report of fabricating and/or stealing data from their lab. The other group also stated that author A’s conclusions about an image published in the short report were wrong.
We asked to see author A’s original data and talked to his co-authors and the institution where his studies were reportedly carried out. We were satisfied that the data presented in the short report were real and the author’s own, and there was no evidence of data fabrication or theft.
We asked for expert opinion on author A’s interpretation of the image. Three experts thought that the author could not draw the conclusions he had based on the scan he presented in the publication and that reference images produced from the original data were needed to support his conclusions. We went back to author A, told him we were satisfied that there was no evidence of data fabrication or theft, but that we did think he needed to provide more data to support his claims. He did provide some additional images. However, our experts’ view was that the data provided did not verify the author’s claims. He had used images from published articles as reference images, and not reference images from his original data.
In the meantime, the other group submitted a correspondence article explaining how their own studies conflict with author A’s claims. This was sent for review. The reviewer felt that author A’s article should not have been published, but that the other group needed to provide some more experimental detail and data. At this point we approached author A telling him that we did not think the data he provided supported his claims and that he might want to consider retracting the article. Author A responded by sending us several opinions from ‘experts’ he had found arguing that the article should not be retracted. None of these ‘experts’ is an expert in the imaging technique used. He also said he would now be able to provide reference images from his original data, although we have not seen them and do not know, without checking with our experts, whether or not they would be enough.
The short report describes an invasive clinical intervention and makes claims about its efficacy. This is a controversial area of research, and our concern is about leaving something that may not be accurate in the public domain, but we also do not feel that the author has intentionally misled us or the public. We feel at this point that the best course of action is to publish the critic’s correspondence article, along with the authors’ response, and let the public judge for itself. However, given the clinical nature of the short report and the doubts raised about the veracity of author A’s claims, we would like the committee’s opinion on whether the publication of the correspondence piece and the authors’ response is enough, whether we would be justified in publishing an expression of concern about author A’s article or whether there are grounds to retract.
The Forum agreed that the editor had done the right thing by allowing the authors to comment. Exchange of correspondence is ideal in such cases as this will be linked permanently to the original article and so the debate will be in the public domain. The Forum did not think the article should be retracted. Also, the Forum advised against publishing an expression of concern as this indicates that there is something wrong with the data. All agreed that the editor had done all he could except perhaps to write an editorial on peer review and post publication comment.
We did not publish an expression of concern but encouraged the ‘other group’ to submit their revised correspondence. They decided they did not want to, so we have not taken any further action.
A letter was sent to the editor indicating that three articles (one of them in the editor’s journal) on identical subjects had been published in the same year (2006) by the same authors, accusing the first author of all three articles of stealing data from and plagiarising a previously published article from the academic institution where the first author previously worked. The letter, sent by a senior academic and former supervisor of the first author, said that the data had been published without his permission or acknowledgement and he requested that the author be contacted and he and his colleagues punished for their unethical behaviour.
Soon after, the same allegedly victimised head of department sent a second letter to the same editor saying that he was planning on contacting the author’s university and Ministry of Health, informing them of this matter, and also requesting that these papers be immediately retracted from the journal, with an explanation published. Moreover, he stated that he would be submitting a letter to the editor which he hoped would be published with an editorial comment in the next issue of the editor’s journal.
On close inspection of the initial paper published in 2005, referred to by the two letters (the plaintiff was the first author and the alleged culprit the second author), it was clear that the data constituting the only original part of the three 2006 articles were published previously and had been reproduced in identical format in two and differently in the third article. The rest of the data were comparisons with previously published data sets from other countries. The “original” data set had indeed been plagiarised. In addition, the description of the methods was verbatim from the 2005 article, except for the instrument used in all three articles. As a result, there appeared to be clear plagiarism, illegitimate use of data and duplication of data. None of the 2006 articles cited each other and the initial 2005 article was cited in only two of the three articles.
The announced letter to the editor was indeed submitted but rejected on the grounds that informing the readership and issues of sanctions are the prerogative of the editor, not of scientists external to the journal.
The following actions were taken:
The editors of the two other journals involved were contacted suggesting coordination of effort and, if possible, reaching a consensus as to the sanctions. Only one editor replied suggesting: (i) retraction of two of the three articles without indicating which; (ii) contacting the accused scientist and requesting a response to this apparent violation of ethical standards; and (iii) the senior and corresponding authors be restricted from publishing in these journals for a specified period of time.
This editor replied to his colleague suggesting that all three articles be retracted on the basis that none of them provided original data; to simultaneously publish a common letter in all three journals; and lastly to ban the main author for five years and the co-authors for three years.
Questions to COPE: (i) should the current academic institution of the main author be contacted for information? (ii) should there be any dissemination of this case beyond the three journals directly involved? (iii) is attempts to coordinate between journals a good idea or should each journal go on its own and make its own, probably different, decisions?
The editor updated the COPE Forum with the following information. The editor had written to the first author requesting that he retract the paper. The author agreed and his letter of retraction was published together with an editorial from the editor outlining the issues. The paper was retracted.
Members of the Forum questioned whether this was in fact a case of plagiarism, and argued that duplicate publication might be a more accurate description. However, the Forum were unanimous in recommending contacting the academic institution of the main author. The Forum emphasised that the editor should not make any allegations and should not get involved in an investigation except to provide factual information. The institution should be presented with the facts and the details of the 2 other titles, and then asked to investigate the matter themselves. The Forum found the attitudes of the editors of the other journals very worrying. The editor was right in contacting them, but their responses, or lack of response, were disheartening. The advice was to consider contacting the editorial boards of these journals.
The Forum also noted COPE’s usual recommendation of caution in applying sanctions against authors where there has been no due process of investigation, such as an institutional finding of misconduct.
No further action was taken. The editor considers the case now closed.
During refereeing of an article, one of the referees made an accusation of theft regarding a model described in the article. The referee and the authors had been collaborating on a review article previously, but had fallen out. The journal requested evidence from the parties. This involved several rounds of requests to the accuser, as the journal felt that the accuser was not providing anything amounting to actual evidence of the alleged theft. Owing to the technical nature of some of the evidence, the journal informed the parties that the material would be sent to an anonymous expert for adjudication. The adjudicator concluded that no evidence had been provided that supported the accusation. The journal will therefore be continuing its usual editorial consideration of the article. The investigation has delayed the progress of the article for several months.
Should the journal inform the accuser’s institution of these events?
Are there any other steps the journal should take?
There was obviously an existing dispute between the reviewer and the author and it was suggested that they should settle their argument between them. However, it was felt that this would not happen as they were no longer on speaking terms.
As the reviewer’s actions had caused some delay in the processing of the authors’ manuscript, it was suggested that the editor might like to determine if the reviewer had an undeclared conflict of interest. The injured party in this case was the author of the paper, and one possible course of action would be to suggest to the author that he write to the reviewer’s institution and complain about the reviewer’s behaviour.
It was felt that the editor should not write to the reviewer’s institution, as he had no evidence that the paper was deliberately delayed by the reviewer. However, he might wish to write a moderately worded letter to the reviewer, pointing out concerns about his behaviour and including details about what is expected of reviewers of papers for the journal. While it would be up to the editor to decide whether or not to use the reviewer in future, any suggestion of producing a “blacklist” of unsuitable reviewers was to be rejected.
In short, the editor in chief wrote to the complainant indicating that the journal had asked an independent expert to review the evidence presented, and that the result of the inquiry was that no evidence to support the complaint could be found. The complainant was informed that the journal intended to go ahead with the publication of the article. The author was also informed of this decision.
The article has been published, and no further communication from the complainant has been received.
We are aware, however, that the complainant has subsequently raised similar objections with another journal after the publication of a separate article in this area by the same author. We have informed the editor in chief of that journal of the circumstances of the complaint lodged with us, our investigation, and actions.
An author wrote to the editor of a specialist journal, indicating that a paper had been published without appropriate recognition of himself as an author. In his letter he stated that he had contributed more than 50% of the cases reported. The first author had “not only stolen my data and published it without my consent, but also omitted my name. ” The editor has written to the authors of the paper asking for further information, but should any further action be taken?
_ Under the Vancouver guidelines, simply providing cases does not constitute authorship. _ The onus was on the journal to pursue this because the paper had now been published. _ The editor should contact the head of department, but if the institution is unwilling to look at it, then it should be left as an unresolved case. _ First of all, request an explanation from the authors.