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 Another researcher, Dr B, has claimed that this article should be withdrawn because it contains unauthorized data from him (Dr B).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 Dr B wishes to have this published article withdrawn.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.
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.
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.
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.
The editor-in-chief received an email from author A regarding a recently published corrigendum by authors BCD, one of whom (author C) is a member of the journal’s editorial board. In this email, author A claimed that the corrigendum, which corrected some errors in an earlier article by BCD, was based on illicit use of privileged information, obtained by two of the authors (B and D) who were reviewers on two different versions of a critique submitted by author A, which pointed out these errors. In the email, author A requested that the corrigendum be retracted and that the journal “publish an editorial note that sets the record straight”.
The sequence of events was as follows. Author A’s critique was rejected by the handling editor, based in part on negative reviews and in part on the grounds that it was far too long and contained redundant and unnecessary material. One reviewer (B) invited a revised version. A second round of review led to the suggestion by reviewer D, that BCD publish an erratum acknowledging the errors uncovered by the submission, together with a further comment from author A. The handling editor in turn proposed that author A and authors BCD submit a joint manuscript acknowledging the errors and other points. Author A refused, on the basis that the information that authors BCD obtained was privileged, and therefore could not be appropriated. Author A informed the editor that the critique had now been submitted to another journal.
Authors BCD then proposed submitting a corrigendum, but the handling editor informed authors BCD of author A’s objection along with the admonition that authors BCD’s “only option is to wait for the critique to appear in print and publish a response to that”.
About 1 year later, authors BCD submitted the corrigendum, suggesting that sufficient time had elapsed to allow author A to publish the critique, and that “This seemed to us to balance the interests of author A against the ethical requirement to promptly correct errors that we are aware of in our published paper”. The original handling editor had since left the journal but recommended publication, and the recommendation was accepted by the editor-in-chief.
Authors BCD’s corrigendum acknowledged that the errors were “called to our attention” by author A. When notified of author A’s email complaint, authors BCD proposed to submit a second corrigendum to supersede the first one, and would cite author A’s critique, which had now appeared in another journal. This proposal was rejected by author A on the grounds that authors BCD had appropriated author A’s ideas.
There are several complications.
1. Author A’s manuscript was a direct critique of authors BCD’s earlier article, but author A did not consult with authors BCD before submitting it. However, author A nominated author B as a potential referee.
2. Authors BCD did not inform author A that, despite authors A’s objection, they later submitted the corrigendum, nor did the handling editor at the time inform author A that the corrigendum had been submitted and later that it had been accepted.
3. Although author A informed the handling editor that the critique had been submitted elsewhere, author A did not apprise the editor of its progress.
4. Authors BCD did consult with the editors of the journal at each step.
What is the appropriate balance between two conflicting ethical principles: the need for authors BCD to correct an error in their work versus the need to maintain the confidentiality of privileged information?
Is retraction of the corrigendum warranted?
Is authors BCD’s proposal of a second corrigendum a reasonable solution?
Are there other actions that should be taken?
The Forum suggested that an addition could be made to the correction, citing author A's published work. The journal should take some of the blame for not finding an acceptable solution for the publication of author A's original critique and perhaps issue an apology to that effect
The Editors are grateful for COPE's advice, which they followed. An addendum was published which (1) cited author A's published work and (2) expressed regret that the editors were unable to agree with author A on an acceptable solution for the publication of A's original critique in the journal.
The publishers received an email from author B about a recently published paper, which passed peer review and had been available online for about a month. In this email, author B claimed that he and another colleague C had determined the peptide sequence in question and had not published it yet, nor given permission for it to be published. He claimed that author A had access to his unpublished results as a subcontractor on one of his grants. Furthermore, author B demanded the article be retracted. Author A alerted author B to their intention to publish in 2009, to which no response was received. Author A says that the data were obtained in his laboratory in joint work with authors B and C. Author C says that the data were obtained by him and author B, and only disclosed to author A afterwards in some collaborative work.
A further complication is that both authors B and C (and notably not author A) have a patent pending on the peptide sequence in question. However, author A could not have known about this. There is clearly some communication breakdown between authors A and B, but does author B have the right to demand that author A’s paper be retracted?
The Forum agreed that this was a case of disputed authorship and it cannot be resolved by the editor. It is one person’s word against another. The advice from the Forum was to contact the authors’ institutions, and in a formal letter ask them to investigate the case. The editor should let the authors know that he is contacting their institutions and that he will abide by the decision of the institution. The editor should then publish a correction or retract the article, depending on the outcome of the institution’s investigation.
Dr R, of University 1, has written an ‘official complain’ to Editor E alleging that a paper he was invited to review employs without permission a method that is the ‘background intellectual property’ (BIP) of University 1. He believes the paper should not be published.
Dr R asserts that he created the BIP prior to its use in several research projects at University 1, and notes that Dr A, the paper’s author, worked on these projects at University 1 under Dr R’s supervision when the method was explained to him.
Dr A’s current affiliation is University 2. Dr R asserts that: University 2 was never granted any right to use the BIP and that to do so would be an infringement; Dr A was advised of the confidentiality of the method. Dr A did not cite University 1’s BIP in his paper.
Dr R did not in fact review the paper when first submitted: several reviewers were invited and the initial ‘revise’ decision was communicated to Dr A on the basis of other reviews received. Dr R’s complaint to Editor E, which incidentally is not on University 1’s letterhead, was received when a revised version of the paper was under final review, 5 months after the initial reviewer invitation.
Editor E has sent details of the complaint to Dr A, advising him also that the review process has been suspended pending a resolution. Dr A’s response to the complaint was a direct reply to Dr R (rather than to Editor E, although a copy was sent to him), expressing surprise at the complaint and refuting the allegations, asserting instead that he was already using the methods in his paper before working at University 1 and that he had not used University 1’s methods. He also comments that despite having undertaken ‘lots of work’ at University 1, he was never included as a co-author. Editor E has asked Dr R for a response to Dr A’s views but has yet to receive one.
Editor E and the journal’s publisher are both aware of the COPE flowcharts, and jointly seek the Forum’s further advice in this case:
1. Should Editor E take the lead in investigating the matter, or should this be handled by the publisher? 2. In terms of an investigation, the COPE flowcharts recommend forwarding the concerns to the author’s institution. Is this the appropriate course of action here? In a case such as this, we would be especially interested in the Forum’s view on the suggestion that the concerns be forwarded, at an appropriate level, to both institutions simultaneously.
As noted above, the review process for the paper is presently on hold.
The Forum was unanimous in their opinion that neither the editor nor the publisher should investigate the matter. Journals are not set up to carry out investigations. The advice was not to publish the paper until the author dispute is resolved. The editor should contact both institutions and ask them to conduct an investigation into this matter. The Forum also commented that this may be a case for lawyers to sort out but the journal and publisher should be kept informed. The Forum advised that it would be appropriate for the journal and/or the publisher to contact the institutions.
The matter was referred by the editor and publisher to University 2, who are conducting a formal investigation according to the university's code of practice for complaints of misconduct in research. University 1 is cooperating at the highest level. The process has been delayed at several points, but is expected to be concluded shortly, a date having been set for the examiners and expert advisors to hold a formal hearing. The review process for the article concerned is still on hold, pending a decision: a regrettable but understandable delay of more than 10 months.
During review of a manuscript submitted to our journal, a dispute arose over some of the data used in the database that was described in the submitted paper.
The authors listed several preferred reviewers and also one non-preferred reviewer (without giving reasons). The journal’s submission site states that the editors will consider the authors’ preferred suggestions but are under no obligation to use any or all of them and that the editors reserve the right to approach non-preferred referees. Authors are asked to outline in their comments to the editor any particular reasons for requesting exclusion.
The paper was initially positively reviewed by two referees, one of them a preferred referee, and minor revision was requested. Neither of the initial referees responded to the invitation to review the revision (they neither declined, nor agreed, just did not respond) and as the senior author had already published with virtually all important scientists in this small field, the associate editor decided to invite the non-preferred reviewer. The non-preferred reviewer and one new reviewer agreed to review.
Shortly after accepting, the non-preferred reviewer emailed the editorial office asking whether it was journal policy to publish a reference to a database without any scientific study based on these data (the journal answered yes, citing a previously published database description) and stating “I discovered by examining this database that the senior author has used my data without permission. This applies to hundreds of measurements in country 1 and in the mountains, but also to data from country 2”.
The authors state on the database website that the database contains published data and in the manuscript that the “measurements in the database have been collected over the last 20 years from various sites around the world (references given) and are included with permission from the collectors”. The journal informed the non-preferred reviewer that, from what the authors were stating, all data seemed to be in the public domain, but advised him to put his concerns into his review or contact the authors directly, if the reviewer preferred.
By the time the reviewer received this reply he had already submitted his review and informed the journal that he also sent his full review to the senior author. The reviewer also pointed out in an email to the editorial office that the measurements published in one of the cited studies (of which the referee was the senior author) were not published in the form as they appear now in the database, and then accused the senior author of having used information which he collected as a member of the reviewer’s research group a long time ago, and publishing it without the reviewer’s permission. The reviewer thought that the reference to the paper was not sufficient and also stated that the conditions with the mountain data were more serious.
In the review, the referee pointed out three problems: (1) unethical behaviour on the part of the senior author. The reviewer stated that he could not remember having given permission to use the data, but had specifically asked the senior author not to use the mountain data for anything until the reviewer had finished his analysis. He included the original email in the review. (2) potential dual publication. The reviewer stated that because no analysis of the data was presented in the paper, a simple report on the existence of the database was not suitable for publication in a journal and went on to point out that a first version of this database was already published (as cited on the database website, but not in the paper) as a preprint article. As a comparison of the two manuscripts did not reveal any obvious differences in content, the reviewer questioned whether this constituted dual publication. (3) questions over the use of a particular method. The reviewer called the use of this method “scientifically unacceptable”, stating that the problems with this method have been published and concluding that it was unacceptable for the senior author to ignore these arguments (this was not mentioned by any of the other reviewers).
Checking the date of the above mentioned email and the publication date of the preprint article, the journal realised that the reviewer emailed the senior author shortly after the document was posted online. The dispute had thus been going on for over a year by the time the referee was invited to review, but the reviewer had not declared a conflict of interest.
The associate editor, having read both reviews (the second being positive), recommended rejecting the manuscript and inviting a resubmission once the authors either were able to present the permit obtained from the non-preferred reviewer or removed all unpublished data for which no data were available.
In the meantime (and before any action was taken), the senior author, prompted by the reviewer’s email to him, emailed the managing editor and the associate editor, informing them that the non-preferred reviewer used to be the senior author’s PhD supervisor. The senior author rejected as incorrect any claims over the inappropriateness of the method and the statement that the reviewer had not given permission to use what the referee claimed were his data. As the review implies several forms of unethical behaviour on the senior author’s part, he felt the need to clarify.
(1) the criticised method has been used in top tier journals such as Science, Nature and PNAS and has therefore been through rigorous quality control. Since the reviewer’s evaluation of the method did not contain any concrete arguments, the senior author assumed that the reviewer was referring to a polemic about the method by another author, published in the same journal in which the senior author countered these arguments. The method continues to be the most widely used, cited over 90 times (the associate editor points out that it was cited mainly by the senior author’s main group, but that none of the other reviewers have criticised the method). The senior author further points out that this method is not the only one used in the database.
(2) re the inappropriate use of data from country 1, the senior author assures the journal that the referee had been asked and had given permission (an email was attached), but that if the referee wanted to retract the permission, the authors would remove the data in question. Re the data from the mountains and the email sent by the reviewer, the senior author claimed that the email had been taken out of context. The senior author had indeed asked the reviewer about the possibility to perform a separate analysis on the mountain data. According to the senior author it was this request about the separate analysis that the reviewer declined and the request had not referred to making publicly available the data that had already been published in one of the references.
(3) re dual publication, the senior author stated that a beta version of the manuscript, with a completely different code and user interface and only a very reduced set of data, was posted on a preprint server, not a regular journal publication (the associate editor saw no major changes in the number of data entries and that both discuss the database in a similar way, but thought that the submitted manuscript was more detailed than the earlier (preprint) article. Figures are not identical, but basically follow the same scheme. The associate editor left it up to the editor whether he considered a full-length paper that builds upon something that has been published on a preprint server as sufficiently novel).
The senior author finally adds that because of previous similar experiences, the authors had listed the reviewer as non-preferred.
The corresponding author emailed the editorial office offering to remove from the database any data that have been collected with the reviewer’s participation but emphasised that by doing so, the authors do not acknowledge any form of wrongdoing on their part, but seek to make it easier for the journal to make a decision.
After discussions between the editors, the editorial office and the publisher, the decision was to reject the manuscript but to invite resubmission. The letter pointed out (a) the disputed use of data in the database; (b) the question of dual publication; and (c) the scientific criticisms expressed by both referees. It of course included both reviews in full.
The editor confirmed that the journal did not have a policy on whether they will accept material that has already been posted on a preprint server. Preprint servers are not peer-reviewed, so some journals will accept material that has already been posted, but all such prior presentations should be disclosed to the editor in the covering letter. All agreed that the editor should not get involved in an author dispute. The editor could suggest that the authors find an independent adjudicator, that both sides find acceptable, if the authors cannot come to an agreement among themselves. It was suggested that the editor could go to the author’s institution and ask them to adjudicate. The editor should also clarify their policy on preprint servers in the journal’s instructions to authors.