Each month, COPE Council members find and share publication ethics news. This month the news includes articles on image manipulation, peer review, preprints, and more.
Catriona Fennell, Director of Publishing Services, Elsevier gives a publisher's perspective, and shares her own experience, at this session on retractions at the COPE European Seminar 2019. Thed Van Leeuwen speaks about the scientometrics of retractions, and Howard Browman shares the latest on COPE's revised retraction guidelines.
To hear Catriona Fennell's presentation, listen from 24:08
At the North American seminar 2019, Kath Burton (Associate Editorial Director of Arts & Humanities, Routledge, Taylor & Francis) presented the initial research findings and the solution put together on the back of some research conducted by COPE, supported by Routledge.
The aim of the research was to better understand the publication ethics needs of arts, humanities and social science journal editors, and to identify areas where they may need specific guidance and support.
The research aimed to answer the following questions:
A reader contacted the journal to raise concerns about a paper containing a potentially manipulated figure. The editor-in-chief agreed with the assessment that the figure had been manipulated and attempted to contact the corresponding author, without response. Following further contact with the co-authors and institution, it was established that the corresponding author had retired after publication of the paper, and no current contact details could be found.
No co-authors were able to confirm how the figure was constructed, but explained that it was an old image that was made by or for the corresponding author, and that the location of the raw image or original data was not known due to the corresponding author’s laboratory being dismantled on retirement. The figure is also present in a previous publication from 2007. The figure manipulation does not appear to affect the scientific results or conclusions of the paper.
Question for the COPE Forum • Given that the corresponding author cannot be contacted to confirm if the nature of any figure manipulation merits retraction, would it be appropriate to publish an expression of concern which will remain in place if no additional information is forthcoming?
The Forum advised that as there is no true confirmation of the evidence that the figure was manipulated, a retraction does not seem to be warranted without further investigation. A suggestion was to contact the journal of the previous publication, as there may be an issue of duplicate publication or copyright issues related to the figure. The editors can then discuss together how to deal with this issue. The other journal may have the original data. If the copyright resides with the first journal, then the editor may have to have a different type of notice on the paper.
The Forum agreed that the most reasonable solution would be to publish an expression of concern, explaining the issues. An expression of concern provides an opportunity for further information to be made available at a later date, and then any further action, if necessary, may be taken. A different view expressed was to remove the figure and publish a correction—if other researchers have re-done the work on the subject it may be possible to replace the figure with a citation.
Following advice from the COPE Forum, the editor contacted the journal of the previous publication. The journal is proceeding with an expression of concern to explain the issues. The editor considers the case closed.
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.
In November 2014, the first author of a decade old paper in our journal and a 15-year-old paper from another journal informed us that he faked the data in two figure panels in the paper in our journal and one figure panel in the paper in the other journal. The main gist of the manipulation was loading unequal amounts or delayed loading of gel lanes.
Self-admission of data falsification is a serious charge that is difficult to disprove, and we felt a challenge to identify evidence to counter or support this type of allegation. As general guidelines, we felt there were three types of evidence that could help resolve the standoff: (1) compelling original raw data with evidence for or against unequal or delayed gel loading; (2) verified replication already existing within the published literature; and (3) as a last resort, a replication study performed by a wholly independent laboratory.
In December 2014, we asked the first author to contact the corresponding author of both papers and the institute, but he refused. We informed the first author that we would inform the corresponding author of the papers and this might result in violating his confidentiality. In January 2015, we informed the corresponding author that we had received self-admission of fraud from the first author and asked the corresponding author to retrieve original raw data for the figures in question and provide them to us. We also urged the corresponding author to engage the institute ethics committee and get in touch with the first author in gaining a deeper understanding of the challenges.
In February 2015, we spoke with the corresponding author by telephone. The corresponding author did not believe that the first author had faked the data. We discussed potential ways to counter a compelling self-admission and agreed that the corresponding author would provide us with the raw data by the end of March 2015 and would inform his institute.
In March 2015, we were contacted by his institute. On request, we provided the contact information of the first author to the institute’s investigation committee after obtaining permission from the first author. The corresponding author told us that he has located all of the raw data. In contrast with what we agreed by telephone, he told us that he would not be sending us the raw data directly but would pass them to the committee. The first author provided both us and the committee with data that he said was contemporaneously produced and showed a different result from what was published, that he said was without manipulation with gel loading and showed no experimental effect.
In April 2015, we asked the committee to share their investigation results with us and also asked the corresponding author to provide the copy of the raw data to us. But the corresponding author and committee refused to share any useful information with us. The committee told us by email that they have an obligation to protect the corresponding author’s reputation.
In May 2015, we spoke with the research integrity officials of the institute by telephone and they agreed to share more information with us. In early June 2015, we received a summary but not the full version of the committee report, which cites that no further action is warranted because the evidence they gathered can neither support nor refute the first author’s self-admission. We were not provided with any of the original data. The summary report included information such as promotion schedules of both the first and corresponding authors, but these seemed irrelevant to us. We felt it essential that we have access to the full scientific information on which the committee based its recommendation.
In late June 2015, the institute shared with us the full report of their investigation. We were able to understand from this that their conclusion that no further action is warranted was based on the fact that there was no recorded falsification in the laboratory notebook. We feel this reason is not sufficient to counter self-admission of fraud as someone who intentionally fakes data would not likely record it in their laboratory notebook. We therefore were unsatisfied with recommendation to take no further action.
In July 2015, we interviewed the first author via Skype and asked him to describe again how he generated the data and how he intentionally manipulated the data to fake the results. What he described over Skype was consistent with what he has described to us in previous correspondences.
In July 2015, we also spoke with an institute senior official and explained again that only contemporaneous data collected by the first author, contemporaneous data collected by other members of the laboratory, or direct replication of the data by an independent laboratory reported in the published literature would be necessary to counter the first author’s self-admission of fraud. Since none of these avenues turned up evidence to counter the self-admission, we suggested that the experiments in question could be independently repeated by a third party or the paper will need to be retracted.
In August 2015, the corresponding author agreed to proceed to have the data in question independently repeated by a third party. We are now instructing the corresponding author to reach out to a laboratory to start repeating the experiments. While he agreed in principle, the corresponding author is dragging his feet and we are uncomfortable sitting on a serious allegation and eager to move forward with a resolution in a timely and responsible manner.
Question(s) for the COPE Forum • What are COPE's recommended procedures for handling self-admissions of fraud? • What is the journal’s responsibility when one author self proclaims fraud and another author says no fraud occurred? • What is the responsibility of the journal if the journal thinks an institutional investigation was not evidence based.
The Forum noted that this was a very unusual case, both fascinating and alarming. At its heart it would appear to an authorship dispute, and the journal was correct in involving the institution. The Forum suggested contacting all of the authors and asking for their input. It would seem that the only clear way of resolving the issue is to replicate the study and try to reproduce the results.
The Forum questioned why it has taken the corresponding author 10 years to contact the journal, as it would seem to be professional suicide. The Japanese government has recently issued guidelines to institutions to clean up their act following the Japanese stem cell scandal—could this be a factor?
The Forum acknowledged that the journal has handled this correctly by taking the allegations seriously. The Forum suggested publishing an expression of concern. The expression of concern should be worded in a neutral manner without apportioning blame or accusing the author. This also may prompt the corresponding author into action.
The Forum suggested continuing to work with the corresponding author to replicate the study. The only way to resolve this completely is to try to replicate the study, and it is in the interests of the corresponding author if he wishes to stand by his allegations. The journal does have a responsibility to pursue an independent investigation if the journal thinks the institutional investigation was not evidence based. The journal should give the corresponding author a time limit, after which the journal should review the situation and either amend the expression of concern or retract the paper.
The journal has published an expression of concern and will keep readers updated when the results of the investigation are available.
Follow up (October 2016):
The journal has now published two editorial expressions of concern and followed up with two editorial notes, explaining that the results of the independent investigations were inconclusive. The editor considers the case closed.
Editorial office staff at journal A noticed possible image manipulation in two figures of a new paper submitted by author X. These suspected manipulations involved images of gels which appeared to contain multiple duplicated bands. This prompted editorial staff to look at the submission history of author X to journal A in more detail.
It was found that author X had previously submitted to journal A numerous times. All previous submissions had been rejected for reasons unrelated to the concerns raised here but one paper had been accepted for publication. Unfortunately, this author X paper which journal A had published appeared to contain possible band duplications in two gel images, as did an earlier submission which had been rejected at the start of 2015. As at least three papers received by journal A from author X has suspected image problems, authors X’s recent publication history was examined.
Similar possible gel issues along with a suspected image duplication relating to a photo of bacterial colonies were identified in three papers published in three different journals (journals B, C and D). Two members of editorial staff along with the editor-in-chief of journal A have considered all of the suspected issues and feel confident they are legitimate. As it currently stands, journal A has rejected the most recent submission from author X on the grounds of possible gel issues identified. However, the suspected issues identified in the four published papers in journals A, B, C and D were not mentioned in the rejection letter to allow time for an appropriate course of action to be decided.
As the paper was only recently (12 August) rejected by journal A, it has yet to hear back from author X, if indeed it does at all.
Journal A feels that it is important that journals B, C and D are made aware of the issues in the papers they have published. However, they also feel that it is important that they are made aware of all of the papers involved so they can appreciate the full picture as this may determine how they choose to handle the issues in their own respective journals.
Question(s) for the COPE Forum • Would COPE advise that journal A contacts journals B, C and D at this stage? If so, what sort of information could legitimately be provided to the other journals? Should Journal A provide journals B, C and D with copies of all of the papers involved, including the unpublished papers submitted to journal A which were rejected without review? Would this breech confidentiality or would the importance for full enclosure trump confidentiality concerns in this situation? As most of the suspected issues only become apparent when the brightness/contrast levels of images is adjusted, journal A has put together PowerPoint files for each respective paper involved to highlight the possible issues identified. Would COPE advise providing copies of these PowerPoint files to journals B, C and D so they are under no doubt about the possible issues identified or could this be considered a defamatory action in the (what we feel unlikely) event journal A is mistaken over these issues? • What type of action would COPE recommend the journals take should all agree with the issues identified? Would retraction be called for, considering the numbers of papers involved? Should author X’s institution be contacted? Journal A feels it is important that these issues are addressed but also feels somewhat uncomfortable with the idea of having a hand in potentially destroying someone’s career and livelihood. • Journal A has not looked any further beyond the papers mentioned above as every published author X paper examined appeared to have potential issues so a line had to be drawn somewhere. However, journal A suspects that there may be other papers from author X in the literature with similar possible issues. Who is responsible for checking the publication history of author X for issues? Would it be author X’s institution should you recommend this be referred to them?
The Forum warned against rejecting the manuscript at this stage as the paper will then be out of the jurisdiction of the journal, and it is likely the author will submit it to another journal.
The Forum advised contacting the other journals but the editor should not share specific data immediately with the other editors. The editor should share the minimum amount of information with the other editors but in a neutral manner, without accusations or blame. The COPE guidelines "Sharing of Information Among Editors-in-Chief Regarding Possible Misconduct" (http://publicationethics.org/files/Sharing%20_of_Information_Among_EiCs_...) provides practical guidance on this issue.
The Forum were in agreement that the matter should be reported to the institution. The institution is the only body with access to the data and it is up to them to investigate. The journal is not in a position to do this. The editor should inform them of the analysis, but not the results. It would send a stronger message if the editors of the other journals were also to contact the institution, or if all of the editors were to approach the institution together.
The published papers must be dealt with on a case by case basis, and handled by correction or retraction as appropriate.
For the future, the Forum suggested updating the journal's instructions to authors with a statement saying that the journal reserves the right to contact other editors or the authors' institutions in cases of suspected misconduct.
After further discussion with their publisher it was recommended that journal A should seek the opinion of an independent expert on the concerns raised about images in the published paper, the rationale being this would strengthen their case should the decision be made to retract. A suitable expert, who was unaffiliated with journal A, was approached and agreed with concerns about the images in the paper. As it was felt that the falsification of images raised sufficient doubt over subsequent interpretations of the data reported, the decision was made to retract the paper. A retraction statement is due for imminent publication in journal A.
When the retraction has been published, the editor-in-chief of journal A plans to contact the other journals involved and will make sure to follow the COPE guidelines for ‘Sharing of information among editors-in-chief regarding possible misconduct’.
Journal A will follow the Forum’s advice for updating the journal’s instructions to include a statement to the effect of “ the journal reserves the right to contact other editors or the authors' institutions in cases of suspected misconduct”.
As managing editor, I view all manuscripts before they are assigned to an editor. Within a 4 week period, I have detected five manuscripts where photographs of either gels or plant materials were used twice or three times in the same manuscript. These manuscripts were immediately rejected.
However, we are not convinced that these are cases of deliberate misleading of the scientific community. It rather seems to us that many laboratories consider photographs as illustrations that can be manipulated, and not as original data. Thus gels are often cleaned of impurities, bands are cut out and photographs of plant material only serve to show what the authors want to demonstrate, and the material does not necessarily originate from the experiment in question.
When the editor-in-chief rejected such a manuscript, a typical response was: “I am surprised by the question and problem you pointed out in our manuscript. I checked the pictures you mentioned and I agree that they are really identical. But please be reminded that the purpose of these gel pictures was only to show the different types of banding pattern, and the gels of a few specific types were not very clear, so my PhD student repeatedly used the clearer ones. This misleading usage does not have an influence on data statistics or the final conclusion”.
Question(s) for the COPE Forum
What can be done to ensure that all gels and all photographs originate from the experiment and that they should never be tampered with?
How can the scientific community of some particular countries be taught correct scientific publishing standards?
The advice from the Forum was for journals to strengthen their guidance on this issue. Journals should provide clear guidelines in their instructions to authors on what is acceptable. Original data, such as gels, should not be used as illustrations, without an explanation. Line drawings, for example, can be used to illustrate a point, but if original data are being used just to illustrate a point, this should be accompanied by a very clear statement in the manuscript telling the reader this and explaining what is being demonstrated.
The Forum advised looking at the guidance published in other journals. Some journals have very good guidance on this issue and editors may wish to incorporate such guidance into their instructions to authors (with full attribution and after obtaining permission).
On a poll of the Forum, less than half of the delegates said that they screen for image manipulation. COPE has an eLearning module on image manipulation. Also, Mike Rosner has written extensively on this topic (Journal of Cell Biology 2004;166:11–15 http://jcb.rupress.org/content/166/1/11.full)
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 reader contacted us with evidence that a number of western blots in a manuscript published by us in 2007 had been duplicated from other published papers; in one case, the same gel was duplicated in the paper itself. I compared the original papers and agreed with the reader. Some of the blots had also been duplicated in other papers but all had been published previous to being published in our journal. In the meantime, I received a forwarded email from the reader in which the editor of another journal, apparently involved, told this reader that the two affected papers in its journal were being retracted by the author.
I then contacted the two senior authors, Dr X and Dr Y (both listed as corresponding authors), as well as the heads of department (two departments listed) of Dr X. I could not find similar information for the institute of Dr Y (I later learned that Dr Y is the president of that university). I presented the evidence I had received and requested an explanation.
Dr X contacted me to say that he had started to investigate the issue a few weeks earlier (presumably after being contacted by one of the other journals). He said that it appeared that all "scientific wrongdoings identified so far" were caused by his laboratory staff. Although he had recently reproduced the data published in our journal and in other journals, "the mistakes have already appeared in these papers". He said he was willing to take full responsibility for this 'misconduct' and had decided to withdraw all papers involved, including the one in our journal. Dr Y contacted me to say that he and all the other co-authors agreed that Dr X would take responsibility for answering the required questions. I did not hear from either of the heads of the institutes.
I then emailed Dr X, copying in Dr Y and the heads of the institutes, with suggested text for the retraction, asking him to make any changes he felt necessary. He instead wrote back to ask that we consider allowing him to publish a correction, showing the correct bands for each of the relevant experiments. He said that the results in the paper are accurate, and he had all of the original data available for inspection. He had also reproduced the experiments, achieving the same results. He cited a number of papers by other groups in which some of his findings had been replicated. He again admitted that there was ‘misuse’ of bands, and gave a number of explanations for what might have happened (based on inexperience of his technicians). He said that, ultimately, however, he took full responsibility for what happened, but would like the opportunity to publish a correction. Dr Y also emailed me to support Dr X’s request, vouching for Dr X as an honest scientist. Again, I have not heard from the heads of the institutes.
Although I think, in principle, the article should be retracted because of redundant publication of data, does it best serve readers if the conclusions are, in fact, sound? This paper has been well cited in the literature, and some results do indeed seem to have been reproduced by others.
I would very much appreciate advice on whether we should retract this article, issue a notice of redundant publication or involve the original handling (academic) editor and the editor-in-chief. In the latter case, I would most likely ask Dr X's institute to verify the results based on the documentation provided by Dr X, and then ask the the editor and editor-in-chief for their opinions. If the editor and editor-in-chief agree that the data are still sound, then we would issue a correction.
The Forum suggested that this was a case not only of redundant publication but also of image manipulation and fraud and agreed with the editor that the paper should be retracted. The author admitted wrongdoing, the editor has the evidence, and if he believes there are grounds for retraction, then he should retract the paper. However, the Forum did caution that it was unusual not to wait for the results of the investigation being carried out by the institution. Although the author blamed his laboratory staff and claimed the data were sound, the Forum agreed that the editor does not have to include this information in the retraction notice. In any event, the principal investigator is ultimately responsible for the data and if the gels were duplicated then clearly the principal investigator was not involved enough in the study. The Forum agreed this was a difficult case but the editor had handled it correctly.
We retracted the article on the basis of redundant publication and image manipulation, avoiding any finger pointing. The institute completed their investigation and told us that they would have requested that we retract the article anyway. The PI was fired from his post.