An intentional satire of a randomised controlled trial was published in a journal. In addition to multiple overt clues that the article was fake in the text, the article ended with a clear and direct statement in the acknowledgments that it was satire.
Investigators conducting a systematic review on the topic inadvertently included the satire article in their review as a legitimate manuscript, including generating a table based on some of the ‘data’ from the satirical article. This systematic review was eventually published in another journal. The authors of the satirical article saw the published systematic review and immediately contacted the editor of the journal in which it appeared to explain the situation. The editor of the other journal blamed the authors of the satirical article for the situation and demanded that they apologise to the authors of the systematic review and retract the original satirical article. The editor’s argument was that there is no room for ‘nonsense’ in scholarly publishing, and that such articles take publication space away from real scientific articles that could be published in their place.
The authors of the satirical article responded that there has always been a place for humour in scholarly publishing, and several established medical journals regularly publish satire. They commented that the authors of the systematic review failed to thoroughly read the satirical article and did not fulfil their scholarly responsibility in performing the review.
Question(s) for the COPE Forum • Does the publication of satire in a scholarly journal usurp space that should be reserved for legitimate investigations? • Is the journal that published the satirical article at fault when authors performing a systematic review do not thoroughly read and vet the articles they cite? • Is it reasonable for the other journal editor to request the retraction of the satirical article?
The Forum noted that it is up to individual editors or publishers to decide what they publish, and if publishing these types of articles is a valuable use of their page budget. Editors should not be told by other editors or journals what they can and cannot include in their journal. Hence it is not reasonable for the other journal editor to request retraction of the satirical article. There are no grounds for retraction.
The Forum agreed that there should not be editorial censorship but journals and publishers have an obligation to tag satirical articles clearly. They need to be appropriately and responsibly flagged up as such. A view expressed was that in this era of “fake news”, editors have an increased responsibility to ensure that the scientific record is not corrupted and co-opted, and that satire does not end up having unintended consequences on public discourse, including development of public policy. It was suggested that the metadata should also be tagged so that a machine can quickly understand that this is satire. This is especially relevant in terms of text mining ecosystems so that anyone designing a study would have a very easy means of filtering out articles that have been tagged as satire.
From a legal standpoint, journals need to meet a reasonable standard of not being misleading. If the article is clearly marked, with clear headings, and no suggestion this is proper research, then the reader has a responsibility to read things carefully.
The authors of the systematic review are at fault for not carrying out their methodology correctly and should have read the paper properly. The journal that published the systematic review needs to take steps to correct the systematic review.
The journal did not retract the article and agreed with the Forum that the onus was on the researchers to read the paper, which clearly indicated that it was satire.
The journal will take the Forum’s other recommendations into consideration on future articles of this type (eg, ensuring metadata indicate that it is satire in addition to noting in the article type and within the article itself).
A group of unspecified members of an organisation have written an expression of concern (letter via email) to the editors wherein they request that an article previously published in the journal be retracted since they believe it is biased and inaccurate about regulation details within the organisation. They are further requesting that their letter be published in the journal.
The editors of the journal are unsure how best to proceed with this request. They believe the article should not be retracted (no unethical misconduct was committed by the author as far as they are aware, and the article did go through peer review with two reviewers having minor corrections and recommending the editors publish the article, which they accepted), as the reasons stated in the letter for requesting the retraction are not grounds for doing so. The reasons given are:
1) The absence of important information on the organisation's accreditation and professional regulations 2) The calling into question of the organisation's ethical standards and practices 3) The general misinformation about the organisation's business model 4) The overall poor research methodology and writing standards Note: not all members of the organisation were aware that the letter was sent (one of the editors is a member of this organisation), and the author of the article and certain members of this organisation have a history of disagreeing on previous articles that the author has published in other journals on the same topic (furthermore, the author once had a submission accepted at this organisation’s conference and after a disagreement they uninvited him).
The editors have shared the expression of concern letter with the author and the publisher. The author has responded to all the points in their letter with counter arguments. The editors have also crafted a response letter to this organisation (standing by their decision). The publisher does not believe the article should be retracted, but instead that the editors should respond to the complaint with an explanation about when retractions are appropriate and also the nature of how the paper was accepted/published.
However, the editors are considering whether they should publish the letter with the responses (if it would benefit the community, which is a very close knit group). The author has also requested that his response be published in the journal.
Question(s) for the COPE Forum • Is it wise/is there justification to publish the letter? (it could be beneficial if it is conducted in a scholarly manner but also could be unproductive if major disagreements sit on both sides historically.) • If COPE recommends publishing on this topic, how does it suggest the editors do so (what format/are there procedures that should be followed)? • If COPE suggests responding to the organisation via email is best, are there any other steps the editors should take to resolve this disagreement? • Has a situation like this one occurred before/been handled successfully?
The Forum agreed that there does not seem to be a case for retraction, but the editor may wish to consult the COPE Guidelines for retracting articles (http://publicationethics.org/files/retraction%20guidelines_0.pdf). The advice was to have the conversation played out in the journal and allow the exchange to be published. It would be reasonable, if time consuming, to do the following: have the letter peer-reviewed by a qualified reviewer who can evaluate the accuracy of the claims in the article; have a peer-review of the response of the author; and if both get through the review process (with revisions if necessary) then publish them both.
This is an editorial judgement call. COPE would not have a “publication ethics” position here, besides that contained within its regular guidance for publishing (ie, to manage transparency, permissions, conflicts of interest, etc). Publishing letters or debate papers would make the process transparent. If the journal decides to publish the letters, the Forum recommended ensuring that the letter from the organisation is signed by an individual or individuals. The journal should not publish an anonymous letter.
The Forum noted that in cases such as these, it is very important to choose reviewers carefully. Selection of objective reviewers is especially important when organisations are involved.
An editor invited an author to submit a paper to his journal. Colleagues of the author suggested “unsubmission” because it could be damaging to the author’s career. The editor contacted the publisher and requested that the paper be withdrawn. The editor then contacted the author asking if he would consider publishing the paper anonymously (ie, with no identifying names). The editor did not consult with the publisher on this matter.
The publisher has placed the paper on hold, seeking guidance on author transparency. Publishing anonymously is typically not permitted by the publisher because of concerns about author transparency and because the publisher believes that they should publish in the highest ethical regard. There are no patient confidentiality or privacy issues associated with this case.
The publisher would like the Forum’s view on the balance between anonymity and author transparency. Should there be a set policy in place?
The Forum noted that this was an unusual case, and that the only examples of papers published anonymously that they were aware of were in a situation where an author is at risk of physical danger or is in fear for his/her life if his/her name were to be published or associated with specific criticism.
The Forum agreed this was an editorial decision and that it is up to the editor to weigh up the issues and decide on balance whether or not to publish anonymously. The Forum warned that the editor needs to be certain that the author is genuine and his concerns are valid, since if the claims are later found to be untrue, this could damage the credibility of the editor and the journal. Is the editor comfortable publishing anonymously solely because of possible damage to the author’s career? Is the editor confident that he is knowledgeable in this specific discipline that he can make an editorial judgement? Is he confident that the claims will not be subject to any legal disputes? The editor has a duty to ensure that he has taken appropriate steps to ensure that what he publishes is correct.
After discussion, the publisher was willing to publish the anonymous article under these exceptional circumstances, but the publisher would not support this in the future without a risk assessment of each case. The editor agreed and understood that if the transparency policy of the journal is called into question, the editor will stand by, prepare to explain and defend what has been the editor’s decision.
Please note, this case is being submitted by the Publishing Director of the journal based on the advice of a senior COPE member because it relates to the conduct of the editor in chief of the journal. The editor in chief of the journal is aware that the case is being submitted.
A letter of complaint was submitted in November 2009 relating to an editorial published in one of our journals, authored solely by the editor in chief. The person who wrote the letter of complaint has insisted that his anonymity be protected from the editor in chief. This is because he had previously been, in his view, the victim of a harassment suit (which subsequently failed) by the organisation mentioned in the editorial for interfering in their businesses.
This letter made two allegations: (i) that the content of the editorial contained numerous inaccuracies and unsubstantiated accusations and (ii) that the editorial had an undeclared conflict of interest as an individual (Dr X) involved with the organisation that the editorial mentioned had influenced the writing and appearance of the content without Dr X’s name being disclosed
The editor in chief was advised that this communication had been received and was informed about both allegations (on an anonymised basis). The Editor responded to state that Dr X was well known to him and that he had been asked to help with the editorial because of his superior use of English. Dr X had originally been asked to be a co-author of the editorial but had refused. The editor stated that it was true that Dr X had had some influence on this editorial but the content of this editorial was fully his intellectual product for which he bore all responsibility.
The editor categorically denied that there was an undisclosed conflict of interest and concluded by requesting that the person making the allegations should bring the matter into the open and send in a letter to the Editor. In our response, we advised that since Dr X had helped with the refinement of the text, their name should have been declared at the end of the editorial, particularly as Dr X was involved with the organisation that the editorial mentioned. We asked the editor to provide further clarification about Dr X’s involvement with the editorial. The editor replied to say that Dr X was a reviewer of his paper and that he, the editor, would not agree to general or even specific disclosure of Dr X’s participation with the preparation of the editorial to the readers of the journal. He reiterated that he would be prepared to enter into an open debate if the person making the allegations would submit a letter to the editor.
We responded to the editor to say we believed that the editor was confusing his role as author and editor. That as an editor, since he authored an article in which he viewed Dr X as taking the role of expert reviewer, then the paper should not have been handled by him as editor but should have been passed to another editor to make the decision about whether the editorial was suitable for publication. As the author of the article, he was required to disclose the involvement of Dr X who helped him to write it.
The editor responded and stated that he agreed there was some confusion between the roles of editor and author but that he did not see how the roles could be separated and reiterated that he would only respond to the allegations if a letter to the editor was openly submitted to him.
Despite further communication with the editor, no further progress has been made and the matter has been left with us advising the editor that it is not acceptable to us as owner and publisher of the journal to have published an editorial authored by the editor in chief who has subsequently admitted to us in writing that there was a further individual involved in the writing and preparation of the editorial whose name has not been disclosed to the readers of the journal. We advised the editor that if he remained unwilling to comply with our request that we would have to consider what further action to take which may involve taking this matter to COPE.
With regard to the second allegation, we advised the editor that we would be obtaining independent evaluation of the content of the article. The editorial was sent out to three independent experts. The outcome of these was that one reviewer supported publication of the editorial whereas the other two opposed publication. Given this mixture of reviews, we have not taken this matter any further and are still hopeful that the person making the initial anonymous complaint may still decide to write a letter to the editor to bring his concerns into the open.
We would appreciate the advice of COPE as to what next steps we should now take.
The Forum agreed that this was an interesting case but felt that it needed more information. Some members questioned the nature of the complaint. Is it not acceptable for editors to write editorials and express their own views? That might be viewed as part of the editor’s job. However, the publisher confirmed that she was unable to disclose any more details without breaking confidentiality but that the content of the editorial was also an issue.
In light of the fact that the publisher could not provide any further details, the Forum focused on the conflict of interest issue. It seems that the editor has admitted having a conflict of interest but refuses to publish this fact. All agreed that the editor should disclose his conflict of interest in the journal, whether or not a letter to the editor is openly submitted to him. The advice from the Forum was to encourage the complainant to write a letter to the editor, to which the editor could respond and declare his conflict of interest and hence the debate would be in the public domain. Although the publisher mentioned that she had tried this route unsuccessfully, she was encouraged to pursue this again. If this fails, other advice was to convene a semi-formal investigation and appoint an independent advisor or adjudicator. Ultimately, however, the editor is answerable to the publisher and the publisher must decide whether disciplinary action is required.
The first author of a paper published in 2004 has submitted a “letter to the editor” (LTTE) offering some corrections, and reaffirming some conclusions. The letter has not been published. A pharma company (whose drug is linked by the paper to a negative side effect) has followed this up claiming that between authoring the original article and the letter, the author has become a paid expert witness in a trial relating to the drug in question (the LTTE was shown to the drug company’s counsel during the trial). The LTTE does not mention this. The drug company also claims that the letter’s corrections are based on its work and cross examination in court (again not stated in the LTTE). It also claims the author does not disclose or correct all the errors and downplays others. The company says its claims are backed up by the original study’s source data, currently embargoed by the author’s institution under a court confidentiality order.
Conflict of interest seems open-and-shut. However, a further question seems to be: can/should anything be done before the drug company is able to supply the original source data to the editors? And what if the source data remain embargoed?
The Forum thought that this was a major conflict of interest and found it difficult to believe that it was an oversight. All agreed that there is little that the editor can do while the court case is ongoing. It was suggested that the editor could consult the flowchart “What to do if a reviewer suspects undisclosed conflict of interest (CoI) in a submitted manuscript”. The editor should point out the seriousness of the CoI to the author. The editor cannot proceed with publication. It was suggested that the editor should make sure that he is not giving in to commercial pressure by not publishing the paper – there were concerns that the author was deliberately trying to influence the court case by publishing the additional data. The harm of not publishing was considered to be minimal. The consensus was that the editor should not publish the letter. It was suggested that the editor should inform the author that he will not publish the letter but if the author has new data, he should submit this in a new paper.
The paper was returned to the authors and will not be published.
Ten days after receiving an article for consideration, a group of editors received an email from the publisher informing them that the particular author in question had recently submitted nine articles to their journals, eight of which had been submitted in the previous seven weeks. Based on the similarity of the titles, the publisher had concerns about possible duplicate submission and had written to the author to request clarification. The author replied, insisting that, with the exception of one article that had been submitted twice to the same journal by mistake, all manuscripts were unique and should be treated as such. The editorial board had already decided to reject the manuscript before being alerted to the publisher’s suspicions. But the case raises questions about the mutual responsibilities of publishers and editors in communicating confidential information in such situations. It is still not clear whether duplicate (or inappropriate multiple) submission actually took place.
- Multiple submissions to journals are likely to become more common as journals increasingly share common submission systems. Duplicate submission is a serious ethical issue. - The publisher was right to inform the editors of the duplicate submission. - Once identified the editors are responsible for contacting the author and taking the issue forward. - Editors should share information on authors. Submission is confidential, but not if an author breaches the journal’s guidelines. - Publishers and editors all need to raise their game in this area. - Ask the author to supply all the other papers and to make a statement that there has been no duplicate publication. - If no satisfactory answer is forthcoming, the editor should contact the institution.
An editor came across a letter from the editor-in-chief of his journal to a reviewer that asserted he had recommended the acceptance of a manuscript. He had in fact recommended the opposite, both verbally and in writing. The paper in question was a guideline on the therapeutic choices for a relatively common medical condition. The authors had claimed their conclusions and therapeutic recommendations were “evidencebased” and recommended a new, expensive medication as first-line treatment. The reviews of the manuscript were mixed. One reviewer made only a few comments and recommended publication. The second reviewer expressed concern about an apparent bias and suspected there had been pharmaceutical company involvement in the writing of the paper. When the manuscript was reviewed at the regular meeting of scientific editors, the editor recommended rejecting the manuscript and this was written down in the manuscript “log.” The editor-in-chief decided to request a third review, this time from a guidelines expert. In the meantime, the principal author had spoken at length with the editor-in-chief. Although the expert reviewer expressed concerns about the manuscript, the editor-in-chief chose to accept the manuscript for publication. In accordance with journal policy, the reviewers were notified that the manuscript had been accepted, prompting the second reviewer to again express concern about bias. The editor-in-chief replied, saying that the editor had recommended publication. Under the previous editor-in-chief, there had been a formal policy with the professional body with which the journal was associated, outlining the journal’s editorial freedom. But after he left this began to change. A memo was sent from the association stipulating that any editorial material published in the journal from the association should have an elected official as the author, even if a researcher on staff or a scientific committee had written it.The editor questioned this policy on the basis that it was at odds with the definition of authorship by the International Committee of Medical Journal Editors (ICMJE).The editor-in-chief ignored these concerns. Shortly thereafter, the association’s CEO announced that no letters should be published in the association’s journal that criticised association policy. The editor-in-chief initially stated to the journal staff that he disagreed with this and requested that any such letters be directed to him. He assured staff that if he thought these letters merited publication, he would discuss them with the CEO. Since then, no letter criticising association policy has been published. When a scientific editor submits an article to his own journal, the policy was that another scientific editor would handle the manuscript; likewise, the fate of the manuscript would be made known to the author/editor in a confidential manner. The editor had co-authored a manuscript with another researcher and had submitted it to the journal for consideration. Several months later, in a meeting of copy editors and publication staff to discuss the placement of accepted manuscripts, the editor-in-chief announced that the reviewers had recommended rejection. He had not informed the editor beforehand. In actual fact, none of the original reviewers had recommended rejecting the paper. Manuscripts that had not been accepted were not usually discussed at these meetings and such behaviour contravened the ICMJE recommendations. The editor-in-chief said he would request another opinion before he made the final decision. When the co-author of the paper wrote, asking when the final decision would be taken, the editor in chief accused the editor of breaching confidentiality but wrote to the co-author assuring him that the manuscript would be treated fairly and promptly. The editor did not send out the manuscript for another opinion for almost two weeks.When he did, he identified in the covering letter that “he would elect to reject the manuscript” but sought the reviewer’s opinion. However, two days earlier, he had sent a letter to one of the original reviewers asking him to write a “single or several papers” on the exact same topic. About two weeks later, the editor-in-chief rejected our manuscript, apologising for the delay, and noting “we had some difficulty finding a person to give an editorial opinion of the review.” In a further instance, the editor was asked to review a manuscript for the journal that purported to be an evidence-based guideline. The other reviewers included the previous editor of the journal and an outside reviewer. The editor identified several concerns and included suggestions on how the manuscript could be strengthened; the previous editor gave very similar feedback. The third reviewer had only a few superficial comments, such as a title change. However, the editor-in-chief requested an additional review from an expert in evidence-based medicine, but accepted the manuscript with minor revisions, including the title change, before receiving these comments. Later, the additional review came in, seriously questioning the evidence base of the manuscript, but it was never sent to the author. The manuscript was published with minor revisions. The editor was sacked. The staff were told only that confidentiality precluded giving an explanation; unofficially it was intimated that he had simply been too difficult to get along with. The journal is still publishing, and the relationship between the Association and the Journal is increasingly intimate. There appears to have been a Faustian bargain made between the CEO of the Association and the editor-in-chief of the Journal whereby, in exchange for compromising editorial freedom in sensitive areas for the Association, he could publish what he wanted without feeling constrained by the usual editorial standards. _ If feedback from peer review is ignored, who will know? Most journal editors work in relative isolation and there is virtually no quality control. _ Who polices the relationship between a science-based association and its journal, a relationship that has its own particular set of challenges, involving both scientific and political elements. _ What can be done to stop/prevent corruption within the editorial office of a scientific publication, an issue that has virtually escaped discussion and consideration within the scientific community? _ What will it take to create the political will to ensure the integrity of scientific editors? _ There is often no way to formally investigate and address alleged abuses of editorial power, especially if these abuses are in the interests of the publisher or parent organisation.
The editor has acted as a whistleblower and has been fired as a result. _ This raises several questions about the integrity of scientific publications. _ COPE is not in the business of disciplining editors and authors, but perhaps it could devise a code of behaviour, which editors could sign up to, and be formally disciplined by COPE if they breach it. _ COPE feels that this case is worth publishing in a major journal and on web sites to encourage discussion.