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COPE Council. Systematic manipulation of the publication process. Version 1. 2018 https://doi.org/10.24318/cope.2019.2.23
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We are a publisher with a portfolio of about 25 journals, with journal X being the flagship journal. Journal X has a high impact factor. We also publish a range of other, newer journals, some of which are ranked highly but most have no impact factor.
An author submitted a manuscript to journal Y where it underwent peer review and was accepted after revisions. After acceptance, the author contacted the editor saying that he had made a mistake and wished to have the paper considered by journal X instead, because it has an impact factor, and stated that if the editor would not publish the article in journal X, the consensus of all authors is to withdraw the paper from journal Y in order to submit it to a journal with an impact factor. The editor informed the author that the paper was not suitable for journal X and that his behaviour was unethical: withdrawal after acceptance violates scientific community norms, as it wastes editorial and peer reviewer resources, in particular if there are no scientific reasons to do so.
The editor wrote to the authors stating that if they insist on a withdrawal at this stage there would be three sanctions: 1) they would be blacklisted (ie, none of the publisher’s journals would consider future submissions from any of the authors, 2) the journal would write a letter to the superiors of the authors outlining the case and 3) they would still be responsible for the Article Processing Charge which is payable on acceptance; ours is an open access journal, with the fee schedule clearly disclosed and agreed upon by the submitting author (the fee schedule specifies that if the paper is withdrawn after acceptance it is still payable and will not be refunded).
The author continues to say that they made a mistake—they thought that journal Y was a section within journal X (in reality the submission form clearly allows the author to pick a journal from a dropdown list and the submission acknowledgement email also contains the name of the journal, as does all subsequent communications). On submission, the author checked a box where he agreed on a possible transfer of the paper within the publisher family.
The author pleads that “The kinds of journals that my PhD student publishes in potentially affects his graduation prospects” and that publication in journal Y “could have terrible repercussions for a very promising PhD student”, as well as “going to negatively affect my prospects [for promotion and tenure]”. The editor is not impressed by these arguments as they illustrate a misuse of the impact factor, and PhD students should be taught to respect the journal submission and peer review/publication process and not taught that it is acceptable to waste editorial resources in order to play impact factor games.
Question(s) for the COPE Forum
• What does the Forum think about the ethics of withdrawing a paper during or after peer review in order to publish in a higher impact factor journal?
• If the Forum agrees with the assessment that the authors acted in an unethical fashion, are the sanctions proposed by the editor in this case reasonable?
• Is there anything else that should be done?
The Forum agreed that this was not good behaviour on the part of the author, but COPE would always advocate a more educational rather than a punitive approach. COPE guidance also advises against blacklisting authors.
Although it seems that the authors’ behaviour was intentional, it is the authors’ prerogative to withdraw a paper at any point before it is published. While the Forum agreed that such behaviour is deplorable and a waste of editorial resources, the advice was to communicate this message clearly to the authors but not necessarily to directly punish them. This is especially applicable to more junior authors.
A suggestion was to write an editorial on this issue in general, explaining why it is not good practice.
Another suggestion was to review the journal submission system and consider outside user testing to make sure there is no confusion for authors regarding submission to different journals in the publisher portfolio. The Forum also noted that it is unusual to charge an author if they withdraw a paper that is not published and hence the editor may wish to reconsider this decision.
Despite communication with the authors that their behaviour was "not good" and in fact "deplorable" (citing the COPE Forum), and despite communication from the dean of the university that the authors’ behaviour is based on a gross misunderstanding on how the university evaluates the value of a publication (which is not based on the impact factor), the authors still insisted on withdrawing their manuscript.
The journal and publisher refrained from any further sanctions, such as blacklisting authors or charging the Article Processing Fee for a peer-reviewed and accepted (but not published) manuscript. The publisher has also discontinued its use of any formal blacklist.
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.
About a month after our journal (Journal A) published a paper (Paper X), the journal received emails from readers that Paper X was very similar to a paper (Paper Y) that had just been published by another journal (Journal B). Some of these emails were sent to both journal offices. Paper X was submitted to Journal A a few days before Paper Y was submitted to Journal B and Paper X was published in Journal A about 3 weeks before Paper Y. The two paper superficially do not look similar and Paper X contains results that are not in Paper Y. However, the two papers also contain highly similar results and make similar key conclusions. Truth be told, all of the additional results presented in Paper X were added during revisions. The authors of Paper X knew that Paper Y had been accepted by Journal B by the time they submitted the first revision of Paper X to Journal A
The authors of these two papers overlap significantly and the two co-corresponding authors are the same. We contacted the authors. The authors pointed out the obvious differences between the two papers and a few minor differences that most readers would not detect, and insisted that the results reported in these two papers were obtained separately rather than the same results reported in two papers. In addition to those readers who sent emails to us, the reviewers of Paper X and a few editorial board members of Journal A who read these two papers all agreed that the two papers were highly similar.
We contacted the office of Journal B and the Editor, and received a message from the managing editor of Journal B that the Editor of Journal B had asked for and received an explanation from the authors and was satisfied with the explanation.
I would like the Forum’s advice on how to handle this case, in particular as it seems that Journal B will not take any further action.
(1) Given that the paper was submitted to Journal A earlier and published in Journal A earlier than in Journal B, albeit only a few days, would retraction by Journal A be appropriate?
(2) If the authors indeed did something wrong, would a simple Concerns on Duplicate Publication be sufficient? Would banning the authors from publishing in Journal A for a few years be appropriate?
(3) Are there other options?
The Forum agreed, regardless of what the other journal does, the editor should publish a notice of concern. If it becomes clear that the data are the same, then the editor should consider publishing a notice of duplication. It is COPE’s policy not to encourage banning authors or to apply any other sanctions, partly because of the risk of litigation.
The Forum was interested in whether or not journal B was a member of COPE, as if this were the case, the chair of COPE would be prepared to write to the editor.
August 2008 The case is being investigated by the author’s institution.
May 2009 As mentioned in the last update to this case, this case was being investigated by the authors’ institution. A response was received from a Pro-Vice-Chancellor and Vice-President of the university. According to this letter, the investigation group consisted of one external expert (who coincidentally is a member of Journal A’s editorial board) and two university professors. The Group’s report was discussed by the Vice-Chancellor and some senior leaders of the university, including the Pro-Vice-Chancellor and Vice-President who sent a response to the editor, and has been accepted by the university. Because this response was sent as a hardcopy instead of an electronic file, a summary of the key findings and conclusions of this investigation are shown below by directly copying appropriate statements from the response.
“The Group was informed by (the authors) that the two studies—were conducted in two consecutive time periods with completely different patients, and the number of cell lines used were not the same.” “The Group saw some raw data supplied by (the authors)”. “Based on the findings reported by the Group, the Vice-Chancellor and I are satisfied with the explanation that the data reported in the two papers came from two sets of experiments, and there is no evidence that the data were altered for the purpose of publication in two different papers”. “(The) Group pointed out that there appeared to have been significant double publication of a large portion of the (Journal B) paper’s data in the (Journal A) paper”. “Yet, the Investigation Group noted the defence of the co-corresponding authors—that the two studies had been conducted with two different patient groups in two different time periods, with the second study having some modifications of protocol and methodology”. “The Group’s report stopped short of saying that duplicate publication of the same data had indeed happened, although the Group made it clear that reporting similar data in different publications without proper referencing was not good practice, which the university entirely agrees.” “Our Vice-Chancellor intends to issue a letter of reprimand to the lead/co-corresponding author” “Another letter will be sent by the Vice-Chancellor to the other co-corresponding author reminding him of his proper responsibilities as a senior author and a department head in ensuring that commonly accepted codes of practice in the academic and research community, not to mention the university’s relevant policy, should be followed by researchers under his guidance.” “The university has accepted the Group’s report, and has advised the authors of the (Journal A) paper of the University’s decision accordingly.”
Journal A is satisfied with this investigation conducted by the authors’ institution, and the communication regarding proper author/researcher conduct in publications from the authors’ institution to these authors.
The editor in chief of Journal A is also on the editorial board of Journal B. Journal B publishes “annual reviews” that purport to describe recent advances in the field, but only do this by discussing and citing their own content. The editor in chief of Journal A now wants to have “annual reviews” in his journal to help increase the impact factor.
In your experience, is this standard practice?
If not, how do we convince the editor-in-chief to change his mind?
The ISI should have mechanisms to stamp this practice out.
The practice is very prevalent, and well known reviews significantly increase the impact factor and this is bad practice.
External editors see it is as standard practice, and journals can ask for citation to make it easier for the reader, but where to draw the line?