The case has been with two publishers for more than a year. Journal A at publisher A published article A by author A, affiliated to institution A and institution B (in another country), and author B affiliated to institution B. Journal B at publisher B then published article B, by the same authors and affiliations. The two articles are on closely related research.
Shortly after publication of article A and before publication of article B, a senior colleague of author A at institution A contacted publisher A asking for article A to be retracted. The claimant said author A had left institution A after the submission to journal A but before publication. The claimant alleged that author A used other researchers’ data without permission and used the affiliation without approval (breaching an agreement signed by author A), some data were unverified by institution A, and author B and institution B were not involved in the research. The other researchers alleged to have been involved were not acknowledged. These allegations were confirmed by the head of department at institution A.
Author A disputed this, saying they did do the work and were still affiliated to institution A (as confirmed by a letter signed by an institutional representative and a court document), and they were no longer subject to the agreement they were said to have breached because it had been terminated. Author B has not commented on the allegations and institution B has been uninvolved in the investigation.
Publisher A asked institution A to formally investigate. Institution A’s preliminary investigation confirmed grounds to suspect misconduct and they began a further investigation. At this point, institution A asked for the publication of an expressions of concern (EoC) to inform readers of the investigation, which both publishers agreed to. Author A asked for the EoCs to not be published due to ongoing legal action against institution A and the claimant and asked to be allowed to add comments to the EoCs if they were published, but each publisher posted the EoC without author A’s comments.
Several months later, an institutional representative asked for retraction based on author A not providing data to the investigation and doubts that the named authors were the only ones who contributed to the research. Institution A said author A had taken further legal action against institution A, but nevertheless asked for the articles to be retracted due to misconduct by author A. Institution A stated that there will be no further investigation of, or action against, author B.
The publishers have not been given details of the investigation report or findings. Author A still denied misconduct and said they had not been given evidence of this, and confirmed their ongoing legal action against institution A.
Question(s) for the COPE Forum
One option may be to update the EoCs to note the finding of institution A’s investigation of misconduct and their request for retraction. Is this reasonable in the absence of detail on the institution’s findings and in light of the ongoing legal action (which the institution admits is continuing)?
Institution A is pressing for retractions and presumably legal proceedings could be dragged out by author A. Does institution A have the authority to force retractions while civil legal proceedings are underway?
Can the publishers insist on seeing the findings of the institutional investigation?
Generally, it is best if journals do not get involved in legal arguments. The advice would be not to proceed with the requested retraction while there are ongoing legal proceedings. The Forum acknowledge this is not a perfect solution as legal proceedings can be lengthy.
However, the journal might take the stance that until the institution or the author who complained states exactly what is wrong with the article, the article will stand, and no action will be taken. It is unreasonable to ask a journal to retract an article or take action without a clear explanation of the problems with the content of the article. Also, it is not the journal’s role to be a mediator or to follow the demands of any one party. Hence the journal should be cautious about making a permanent decision while there are ongoing legal proceedings.
The Forum advised the journal to follow the advice of their own legal team.
The publisher informed the institution and the author that no further action would be taken while legal proceedings are ongoing. The institution did not reply. The publisher asked the author to provide the full document of the application to the court and expected timings, but those details have not been provided yet. Further delays due to the COVID-19 pandemic are expected.
A journal operated double blind peer-review, so the reviewers do not know the identity of the authors, and vice versa. However, the anonymity of the authors is not guaranteed, as the reviewers may discover the identity of the authors (because of the area of research, references, writing style, etc). But rarely can the authors identify the reviewers.
The journal received a request from a reviewer to share a post on twitter, which may disclose the reviewer’s identity to the authors.
Question(s) for the COPE Forum
Does the double-blind peer-review process apply after publication?
What should be the position of a journal when reviewers ask to share their report or experience on social media?
The journal’s course of action in this case needs to be guided by the objective. The point of double blind peer review is to reduce bias during the review process. While of course anonymity of the authors ends upon publication of the work, anonymity of the reviewers’ identity in a double blind peer review process typically continues after publication because of the contract that the journal has made with its reviewers. As the right of confidentiality lies with the reviewer, if the reviewer wants to reveal the information, then it is reasonable to consider granting that request. However, many journals require permission from the author after their paper is published if the reviewer is going to disclose information, and this is considered to be a good practice to follow.
The journal granted the reviewer permission to post their peer review experience on Twitter, but it seems the reviewer did not do so. The journal considers the case closed.
An author has contacted the journal enquiring about the need for institutional review board approval for a survey. The survey is not derived from a specific institution but rather out of the personal interest of the author(s) who are targeting a point of wide scientific interest. The authors have a broad reach in social media.
The topic is of significant interest to the field, and there is a high potential for publication once the data are gathered and analysed. There are no patient data involved or publicised.
Question(s) for the COPE Forum
What is the policy on institutional review board approval for social media surveys or research?
The Forum agreed that institutional review board (IRB) approval is required for social media surveys or research. The Forum suggested that if the authors are associated with an institution, they should be using the institutional IRB for approval of the research. If researchers are gathering data about people, and social media is just a means of collecting the data, then some form of ethical oversight is needed.
The editor told the Forum that the response from the institution was that because the study did not involve an intervention on a patient, they were not responsible for oversight of the study. The Forum noted that often IRBs are only interested in interventional research, and they will not consider survey, qualitative or quality improvement research as part of their remit. In the USA, the American Association for Public Opinion Research has information on standards, ethics and suggested IRB forms. But ultimately, it is the university's responsibility to approve the research.
Surveys might be asking questions about people’s health, sexual orientation or criminality, for example, and the survey could involve vulnerable groups. An IRB would be concerned about these aspects and so the survey would clearly require ethical review in these circumstances. Most universities have a distinction in terms of light touch versus heavy touch institutional review, where the IRB might review the research questions, who the researchers are talking to, is private information being requested, are the individuals identifiable? Interacting with people online could also be considered an intervention and hence ethical approval would be required.
The authors ultimately decided to file for institutional review board approval at their institution and this was granted for the social media survey.
We received an email from a whistleblower notifying us about possible plagiarism in two chapters published by us, both authored by the same two authors. The whistleblower accused the authors of substantial plagiarism.
In both chapters there were, indeed, certain unattributed parts of the text, although the majority was properly attributed. Some of the unattributed parts were authored by the authors themselves, while some were taken from third parties. The whistleblower highlighted some properly cited parts of the text, as he claimed they were directly copied from other sources.
As a first step we contacted both authors for an explanation. The authors admitted their mistakes but also explained that they did not have any malevolent intention, and that it was a simple oversight on their behalf. They explained that they were willing to correct (publish a correction of) their chapter.
We then contacted the editor of the book. In his opinion this was not a case of substantial plagiarism and suggested publishing a correction. The whistleblower was not satisfied with the opinion of the editor.
Question(s) for the COPE Forum
Is this misconduct serious enough to warrant a retraction, or would it be sufficient to publish a correction?
The Forum advised that a correction is probably appropriate in this case, as there does not seem to be any malicious intent or pattern of deceit.
The whistleblower should not be the main consideration—the journal’s main concern should be to consider whether or not the literature needs to be corrected.
One of the main challenges in book publishing is the lack of established retraction/correction processes for books. It is not considered by book authors or editors as a standard process. While plagiarism in books seems to be common, there are no clear guidelines on how to handle it. However, the Forum would still advise following the COPE flowcharts on plagiarism and contacting the institution if appropriate.
The journal decided to publish a correction and asked authors to prepare a draft. Once they receive the draft, the journal will publish the correction.
The editor and co-editors of a book have a query concerning an ethical dilemma involving possible authors for a book chapter.
The book concerns certain diseases in pregnancy and the authors have been approached to contribute a chapter. Both authors are apparently deeply religious and have expressed a strong concern about contributing to a book in which views may be expressed that are against their religious beliefs, specifically that other authors may suggest termination of pregnancy as a possible choice of management. The editors would appreciate the advice of COPE as to what to do.
These are the options as the editors see them:
(1) Leave it to the authors to decide whether they wish to contribute to the book, with no reassurance by the editors as to the content of the rest of the book. This might mean the two authors concerned complain on publication of the book and bring unfavourable publicity to the book and/or demand that their names or chapter is withdrawn from the book, which would be breach of contract on their part and create great difficulties for the book.
(2) Allow the authors to see proofs of all chapters and let them decide whether they wish to contribute. This would make the drawing up of contracts difficult and might mean the editors have to find replacement authors for this chapter at the very last minute.
(3) Allow the authors to include a comment in their chapter that they do not approve of some of the content of the book on religious grounds. However, this would be an unusual comment in the context of this chapter and may be seen as the authors imposing their religious views on a patient’s management. One could argue that if this is the case, why are they writing a chapter in the first instance? The readership may feel the same.
(4) Find other authors.
The editors intend to include a chapter in the book on ethics in cases of certain diseases in pregnancy and so they in no respect plan to brush such issues under the carpet by not including them as authors.
The advice of the COPE Forum would be appreciated.
This case sparked much lively debate and comment. Some favoured option (1) but suggested contacting the authors, informing them of the content of the rest of the book, and leaving the decision up to them. Some advised getting assurances from the authors up front that they would not complain on publication of the book and bring unfavourable publicity to the book and/or demand that their names or chapter is withdrawn from the book, and if none is forthcoming then ask them not to contribute (ie, option (4)). Others thought option (4) was the most sensible. However, some Forum members suggested that from the point of view of the reader, option (3) was the most interesting. Some likened it to a conflict of interest. However, others questioned whether not mentioning termination of pregnancy as a possible choice of management would make the chapter clinically useless. Is the editor confident that the authors can present their subject in an unbiased and complete manner? All agreed that this was a very interesting case and all thought option (2) was inappropriate.
A journal published a highly critical obituary, which provoked uproar and prompted the deceased’s family to complain to the national body responsible for regulating the media. The journal believed that the basis of the criticisms were accurate and acknowledged that it had not cited sufficient evidence in the obituary. The journal was considering whether to publish the evidence in full. The journal used journalists to write the main obituaries and considers it important to publish all aspects of a person’s character.
A critical obituary is permissible so long as it is accurate and does not deliberately set out to upset the deceased’s friends and family.
A short obituary for a recently deceased doctor was received. Just before the issue went to print, one of the editors recognised the deceased as having been at the centre of disciplinary proceedings for having had a sexual relationship with a patient. As a result, he had been removed from the medical register for professional misconduct around two years before his death. This was not mentioned in the obituary, nor had the deceased’s brother, who had written and submitted the obituary, advised the editors of this. The proceedings had, however, received extensive media coverage. The deceased had had a 40 year, otherwise distinguished, career as a consultant psychiatrist. Members of the editorial committee had differing opinions about what should be done. - Publish the obituary unchanged: nobody tells the truth about the dead. - Publish the obituary with a note that the deceased retired following disciplinary proceedings. - Refuse to publish the obituary and establish a policy that obituaries of doctors who have been deregistered for professional misconduct will not be published.
- An obituary is not necessarily a plaudit for the deceased. - Medical journal culture has tended not to speak ill of the dead, although this does not sit well with an accurate scholarly record. - Instead of running a negative obituary, the journal could instead run a news piece on the doctor’s general story or focus on the misconduct. - The journal shouldn’t publish a piece that represents the doctor as something he was not and which left out an important and serious fact of his professional life.
The journal offered the brother an opportunity either to revise or withdraw the obituary. He chose, somewhat unhappily, to withdraw it.
A submitted paper reported on the investigation and management of an outbreak of a disease in a work environment (Company A). The authors acknowledged the referring physician from the workplace—who had declined on legal advice to be listed as an author—and also declared that the lead author had provided medical advice for remuneration to Company A during legal proceedings related to the outbreak discussed in the article. When the article was submitted, the outbreak was the subject of legal proceedings between Company A, where the outbreak occurred, and the company supplying the alleged causative agent of the outbreak (Company B). The lead author had signed a confidentiality agreement with Company A in regards to his/her evidence for the legal proceedings, but not for any information already known to the public through no fault of the author. The author had also added a handwritten addendum, stating s/he accepted the agreement “to the extent that my academic freedom to report findings of scientific and public health importance is not compromised.” On peer review the science of the paper was judged to be sound. The journal’s legal advisor had some concerns about publication; legal proceedings were active; the workplace physician though involved scientifically was not listed as an author; and the paper discussed the outbreak from the perspective of Company A. While the article was cogent and objective about Company A, there was no information about Company B’s knowledge of the outbreak. If the case resolved in favour of Company B, then the article would need to reflect this. The editor wrote to the authors, relaying the legal concerns and informed them that journal, on the basis of legal advice, could not publish while litigation was ongoing. The journal suggested that it would consider a revised version of the manuscript after the case had been resolved. The authors submitted a revised version of the article. As part of the revisions, the authors had deleted all references to the names and locale of the companies. The legal proceedings had been concluded with an out of court settlement; the lead author had no involvement in this. The terms of the settlement are subject to a confidentiality clause and it is not known whether liability was admitted or not. Company A does not wish the paper to be published on the grounds that this would violate the confidentiality agreement between the two parties. On the basis of legal advice from his/her institution, the author states that s/he is not bound by an agreement to which s/he was not party; that the handwritten clause in his/her agreement with Company A allows for publication of the article; and that the details of the outbreak were public as they had been presented in abstract form as well as briefly described in a local language publication. The lead author feels that the journal’s reluctance to publish on the basis of legal concerns is flawed. As originally relayed to the author, it was stated that the journal could be seen as “taking sides” in an ongoing legal dispute—a view that the author feels is “ethically unacceptable. ” Company A is threatening legal action against the authors if details of the case are published, and Company B would also potentially have an action for defamation. What should be done?
_ Editors have to be mindful of legal advice against publishing a paper and could base their decision not to publish on strong advice. _ In such a situation where legal advice against publishing was so strong, the author would have to indemnify the publisher against any legal action that might be taken. _ If an editor has been advised that publishing something was unlawful, prima facie that was immoral and publishing the article could potentially be held to be in contempt of court. _ In such a case then the author would also need to provide indemnity for loss of reputation. _ If the author’s institution has stated that, having taken legal advice, they are happy to publish, then the work could be published on the institution’s website. _ Publication would only be a possibility if both companies agreed to it.