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 Author A asked for the EoCs to not be published due to ongoing legal action against institution A and the claimant and asked to be allowed to add comments to the EoCs if they were published, but each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.
We became concerned that not all of the co-authors were aware of a research paper submitted to our journal due to the difficulty receiving responses from the email addresses that had been supplied and their nature, given that the authors all worked in a hospital/academic institution. Despite repeated requests and attempts we remained dissatisfied with the responses and did not feel certain that all of the authors were aware of the paper. We therefore requested further documentation signed by all of the authors, but all of the signatures appeared to be signed by the same person, and hand writing analysis suggested this was highly likely. In addition, the statement from the ethics committee also had a similar signature. The letter from the ‘head’ of the ethics committee was on blank paper, not letterhead, and was not received as an original hard copy.
We therefore contacted the head of the ethics review committee who was different to the head on the document we had received and about which we had some concerns. The current head eventually confirmed after a second request that the doctor who had signed the previously supplied document was not on the committee. Ethics committee clearance has since been granted retrospectively after the paper was submitted.
As a result we have significant concerns about this paper, its ethical clearance and some of the documentation that has been supplied. We have advised the authors that we have suspended processing of their paper and that we would seek further advice from COPE. Our intention is to report our concerns to the hospital director and formally reject this paper.
We would appreciate guidance on any further action we should take.
The Forum agreed with the proposed course of action of the editor. It would not be appropriate in this case to simply reject the paper. It is very clear that something serious has happened in relation to the governance of this paper, and if the editor were to simply reject it, it is quite likely that the authors will simply submit elsewhere. In these situations, COPE recommends that if an editor has a concern about a paper, even if they end up rejecting it, they must tell the authors that they will take it further and that it is highly likely that it will be referred to their institution for further investigation.
(COPE Council also discussed this case outside of the Forum). Council members agreed with the proposed course of action. This appears to be a very serious breach of ethics and the author may repeat this type of misconduct with another journal.
First you should inform all the authors of what you are going to do in a factual, non-accusatory way. As there may be legal implications, you should also ensure that the letter to the hospital director has to be purely factual, with dates and copies of letters between the journal and the ethics service and the authors. Claims about forged signatures need to be backed up by a report of handwriting analysis (or if you can't supply that you should not make the accusation directly). The journal should consider taking legal advice. You may want to pursue this issue further to a higher institutional level. Hence, in addition to the hospital director, if there is another head of the academic institution or some kind of oversight office then you might consider contacting them also. If the authors are working in an academy (university) and the hospital is affiliated to that university, then there may be a research regulatory body of that university that could be informed.
The journal followed the advice given by COPE and sought legal advice from their publishers before writing to the hospital director raising their concerns. The editor also rejected the paper and gave the authors the reasons for doing this. The editor has had no response and so he plans to write again and also write directly to the head of the ethics committee.
Update (September 2013):
The editor has still not had a response from the hospital director despite following up the original communication and copying in the ethical review chairman. It was agreed that the next step should be to contact the research integrity office.
Update (February 2014):
The editor has now had a response from the ethics committee, recognising the nature of their concern. The ethics committee is going to inform the university rector.
An article was submitted by corresponding author (CA) on 19 December 2011. After several revisions the article was accepted for publication on 23 March 2012. The article was published online 8 May 2012. At the time of submission, CA was a PhD student at a research centre (X). On 21 November 2012, co-author A (also head of the research group) contacted the publisher and editor-in-chief of journal A with a request to retract the published article claiming the following: • Co-author A claims that this paper was submitted to journal A by CA during her absence (maternity leave). • Co-author A claims that she and the other 7 co-authors (authors B, C, D, E, F, G and H) were not informed about the publication in journal A by CA. • Co-author A claims that 90% of the data presented in this paper were obtained during work performed in the laboratories at research centre X, are the property of X, and can only be published by an X staff member and cannot be distributed or published without X’s consent. According to co-author A, CA knows this as he signed a contract with centre X. • Co-author A mentions that she recently submitted an updated version of the same paper to another journal. For this submission, co-author A is the corresponding author. All authors (including CA!) agreed to this publication. (NB: Journal B is a journal with a higher impact factor than journal A.)
On 3 December 2012, the editor-in-chief of journal A informed co-authors A and CA and all of the other co-authors (B, C, D, E, F, G and H) of the possibility of publishing an erratum.
On 6 December 2012, the Legal and Contracts Officer (LCO) of research centre X replied to the editor-in-chief that CA violated contractual obligations with X by submitting the article and transferring the copyright to the copyright owner of the journal. LCO seems to mix up ‘ownership of copyright’ and ‘ownership of results (data)’. So far, no reply from any of the other co-authors has been received although they were copied in on the correspondence.
On 14 December 2012, the publisher contacted CA directly, asking him for his point of view. CA replied on 17 December 2012. From his reply it was not clear whether he completely understood the situation. He stated that he had asked co-author A for permission to submit the article but “had no answer for one year”. He states that the research was done by him and that co-author A also contributed.
On 19 December 2012, the publisher again asked CA the following points: — Did you get the approval of the other co-authors before you submitted the article? Are there, by chance, documents that prove this? — Co-author A said that she was away from work for one year of maternity leave. Were you aware of this when submitting the article? — Are there contractual obligations between you and research centre X that were not observed by submitting the article?
On 20 December 2012, the corresponding author replied that “after a long discussion with the Legal Officer (LO) of research institute Y” he remembered the document/contract that he had signed at research centre X and that he now agrees to retract the article, and he asks the publisher to do so.
However, the published article itself presents sound science. Furthermore, the legal issue between CA and research centre X needs to be separated from the case for retraction of a scientifically correct article. (A minor mistake in the published article that co-author A found in the meantime could be corrected by an erratum.)
On 20 December 2012, the publisher informed CA, co-author A and LCO that any contractual obligations between them and centre X will not be part of this issue. LCO corresponded separately with the LO of research institute Y on how to find an ‘amicable’ solution. This ‘amicable’ solution focused solely on the contractual obligations between research centre X and CA. One step in this solution would be submission of the article to the ‘correct’ journal (journal B) by co-author A.
LCO agreed to the amicable proposal of the LO of institute Y, and sent the publisher a statement on 21 December 2012 in which he disagreed that the case is merely an authorship dispute, but states that the foremost concern is the declaration that the corresponding author signed with research institute X which in his eyes is “wider than the ownership of copyright and results”. He also states that together with the LO from institute Y they came to an agreement NOT to publish. And he will launch a formal compensation claim.
On 21 December 2012, the publisher received a message from a co-author (the first time that one has replied) in which he mentions that CA published a paper without his approval, that he does not want to be linked to the ‘criminal acts’ of a PhD student, he suggests retracting the paper, as asked by co-author A and the LCO, and he will sue the journal.
In summary, the issues are: • The corresponding author submitted an article without the knowledge of all or some of his co-authors. • The corresponding author was under contract with research centre X at that time. • The scientific content of the article is correct. A minor error that occurred since publication can be corrected by an erratum. • Research centre X seems to have put pressure on CA to retract the article because of contractual obligations only. The scientific content was never a case in the correspondence between the different parties
The Forum suggested that there is a lesson to be learnt here: when a journal receives a manuscript, an acknowledgement should be sent to all of the authors, not just the corresponding author, and all authors should be copied in on all correspondence. This will prevent a similar situation arising in the future.
There could be legal issues here, as the PhD student was under contract to the institute. So the issue may be taken out of the hands of the editor. Some suggested there was a lack of mentorship and failure of supervision—what was the PhD supervisor doing?
Most agreed that there were no grounds for retraction. An author dispute is not sufficient grounds to retract an article if there is no issue with the scientific content of the article. However, as the editor does not have documentation that all authors agreed to the publication, the authors do have some grounds to feel aggrieved and to want a retraction. If the editor can obtain signed consent from all of the authors, then he could consider retraction. Others suggested that the editor should do nothing.
Regarding the issue of the recently submitted updated version of the same paper to another journal, the Forum noted that the editor has a right to ask the author for a copy of this paper. Do the authors want the paper retracted so that they can submit to the other journal (which has a higher impact factor)? If the authors do go ahead with submission of a paper to the other journal, there must be clear linkage to the original paper.
There are also copyright issues to consider.
On a show of hands, half of the Forum suggested that the editor do nothing further, a few suggested publishing a correction or some form of note on the paper regarding the authorship dispute, and only two people suggested a retraction.
The editors never received any feedback from anyone involved. They count this as silent agreement to the way they handled this case—involving COPE and publishing the article. The editor considers this case as closed.
We received a complaint of plagiarism by Dr A concerning a book that has just been published. This case is ongoing since January 2012.
Authors B and C published a new, very extended edition (+1000 pages), on a topic that previously was covered in part in an English book by author B (published in 2006). Part of this book was based on a German book published back in 1993 by Dr A and author B. The English book was taken off the market by the publisher because of alleged "plagiarism" by author B. The publisher apologized to author B for this withdrawal which seemed to have been a mistake (but there is no written documentation on this). Copyright of this book was transferred to author B. Dr A has made a complaint of plagiarism for this book too. Copyright of the German book was transferred to both authors (Dr A and author B). It is therefore unclear what exactly has been plagiarized (in the 2006 book and the revised edition).
As the publisher, we sought two independent reviews. Unfortunately, the publisher asked the authors to come up with the names of the “independent” reviews, so we are a little hesitant to rely on both reviews. However, the reviews are respected scientists, and both state that “similarity is inevitable because of the involvement from the same author (author B) and overlap in the topic treated. It is also clear that the book is not based on new material, but it brings together existing material in a presentable form, but has a different formulation form and interpretation of material”.
Authors B and C mention that they have included all appropriate quotes/references to the previous book. Dr A has received parts of the text for review, and the authors have been willing from the start to rewrite anything that comes close to the original text of Dr A, should there be any similarity.
The lawyer, hired by author B, informed all parties, based on both reviews, that this is not a case of plagiarism. Dr A in the meantime has also hired a lawyer because he is not in agreement. So far we have not heard anything from this lawyer. Dr A now requests a statement from publisher on the case.
We believe there are strong personal issues at work here. With books, there is no editor-in-chief that can investigate the case or make a decision with help of his editorial board/associate editors or other body in the form of a society.
At the moment we, as the publisher, will make the new book (of over 1000 pages) available to Dr A so that he can indicate which sections show overlap with the 1993 German book (published by him and author B) and probably the 2006 English book.
Is there any advice from the Forum on this complex case?
The Forum agreed that this is a complex copyright issue rather than an ethical issue. This may have to be resolved by lawyers. The Forum supported the editor’s actions of making the new book available to Dr A so that he can indicate which sections show overlap with the 1993 German book and the 2006 English book. It was suggested that following this, independent advice should be sought from an independent expert. It was also suggested that the editor may be able to obtain agreement in advance on the use of an independent arbitrator who would review the case and whose opinion the authors would abide by.
The editor has been informed that the complaining author is trying to ‘organize’ the community in order to ‘discredit’ the book. So far nothing has been heard from his lawyer. Dr A has not provided any detailed information of where the plagiarism has occurred despite the fact that he requested a copy of the book in order to look at the chapters and the book was sent to him for comparison with the request to send his findings to the editor.
A manuscript was flagged to editor X as having received reviewers’ reports indicating very high interest. At that point the manuscript had been through one round of review, revision and re-review, and all three reviewers were advising that the manuscript be accepted without further revision.
On checking the credentials of the three reviewers, editor X was unable to find the publication record of any of them. All three reviewers were found to have been suggested by the authors. Institutions were given for the suggested authors but the supplied email addresses were all with webmail services. The reviewers were found not to exist.
Associate editor Y had invited the author suggested reviewers and two of their own choosing, neither of whom had replied to the invitation.
After it was determined that the reviewer suggestions were faked, a previous publication by the same authors with the same ‘fake’ reviewers was identified.
Following the recommendations of COPE regarding a recent similar case discussed at the COPE Forum (case number 12-12), all of the authors were contacted to ask if they could supply more details of the suggested reviewers, but they have not responded. We have attempted to find a contact at the authors’ institution. It has proved difficult to identify a research ethics committee, any individual senior member of the university or contacts for the university administration. During other searches, a vice principal of the university was identified but was found to be the senior author on both manuscripts.
We are now seeking guidance on the best course of action with regard to both the unpublished and published manuscripts, in the absence of any response from the authors and no reliable contacts at the authors’ institution. Our current intention is to reject the manuscript under review and issue a retraction of the published article.
The Forum agreed that this case was brought about by the failure of journal processes and their peer review system. Good practice is always to check the names, addresses and email contacts of reviewers, and especially those that are recommended by authors. Editors should never use only the preferred reviewer. While the Forum recognise that finding reviewers can be difficult and that the peer review system can be hard, simple checks can avoid a similar situation in the future. The Forum agreed that the publisher should take some responsibility as it is their duty to support their editors. The editorial office clearly needs guidance and step by step procedures.
Then there is the issue of the author trying to defraud the system. The advice was to continue to try and contact the author and the author’s institution, and inform them of the situation, explaining the author’s inappropriate and possibly criminal behaviour. The author should be told that that if no response is received, then the previous paper will be retracted. Other advice was to consider re-reviewing the published article.
It was also suggested that the editor might consider writing an editorial on this issue.
The case was also discussed at the North American Forum (18 October 2012). Additional advice was to require an institutional email address in addition to a webmail address for any suggested reviewers and for editors to send correspondence to both addresses. Another suggestion was to verify the webmail address with an IP address route trace, which the participant suggested was relatively simple and could be performed by anyone if there were no IT department to assist with the task.
With regard to the specific manuscripts in this case, the one that was under review has been rejected with a warning to the authors that the activity was unacceptable. For the published manuscript, we have had discussions with the editor concerned but the final resolution of the case is still in progress. We have received no response from the authors and no success in finding contacts in their institution, although we are pursuing another avenue to try and identify one.
More generally we have had some broad discussions in the company about preventing future cases. There are some short-term fixes in progress and more comprehensive plans for technical additions to our systems that should help prevent these and other forms of author misconduct that will come about in the new year.
Update (June 2013)
For the published manuscript we followed COPE advice and conducted post-publication peer review. The editorial board member who reviewed the manuscript found flaws with the article and we will now take steps to retract it.
However, given the sensitive nature of this retraction for the journal in question, we would also like to accompany it with an explanatory editorial.
We have made a number of technical changes to our systems. On submission, where authors suggest potential peer reviewers we issue this warning: “Intentionally falsifying information, for example, suggesting reviewers with a false name or email address, will result in the manuscript being rejected.”
When a manuscript is shared with an external editor to invite potential reviewers, we also make it clear that they should check that reviewers suggested by the authors have the expertise necessary to carry out a proper assessment of the manuscript if they are invited to peer review.
The IP address tip was very useful and we did find that the IP address of the reviewer ‘matched’ that of the author in this case. We are thinking of developing an automatic warning system such that if a peer reviewer returns a report on a manuscript with an IP address that matches that of the authors, then the peer review process is halted.
We now consider this case closed and will proceed to issue a retraction with accompanying editorial shortly.