A staff member in our editorial office noticed a decision letter where a handling editor instructed an author to cite an article published by the handling editor. The staff member wondered if this had happened before and reviewed recent decision letters by that editor. This revealed a concerning pattern of behaviour—the handling editor’s decision letters (including reviewers’ comments) asked authors to add citations of his work more than 50 times, three times more often than he asked authors to add citation of work he did not co-author.
Looking more closely, the handling editor frequently invited the same four reviewers to review the papers he handled. The requests for added citations sometimes came from those reviewers, and sometimes from the handling editor alone. The handling editor asked for his own papers to be cited more than 20 times and never personally requested citation of papers that were not his own. The four regular reviewers requested citation of the handling editor’s work much more frequently than they requested citation of papers he had not authored, and most of the citations they requested that were not the handling editor’s were of papers they themselves had co-authored.
In at least one case, an author did not add the citation of the handling editor’s paper as requested, so the handling editor returned the paper to the author again with the request that the citation be added. This created concern that he was requiring authors to add these citations before he would accept their papers. According to COPE’s ethics guidelines for peer reviewers, reviewers should “refrain from suggesting that authors include citations to your (or an associate’s) work merely to increase citation counts or to enhance the visibility of your or your associate’s work; suggestions must be based on valid academic or technological reasons.”
The staff member brought the issue to the journal’s editor-in-chief to see if there was legitimate scientific reason for these papers to be cited. (Note: in our editorial structure, handling editors make final decisions about papers; the editor-in-chief does not normally review decision letters before they are sent out). After reviewing the papers in question, the editor-in-chief did not see a reason why these additional citations were scientifically necessary. The editor-in-chief then consulted with the journal’s editorial board (handling editors are not part of the editorial board). The editorial board agreed that they could not see a scientific reason why these citations were requested. The editor-in-chief and editorial board drafted a letter to the handling editor to ask him to explain the pattern and why he requested these additional citations. The editorial board and editor-in-chief agreed to wait until hearing from the handling editor before contacting the reviewers.
The handling editor responded with a letter that stated that he requested citation of his own work more often than others’ work because he was most familiar with his own work. He then stated that he found the inquiry from the editorial board to be offensive and resigned immediately. The editor-in-chief and editorial board decided that the resignation was sufficient and closed the case.
In response to this case, the journal staff have added time to the journal’s annual meeting with the handling editors for review of editorial ethics, to ensure that all editors are familiar with COPE and the journal’s ethical standards. The journal’s code of ethics is also included in the handbook provided to all handling editors, and editors will be asked to sign an agreement stating that they have read and agree to the code of ethics each year.
Question(s) for the COPE Forum
• What if anything should the journal have done differently? Are there other actions the journal should have taken?
• Should the journal have reached out to the reviewers as well, or was reaching out to the handling editor sufficient?
• Do other journals have safeguards in place that would help identify a pattern such as this one more easily?
The Forum advised that any suggested citations to a paper must advance the argument within the article. There can be circumstances where there are genuine suggestions for additional citations which may improve the quality of the paper, but these should not be a condition of acceptance. However, this case appears to be a blatant example of problematic and unethical behaviour. The Forum agreed with the actions of the journal and commended the journal in terms of educating their handling editors. The Forum suggested that the journal may wish to add to their decision letters that acceptance is not contingent on adding specific references suggested by editors. The journal could also review all the decision letters before they are sent out. Although this could be quite labour intensive, it would prevent these patterns of behaviour in the future.
Authors Virginia Barbour, Muhammad Irfan, Deborah Poff and Michael Wise on behalf of COPE Council Version 1 December 2016 How to cite this COPE Council. Journals’ Best Practices for Ensuring Consent for Publishing Medical Case Reports. Version 1. December 2016 https://doi.org/10.24318/cope.2019.1.6
Our COPE materials are available to use under the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs license https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc-nd/3.0/ Attribution — You must attribute the work in the manner specified by the author or licensor (but not in any way that suggests that they endorse you or your use of the work). Non-commercial — You may not use this work for commercial purposes. No Derivative Works — You may not alter, transform, or build upon this work. We ask that you give full accreditation to COPE with a link to our website: publicationethics.org
On occasion a journal may get not one, but a series of complaints from the same source. Complaints may be directed at an author, an editor, or the journal in general. If these complaints turn out to be well founded, investigations should proceed as warranted. However, there are also cases where a complainant makes repeated allegations against a journal, editor, or author that turn out to be baseless. Examples of multiple complaints include:
At acceptance but before publication, we found article A submitted to journal A was highly similar to article B, published 5 months earlier in conference proceedings in journal B by another publisher. The abstracts were nearly identical, but the author lists and affiliations did not overlap. We asked the authors to explain this and they said article A is their own work, but it was inadvertently leaked by an unnamed medical company they work with.
We told the authors of article A that in future they must declare the role of any company in their research and consider if this may be a conflict of interests. They said their article was previously submitted 4 years ago to another publisher of journal C, who rejected it. We confirmed this with the publisher, who added that their reviewers and editor are not the authors of article B.
The authors of article A said they spoke with the first author of article B, who promised to withdraw it. Article B was retracted, with the abstract being removed and a retraction notice posted. However, the stated reason for retraction was errors. The authors of article A said they were surprised by this.
What we know appears to be consistent with the authors of article A being the genuine authors, but the authors of article A told us the company does not want to be involved in this matter and they asked to withdraw article A, which we did. We have not contacted the authors or publisher of article B. We advised the authors of article A to contact the institutions of the authors of article B and the editor and publisher of journal B; we suggested they do not necessarily need to share details of the company because proof they are the original authors and the authors of article B are not, may be enough for an investigation. The authors of article A said they would consider this.
Question(s) for the COPE Forum • Could we have handled this case differently? • Should we contact the publisher of article B? • Should we ask the institution of the authors of article A and/or article B to investigate?
The Forum was updated that there has been a further development: one of the authors of article A submitted a new article to the journal, a shorter version of which was published in the conference proceedings.
Generally, COPE recommends that authorship issues should be resolved at the institutional level. Institutions are best placed to investigate these issues, especially if there was a medical device company or drug company involved who funded the work. The institution should have a record of this involvement and they may be able to provide additional information. Also, the further misconduct of one of the authors of article A may indicate a pattern of unethical behaviour which needs to be addressed by the journal, but also by the institution.
The Forum was told that the journal plans to contact the author regarding the latest submission, and ask for an explanation. The journal also plans to contact the authors of the conference proceedings to see if they have any insight as to how a different author group submitted the same work to the journal. After evaluating the responses, the journal may then contact the institutions of the authors of article A and possibly also the institutions of the authors of article B. The Forum agreed this was a sensible course of action.
The authors of the latest submission and those of the conference proceeding said they had collaborated, that the conference proceeding was preliminary work, and the authors of the conference proceeding should have been acknowledged in the submission. Because of the similar issue with the previous article by the same authors, the journal still had concerns and declined to further consider the submission. The journal is asking the institutions to investigate.
Follow-up (July 2018)
The journal contacted both institutions and the other publisher. The other publisher thanked the journal for this and said they will take note of their authors' actions; neither institution has responded.
An author submitted work to our journal (journal A) which, after two rounds of peer review, was accepted and published. One week after it was published, the editors of journal B contacted our journal stating that this work, with the exact same title, authors and content, had been submitted to journal B and, after receiving an acceptance letter, the author withdrew the paper, informing them that it had been accepted by a different journal.
When the editor of journal B asked the author for an explanation, the author did not provide a satisfactory response. Journal B, in consultation with their editorial board, banned the author from submitting to the journal in the future.
Editor B contacted us, alerting us to the situation. After verifying the submission records, we concluded that the submission to both journals had been done on the same day. We contacted the authors for an explanation. The author replied that indeed he had submitted to two journals but that the submissions were several weeks apart. He said he forgot to withdraw the article from journal B and apologized for the situation. However, the submission records for both journal A and journal B indicate that this statement is not true.
We have discussed with the editor of journal B what action should be taken in relation to the author. Journal B has already banned the author. The editorial board of journal B would like to make this misconduct known to the author´s institution and suggests that it should be us who contact the institution. We are reluctant to contact the institution as the author has apologized, admitted his mistake and withdrew the article from journal B. We believe journal B should contact the institution.
Question(s) for the COPE Forum • What is the appropriate action in such a case. Should the institution be informed or is banning the author from both journals for a period of time enough? • Who should initiate the action—journal A or journal B? • Both editors agree that something should be done so that the author does not repeat the behaviour at other journals, but are unsure of what to do.
The Forum advised that in deciding whether to inform the institution, the editor may want to take into consideration the seniority of the author and the country of origin of the author. If the author is from a country where ethical norms are not well entrenched, the editor may wish to be more lenient. COPE would always advocate educational rather than punitive action. Even if the editor feels that the author deliberately tried to deceive, COPE would still recommend an educational approach in the first instance. If the author demonstrates a repeat pattern of misconduct, then the editor might consider contacting the institution.
However, while contacting the institution for punitive reasons is not necessarily helpful some argued informing the institution may be preventative rather than punitive, especially if the authors are junior researchers. The institution has a role in mentoring the author and to ensure that this type of behaviour does not persist. This may also serve to convey to the author the seriousness of the infraction.
A suggestion was to write an editorial on the issue of dual submission. Do authors really understand what it means, and the consequences of declaring that their paper has not been submitted to another journal?
COPE does not recommend banning authors because of the legal repercussions.
A manuscript was submitted to one of our journals in a special issue. The initial submission included 15 authors with 9 affiliations. The authors were part of a consortium which has now been disbanded. The manuscript was provisionally accepted for publication.
At this point, three of the authors requested to be removed from the author list, citing irreconcilable differences with the corresponding author. When queried, the authors agreed that they qualified for authorship (as per the ICMJE criteria). One of them informed the publisher that three junior members of his research group also qualified for authorship but had never been included in the author list. When contacted, these junior three researchers requested to be included as authors.
The manuscript's publication was put on hold during these checks. The corresponding author was unhappy at the delay in publication. They denigrated and questioned the integrity of the institution where these researchers were based and claimed that one of three authors was involved in perverting peer review in another, named, journal (not related to the publisher). The corresponding author made it clear that they would refuse to accept any recommendations from the three junior researchers' institution if they were to become involved. The corresponding author also insisted that the three removed authors be included in the acknowledgements. The three removed authors explicitly stated that they did not want their names included anywhere on the paper.
The publisher notified the corresponding author that the ICMJE guidelines recommend receiving explicit written consent from anyone included on acknowledgements. The publisher also continued to clarify the situation with the three junior researchers, informing them that such cases should be taken to their institution. As the publication was still on hold, the corresponding author threatened legal action and full media coverage for alleged censorship and unethical behaviour. A journalist for an international newspaper was copied into these threats.
The publisher took the following actions:
- Removed the three authors from author list, as per their request.
- Asked all 12 remaining authors to sign an authorship form re-attesting to the authorship (the publisher's online submission system notifies all authors of manuscript submission).
- Included the three removed authors' names in the body of the article where a summary of the consortium's meeting and attendees was noted.
- Informed the three junior researchers that the publisher would consider a corrigendum changing authorship if they could prove qualification for authorship, according to ICMJE guidelines.
- Proceeded with publication.
Question(s) for the COPE Forum • Should the publisher have held publication of the article until the findings of the junior researchers provided a report? • If this issue did become a media concern, how much of the above summary should the publisher publicly divulge, if anything?
The general advice from COPE is that journals should always hold off publication of a paper until an authorship issue is resolved. That is what COPE recommends and this advice is outlined in the COPE flowcharts. It is not up to the journal to decide who qualifies for authorship. The Forum agreed that the only option for the journal was to stall publication while the authorship issue was resolved and hence the criticism of the journal for this is unfair.
The Forum noted the importance of the institution and that the editor might still consider contacting them, even if the authors say they will not abide by the findings. The institution can also play their part in terms of educating the three junior researchers. It would be best if the institution, rather than the journal, made the decision to publish a corrigendum in relation to the junior researchers if it is proved that they qualify for authorship, according to ICMJE guidelines. The Forum advised waiting for the institution to provide this proof.
The key issue is to provide transparency. The editor might like to consider publishing an editorial on this issue, laying out all the facts.
An allegation of data fraud was not satisfactorily resolved by correspondence with the authors. We then went to the lead institution and asked for an investigation. Within 10 days we had a report clearing the authors, but interestingly using some of the exact same phrases the authors used in their responses to us. We felt that the report was too superficial and approached the other institution involved.
A new investigation was started; this investigation took many months. The report said there was insufficient justification to take the matter to formal assessment and the institution was not minded to investigate further.
We remain concerned. The second investigation asked the authors to provide some data for re-analysis: that came out close enough for the committee to be reassured. However, provision of the same data for re-analysis is likely to produce the same result. In our previous experiences, only checking of at least some of the case report forms would uncover fraudulent data. We are therefore not reassured that the paper is sound and we have no direct evidence (CRFs) that the data are genuine.
Questions for the COPE Forum • When two institutional reviews have failed to investigate thoroughly enough to reassure editors, what further investigations might be warranted? And by whom?
• Is there sufficient doubt remaining for an expression of concern? Or should we accept the results of the investigations even if we consider them inadequate?
The Forum suggested that if the original data cannot be produced, it would be reasonable to retract the paper. No access to the primary data are grounds for retraction. The Forum asked if it would be possible for the journal to have access to the anonymised data?
The Forum agreed that an expression of concern would be appropriate if the journal believes that the institution has not done due diligence. It is not within the journal’s remit to carry out an investigation. The COPE retraction guidelines state that editors are welcome to issue an expression of concern if the investigation by an institution has not been fair or conclusive.
A suggestion was to contact an organisation that oversees these types of investigations at the institution. Is there a national body than could be contacted?
The role of the editor is to safeguard the literature and prevent readers from being misled, so an expression of concern is entirely warranted in this case.
The journal was contacted with a claim to first authorship of a paper currently published online ahead of print. Print publication was put on hold pending the result of the investigation. The claim to first authorship was based on the claimant stating that they had obtained most results published in the paper during their PhD studies under the supervision of the corresponding author, and contributed to the writing of the text. The claimant provided evidence of this in the form of screenshots of a submission confirmation email and subsequent rejection email from another journal for a manuscript with a similar title, a Word document labelled as the claimant’s PhD thesis and details of overlap with the published paper, and a screenshot of an email reported to have been sent by the claimant to the corresponding author in 2013 containing images used in the published paper.
The corresponding author was contacted and declared on behalf of all authors that the claimant had not contributed to the experiments or writing, and that none of the results shown in the article were performed by the claimant. They explained that the claimant was discharged from the PhD programme before successful completion. The claimant indicated that they wished to dispute this, and the institution was asked to investigate and resolve the dispute.
The institution informed the journal that the knowledge generated during state funded projects was the property of the institution, and only the institution has the ability to agree a copyright transfer in agreement with the corresponding author, and that the corresponding author had full legal and institutional support to determine the author list of papers resulting from the project. They stated that a graduate student may or may not be included as an author on papers deriving from projects to which they have contributed, and according to institutional guidelines, in order to be included as an author, a student must successfully complete their studies within a defined timeframe. The decision to remove the claimant as a co-author was confirmed to have been made because they were dismissed from the graduate programme before successful completion.
The institution did not comment on the extent of the contribution of the claimant to the research results and discussion presented in the published paper. The journal considers that ICMJE/COPE guidelines do not hold non-completion of studies as a valid reason for disqualification from authorship.
Question for the COPE Forum
• Should the journal operate according to ICMJE/COPE guidelines for determining authorship in the face of contradictory institutional authorship criteria and against the wishes of the corresponding author and institution? • If so, how can the right to authorship of the claimant according to ICMJE/COPE guidelines be now confirmed independently of the institution? • If a copyright transfer has already been agreed between the publisher and the institution/corresponding author, is this agreement affected if a separate correction article is published detailing an authorship change?
The Forum noted its seems punitive on the part of the university regarding their decision to exclude the student from being an author because they did not complete their studies within a defined timeframe. If the student was in the middle of their training and had submitted a paper, would the institution have handled the case differently? Was the claimant's role acknowledged in the published article? If not, might the claimant and authors agree to a correction to publish an acknowledgment?
Otherwise, a suggestion was to contact a higher authority at the institution—perhaps a committee on research integrity at the institution— or an oversight body and ask them to investigate and try to resolve the authorship issue. The Forum noted that it is up to the journal to set their own guidelines for authorship, and to clearly state that they follow the ICMJE and COPE guidelines, for example. The journal guidelines should take precedence.
Following advice from the COPE Forum, the journal approached the highest authority within the university to specifically confirm that the authorship of the paper was determined according to the criteria set by ICMJE/COPE, which they did. No further action was taken. The editor considers the case closed.
The author of an accepted research paper (that showed some benefits for a controversial treatment) contacted the journal shortly prior to publication of the paper. It is the policy of our journal not to share commissioned editorials with authors ahead of time. This author had, however, received a copy of the journal press release in preparation for a press briefing. The press release quoted statements from a commissioned accompanying editorial that concluded that "a clinically useful effect [for the treatment] remains uncertain..." and pointed out some shortcomings of the paper.
The author contacted the editorialist directly to obtain the full text of the editorial, and complained to the editorialist and the journal about its content. The editorial was revised to take some but not all of his complaints into account. The author requested that he be allowed to read the revised editorial and suggested that it should be sent for peer review. These requests were refused.
However, at a press briefing just prior to publication, the authors saw a final version of the revised editorial. They contacted the journal and indicated they were dissatisfied with the revised editorial. They asked to have a lengthy letter rebutting the editorial posted online simultaneously with publication of the editorial.
They were directed to follow normal procedures for posting a response to a paper, which includes waiting until it is published and adhering to other standard procedures for commentary on a published paper. The authors were not satisfied with this suggestion. After negotiation, a compromise was reached which allowed posting of a longer than usual letter the morning after the editorial went online.
Questions for the COPE Forum
• Does the Forum think it is good practice to share the content of linked editorials with the authors of the relevant paper? Should the journal change its long-standing policy not to share? • What is the Forum’s view on whether commissioned editorials should be sent for peer review? If not routinely, then should that have been done in this case? • How should the journal respond to the behaviour of the lead author? Contacting the editorialist directly to obtain a copy of the editorial, and corresponding with that person directly over the holidays, is not typical behaviour and clearly made the editorialist feel uncomfortable. • The journal declined to publish the authors' rapid response alongside the editorial when it went online. The journal decided that the authors should go through the usual process of posting a rapid response to the editorial after publication, and that it should be vetted in the usual way. Was this the right decision? • Should the journal have allowed the editorial authors to see this very critical rapid response before publication, so they had the chance to respond quickly?
The Forum suggested that journals do have a journalistic role—they commission editorials—and hence have a right to voice their view. However, it is important to manage expectations, to ensure all parties are aware of the situation and the process for linked editorials, and to treat everyone the same. For example, were the authors aware they might have a commissioned editorial on their paper and that this would not be shared with them before publication? It can be alarming for authors if they do not know there is going to be a press release related to their article, especially as the author contact details are often in the press release so that they can be contacted for interview by the media. If it is a third party issuing the press release, there is little the journal can do. For high profile research, with extracts from the paper leaked, it can provide an opportunity for the author to influence process. In these situations, the journal can only manage expectations in relation to its own journal processes.
The Forum agreed it is fine for authors to have the right of reply post publication (via comments/rapid response) if that is made clear in the journal policies, and as long as the editorial is appropriate and fair. Some journals limit communication to one round of exchanges only, published online or in print.
If it is a straightforward commentary, it should not need to be peer-reviewed. Standard practice is not to peer review commentaries. Several Forum members stated that standard practice in their journal was for authors not to see linked editorials or commentaries, although authors are informed there is a linked commentary to their article. Informing authors is important, especially if there is a delay in publication or if the two articles are published simultaneously.
If a journal thinks an editorial might be controversial, the editor should consider having it peer-reviewed. Many journals have provenance statements, indicating whether or not an article has been peer-reviewed. The editorial can be peer-reviewed by the reviewers of the original article, or it may be appropriate to use different reviewers if the piece is very critical of the original article.
In summary, the editors should manage the expectations of the authors by having guidelines in place for their process of issuing press releases and how they alert authors, along with their policies for handling post publication commentaries. The process needs to be very clear so that the authors are not taken unawares.
We discussed the matter with our internal ethics committee who were supportive of the journal’s approach to linked editorials—specifically, they agreed that the journal should not share them before publication. We have now started writing to the authors of papers scheduled for press release, explaining why we do not share, and asking them not to contact editorialists directly. Our press officer has agreed not to put links to editorials in the press release sent to paper authors for approval. The link goes back in before release to journalists.
We have been sending authors these letters for several months, and the editorials’ editors have commented that "most authors seem appreciative”.