A case report was received at the journal. A covering letter was supplied by the two authors stating “Our work has not been published elsewhere and we have been actively involved in the preparation of the paper. No conflict of interest. Not published elsewhere. Patient consent obtained for case report and images to be published”.
Originality is very highly graded in the referee’s marking sheets for case reports, so the editor entered the title of the manuscript into Google, prior to sending out to referees. An exact match for the manuscript, including identical images, was found in an internet only pay per publish journal.
The editor contacted the corresponding author to inform him that the journal was rejecting the article as it had already been published. The author asked if the article would be considered if the publication was withdrawn from the internet journal. The editor replied that it would not. The matter was discussed at the journal editorial board meeting and a decision taken to refer the issue to COPE.
Question(s) for the COPE Forum • Has the journal handled the case correctly? • Are there other actions the editor should take?
The Forum agreed that the journal had handled the case correctly and no further action is needed. The editor was correct in rejecting the paper and not considering publication if the article was withdrawn from the internet journal. The authors should be told that internet only journals are the same as printed journals, and hence the paper is considered published. The editor could consider alerting the author’s institution.
The editor thanked the Forum for their comments and considers the case closed.
We received a letter from a third party, accusing author A of putting his/her name against an article, published in our journal, when the research itself belongs to author A's student.
Our journal is a fully English language publication and the accusing third party and author A are from a non-English speaking country, as is the student (assumedly). The accusing third party forwarded the student's research paper to the editor which is entirely written in another language but contained an English abstract.
The Editor contacted author A and the response received included an attached confirmation letter supposedly from his/her student stating that they had no involvement in the published work by author A and that their research is completely separate to the published paper by author A.
We have several concerns: 1. It is difficult for the editor to examine the abstract the third party sent to us against the published article by author A. 2. We do not know if the response letter emailed from author A, confirming no involvement in author A's paper, is genuinely from the student. 3. The accuser's identity or relation to the matter is unknown to us. Ideally the editor needs to contact the student directly but we need bona fide contact details of the student and we are not sure we would get it from the accuser or the accused author A. Google is also of little help as there are so many people with the name.
Question(s) for the COPE Forum • How should we go about contacting the student? • What should be our next steps?
COPE’s advice in these types of cases would be to contact the student directly. Contacting the institution in confidence through the Office of Graduate Studies would be the most normal route but some universities in some countries might not respect the confidentiality of the student. The Forum acknowledged how frustrating it must be for the journal, and that there is probably little else that can be done.
The journal could ask the third party for the contact details of the student. The only other suggestion was to see if there is a licensing board in the country that could be contacted. Any licensed professional is usually governed by a licensing board.
The editor contacted the accuser asking for the student’s details but no response has yet been received.
Follow-up (January 2017): The journal considers the case closed.
A paper was submitted to our journal. The associate editor assigned to the paper immediately assigned a reviewer who he knew was well qualified to give a good review, as they had worked with the authors before. The editor did think it odd that the reviewer was not an author on this particular paper, given the close collaboration. However, when invited, the reviewer (R1), did not flag up any conflict of interest or request that they should be an author on the paper.
The reviewer returned a very good review and along with another two reviews (R2/R3), and after revision (where the revision once again was sent to R1) the paper was accepted and published.
A few months later, the journal was approached by another researcher (E1 who is from the same laboratory as R1) who said that this paper had been published with an incomplete author list and that they wanted the paper retracted as they had not been included. After discussions with the editors of the journal, a corrigendum was agreed as the best way forward to amend the author list, as there was nothing scientifically wrong with the paper.
In the course of the conversations with E1, it became clear that R1 was involved in the publication from the beginning (specifically designing the experiment discussed in the paper). In the meantime, the corresponding author supplied the editors with the corrigendum text where a new expanded author list was outlined, which included E1 and R1, and the acknowledgements were also updated to include several other researchers’ contributions. Along with the corrigendum text, the corresponding author also included pdfs of emails they had received from all of the authors (including E1 and R1) in which they agreed to be named as an author.
The editor in chief has written to the corresponding author saying that it is not possible for R1 to be included in the author list as they had been a reviewer on the paper, and did not flag up at any time that they thought that they were an author. The editor in chief suggested that R1 be withdrawn from the author list proposed in the corrigendum. The corresponding author replied that there had been a meeting between the two laboratories affected, the content of the paper was evaluated and those people who should be listed as authors were identified. R1 was identified as an author during this meeting (as well as E1). The corresponding author acknowledged that there was a clear conflict with R1 having reviewed the paper, when they should have been a co-author. The corresponding author suggested that R1’s review be stricken from the record and the other two reviews used as the reason for accepting the paper.
The corresponding author wants to have R1’s contribution to the paper reflected in the author list and has requested that we publish the original corrigendum. The journal editors have discussed this and have come to the conclusion that although there is nothing scientifically wrong with the paper, it will need to be retracted as the peer review process for this paper has been compromised. They are willing to give the authors the chance to resubmit the paper with the full author list and have it re-reviewed (new handling editors and reviewers).
Question(s) for the COPE Forum • Should the editors offer the option of a revise and resubmit following a retraction? • If the authors do revise and resubmit, it is likely the paper will be accepted (as there is nothing scientifically incorrect with it) so there is a possibility that the journal will have a retracted paper and a published paper which look very similar by the same (if expanded) author list. In this happens, would a cross linked editorial be needed to explain the situation? • Is a retraction merited given there is nothing scientifically wrong with the paper? A suggestion has been made to publish the corrigendum with just E1 as author (not include R1).
The Forum agreed that the peer-review process had been compromised and therefore the paper should be retracted. A correction would not be sufficient, even though there is nothing scientifically wrong with the paper, as the peer process has been corrupted. The Forum agreed it was would be acceptable for the editor to offer the author the option of revising and resubmiting the paper following the retraction. The new paper would have to be considered as a new submission and should be reviewed by a new set of reviewers. It was noted that a recent issue of The Lancet (31 January 2015) contained a re-published article that had originally been retracted. There was also a linked commentary explaining what had happened. It was suggested that the editor may wish to use this as a model if he wished.
The Forum questioned the behaviour of the reviewer. Has the editor asked the reviewer why he did not recuse himself from reviewing the paper? The reviewer does not seem to have conducted himself in an ethical manner.
An alternative suggestion was for the editor to consider whether or not he would have published the paper based on the two reviews of the original paper (excluding the review by R1). If it is the normal policy for the journal to have two reviewers and there were three in this case, but only one was compromised, perhaps the paper could stand? The editor would still need to publish a corrigendum explaining the revised authorship but he could justify publication based on the other reviews. In a similar vein, a suggestion was for the editor to consider post-publication peer review of the article, especially as he believes it to be scientifically sound.
The editor decided to follow the alternative suggestion put forward during the COPE Forum, and publish a corrigendum, where researcher E1 has been included as an author of the article and the reviewer R1 has been mentioned in the acknowledgements section. From the journal’s perspective, the case is now closed.
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.
The authors of a manuscript sent an official complaint to our journal regarding a breach of confidentiality by an associate editor (AE). The authors had been informed by the supervisor of a reviewer of a manuscript. After submission of the review, the reviewer received a confidential email from AE asking whether the favourable recommendation made by the reviewer would have been different if the reviewer had been aware that the group submitting the manuscript had been recently queried by two journals on ethical issues. The reviewer (junior member of a research group) did not respond to the email of AE but informed her supervisor. The supervisor informed the authors and the authors filed a formal complaint.
The journal acknowledged receipt of the complaint and requested details and evidence of the accusations against AE. The editor received an email from the supervisor of the reviewer confirming the facts, as well as an edited copy of the email send by AE to the reviewer.
We informed AE of the complaint and our investigation of the allegation concerning a follow-up email send by AE to one of the reviewers of the manuscript informing them of the past history of the author group.
We asked AE for comments and an explanation, and told him that manuscripts will not be assigned until a resolution has been reached.
The reply from AE contained apologies for the "wrong behaviour" and a plea to be able to continue his work as AE. At no point was the resignation of AE offered to the journal. The editor and editorial team (deputy editors and managing editor) have considered all aspects and have come to the conclusion that collaboration with AE should be stopped.
Has the COPE Forum any additional comments? Have similar cases been submitted?
The Forum were told that the journal provides formal training for associate editors so there was no question that the associate editor was aware that their behaviour was wrong. The editor believes that professional competition was the motive of the associate editor. All agreed that the associate editor should have declared a conflict of interest and excused him/herself from the review process. The Forum advised that it is up to the editor to make the decision, and that he needs to consider how valuable he believes the associate editor is, and how likely they are to repeat this behaviour? Can the editor trust the associate editor now? The Forum suggested that the editor might re-emphasise the journal’s policy on conflicts of interest to the other associate editors.
The editorial team was unanimous in their decisions to stop collaboration with the associate editor and, regretfully, the collaboration stopped. The confidentiality issue was discussed with incoming associate editors during an annual associate editor course but this experience convinced the editors to emphasise the issue even more.
Earlier this year it came to our attention that a published article in our journal (journal A) had also been published in another journal (journal B). The article in journal A was published later than the article in journal B, so following COPE guidelines on duplicate publication, we contacted the authors for an explanation. Their response was to blame the editor of journal B for publishing the article without their agreement. From the date of submission to journal B and date of publication in journal A, we knew that the manuscript was under consideration in both journals simultaneously. We were therefore not satisfied with the authors’ response and, as we had the later publication, we proceeded to contact the authors, informing them that we intended to retract their article. In response to this, the authors informed us that the article in journal B had now been retracted, and that they had received an apology from the editor. We have looked into this, and the article in journal B does indeed appear to have been retracted. The retraction notice does not give a reason for the retraction, other than that it was retracted at the request of the authors. Journal B is not a member of COPE.
Regardless of the reason for the duplicate publication, or how it came about, we felt that as we had published second, the onus was on us to retract the article. We are concerned that the authors have chosen which published article to keep in the public domain and have avoided a retraction notice mentioning the duplicate publication. As there is no longer a duplicate publication, there appears to be little we can do. We plan on contacting the authors’ institution, and journal B (to inform them of why retractions are usually published), but we are unsure whether there is any other action we could take and would be grateful for any suggestions.
The Forum agreed this is still a case of duplicate submission and that there has been possible misconduct on the part of the authors. Although there is only one copy of the paper in the literature, the Forum advised the editor to consider publishing an expression of concern to alert readers to this.
The Forum agreed that the editor needs more information and the advice was to contact journal B and ask the editor for his side of the story. It is possible that the authors are blameless. Even if journal B is not at fault, the editor needs to mark the paper in their journal with a clear notice. Readers should be alerted to what has happened and the advice was to have a notice linked to the article to say that this this paper is one of a duplicate submission, and the first article has been retracted.
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.