An original paper was submitted to our journal. After peer review, the authors were requested to revise the paper, and the revision was submitted back to the journal. Our manuscript editor accepted the paper.
The paper was scheduled for publication 3 months later after copyediting was completed. We informed the corresponding author about acceptance of the paper and sent them the typeset article for proof reading.
The corresponding author contacted us stating that they wished to withdraw their submission, two weeks after we sent their paper for proof reading. As the chief editor, I immediately sent a message to the corresponding author and requested an explanation. The articles have been edited by one format editor, three peer reviewers, one manuscript editor, one copy editor, and finally typeset by our printer. We do not charge any article processing fees.
Question(s) for the COPE Forum
Significant resources have been provided to modify and improve the paper. Should we accept the withdrawal?
Is there anything else we should do if the authors do not respond to our request for an explanation?
The Forum noted that editors have no control over whether authors withdraw a paper even if significant work towards publication has already been done. The Forum questioned why the authors did not receive notification that their paper had been accepted before copyediting began. Were all the authors notified of this decision? Did they assign copyright, or did they agree to publication?
The Forum recommended that journal processes should be in place to preclude these situations. The editor should re-evaluate the journal’s internal editorial processes. Is there a possibility that the authors discovered a critical error and decided they could not publish the paper? The editor could consider communicating with the authors to determine if something in their process caused them to withdraw their paper. The editor would not want to publish an article if the author wants to withdraw it.
The editor has no choice but to accept the author’s decision. The Forum recommended that the journal should review their internal processes to make sure expectations are clear in their communications with authors and revise where needed. COPE’s journal auditing tool (https://publicationethics.org/news/new-cope-audit) might be helpful to the editor in that process.
A single author submitted a paper to our journal. A similarity check revealed 48% similarity with another published paper. The published paper was by different authors—5 in total. The similarities between the papers were in the introduction, methods and discussion sections. The submitting author did not reference the published article.
We queried the corresponding author but have not received a response.
Question(s) for the COPE Forum
• What shall we do given this circumstance?
• Should we withdraw/reject the article and embargo the author.
• Should we contact the author’s institute without receiving any clarifications from the author?
• How long should we wait for a response from the author before reporting to the institute?
The Forum would advise contacting the author one more time, and specifically stating that if no response is received within a given time frame, then the editor will contact the author’s institution and ask them to investigate. The editor should be very clear about the date by which a response is expected. That may provide the motivation for the author to respond.
The Forum asked what is the percentage similarity that should raise concerns? This varies widely—by discipline, even by editors within the same discipline. The similarity index needs to be reviewed carefully, and experienced editors will look at all aspects of the article and the sources when deciding if there is significant overlap. Is there a minimum cut-off score below which there is no need to check for plagiarism? One study found a cut-off value of 15% to be useful (https://researchintegrityjournal.biomedcentral.com/articles/10.1186/s410...).
If the editor believes that there was no malicious intent on the part of the authors, an educational approach may be appropriate—for example, if the authors are junior researchers. The editors could explain what is expected of authors in terms of attribution of text, and best practice in this area. However, the editor may not be in a position to know the intent of the authors and this would be better addressed by the institution.
The journal cannot proceed moving this article forward until some of these questions are answered. COPE would never advise banning authors because of the legal implications.
An author submitted two manuscripts to our journal and the data were clearly fabricated, which was confirmed when we examined the original patient data files. The lead author admitted that they had only recruited a few patients and fabricated all of the remaining data and said that the co-authors had done this without their knowledge.
We reported this to the institution, who conducted an investigation. However, this investigation exonerated the lead author from misconduct, who went on to publish one of these manuscripts elsewhere and is still publishing suspicious manuscripts in other journals.
Question(s) for the COPE Forum • Should other journals be warned about this case so that they can take a view about further submissions? • Should anyone else be informed about this case?
The Forum suggested it may be appropriate to contact the journal who published the similar paper because the editor has specific information relating to that particular article, but a general communication about dissatisfaction with an author is not advisable. The Forum advised the editor to proceed with caution.
We recently received a pre-submission inquiry from an author, who identified as being fairly inexperienced with writing papers. At first glance it was a fairly standard pre-submission inquiry. The author mentioned the titles of two papers they allegedly had wrote and wondered whether we might be potentially interested in them. The author added that they had a colleague who would also be potentially interesting in submitting papers to our journal and wondered whether we might be interested in publishing 1–2 articles in each issue of the journal.
The author also asked for a swift peer review process and even for me to help with making the revisions to the paper in order to enhance the chances of publication. Finally, the author concluded by saying they would pay me $1100 US dollars to thank me for ultimately accepting the papers.
This is the first time in all my years of editing that I have come across a clear bribe attempt. My main concern is whether I can/should report this situation (and if so, how and to whom) even though the author did not provide any information apart from the name of the affiliations and institution.
Question(s) for the COPE Forum • What can/should I do considering I do not have information on the affiliation or workplace of the author? • Should we respond to these emails or just ignore?
The journal should also ensure that all of the editors of the journal are aware of this issue and the journal’s position that this behaviour is totally unacceptable. Another option is to write an editorial in the journal, raising awareness of the issue.
A common issue encountered by editors is overlap of text with an author’s own previously published work, particularly with the increasing use of plagiarism detection software. This practice is known as ‘text recycling’ (also sometimes referred to as ‘self-plagiarism’). Opinions on the acceptability of text recycling vary greatly and it can be a challenge for editors to know how to deal with it once it has been identified.
We are a publisher with a portfolio of about 25 journals, with journal X being the flagship journal. Journal X has a high impact factor. We also publish a range of other, newer journals, some of which are ranked highly but most have no impact factor.
An author submitted a manuscript to journal Y where it underwent peer review and was accepted after revisions. After acceptance, the author contacted the editor saying that he had made a mistake and wished to have the paper considered by journal X instead, because it has an impact factor, and stated that if the editor would not publish the article in journal X, the consensus of all authors is to withdraw the paper from journal Y in order to submit it to a journal with an impact factor. The editor informed the author that the paper was not suitable for journal X and that his behaviour was unethical: withdrawal after acceptance violates scientific community norms, as it wastes editorial and peer reviewer resources, in particular if there are no scientific reasons to do so.
The editor wrote to the authors stating that if they insist on a withdrawal at this stage there would be three sanctions: 1) they would be blacklisted (ie, none of the publisher’s journals would consider future submissions from any of the authors, 2) the journal would write a letter to the superiors of the authors outlining the case and 3) they would still be responsible for the Article Processing Charge which is payable on acceptance; ours is an open access journal, with the fee schedule clearly disclosed and agreed upon by the submitting author (the fee schedule specifies that if the paper is withdrawn after acceptance it is still payable and will not be refunded).
The author continues to say that they made a mistake—they thought that journal Y was a section within journal X (in reality the submission form clearly allows the author to pick a journal from a dropdown list and the submission acknowledgement email also contains the name of the journal, as does all subsequent communications). On submission, the author checked a box where he agreed on a possible transfer of the paper within the publisher family.
The author pleads that “The kinds of journals that my PhD student publishes in potentially affects his graduation prospects” and that publication in journal Y “could have terrible repercussions for a very promising PhD student”, as well as “going to negatively affect my prospects [for promotion and tenure]”. The editor is not impressed by these arguments as they illustrate a misuse of the impact factor, and PhD students should be taught to respect the journal submission and peer review/publication process and not taught that it is acceptable to waste editorial resources in order to play impact factor games.
Question(s) for the COPE Forum
• What does the Forum think about the ethics of withdrawing a paper during or after peer review in order to publish in a higher impact factor journal?
• If the Forum agrees with the assessment that the authors acted in an unethical fashion, are the sanctions proposed by the editor in this case reasonable?
• Is there anything else that should be done?
The Forum agreed that this was not good behaviour on the part of the author, but COPE would always advocate a more educational rather than a punitive approach. COPE guidance also advises against blacklisting authors.
Although it seems that the authors’ behaviour was intentional, it is the authors’ prerogative to withdraw a paper at any point before it is published. While the Forum agreed that such behaviour is deplorable and a waste of editorial resources, the advice was to communicate this message clearly to the authors but not necessarily to directly punish them. This is especially applicable to more junior authors.
A suggestion was to write an editorial on this issue in general, explaining why it is not good practice.
Another suggestion was to review the journal submission system and consider outside user testing to make sure there is no confusion for authors regarding submission to different journals in the publisher portfolio. The Forum also noted that it is unusual to charge an author if they withdraw a paper that is not published and hence the editor may wish to reconsider this decision.
Despite communication with the authors that their behaviour was "not good" and in fact "deplorable" (citing the COPE Forum), and despite communication from the dean of the university that the authors’ behaviour is based on a gross misunderstanding on how the university evaluates the value of a publication (which is not based on the impact factor), the authors still insisted on withdrawing their manuscript.
The journal and publisher refrained from any further sanctions, such as blacklisting authors or charging the Article Processing Fee for a peer-reviewed and accepted (but not published) manuscript. The publisher has also discontinued its use of any formal blacklist.
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:
The tragic suicide of Yoshiki Sasai, one of the authors of the retracted STAP stem-cell paper (discussed in the Letter from the Chair in the August 2014 edition of COPE Digest), highlights the fact that, above all, the communication of research is about people and about trust. Some researchers are seemingly able to bounce back from a finding of serious research misconduct. For example, Hwang Woo-suk was last year granted a patent related to stemcells. However, for other researchers in such a situation it is the end of their careers.
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.