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 Article B was retracted, with the abstract being removed and a retraction notice posted.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.
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 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”.
The associate editor of journal X identified author Y on a submission paper as someone who had lost their license to practice due to malpractice. As part of the settlement, author Y had agreed to refrain from providing services to patients. Author Y now resides on a different continent, and the study presented in the submission was apparently carried out in in this continent. There is no mention in the conflict of interest statement regarding the loss of license.
The role of author Y in the paper is not clear. The editor was planning to ask this after peer review was completed.
Question(s) for the COPE Forum • Should loss of a licence to practice in one country be declared as part of a conflict of interest statement? • Does loss of licence to practice in one country impact a researcher’s ability to carry out clinical research in other countries? • Should the loss of license have been declared to the ethics committee that approved the study?
The Forum questioned the role of the author in this paper—how involved was the author in this study? The Forum suggested that the editor needs to establish this first. The editor can ask for a contributorship statement from the authors, detailing the contribution of each author to the study and paper. Malpractice can be for very specific areas and if this study is in an unrelated field, it may not impact on this paper.
The Forum agreed that the author should have declared his loss of license to the ethics committee that approved the study. This issue should have been raised at this level initially. The journal could consider contacting the ethics committee to see if this happened.
A commentary was reviewed by journal A and rejected. The paper was then submitted and accepted at journal B. Journal B published the commentary. After publication, a reviewer from journal A wrote to journal B with a complaint of plagiarism. Text from his/her review was used in the commentary published in journal B
Question(s) for the COPE Forum • How should the editor of journal B respond to this reviewer? • Is it plagiarism to pull text from a peer review into a manuscript? How should this be cited or credited when the reviewer is blind to the author? • The editor of journal B has often used suggestions from reviewers and not thought of it as plagiarism but rather suggestions from the reviewer to improve the manuscript. Is this correct?
This case raises the issue of who own’s peer reviews. Does the reviewer have copyright on their own report? The Forum agreed the intent is for reviewers to provide advice to authors, and this is given in good faith to improve the manuscript, regardless of where it is eventually published. It seems a little unreasonable for the reviewer to be so possessive of his comments. On the other hand, good practice would be for the author to acknowledge the work of the reviewer.
The Forum commented that there appears to be a certain amount of laziness on the part of the author in copying verbatim the text from the reviewer. The comments from the reviewer should be attributed. Hence a suggestion was to publish a correction or erratum to attribute the idea and wording to the reviewer. The editor should ensure the reviewer is happy to be named or it could be done anonymously.
Ultimately, it is up to the editor to decide on the context of the plagiarised text (in this case one line of text) and whether an erratum is needed.
The journal felt that an erratum was not necessary in this case, since the comments used from the reviewer were only one line of text. Both the reviewer and the author were contacted and made aware of the decision. The journal considers the case closed.
A journal received an enquiry from a reader stating that they had found some discrepancies in the spectra published in the electronic supporting information for a published paper. They suggested that the discrepancies would be consistent with the spectra being manually ‘cleaned’. If this were true, the characterisation and purity of the compounds reported in the paper would be called into question.
The editor checked the spectra in close detail and verified that the discrepancies that the reader had identified were a reasonable cause for concern. The editor also checked the author’s related papers in the journal and identified a total of four papers that were affected by similar discrepancies in the spectra. When the editor contacted the lead author to discuss the concerns, they explained that ‘cleaning’ spectra to remove impurity peaks was not a practice that was carried out by their research group, and they did not believe that it had occurred in this instance. However, the researcher who had carried out the analysis had now left the group and the original data files where no longer available.
As a comparison with the original data files could not be made, the journal approached an independent expert to obtain a second opinion on the evidence available in the published spectra. The expert confirmed that there was clear evidence that the spectra had been altered and that this could be consistent with an attempt to overestimate the yields for the reported reactions.
Following this, the journal contacted the director of the institute to request their assistance in determining whether the spectra had in fact been altered. The director consulted with the lead author and the head of their facility. They confirmed that it was not possible to locate the original data due to a limitation of their archival system. They stated that their internal review had not found any ‘intentional altering of the spectra’. They stated that on that basis, the papers should not be suspected and should be allowed to stand.
This recommendation runs contrary to the evidence that we believe can be seen in the spectra, but in the absence of the original data files it is difficult to make a conclusive judgement.
Question(s) for the COPE Forum • What action should the editor now take to resolve this matter? The journal is considering two options: —accept the research institute’s recommendation that without evidence to prove deliberate manipulation of the data no further action should be taken. —publish an expression of concern notice on each of the affected articles stating that discrepancies in the spectra were identified, the institute was asked to investigate, but that the original data were not available and they found no evidence of deliberate manipulation of the spectra.
The Forum acknowledged it is difficult for the editor to decide on whether to accept the institution’s conclusions on the case or if in fact the journal should do more and work on their own investigation, involving the editorial board and/or their independent expert.
The Forum questioned the type of investigation the institution carried out. If it was a thorough research misconduct investigation, the journal should be able to rely on the results of that investigation as this usually involves multiple levels of investigation, an enquiry, with a faculty board reviewing all of the data that are then made available to the journal. However, if the journal received a relatively rapid response from the institution, then perhaps the internal review is not very reliable.
The Forum asked if the journal had a data availability policy—does the journal require the data from a study to be made available on request? The real issue is why the original data were not available. The lack of the original data is a serious concern. The minimum requirement of an institution is to curate and preserve the data, and it would be expected that any reputable institution would normally comply with data being available for a period of time after the end of the research (usually about 5 years). Hence this a failure of the institution. This alone could be grounds to retract the paper or publish an Expression of Concern.
If the editor is confident that there is a problem with the paper, and confident in the advice of their experts, then the journal should consider publishing an Expression of Concern, detailing the facts of the case, and pointing out the discrepancies between the findings of the institution and what the editor believes.
If the journal has a post-publication comments section, another suggestion was to encourage the reader to post their concerns, giving the authors a chance to respond as well as allowing more participation from readers. This would also allow for more transparency of the issue.
The journal followed-up with the institute to outline their concerns and explain that the journal would like to publish an Expression of Concern linked to each of the affected articles. The institute was supportive of that approach and so the journal is now following-up accordingly to issue the notices.