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.
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.
An article was published in July. In October, a corrigendum was published to correct large sections of unattributed text. Two weeks later the journal and publisher received a complaint from a reader who accused the author of the published article of using text from an unpublished collaborative manuscript on which the published author was participating. This participation on the collaborative work was initiated and ongoing during the time that the manuscript was being prepared for publication at the journal. The unpublished collaborative work has not yet been published.
The reader requested retraction of the published article, with the possibility of a republication only when all collaborators of the unpublished work were in agreement with the article content.
The publisher and journal initiated the procedure outlined in the COPE flowchart 'Suspected plagiarism in a published manuscript'. The editor-in-chief has requested feedback from the published author on the reason for the large overlap in text.
Question(s) for the COPE Forum
• Should the publisher and journal publish an 'expression of concern' while continuing with the investigation? • Is this the correct approach in this situation?
The editor told the Forum that she had checked the articles and the degree of overlap of text was nearly 20%. The Forum warned that percentages can be misleading, and the editor needs to look carefully at where the overlap occurred (in the introduction and methods may be fine, but it can be more problematic in the results or conclusion sections).
The institution(s) may need to be involved in this case.
The Forum would advise against an expression of concern on the article as these are generally used for ongoing unresolved cases. In this case, there is nothing proven or finalised —it may ‘end’ in a correction or a retraction. Hence it may be premature to publish an expression of concern and the editor should wait for a response from the authors. There is also the issue of the negative connotations of an expression of concern and/or stigma for the author, which may be unwarranted
A suggestion was for a less permanent ‘Editor’s note’ on the article for now, written in neutral terms.
The journal’s review of the guidelines on text recycling led to the conclusion that the scientific content was not disputed, and in fact the article adds to the body of knowledge. Also, the text recycling was not in the discussion or conclusions but rather in the methodology. The journal decided not to publish an expression of concern or retract the publication. The editor 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.
Our journal accepted a randomised controlled trial for publication which has not yet been published online. In the submitted paper, the randomised controlled trial is described as commencing in 2004 with completion in 2011. We have received an email and telephone call from an individual not listed as an author or reviewer of the paper with the following alleged disputes: • He was an investigator on the trial between 2004 and 2008. • He analysed the data from this study in 2008 which were published as an MD thesis in 2010 with the institution at which the study was carried out with the trial protocol possibly changed after that time. The results were submitted to a journal but the submission was rejected and was not submitted elsewhere. • He is not listed as an author of the manuscript although his contribution to the study has been acknowledged in it. • The data collected up to 2008 were unblinded for the purpose of then data analysis before the full data up to 2011 were fully analysed. • There is a dispute as to whether some subjects at the time of the assessment of the primary outcome measure should be included in the data analysis.
Steps taken by the journal so far: 1) We have written to the corresponding author of the manuscript to inform him about the receipt of this complaint and the duty to investigate. 2) The publication process for this manuscript has now been suspended pending the outcome of this investigation. 3) We have requested from the complainant the following documents: original trial protocol in 2004 in order to compare it with the registered version; MD thesis published in 2010 in order to compare its results with that reported in the currently submitted manuscript; draft manuscript of the results of the study submitted to the other journal which was submitted in 2010 but rejected for publication for comparison of its results with that reported in the currently submitted manuscript. Next steps 4) We will seek confidential input of peer reviewers to provide their feedback on alleged discrepancies, when additional information is received. 5) If we find that the above discrepancies appear to be valid, we will contact the author of the current submission and ask for clarification of the connection between the two works and a response to any discrepancies found. 6) In light of the above, we will revisit the decision on manuscript acceptance. 7) If we conclude that any confirmed concerns are serious and unfixable through revision of the manuscript, we reserve the right to reject the manuscript. 8) The publisher and its publishing partner will be notified so that its legal department has prior notification of the case.
Question(s) for the COPE Forum • Is the journal taking the right steps? • Is there any further action required? • If the current authors amend the manuscript and authorship appropriately in light of any discrepancies found, we intend to accept the paper. Is this ok? • In the above situation what is our obligation with respect to informing the authors’ institutions?
The Forum was updated that the journal has received the documents requested in step (3) above. The journal did not involve the peer reviewers—the editors reviewed the materials. On reviewing the documents, the editors found discrepancies and have contacted the authors for an explanation.
The Forum cautioned about the editors getting involved in what is essentially an authorship dispute. There may be a limit to what the journal can do. The recommendation was to refer to the institution, in a neutral way.
The Forum discussed the journal policy on trial registration. As the trial began in 2004, technically the authors are not required to prospectively register it. Some journals ask for the full trial protocol (not the one on clinical trials .gov), as it is usually more detailed. The journal may want to consider doing this to avoid a similar situation arising in the future.
One other suggestion was to ask for documentation from the ethics committee that approved the study. The ethics committee should also have evidence of any protocol changes. If there are any discrepancies, these can also be brought to the attention of the institution.
A university institutional review board (IRB) investigation found that there was extensive data fabrication in connection with a clinical research study. Three articles and one abstract reporting results from this clinical study were published. Our journal published the abstract, which we intend to retract. The three articles have been retracted by the journals that published those articles.
Given the serious and extensive nature of the data fabrication, and the fact that the research involved infants, a very vulnerable group of subjects, we are very concerned about the fact that several other articles by this author have been published in our journal. Although the research reported in these articles was not within the scope of the university IRB investigation, the research was conducted at that institution and by the same individual. We feel we have a responsibility to alert the readers of these articles to the findings of the IRB report.
Question(s) for the COPE Forum • Is there justification to publish an expression of concern about articles that report research not specifically reviewed in the IRB investigation?
The Forum advised against making a unilateral decision to publish an expression if there is no concrete evidence or proof of misconduct related directly to these papers. This could have huge implications for the editor and the journal.
Is the institution conducting an investigation at present? If the editor has concerns about these papers, then he should contact the institution or the review board who initiated the original investigation and inform them that there are concerns with these papers and ask them to investigate. It would be premature to post an expression of concern without first contacting the institution. Also, if there is no ongoing investigation, it would be inappropriate for the journal to publish an expression of concern.
The editor should also consider the fact that there may be innocent co-authors.
One suggestion was for the journal to consider conducting their own investigation and getting a review board to look at all of the author’s work.
The majority of the Forum agreed that going back to the institution and asking for an investigation was worthwhile; if the institution agrees, then the editor can publish an expression of concern.
An author submitted a redundant publication to one of our journals. After reviewing the report from the anti-plagiarism software, we followed the COPE flowchart up to and including contacting the author's institution. We have not received a response from the author or the author's institution. Shortly afterwards, the same author submitted a (different) redundant publication to one of our other journals. We followed the same steps and have not received a response.
The institution listed in the author's submission form is not an academic one. We cannot find the author on the staff list and the only email address the author has provided is a Gmail account.
Question(s) for the COPE Forum • What additional steps can/should we should take if the author/institution is unresponsive?
The editor provided additional information to the Forum that the two submissions contained plagiarised material and were replications of two already published articles. The editor has written to the author and the institution but has received no response.
In such cases the Forum would normally advise approaching a higher authority than the institution if that is possible. Is there a professional body that the author belongs to or a funder that could be contacted? In the UK, for example, you might contact the General Medical Council (GMC) if the author was a registered doctor.
However, the Forum acknowledged that there is only so much the editor can do, and it may be the case that the editor has to accept that there is nothing more he can do. The Forum advised making all the journal editors aware of this person in case future submissions are received but advised against blacklisting, especially if the true identity of the author is in doubt.
The editor attempted to contact the author/institution again but to no avail. Both papers were rejected (and the journal’s concerns about the high level of textual overlap were included in that letter, following COPE sample letters). The journal considers the case closed.
Recently, our journal has introduced systematic analysis of all submitted manuscripts for plagiarised text, using anti-plagiarism software. We had noticed increased incidences of recycling of existing text which is why we introduced the systematic check. It turns out that a large proportion of the submitted manuscripts (an estimated 30–50%) yield positive results, with copy values of somewhere in the region of 25% to >35%. These are substantial values and certainly beyond fortuitous incidences.
However, in almost all cases it is difficult to suspect acts of conscious (self)plagiarism as the copied text (ranging from single sentences or fragments of sentences to passages of 2–3 sentences) can be attributed to a very large number of sources: often more than 60, and in one case 129 different sources. It looks as if copying text containing what is perceived as elegant expressions has become a means of improving lack of language skills.
In principle, there is no issue of scientific fraud or even plagiarism of ideas or concepts to be suspected. But also in principle, a text that consists of one-third of passages that can be attributed to other sources is not satisfactory and is not what we would consider good scientific writing practice. The question is how to deal with these cases that we see in a quickly growing number? It is not fair to authors who produce good science to penalise them for trying to cope with their limited language skills. It is not fair either, to give the advantage of facility to those authors who easily copy from existing work, over those authors who make the conscious effort to avoid such doubtful practice.
Presently, when significant proportions of text have been copied from a large number of sources (as mentioned above), I do not take this into account when making a decision based on the science of the paper but inform the authors that we consider this a doubtful practice that should be avoided in future manuscripts.
Question(s) for the COPE Forum • What kind of coherent policy should the journal have on this issue? • Have any COPE members had experience with similar situations?
The Forum advised that any policy or process should be based on the context of the content. Choosing a particular benchmark or cut-off for anti-plagiarism software is unreliable, and the a granular reading of the text is often needed to understand the level of copied text. Clearly duplication is more worrying in the results section of a paper compared with the introduction or materials and methods. If large sections of text are duplicated in the discussion/conclusions section of a paper, that would raise concerns.
In terms of technical issues related to the anti-plagiarism software, it is advisable to remove stock phases before running the software. The editor may wish to decide on what size of strings of words to exclude.
The Forum suggested that the editor’s current policy seems very reasonable. In addition, a suggestion was to look carefully at attribution. If large sections of consecutive sentences are not attributed, that could be problematic and the editor may wish to ask the author for an explanation. It is more serious when the words and ideas an author has reproduced are not their own.
The Forum also advised considering the type of paper—in a research paper, the editor may feel that borrowed phases can be overlooked, but this may be unacceptable in a review paper if the author is purporting the presentation of novel ideas.
Regarding a process, the Forum suggested the editor may want to clearly state the journal policy in the instructions to authors, to head off similar cases in the future. The editor should continue to check all submitted manuscripts for plagiarism and duplicated text using anti-plagiarism software; reject those with moderate/major overlap of text; if malicious intent is suspected, contact the author’s institution; if the authors are junior researchers, consider asking them to rewrite passages and re-submit.
There is a role for the institution in these cases as they govern the behaviour of their researchers. Institutions need to investigate any such cases, and educate and support those who are unaware of good practice. Hence the editor should contact the institution if he suspects misconduct or if he believes that good publication practices need to be reinforced. This is especially true if the editor sees patterns emerging within particular institutions or countries; it is up to the institution to investigate these practices. Collective awareness raising of the issue is needed among authors and institutions.
The editor believes the case is closed although he remarks that unfortunately the phenomenon has not gone away and new examples crop up almost every day.
We received an article which was accepted and published after an uneventful peer review process. The article was apparently written by seven authors from two universities. As part of our routine processes, all co-authors were alerted to a submission via the email addresses provided by the submitting author.
Some time after the article had been published, we received an email from the corresponding author (author B) to say that the paper had been submitted without his, or his co-authors, knowledge or permission. Author B says that the work reported is a result of a collaborative study between the authors listed on the paper, but that they had not yet agreed to prepare the reported work for publication. Author B claims that the first author of the article (author A) submitted the article to our journal under author B’s name using a fake email account.
Author A has written to us independently to say that they submitted the article in the name of author B using a fake email account and signed the Licence to Publish in the name of author B without the consent or knowledge of author B. Author A and author B have requested that the published article be withdrawn. Author B claims that there are mistakes in the article and that the co-authors disagree with some of the viewpoints in the article.
The editor plans to investigate, if necessary with support from the universities, to establish whether the published article is scientifically flawed, and is reviewing what the appropriate action should be to address the authorship situation described.
Question(s) for the COPE Forum • If the article is scientifically sound, and therefore does not warrant retraction to protect the accuracy of the scientific record, what action should the editor take to address the claims made by author B regarding author A’s actions?
The Forum suggested this was a copyright issue. Copyright normally resides with the publisher, but if the publisher has not received permission from the authors then the publisher does not have a license to publish, and the paper must be removed from the website. This is also a case of serious deception. In addition, there may be data protection issues on the basis of the accuracy of the data as the author names are listed on the paper without their consent. The Forum suggested the journal may wish to seek legal advice.
One suggestion was to retract the paper, and re-publish if the licensing issues are resolved. The majority of the Forum were in agreement that the paper should not be hosted by the publisher any longer in its current state. The paper should be removed and a note put in its place with an explanation of the events. The institution then needs to take the lead on this matter. It is the responsibility of the institution to investigate the misconduct issue. The note on the website should remain until the outcome of the investigation by the institution.
Following discussion at the Forum, the editor sought legal advice from the publisher and contacted the institution concerned to request an investigation. The editor has now received a formal response from the institution which stated that the institution had directed author B to consult with the co-authors listed to clarify the authorship of the article concerned and provide an updated licence to publish to the journal. The journal is currently waiting on correspondence from author B regarding these matters.
Follow up (May 2016) The Editor has now received an updated licence to publish, and the author group have reached an agreement on the correct authorship for the article concerned. The journal will publish a correction notice to update the authorship and now considers the matter closed.
In November 2014, the first author of a decade old paper in our journal and a 15-year-old paper from another journal informed us that he faked the data in two figure panels in the paper in our journal and one figure panel in the paper in the other journal. The main gist of the manipulation was loading unequal amounts or delayed loading of gel lanes.
Self-admission of data falsification is a serious charge that is difficult to disprove, and we felt a challenge to identify evidence to counter or support this type of allegation. As general guidelines, we felt there were three types of evidence that could help resolve the standoff: (1) compelling original raw data with evidence for or against unequal or delayed gel loading; (2) verified replication already existing within the published literature; and (3) as a last resort, a replication study performed by a wholly independent laboratory.
In December 2014, we asked the first author to contact the corresponding author of both papers and the institute, but he refused. We informed the first author that we would inform the corresponding author of the papers and this might result in violating his confidentiality. In January 2015, we informed the corresponding author that we had received self-admission of fraud from the first author and asked the corresponding author to retrieve original raw data for the figures in question and provide them to us. We also urged the corresponding author to engage the institute ethics committee and get in touch with the first author in gaining a deeper understanding of the challenges.
In February 2015, we spoke with the corresponding author by telephone. The corresponding author did not believe that the first author had faked the data. We discussed potential ways to counter a compelling self-admission and agreed that the corresponding author would provide us with the raw data by the end of March 2015 and would inform his institute.
In March 2015, we were contacted by his institute. On request, we provided the contact information of the first author to the institute’s investigation committee after obtaining permission from the first author. The corresponding author told us that he has located all of the raw data. In contrast with what we agreed by telephone, he told us that he would not be sending us the raw data directly but would pass them to the committee. The first author provided both us and the committee with data that he said was contemporaneously produced and showed a different result from what was published, that he said was without manipulation with gel loading and showed no experimental effect.
In April 2015, we asked the committee to share their investigation results with us and also asked the corresponding author to provide the copy of the raw data to us. But the corresponding author and committee refused to share any useful information with us. The committee told us by email that they have an obligation to protect the corresponding author’s reputation.
In May 2015, we spoke with the research integrity officials of the institute by telephone and they agreed to share more information with us. In early June 2015, we received a summary but not the full version of the committee report, which cites that no further action is warranted because the evidence they gathered can neither support nor refute the first author’s self-admission. We were not provided with any of the original data. The summary report included information such as promotion schedules of both the first and corresponding authors, but these seemed irrelevant to us. We felt it essential that we have access to the full scientific information on which the committee based its recommendation.
In late June 2015, the institute shared with us the full report of their investigation. We were able to understand from this that their conclusion that no further action is warranted was based on the fact that there was no recorded falsification in the laboratory notebook. We feel this reason is not sufficient to counter self-admission of fraud as someone who intentionally fakes data would not likely record it in their laboratory notebook. We therefore were unsatisfied with recommendation to take no further action.
In July 2015, we interviewed the first author via Skype and asked him to describe again how he generated the data and how he intentionally manipulated the data to fake the results. What he described over Skype was consistent with what he has described to us in previous correspondences.
In July 2015, we also spoke with an institute senior official and explained again that only contemporaneous data collected by the first author, contemporaneous data collected by other members of the laboratory, or direct replication of the data by an independent laboratory reported in the published literature would be necessary to counter the first author’s self-admission of fraud. Since none of these avenues turned up evidence to counter the self-admission, we suggested that the experiments in question could be independently repeated by a third party or the paper will need to be retracted.
In August 2015, the corresponding author agreed to proceed to have the data in question independently repeated by a third party. We are now instructing the corresponding author to reach out to a laboratory to start repeating the experiments. While he agreed in principle, the corresponding author is dragging his feet and we are uncomfortable sitting on a serious allegation and eager to move forward with a resolution in a timely and responsible manner.
Question(s) for the COPE Forum • What are COPE's recommended procedures for handling self-admissions of fraud? • What is the journal’s responsibility when one author self proclaims fraud and another author says no fraud occurred? • What is the responsibility of the journal if the journal thinks an institutional investigation was not evidence based.
The Forum noted that this was a very unusual case, both fascinating and alarming. At its heart it would appear to an authorship dispute, and the journal was correct in involving the institution. The Forum suggested contacting all of the authors and asking for their input. It would seem that the only clear way of resolving the issue is to replicate the study and try to reproduce the results.
The Forum questioned why it has taken the corresponding author 10 years to contact the journal, as it would seem to be professional suicide. The Japanese government has recently issued guidelines to institutions to clean up their act following the Japanese stem cell scandal—could this be a factor?
The Forum acknowledged that the journal has handled this correctly by taking the allegations seriously. The Forum suggested publishing an expression of concern. The expression of concern should be worded in a neutral manner without apportioning blame or accusing the author. This also may prompt the corresponding author into action.
The Forum suggested continuing to work with the corresponding author to replicate the study. The only way to resolve this completely is to try to replicate the study, and it is in the interests of the corresponding author if he wishes to stand by his allegations. The journal does have a responsibility to pursue an independent investigation if the journal thinks the institutional investigation was not evidence based. The journal should give the corresponding author a time limit, after which the journal should review the situation and either amend the expression of concern or retract the paper.
The journal has published an expression of concern and will keep readers updated when the results of the investigation are available.
Follow up (October 2016):
The journal has now published two editorial expressions of concern and followed up with two editorial notes, explaining that the results of the independent investigations were inconclusive. The editor considers the case closed.