In March 2000 author A submitted a research letter to journal X, on behalf of a national screening programme. He also submitted a commissioned editorial to journal Y, relating to the same subject. At the same time, author A sent copies of both articles to B, a recognised authority on the subject. He made it clear that they were confidential and in press and asked for some information on a test used by B which he could include in the editorial. He also suggested to B that he might wish to respond to the research letter if it were accepted. B did not reply, however, but at the end of March he submitted a paper to journal Z. This paper compared the screening programme run by B, with the suggested screening programmed detailed in the unpublished research letter by author A, and concluded that the former was greatly superior. The editor of journal Z in all innocence sent B’s paper to author A for review. Author A wasn’t too impressed by the paper. He was much less impressed by B taking an opportunity to write a paper specifically involving confidential material that he, A, had shown him. He was also concerned about B knowing he was the reviewer as he had only recently persuaded B to join him in a joint grant proposal and he did not want it prejudiced by bad feeling between the two of them. Perhaps it is not necessary to add that the arguments are all to do with which particular screening programme might be accepted by the NHS. Not only prestige but also possibly income from a patented testing tool may be involved. Should the editor accept A’s view that B’s paper is poor, or should he send it to another reviewer? Does it matter, since the ethical issue means that B’s paper would be unacceptable even if a new reviewer liked it? How should the editor deal with B, in pointing out the ethical issue, bearing in mind the delicacy of the situation?
_ B’s paper should be ruled out unless a satisfactory explanation was received. _ There was a problem of timing, particularly as there was a patent pending. _ Paper B had been submitted as a commentary but was written up more as a paper. A commentary would have been acceptable if paper A had been published. _ It was suggested the editor ascertain what had happened to paper A, and if published, he should find out exactly when, because this will determine the timelines.
The Journal X paper was published in December, the Journal Z paper was rejected on its lack of merit. Author A requested that the matter not be made public as he was collaborating with author B on a research grant proposal. And he thought this might be jeopardised by a disclosure from Journal Z. The request was respected.
After a randomised controlled trial from a single author had been published, a letter was received in which the correspondent suggested that the original trial might be fraudulent. Firstly, the writer claimed that it was highly unlikely that just one author could perform a prospective, randomised, double blind, placebo controlled trial, especially in a small district hospital. The correspondent was also worried that there was no mention of other standard treatments. Advice was sought from a statistician and a gastroenterologist, both of whom raised serious doubts about the paper. The editor asked the chief executive of the hospital to investigate. Initially, the medical director of the hospital wrote to say that it would be impossible for them to investigate unless the journal was willing to pay for the investigation. The editor replied, saying that he thought this absurd, on the grounds that if someone makes a serious complaint to the police, they don’t expect to be asked to pay for an investigation. The medical director eventually agreed with this and arranged for an experienced and independent researcher to examine the case. It emerged that the author had already been suspended for clinical reasons and that a university professor had been asked to look at the research when it was first published. An experienced statistician, he found no serious problems. Nor did the independent researcher find any serious problems. No further action has therefore been taken, but are there any conclusions to be drawn?
An attempt should be made to find who else had worked on the paper. A sole author rarely does all of the work, but yet has complete intellectual ownership of the data, although it is not impossible to be a single author.
This is a good example of why lists of contributors should be published, but this will not be pursued further in this case.
A case report was received and the corresponding author was duly notified. The corresponding (and senior author) immediately faxed back, asking who had submitted the case report as he had not been consulted and had not seen the manuscript.The submission letter contained the names of all four authors; three of the signatures had been made using the same pen and probably the same hand.The signature of the senior and corresponding author was clearly “pp”. The editor responded, pointing out the misconduct and received a prompt written response from the senior author agreeing that this was not the way to proceed. The senior author did not feel that the matter should be taken further other than through a formal letter from the editor to the author who had misdemeaned. What should the editor do?
The editor was advised to contact all the authors for an explanation.
The editor and the senior author wrote a disciplinary letter to the offending author, but no sanctions were applied.
The co-author of a paper has contacted us about a paper he published 5 years ago together with a researcher who has now been convicted of serious professional misconduct by the GMC for research misconduct.
The co-author is worried that the paper he co-authored may also be fraudulent.
The research was in two parts. The first was analysed by a doctor not convicted of research misconduct but the convicted doctor was responsible for the interviews and original data collection. The co-author has no doubt that this part of the project was carried out properly. The second part involved a follow-up telephone questionnaire, which was undertaken by the convicted doctor without prior knowledge of the co-author. The co-author has seen no questionnaire answer sheets to provide him with any evidence that the telephone interviews took place. The original data cannot now be found, but this may not indicate much as there have been many reorganisations of the institution concerned. The convicted doctor did provide a list of individuals he said he had called, and the co-author who has written to us undertook a follow-up feasibility survey to see how many patients recalled the telephone interview. Nobody did. Should we retract the article?
COPE advised the editor to retract the article.
The editor retracted the article with a statement, which attracted a write-up in the NewYork Times.
This case was described to me by an author who is about to submit a paper. He has discovered that a member of his team has produced a lot of fraudulent data for other studies, and has forged consent from ethics committees. This researcher has been reported to the GMC and his case is pending. The problem with the paper about to be submitted to us is that the fraudulent researcher falsely claimed that he had gained consent from three ethics committees for patients to be x-rayed. The author has gone back to the three committees and they have all agreed to give approval after the event. Their judgement is that it would be unethical to suppress these useful data because of the consent problem. The author came to see me to ask whether we would be worried about publishing this paper. I said that I thought it would be acceptable to publish the paper, but that we should be explicit about the problems surrounding it. Does the committee agree?
COPE agreed, on the proviso that the data collection and analysis did not go through the fraudster’s hands. The author of the fraudulent data has now been struck off the medical register because of the fraud and forgery. The editor is sure that the fraudster did not collect the data. Several members of COPE said that they would not publish the paper. The editor should be advised to get further assurance regarding the data and then publish the paper with a commentary explaining the history.
The paper was published, along with an explanation of its history.