Approximately 1 year after publication of an article, we received a letter from one of the authors saying that they had not seen the reviews of the paper, the revisions of the paper or approved the final manuscript for publication. This was subsequently confirmed by the other authors who said that contact with the complainant had “broken down” and that the corresponding author had indicated that all named authors had given their approval for publication (then current journal practice) but in truth had not explicitly sought the approval of the complainant. An additional relevant fact is that one of the authors was editor-in-chief of the journal at the time the paper was processed. The complainant did not wish the paper to be withdrawn but wanted the opportunity to publish a correction or addendum following sight of the reviewers’ comments.
We understand that this matter has also been taken up by the employing institution of the co-authors (at which the complainant was previously an employee but has since left) but do not yet know of any outcome.
At the time, journal policy was for the corresponding author to sign an exclusive license form that stated “You hereby warrant that in the case of a multi-authored article you have obtained, in writing, authorisation to enter into this agreement on their behalf and that all co-authors have read and agreed the terms of this agreement”.
Following correspondence between the various parties the journal took the following actions:
1. Changed journal policy so that all authors sign an authorship declaration form, asserting that they meet the criteria for authorship (as outlined in the first half of the form) and that they have read and approved the final version of the manuscript for publication to avoid this situation arising in future.
We are now proposing to do the following:
2. Offer the complainant sight of the reviewers’ comments and the opportunity to publish an addendum or comment if they have points additional to those made in the paper.
3. Publish an apology by the authors for knowingly proceeding with publication without approval of the complainant. This apology explicitly acknowledges the role of the former editor-in-chief, as follows:
“The co-authors accept that these mechanisms were not adhered to in this case. The authors apologise to the complainant for not following journal procedures and publication best practice in the way that they submitted and subsequently handled this manuscript as it underwent the journal review process and upon its eventual acceptance. Furthermore, when this paper was processed one of the co-authors was editor-in-chief of the journal and apologises for knowingly departing from the journal procedures for which he was at the time responsible.”
The journal would like advice on whether our proposed response to this situation has been satisfactory. We assume that matters relating to professional conduct will be within the remit of the investigation by the employing institution of the co-authors.
The Forum were reassured that the paper had been dealt with blindly, and so there was no issue of misconduct on the part of the editor-in-chief. The Forum suggested that for online submissions, the editor should ensure that the email addresses of all authors are recorded. Some journals, including the BMJ, copy in all authors when contacting the corresponding author. Other suggestions were to ask all of the authors to sign the copyright form. This is usually done by the publishers and can be another assurance that all authors have seen the final version of the paper. As the institute is already aware of the situation, there is no point in contacting them. The Forum agreed that publication of the apology would be a sufficient reproach for the editor-in-chief.
After taking legal advice from the publisher’s and the association’s solicitors it was felt that the word “knowingly” might be interpreted as meaning “malicious” and that the following (see below) was more acceptable. This latter version has been agreed with the authors and Prof YYY. The solicitors noted that since it was an apology from the authors and Prof YYY it was important for them to be comfortable with the wording (initially suggested/drafted by me as current EiC). The apology is a personal one from the authors and Prof YYY and not the journal.
“At the time the journal had mechanisms, in particular the Exclusive License Form (ELF) signed by the corresponding author on behalf of all named authors on manuscript acceptance, that were intended to ensure both that scientific integrity is upheld as a manuscript undergoes the peer review process and to protect authors’ intellectual property rights. Dr XXX’s co-authors (AAA, BBB, CCC and DDD) accept that these mechanisms were not adhered to in this case. The authors apologise to Dr XXX for not following journal procedures and publication best practice in the way that they submitted and subsequently handled this manuscript as it underwent the journal review process and upon its eventual acceptance. Furthermore, when this paper was processed, Prof YYY was Editor-in-Chief of the journal. S/he apologises for departing from the journal procedures for which s/he was responsible at that time.”
This is how I dealt with an author who submitted a fabricated manuscript to my journal.
A junior doctor submitted a paper about the use of a drug in a particular condition. Three expert reviewers were sure that the author did not undertake the claimed study, emphasising that the drug was not available in our country (Middle Eastern country) and it had not been registered for clinical use or for use in clinical trials at the time when the paper was submitted. The author also mentioned using tests that were not available in our country at that time.
The author was advised that his paper was excellent and therefore he should publish it in a UK journal. The author took the advice. I contacted the editor of the UK journal and warned him about the author. The UK journal rejected the author’s paper.
This overseas editor was not available by telephone to discuss the case, so the Forum discussed it in his absence.
The general view of the Forum was that they could not support the conduct of the editor. The Forum wished to convey to the editor that his method of dealing with an author suspected of fabrication was not acceptable. If the editor expects authors to tell the truth, then he must set an example. The editor could have placed himself in a very difficult situation. There are clear guidelines in the flowcharts on what to do if you suspect data are fabricated and the editor is advised to follow these processes in the future. The Forum also pointed out that the editor has a role in educating the author on the seriousness of data fabrication and should have considered handling the matter himself rather than passing it on to another journal. The chair of COPE agreed to contact the editor of the UK journal to determine if the issue of data fabrication is being investigated by them.
An editorial board member received a complaint of suspected financial fraud in the working of a particular journal and was presented with limited evidence of the same. The editorial board member was invited by the editor to serve on the board and has just completed his tenure. The fraud has apparently been committed by the editor himself.
Is there any ethical binding on the editorial board member to investigate the so called fraud?
As this is a society journal, the advice was that the complainant should contact the treasurer of the society stating that he has some concerns, without placing any blame on one individual. The treasurer should be presented with the evidence and asked to look into the matter. The committee thought that the word “fraud” should be avoided as it is possible that the financial misconduct may have been unintentional.
An associate editor received a letter claiming harassment (from an author from another country) by the editor. The author submitted a manuscript which was repeatedly sent back for changes in format but not rejected. Eventually, the author withdrew the article and submitted it to another international peer reviewed journal with a good impact factor where it was accepted immediately with high priority. He informed the editor and the associate editor of the irregularity and that he suspects foul play. The associate editor informed the editor that there was indeed a conflict of interest as another similar manuscript from another author close to the editor was under review process but he was asked, verbally, to stay away from the matter. The editor refused to discuss the matter in editorial board meetings and has threatened to have the associate editor sacked.
Does this constitute editor misconduct and, if so, what is the course of action? Is there any ethical binding on the associate editor to have the matter investigated further?
The committee agreed that there the associate editor did have an ethical responsibility to take action but to take the pressure off the associate editor, it was suggested that any member of the editorial board could raise the issue and press for a discussion at the editorial board meeting. The editorial board has an obligation to ask the editor-in-chief for an explanation of his actions. If there is no satisfactory explanation, the next step could be to contact the society committee, as the journal is owned by a society. The associate editor could ask them to investigate the matter. Other advice was that the journal should formulate a specific policy on conflict of interest so that in the future such issues may not arise.
An editor came across a letter from the editor-in-chief of his journal to a reviewer that asserted he had recommended the acceptance of a manuscript. He had in fact recommended the opposite, both verbally and in writing. The paper in question was a guideline on the therapeutic choices for a relatively common medical condition. The authors had claimed their conclusions and therapeutic recommendations were “evidencebased” and recommended a new, expensive medication as first-line treatment. The reviews of the manuscript were mixed. One reviewer made only a few comments and recommended publication. The second reviewer expressed concern about an apparent bias and suspected there had been pharmaceutical company involvement in the writing of the paper. When the manuscript was reviewed at the regular meeting of scientific editors, the editor recommended rejecting the manuscript and this was written down in the manuscript “log.” The editor-in-chief decided to request a third review, this time from a guidelines expert. In the meantime, the principal author had spoken at length with the editor-in-chief. Although the expert reviewer expressed concerns about the manuscript, the editor-in-chief chose to accept the manuscript for publication. In accordance with journal policy, the reviewers were notified that the manuscript had been accepted, prompting the second reviewer to again express concern about bias. The editor-in-chief replied, saying that the editor had recommended publication. Under the previous editor-in-chief, there had been a formal policy with the professional body with which the journal was associated, outlining the journal’s editorial freedom. But after he left this began to change. A memo was sent from the association stipulating that any editorial material published in the journal from the association should have an elected official as the author, even if a researcher on staff or a scientific committee had written it.The editor questioned this policy on the basis that it was at odds with the definition of authorship by the International Committee of Medical Journal Editors (ICMJE).The editor-in-chief ignored these concerns. Shortly thereafter, the association’s CEO announced that no letters should be published in the association’s journal that criticised association policy. The editor-in-chief initially stated to the journal staff that he disagreed with this and requested that any such letters be directed to him. He assured staff that if he thought these letters merited publication, he would discuss them with the CEO. Since then, no letter criticising association policy has been published. When a scientific editor submits an article to his own journal, the policy was that another scientific editor would handle the manuscript; likewise, the fate of the manuscript would be made known to the author/editor in a confidential manner. The editor had co-authored a manuscript with another researcher and had submitted it to the journal for consideration. Several months later, in a meeting of copy editors and publication staff to discuss the placement of accepted manuscripts, the editor-in-chief announced that the reviewers had recommended rejection. He had not informed the editor beforehand. In actual fact, none of the original reviewers had recommended rejecting the paper. Manuscripts that had not been accepted were not usually discussed at these meetings and such behaviour contravened the ICMJE recommendations. The editor-in-chief said he would request another opinion before he made the final decision. When the co-author of the paper wrote, asking when the final decision would be taken, the editor in chief accused the editor of breaching confidentiality but wrote to the co-author assuring him that the manuscript would be treated fairly and promptly. The editor did not send out the manuscript for another opinion for almost two weeks.When he did, he identified in the covering letter that “he would elect to reject the manuscript” but sought the reviewer’s opinion. However, two days earlier, he had sent a letter to one of the original reviewers asking him to write a “single or several papers” on the exact same topic. About two weeks later, the editor-in-chief rejected our manuscript, apologising for the delay, and noting “we had some difficulty finding a person to give an editorial opinion of the review.” In a further instance, the editor was asked to review a manuscript for the journal that purported to be an evidence-based guideline. The other reviewers included the previous editor of the journal and an outside reviewer. The editor identified several concerns and included suggestions on how the manuscript could be strengthened; the previous editor gave very similar feedback. The third reviewer had only a few superficial comments, such as a title change. However, the editor-in-chief requested an additional review from an expert in evidence-based medicine, but accepted the manuscript with minor revisions, including the title change, before receiving these comments. Later, the additional review came in, seriously questioning the evidence base of the manuscript, but it was never sent to the author. The manuscript was published with minor revisions. The editor was sacked. The staff were told only that confidentiality precluded giving an explanation; unofficially it was intimated that he had simply been too difficult to get along with. The journal is still publishing, and the relationship between the Association and the Journal is increasingly intimate. There appears to have been a Faustian bargain made between the CEO of the Association and the editor-in-chief of the Journal whereby, in exchange for compromising editorial freedom in sensitive areas for the Association, he could publish what he wanted without feeling constrained by the usual editorial standards. _ If feedback from peer review is ignored, who will know? Most journal editors work in relative isolation and there is virtually no quality control. _ Who polices the relationship between a science-based association and its journal, a relationship that has its own particular set of challenges, involving both scientific and political elements. _ What can be done to stop/prevent corruption within the editorial office of a scientific publication, an issue that has virtually escaped discussion and consideration within the scientific community? _ What will it take to create the political will to ensure the integrity of scientific editors? _ There is often no way to formally investigate and address alleged abuses of editorial power, especially if these abuses are in the interests of the publisher or parent organisation.
The editor has acted as a whistleblower and has been fired as a result. _ This raises several questions about the integrity of scientific publications. _ COPE is not in the business of disciplining editors and authors, but perhaps it could devise a code of behaviour, which editors could sign up to, and be formally disciplined by COPE if they breach it. _ COPE feels that this case is worth publishing in a major journal and on web sites to encourage discussion.
An international specialist medical journal has editors in the UK and abroad who function independently. An issue of a scientific journal in 1998 reported that the overseas editor had been dismissed from a university professorship because of scientific fraud. This had been documented in three published research papers.The report highlighted a particular paper, in which 27 references cited indicated the editor was the author or coauthor of 19 of the papers. Laboratory notebooks detailing the research had disappeared. The university committee stated that the study falsely presented data, and that these had been manipulated to produce the desired statistical results. The editor stated that there had been honest errors and that the laboratory staff had used poor research methods. The editor is attempting legally to overturn the university’s action. The UK editor wrote to the journal asking whether the incident discussed affects the editorial arrangements for the journal. Is there anything else the editor should do and does the problem affect his own position as an editor working in parallel with the overseas editor, as neither one is accountable to the other?
The overseas editor hired the staff who were subsequently criticised. The publishers are awaiting the results of an appeal by the overseas editor, and COPE feels that the editor should stand down or be suspended, pending appeal. If the overseas editor refuses to do this,the other editors should tender their resignations. The publishers must face up to their responsibilities.
The overseas editor resigned from the journal. It is understood that the overseas editor has not appealed, to date, over the dismissal by the university.