The case has been with two publishers for more than a year. Journal A at publisher A published article A by author A, affiliated to institution A and institution B (in another country), and author B affiliated to institution B. Journal B at publisher B then published article B, by the same authors and affiliations. The two articles are on closely related research.
Shortly after publication of article A and before publication of article B, a senior colleague of author A at institution A contacted publisher A asking for article A to be retracted. The claimant said author A had left institution A after the submission to journal A but before publication. The claimant alleged that author A used other researchers’ data without permission and used the affiliation without approval (breaching an agreement signed by author A), some data were unverified by institution A, and author B and institution B were not involved in the research. The other researchers alleged to have been involved were not acknowledged. These allegations were confirmed by the head of department at institution A.
Author A disputed this, saying they did do the work and were still affiliated to institution A (as confirmed by a letter signed by an institutional representative and a court document), and they were no longer subject to the agreement they were said to have breached because it had been terminated. Author B has not commented on the allegations and institution B has been uninvolved in the investigation.
Publisher A asked institution A to formally investigate. Institution A’s preliminary investigation confirmed grounds to suspect misconduct and they began a further investigation. At this point, institution A asked for the publication of an expressions of concern (EoC) to inform readers of the investigation, which both publishers agreed to. Author A asked for the EoCs to not be published due to ongoing legal action against institution A and the claimant and asked to be allowed to add comments to the EoCs if they were published, but each publisher posted the EoC without author A’s comments.
Several months later, an institutional representative asked for retraction based on author A not providing data to the investigation and doubts that the named authors were the only ones who contributed to the research. Institution A said author A had taken further legal action against institution A, but nevertheless asked for the articles to be retracted due to misconduct by author A. Institution A stated that there will be no further investigation of, or action against, author B.
The publishers have not been given details of the investigation report or findings. Author A still denied misconduct and said they had not been given evidence of this, and confirmed their ongoing legal action against institution A.
Question(s) for the COPE Forum
One option may be to update the EoCs to note the finding of institution A’s investigation of misconduct and their request for retraction. Is this reasonable in the absence of detail on the institution’s findings and in light of the ongoing legal action (which the institution admits is continuing)?
Institution A is pressing for retractions and presumably legal proceedings could be dragged out by author A. Does institution A have the authority to force retractions while civil legal proceedings are underway?
Can the publishers insist on seeing the findings of the institutional investigation?
Generally, it is best if journals do not get involved in legal arguments. The advice would be not to proceed with the requested retraction while there are ongoing legal proceedings. The Forum acknowledge this is not a perfect solution as legal proceedings can be lengthy.
However, the journal might take the stance that until the institution or the author who complained states exactly what is wrong with the article, the article will stand, and no action will be taken. It is unreasonable to ask a journal to retract an article or take action without a clear explanation of the problems with the content of the article. Also, it is not the journal’s role to be a mediator or to follow the demands of any one party. Hence the journal should be cautious about making a permanent decision while there are ongoing legal proceedings.
The Forum advised the journal to follow the advice of their own legal team.
The publisher informed the institution and the author that no further action would be taken while legal proceedings are ongoing. The institution did not reply. The publisher asked the author to provide the full document of the application to the court and expected timings, but those details have not been provided yet. Further delays due to the COVID-19 pandemic are expected.
A publisher was alerted to possible issues with band duplication in an article (more than 10 years old) by a reader. The corresponding author was contacted to resolve the issue. The author was unable to provide a satisfactory explanation for the bands, and because of the age of the article, the original data were no longer available. The institution was asked to investigate; a summary of the case was provided and the similarities in the bands using an open source tool were highlighted.
When the publisher received a copy of the investigatory committee’s report, it was clear that the institution had focused on the use of the software tool exclusively. The institution concluded that the software was not a validated tool, and so there was no basis for concluding that the blots in question were duplicated or improperly altered. The contact person also stated that it was not the institution's place to comment on whether the data in the publication were sound and trustworthy.
The publisher pointed out that the software was not used to detect problems with the paper—it was simply a tool to provide a visual demonstration of the similarities between the blots. The publisher stated that they would have raised this issue regardless of whether the tool was available. They explained their expectation and experience that institutions initiate inquiries into potential ethics cases raised by journals and comment specifically on whether the conclusions are still sound. The publisher asked again that the committee investigate the scientific issues raised about this paper; the institution declined.
Next step being considered are sending the paper to one of publisher’s editors who has relevant scientific expertise, or to an independent adviser, asking them to advise on whether the conclusions are still supported if the blots in question are unreliable. The publisher is also considering sending the paper to an independent ethics expert to verify that there are potential problems with the blots.
If it can be verified independently that there are potential problems with the blots, there are two courses of action: (1) if the adviser finds that the conclusions are still sound, issue an expression of concern/publisher's note highlighting the specific blots and detailing the steps taken so that readers can make their own decision about the data; (2) if our adviser finds that the conclusions are not sound, retract the paper. The publisher would tell the institution the route they plan to take.
Question(s) for the COPE Forum
Are the publisher’s plans reasonable, or is there a better course of action?
Regardless of whether an expression of concern/publisher's note is published, or the paper is retracted, is it reasonable to quote from the report of the institution so that readers know the institution refused to investigate?
Should the publisher consider contacting the relevant funding agencies?
The Forum suggested that if an institution is not willing or unable to investigate, one potential option might be to contact the original funders listed in the paper, or to contact any regional integrity offices, if these exist.
COPE’s retraction guidelines state "When editors or journals have credible grounds to suspect misconduct, this should be brought to the attention of the authors’ institutions as early as possible, but the decision to correct or retract an article should be made by the journal and does not necessarily depend on an institutional finding of misconduct." This scenario is common—often institutions do not conduct investigations or do not provide a definitive answer to questions raised by the journal.
If the editor feels that the data are unreliable or might be misleading, then the paper should be retracted. Getting further expert opinion to support the concerns of the editor is good practice. If the editor decides to retract, the retraction notice should explain why the journal believes that the findings are unreliable. The editor should inform the institution and the authors in advance, with the wording of the notice, and give them a chance to respond.
However, if the editor is uncertain of the integrity or the data or cannot resolve the concerns because the data are not available, then an expression of concern could be published, which could change to a retraction if the institution confirms there has been misconduct. The institution would need to investigate further. The expression of concern could state that the institution has been contacted but that the concerns have not been resolved.
Another option might be to ask the reader who brought up the issue to write a commentary and allow others to dig deeper into the issue.
In general, journals or publishers cannot always depend on an institution when deciding whether or not to retract an article because standards differ across institution. A journal needs to adhere to its own policies and not necessarily to what the institute thinks is appropriate.
The editor prepared an expression of concern for publication in the journal and is awaiting the authors’ agreement on the wording.
Follow up (September 2020)
The journal is about to publish an expression of concern. The editor did not hear back from the authors despite numerous attempts at contacting them. The journal considers the case closed.
Predatory publishing is generally defined as for-profit open access journal publication of scholarly articles without the benefit of peer review by experts in the field or the usual editorial oversight of the journals in question. The journals have no standards and no quality control and frequently publish within a very brief period of time while claiming that articles are peer-reviewed. There is confusion between some legitimate open-access peer review journals and predatory open-access journals, and sometimes include legitimate scholars on their editorial masthead.
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:
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 journal was contacted with a claim to first authorship of a paper currently published online ahead of print. Print publication was put on hold pending the result of the investigation. The claim to first authorship was based on the claimant stating that they had obtained most results published in the paper during their PhD studies under the supervision of the corresponding author, and contributed to the writing of the text. The claimant provided evidence of this in the form of screenshots of a submission confirmation email and subsequent rejection email from another journal for a manuscript with a similar title, a Word document labelled as the claimant’s PhD thesis and details of overlap with the published paper, and a screenshot of an email reported to have been sent by the claimant to the corresponding author in 2013 containing images used in the published paper.
The corresponding author was contacted and declared on behalf of all authors that the claimant had not contributed to the experiments or writing, and that none of the results shown in the article were performed by the claimant. They explained that the claimant was discharged from the PhD programme before successful completion. The claimant indicated that they wished to dispute this, and the institution was asked to investigate and resolve the dispute.
The institution informed the journal that the knowledge generated during state funded projects was the property of the institution, and only the institution has the ability to agree a copyright transfer in agreement with the corresponding author, and that the corresponding author had full legal and institutional support to determine the author list of papers resulting from the project. They stated that a graduate student may or may not be included as an author on papers deriving from projects to which they have contributed, and according to institutional guidelines, in order to be included as an author, a student must successfully complete their studies within a defined timeframe. The decision to remove the claimant as a co-author was confirmed to have been made because they were dismissed from the graduate programme before successful completion.
The institution did not comment on the extent of the contribution of the claimant to the research results and discussion presented in the published paper. The journal considers that ICMJE/COPE guidelines do not hold non-completion of studies as a valid reason for disqualification from authorship.
Question for the COPE Forum
• Should the journal operate according to ICMJE/COPE guidelines for determining authorship in the face of contradictory institutional authorship criteria and against the wishes of the corresponding author and institution? • If so, how can the right to authorship of the claimant according to ICMJE/COPE guidelines be now confirmed independently of the institution? • If a copyright transfer has already been agreed between the publisher and the institution/corresponding author, is this agreement affected if a separate correction article is published detailing an authorship change?
The Forum noted its seems punitive on the part of the university regarding their decision to exclude the student from being an author because they did not complete their studies within a defined timeframe. If the student was in the middle of their training and had submitted a paper, would the institution have handled the case differently? Was the claimant's role acknowledged in the published article? If not, might the claimant and authors agree to a correction to publish an acknowledgment?
Otherwise, a suggestion was to contact a higher authority at the institution—perhaps a committee on research integrity at the institution— or an oversight body and ask them to investigate and try to resolve the authorship issue. The Forum noted that it is up to the journal to set their own guidelines for authorship, and to clearly state that they follow the ICMJE and COPE guidelines, for example. The journal guidelines should take precedence.
Following advice from the COPE Forum, the journal approached the highest authority within the university to specifically confirm that the authorship of the paper was determined according to the criteria set by ICMJE/COPE, which they did. No further action was taken. The editor 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.
We received a claim that several authors were removed from an article published in one of our journals before the article was submitted. None of those said to have been removed were acknowledged.
The claimant requested retraction. They said the article was previously submitted to other journals, listing them as an author. They provided what they said was an earlier version of the article submitted to another publisher, which listed those additional authors, including themselves. The articles were the same, with small differences in language. They provided what they said were rejection letters from other journals, including the additional authors.
The claimant was reluctant to be named and expressed concern about repercussions; we explained the claim could not otherwise be investigated by the institution. They agreed we could contact the authors and institution. We did, and the claimant stated the authors threatened them. The submitting author said the claimant should not have been an author and the claimant agreed to this, and provided signed statements from the other removed authors agreeing to being removed. We contacted these removed authors and they each confirmed they participated in the work, but did not want to be listed as authors.
The submitting author did not show us the agreement from the claimant to not be an author. The claimant informed us that one of these other people said they were presented with a pre-written statement to sign in English, which is not their native language.
We asked the institution to investigate. After several months, the institutional committee informed us of their decision: the claimant provided an email statement agreeing not to be listed as an author; our published author list was correct; the claimant would be penalised professionally for harming the institution’s reputation.
We asked to see a copy of the claimant’s email in which they agreed not to be an author, but this was not provided despite repeated requests. The institutional contact told us they had left their post and directed us to contact the article’s senior author. The claimant informed us this earlier statement applied to a different article. The claimant said we should have investigated this claim ourselves and by not doing so we exposed them to negative consequences; they suggested they might take legal action against us. We referred them to the COPE guidelines, 'Request for addition of extra author after publication'. They said they would consider legal action against the institution.
We let the institution know, through another contact, that an option for contributors who do not meet criteria for authorship is to be acknowledged and we confirmed the investigation is confidential so will not have affected their reputation; we did not receive a reply.
Question(s) for the COPE Forum • Could the claim involving authorship have been made anonymously? • Could we have investigated further before involving the authors and/or institution? • Should COPE rules be revised when dealing with uncooperative or potentially biased institutional review committees? • Is there anything further we can or should do now?
The Forum asked if there is a national body or research integrity office that the journal could contact and ask them to investigate?
The Forum agreed that it is almost impossible to deal with an authorship dispute without revealing the names of those involved, and that there was little else the journal could have done under these circumstances. The Forum did not believe the journal could have investigated any more.
The journal could use this as an opportunity to say to the institution that they expect all institutions to cooperate and to have good processes in place for such issues, and remind them that they are ultimately publicly responsible for decisions on authorship.
One suggestion was that the journal could consider issuing an expression of concern, which may allow the author to have some form of acknowledgement and it also may induce the institution to follow-up.
Another suggestion was for the editor to write an editorial on this issue.
Dealing with uncooperative or potentially biased institutional review committees is an issue COPE could explore further with institutions.
The journal attempted to contact oversight bodies, but have not received a response. The claimant says they have taken legal action against the authors. The journal separately received a legal claim regarding the contents of the article, but could not verify the contact details of that claimant and they did not respond to our queries.
In 2014 we received a communication from the Research Integrity Officer of an academic institution informing us that a paper, published in our journal in 2013, included falsified or fabricated data. We were informed that, following an investigation, they had determined that scientific misconduct had occurred.
Within a few days we received a communication from one of the authors of the paper (who is no longer at the institution) reiterating this assertion and providing some further explanation; that a former student had fabricated data and that it affected the paper (but providing no specifics).
Over the next week or so, other journals by the same publisher received similar notifications from the same author. Initially, we were presented with no information regarding who the perpetrator was or the specifics of the affected data. We were therefore unable to determine how severely affected the validity of the overall paper was and whether a retraction or correction was necessary.
Our initial response was to request further information from the institution and the author. Initially, we were informed by both parties that, as a result of Federal privacy laws, they were unable to divulge any details pertaining to the investigation, aside from what they had already told us. In the meantime, we decided to publish an expressions of concern on all four papers affected by our publisher with identical notices detailing what we knew for certain and stating that we would seek further details from the institution.
Sometime later we heard back from the institution providing further specific information (ie, outlining the fabricated data) for three of the four papers. Of these three papers, two are now in the process of being retracted, while an academic editor has been consulted to advise on whether the third should be retracted or corrected, based on the additional scientific information now available.
However, in regard to the fourth paper, published in our journal, we were told by the institution that no further information was available. The author who contacted us has not provided any specific information either. Therefore, we find ourselves unsure of how to proceed next, as we still do not know to what extent the conclusions in the paper are valid.
Question(s) for the COPE Forum • Should we proceed with a retraction but simply state that we cannot provide further information (something we feel is unsatisfactory for our authors)? • Should we instead leave the expression of concern online but update it to say that we will not be able to provide any further information? • Does the Forum have any other suggestions?
The Forum asked the editor if the paper had been handled through the Office of Research Integrity (ORI) in the USA, as they post their findings on cases on their website. However, the laws related to the ORI are very strict and do not allow sharing of information, even with institutions, and so the only way of finding out any information is to look at what has been published in the federal registry. The editor told the Forum that there was no information on the ORI website.
One view was that, given the history of all of these papers, and the concerns about the data on this particular paper, the editor should err on the side of caution and retract the paper.
However, a more cautious approach was also suggested. COPE would advise that a retraction statement should be as informative as possible; a journal needs to give its readers a reason for the retraction. Hence, in the absence of further information, the editor may consider not retracting at the moment, but instead updating the Expression of Concern. The editor may want to explain that other papers have been retracted as a result of the same investigation but no further information is available on the current paper.
Another suggestion was to go back to the institution and insist that they provide further information on the validity of the data.
Advice on follow up:
Following the discussion at the Forum, the editor decided that there was insufficient information available to support a retraction. Therefore, the current Expression of Concern remains on the record pending further communication from the institution concerned.
We were contacted by a lawyer acting on behalf of the last author (author A) of two research articles published in our journals. Both articles are co-authored by one other author (author B), who was the corresponding author. Author A claims not to have been aware of the submission and also raises concerns that the timelines and dates of the before and after photos reported in the articles are incorrect. He also claims that informed consent was not received from the patient described in one of the articles for publication of their case.
On submission and publication of both articles, both authors were based at author A’s own private institution. Author B has since left the institution. All authors submitting to our journals receive an automated email when a manuscript is submitted, alerting them to the submission. As far as we can tell, author A received this email in response to both submissions. However, we have had no correspondence directly from author A regarding either article.
We have contacted author B for an explanation of the concerns raised by author A, which we have been told we will receive shortly. The concerns raised by author A are serious enough to warrant an institutional investigation. However, in the absence of an independent institution that we could ask to investigate, we are seeking advice from the forum on how to proceed once we receive author B's explanation.
Question(s) for the COPE Forum
(1) In the absence of an independent institution, how do the Forum suggest we proceed once we receive author B's explanation?
The Forum agreed there are clearly issues with the paper and sufficient doubts for the editor to raise concerns and to contact the institution. Normally the Forum would advise that this issue was beyond the remit of the editor, and that the editor should look for an independent arbitrator, which is usually the institution. But in this situation, it is a private institution.
The Forum asked the editor if the institution had any associated regulatory or professional body which oversees it who could be approached? There is guidance on the COPE website in the form of a flowchart on what to do if you have ethical concerns about a published paper and there is no institution. The advice is to go to a higher regulatory body or, if not, to a medical regulatory body. In the UK, the medical regulatory body would be the General Medical Council (GMC). The GMC note that publication ethics is within their remit, so it is possible to raise this issue with a similar body if the authors are medical professionals, especially if there is no higher authority.
Although it is not the job of the editor to carry out investigations or police the research, the editor does have a responsibility to the readers of the journal, and so he should consider publishing an expression of concern.
The editor may have been able to avoid this situation if the journal had dealt with the ethical issues on submission. While the editor told the Forum that journal policy is to send email confirmation to all of the authors on submission of a paper, they do not ask for confirmation of authorship. This may have helped in this situation. The recently published fourth criteria of the International Committee of Medical Journal Editors (ICMJE http://www.icmje.org/) states that if you are an author of a paper, you have a requirement to help investigate any issues with the paper. Hence author A cannot recuse himself from any association with this paper.