Soon after rejecting a paper—after it underwent peer review but before discussion at the manuscript meeting—the author wrote to tell me that he was asked questions “about the manuscript” at a presentation at a national meeting. The author stated: “A member of the audience addressed questions to me from a copy of the manuscript, and not from the talk I gave. I had to ask him to say nothing further and that reading from the unpublished manuscript was not appropriate, particularly with the manufacturer [of the drug] present who continues to press us for the data. I then realised that this person had a copy of our manuscript because they were either a reviewer or a reviewer had given them a copy”.
Our journal has an open review policy so the author was aware of the identity of the reviewers and knew that the person who asked the question was not one of the reviewers. The authors are concerned that one of the reviewers may be a colleague or collaborator with the person who asked the question.
After receiving the author’s letter, I emailed the two reviewers to inform them of our concern about confidentiality and to ask if they shared the manuscript or its contents and, if so, how and why. Within a few hours, both reviewers replied that they kept the paper confidential and did not share it with anyone else. We take their assertions as valid and true, as we do with so many other statements by authors and reviewers.
I informed the authors about the outcome of my investigation. I also suggested that if they still think that a reviewer may have broken confidentiality, they might wish to contact the editors of the other two journals where the paper was reviewed before submission to us as well as the editor of the journal currently reviewing the manuscript.
Question(s) for the COPE Forum (1) Do you think that the journal handled this correctly?
There seems to have been some form of breach of confidentiality, but it is not clear where this has occurred. Sometimes reviewers do share papers with colleagues or students, but this is breaking confidentiality. As there is no strong evidence that a reviewer at this journal did in fact break confidentiality, the Forum cautioned about making allegations with the lack of evidence. Also, the editor noted that the paper has been through several journals, so if there was a breach, it could have happened at any of the journals, or it could even have occurred at a grant review for example.
The Forum agreed that the editor has done all he can to ensure there was no breach of confidentiality at his journal. Of course, the author may wish to pursue it further, but there is nothing more for the editor to do.
The editor noted that the instructions to authors in his journal do carry a clear message that reviewers should inform the journal if anyone else is involved in the review process, and that reviewers should maintain confidentiality.
The Forum noted that COPE does have a set of guidelines for reviewers "Ethical guidelines for peer reviewers" and would recommend them to all editors. They have been very well received and are a very useful resource for editors and reviewers. Editors may like to include them in their instructions for reviewers.
Shortly before publication, I received an email from the authors of a systematic review telling me that a version of the paper as first submitted to the journal for peer review had appeared on the website of a campaign group based in the USA. It was clear that the version of the document posted on the website was the same as the version supplied to the journal's peer reviewers. Further investigation showed that one of the three peer reviewers (reviewer A) who initially advised on the paper is also named as a member of the board of directors of the campaign group. The journal operates an anonymous peer review system.
I emailed all three peer reviewers asking for an explanation as to how the confidential draft appeared on the website. Reviewers B and C replied within a few hours, disclaiming all knowledge, as I expected. Reviewer A has failed to reply. I also emailed the senior directors of the campaign group, asking them to remove the confidential draft from their website, and inviting them to replace it with the definitive paper, which had in the meantime been published. They did not reply. The directors have since been sent a letter from our publisher's lawyers asking for the confidential document to be removed—with reviewer A also sent a copy—on the grounds of breech of copyright. They have not replied. The lawyers are continuing to pursue legal avenues for getting the draft removed from the website.
In normal circumstances, I would contact reviewer A's institution and request an investigation. However, reviewer A is unaffiliated, so I cannot follow this course. On our manuscript tracking database, we have removed reviewer A's role as a peer reviewer, with a note explaining the circumstances, so that he should not be used as a peer reviewer again. I have received frequent emails from the lead author of the paper, asking for a resolution of the matter. The author has requested that I give her the name of reviewer A, so that she can ask that he is excluded from peer reviewing her papers in the future. I have declined to do this on the grounds that it would be a further breach of confidentiality.
Question for the COPE Forum Is there any more that can be done to obtain an explanation from reviewer A, or to satisfy the authors that we have investigated the matter to the limits of the journal's powers?
This case was not discussed at the Forum. Council instead gave the following advice on this case.
Council agreed that the editor had done all he could in trying to contact reviewer A and eliciting a response from him, and in attempting to have the paper removed from the website of the campaign group.
Council agreed that the emphasis should now be in dealing with the aggrieved author and in correcting the public record. The suggestion was to add a notice of concern to the paper on the website giving a clear account of the events. The editor should state the facts in a dispassionate manner: - the paper appears on the website of a campaign group with neither the authors’ nor the journal’s agreement; - this occurred during the peer review process and without the authors’ permission; - the journal has repeatedly asked for the article to be taken down.
The editor should also respond to the author telling him that he plans to make a public statement on the website and stating that he now feels that he has done all that he can to progress this case. The editor might like to list all the steps he has taken to have the article removed, detailing the times he has tried to contact the reviewer and the campaign website.
COPE would advise against releasing the names of reviewers for journals that have a confidential peer review system, even if a breach of confidentiality is suspected. COPE also suggested that editors should exercise caution when using reviewers who are not affiliated to a university.
As recommended by COPE, the editor’s posted a note on the case in the journal, presenting an account of the events.
A manuscript was flagged to editor X as having received reviewers’ reports indicating very high interest. At that point the manuscript had been through one round of review, revision and re-review, and all three reviewers were advising that the manuscript be accepted without further revision.
On checking the credentials of the three reviewers, editor X was unable to find the publication record of any of them. All three reviewers were found to have been suggested by the authors. Institutions were given for the suggested authors but the supplied email addresses were all with webmail services. The reviewers were found not to exist.
Associate editor Y had invited the author suggested reviewers and two of their own choosing, neither of whom had replied to the invitation.
After it was determined that the reviewer suggestions were faked, a previous publication by the same authors with the same ‘fake’ reviewers was identified.
Following the recommendations of COPE regarding a recent similar case discussed at the COPE Forum (case number 12-12), all of the authors were contacted to ask if they could supply more details of the suggested reviewers, but they have not responded. We have attempted to find a contact at the authors’ institution. It has proved difficult to identify a research ethics committee, any individual senior member of the university or contacts for the university administration. During other searches, a vice principal of the university was identified but was found to be the senior author on both manuscripts.
We are now seeking guidance on the best course of action with regard to both the unpublished and published manuscripts, in the absence of any response from the authors and no reliable contacts at the authors’ institution. Our current intention is to reject the manuscript under review and issue a retraction of the published article.
The Forum agreed that this case was brought about by the failure of journal processes and their peer review system. Good practice is always to check the names, addresses and email contacts of reviewers, and especially those that are recommended by authors. Editors should never use only the preferred reviewer. While the Forum recognise that finding reviewers can be difficult and that the peer review system can be hard, simple checks can avoid a similar situation in the future. The Forum agreed that the publisher should take some responsibility as it is their duty to support their editors. The editorial office clearly needs guidance and step by step procedures.
Then there is the issue of the author trying to defraud the system. The advice was to continue to try and contact the author and the author’s institution, and inform them of the situation, explaining the author’s inappropriate and possibly criminal behaviour. The author should be told that that if no response is received, then the previous paper will be retracted. Other advice was to consider re-reviewing the published article.
It was also suggested that the editor might consider writing an editorial on this issue.
The case was also discussed at the North American Forum (18 October 2012). Additional advice was to require an institutional email address in addition to a webmail address for any suggested reviewers and for editors to send correspondence to both addresses. Another suggestion was to verify the webmail address with an IP address route trace, which the participant suggested was relatively simple and could be performed by anyone if there were no IT department to assist with the task.
With regard to the specific manuscripts in this case, the one that was under review has been rejected with a warning to the authors that the activity was unacceptable. For the published manuscript, we have had discussions with the editor concerned but the final resolution of the case is still in progress. We have received no response from the authors and no success in finding contacts in their institution, although we are pursuing another avenue to try and identify one.
More generally we have had some broad discussions in the company about preventing future cases. There are some short-term fixes in progress and more comprehensive plans for technical additions to our systems that should help prevent these and other forms of author misconduct that will come about in the new year.
Update (June 2013)
For the published manuscript we followed COPE advice and conducted post-publication peer review. The editorial board member who reviewed the manuscript found flaws with the article and we will now take steps to retract it.
However, given the sensitive nature of this retraction for the journal in question, we would also like to accompany it with an explanatory editorial.
We have made a number of technical changes to our systems. On submission, where authors suggest potential peer reviewers we issue this warning: “Intentionally falsifying information, for example, suggesting reviewers with a false name or email address, will result in the manuscript being rejected.”
When a manuscript is shared with an external editor to invite potential reviewers, we also make it clear that they should check that reviewers suggested by the authors have the expertise necessary to carry out a proper assessment of the manuscript if they are invited to peer review.
The IP address tip was very useful and we did find that the IP address of the reviewer ‘matched’ that of the author in this case. We are thinking of developing an automatic warning system such that if a peer reviewer returns a report on a manuscript with an IP address that matches that of the authors, then the peer review process is halted.
We now consider this case closed and will proceed to issue a retraction with accompanying editorial shortly.
On noticing a high volume of submissions from corresponding author A, editor X flagged up concerns with the preferred reviewers being suggested and their comments. Author A had in most cases suggested the same preferred reviewers for each submission, preferred reviewer accounts had non-attributable email addresses, comments were being returned very quickly (within 24 hours) and were often brief and positive, largely restricted to grammatical changes. All preferred reviewers favoured immediate acceptance or acceptance subject to minor revisions.
Author A was asked to provide further information on the preferred reviewers and admitted that these were either dummy accounts or associates of author A. The dummy accounts had email accounts accessible by author A and/or author A’s students or collaborators. Author A asked the preferred reviewers (or the people behind the accounts) to submit favourable reviews of the papers and turn them around quickly or author A submitted the reviews via the dummy account. Author A admitted employing this system for a number of papers, but not every paper, although we found similar patterns of peer review activity for these also. Author A states that the papers’ co-authors were not aware of this activity.
Author A has agreed to retract published papers for which they admit to influencing the peer review process and we are planning retraction notices for these. We are now seeking advice as to what to do about the remaining published papers to which author A has not admitted influencing the peer review process. We suspect the peer review of these other articles was compromised through use of preferred reviewers suggested by author A, but we have no evidence that these preferred reviewers used dummy accounts or that the article content is flawed. We are therefore considering issuing an expression of concern for these papers.
We have attempted to make contact with all co-authors to explain the problem and seek their approval for the chosen course of action. Only three co-authors have responded, two supporting our decision, and one (whose paper we planned to issue an expression of concern for) replied that it was unfair on the co-authors without any concrete evidence. Author A’s institution has been contacted but we have received no response.
We respectfully ask COPE to provide advice on managing those papers author A has not agreed to retract and, in particular, the case where a co-author disagrees with our intention to issue an expression of concern
The Forum agreed that there are many issues involved here, not least a serious form of misconduct which may even be criminal, as the author was impersonating the reviewers and committing fraud by using colleagues as false reviewers and, possibly impersonating other reviewers. In addition, as the author has admitted fraud, can the editor trust the validity of any of the papers?
The advice was to contact the author’s institution and inform them of the situation, explaining the author’s inappropriate and possibly criminal behaviour. The editor should also contact the reviewers who were the associates of the author who provided favourable reviews and contact their institutions.
The Forum advised re-reviewing the remaining published papers to which author A has not admitted influencing the peer review process. If the journal wishes to stand by these papers, then it is essential that all of the papers are re-reviewed. In the meantime, an expression of concern should be issued for all of these papers. One suggestion was to inform the author of the course of action that the journal is going to undertake and see if he wishes to retract all of these papers.
The Forum noted that the journal should take some responsibility for failure of their peer review system. Good practice is always to check the names, addresses and email contacts of reviewers, and especially those that are recommended by authors. Editors should never use only the preferred reviewer.
The journal has now published (or is in the process of publishing) retraction notices for all of the papers that the corresponding author agreed to retract. The journal has taken the suggestion from the Forum of ‘re-doing’ the peer review process for the other papers seriously and are planning on doing this
The institution contacted us and wants to discuss the details of what we found out as they investigate the author.
There are still two outstanding issues: (1) the other non-retracted papers; and (2) the decision of the author’s institution on what action they will take.
A journal received two manuscripts on the same topic in short succession. Manuscript A was rejected after peer review; manuscript B, submitted a few months later, was accepted after peer review. When manuscript B was published, author X contacted the journal to express concern about similarities between both papers and the fact that the first had been rejected and the second accepted. The journal investigated and found that one of the reviewers of manuscript A worked in the same laboratory with one of the authors of manuscript B.
The journal was further notified that manuscript A, while under peer review, had been discussed in a journal club at reviewer P’s and author Y’s laboratory. Both author Y and reviewer P, when confronted with these allegations, admitted the incident and apologised but said it had been a lapse with no ill intent.
The journal’s editor-in-chief informed author Y and reviewer P that their behaviour was considered a serious breach of confidence and that they would be removed from the journal’s list of peer reviewers. The editor-in-chief also considered informing the institution but decided against it at this point in time.
The journal also decided to review its process for monitoring peer reviewers’ competing interests and to educate their editorial board about the need for confidentiality.
Should the journal have informed the institution and asked for further investigation?
The Forum noted that it is very difficult to sort out what has been happening in this case and so advised contacting the authors’ and reviewers’ institutions. There are three institutions involved and the Forum suggested informing the institutions of the details of the case so that they are aware of the situation. Discussion of papers in journal clubs, while perhaps not uncommon, is not acceptable behaviour. The Forum also advised the journal to review their journal policy on reviewers, making it clear that they should declare any conflicts of interest.
The editor informed the Forum that two further papers had been submitted to the journal. The reviewer has submitted a paper and asked that the authors of paper A be excluded from reviewing it, and the authors of paper B have submitted a second paper, including the reviewer of paper A. The Forum advised that editors should take into consideration authors’ requests but the editor cannot always comply with the authors’ wishes to exclude the use of a particular reviewer. The Forum advised making a decision on whether to accept or reject the two new papers based on their scientific merit.
The journal followed the advice of the Forum, and a letter was written to the institution of author Y and reviewer P, advising them of the breach of confidentiality. The letter was acknowledged by the institution and an apology made. The author and reviewer have now been barred from reviewing from the journal for a period of 3 years. Submissions from the parties involved will be judged on scientific merit.
The journal also reviewed its policies and further reinforced its wording to reviewers to declare any conflict of interest before accepting an invitation to review a manuscript.
The policy of the journal to honour any reasonable request by an author to exclude a reviewer will be continued, while noting any unusual or unreasonable requests, and investigating them accordingly.
The journal thanks the Forum for the advice offered which has helped with the resolution of the problem.
A known expert in a certain content area was asked to review a manuscript. He asked if one of his trainees (not a content expert) could review the manuscript instead, with some oversight and as a training exercise. He stated that he would provide the trainee with a full explanation of confidentiality. The section editor replied that it was the particular expertise of the invited reviewer that was being sought. The invited reviewer agreed to review the manuscript. Subsequently, the reviewer contacted the section editor, stating that his trainee had reviewed the manuscript and felt the manuscript should be rejected; the reviewer also read it and concurred, suggesting that the editor reject the manuscript as poor science (my words), but did not include a detailed review. The section editor pushed him to return a detailed review, which he has now done.
My question is: is giving this manuscript (not blinded, ie, author names and affiliations are evident) to the trainee a breach of confidentiality on the part of the reviewer? If so, what steps do you recommend taking?
The Forum suggested that this type of behaviour probably occurs quite frequently. As the editor did not specifically state that the reviewer should not share the manuscript with the trainee, the Forum believed it was not strictly a breach of confidentiality. If the manuscript is unblinded and the editor is happy for the reviewer to see the author names and affiliations, then it is probably acceptable for the trainee reviewer to see this information, but the journal should be informed. The journal may need to ensure that the trainee does not have a conflict of interest and has the expertise to review the manuscript.
The Forum questioned how trainees can gain experience in reviewing manuscripts. A suggestion was to circulate good reviews to trainee reviewers, but with the consent of the reviewer and probably also the author.
The editor shared the Forum’s advice with the section editors, that they need to be very clear in the invitation to review if they do not wish a trainee to review the manuscript.
Recently, as co-editor of my journal, I received a manuscript submitted for publication. The author had recommended two reviewers along with their Gmail accounts and affiliations. I was curious about the affiliation of one of the reviewers. I looked this person up and discovered they had a different email address than that provided by the author. So I used the email address that I found to contact the reviewer (reviewer 1). For the second recommended reviewer (reviewer 2), I also looked up a current email address and used the one I found instead of the Gmail address that was provided by the author.
Reviewer 1 responded with the comment that the title of the manuscript looked similar to a manuscript review that he/she had been asked to confirm for another journal (journal 1). Reviewer 1 asked me to contact the editor of journal 1. After contacting the editor of journal 1, I discovered that the author had provided bogus email accounts for the recommended reviewers.
The editor of journal 1 became suspicious of the reviews when he received a review within hours of the request to review the manuscript. It was at this point that the editor of journal 1 discovered that the email addresses provided were bogus.
Reviewer 2 declined my request to review the manuscript. To test that the Gmail provided by the author was bogus, I sent a request to review the manuscript to reviewer 2’s bogus Gmail account. Within hours I received a review. I then called reviewer 2 to confirm that he/she had not provided a review. He/she had not, and was very concerned that a Gmail account was created using their name.
In summary, this author has been creating false email accounts for suggested reviewers which are going to unknown individuals who are providing reviews under false pretences and giving inaccurate information as to their identity and affiliation. The outcome of this is that my fellow co-editor and I have banned this individual from publishing in our journal. The author has also been banned from publishing in journal 1. Does COPE have any additional advice on this case?
The Forum agreed that this was a serious form of misconduct and may even be criminal, as the author was impersonating the reviewers. The advice was to contact the author’s institution and inform them of the situation, explaining the author’s inappropriate behaviour. Other advice was to look at the peer review of previous submissions/publications from this author in case they also involved fraudulent reviews. The Forum suggested that good practice is always to check the names, addresses and email contacts of reviewers, and especially those that are recommended by authors. Another suggestion was for the editor to write an editorial on this issue.
The editor reported that the author had his papers published in another journal. The editor plans to write to the other editor asking him to check the reviewers on the manuscripts.
This case concerns a submitted review article that proposes a new theory in a field of research where there are two polarised positions.
The original manuscript (R0) underwent peer review and was returned with reports indicating a major revision, which took several months. On submission of the revision, one of the reviewers from the previous round was asked to re-review. That reviewer (reviewer A) declined but provided a suggestion for an alternative reviewer (reviewer B). The editor invited reviewer B, who agreed to review the revised manuscript (R1).
Reviewer B delayed reviewing the paper, but finally submitted the review after a reminder from the editor. That review was one of two that were returned for manuscript R1. The other review was complimentary and suggested a very minor revision.
The editor included the reviews with a decision letter to the author explaining that it appeared that certain important aspects of the paper were not yet in order, or representative of a genuine division of opinion in the community, and asking for clarification. The contact author recognised one of the reviewer reports (reviewer B) as identical to that from reviewer A from the R0 round of peer review. Clearly, at this point, the author and editor could only assume that the confidentiality of peer review had been broken between reviewer A and reviewer B, but also that further misconduct/incompetence had occurred between the two.
The editor put this point to reviewer B for clarification, and the reviewer replied (after a delay of 3 days) that he/she did not know what the editor was talking about. With that email reply, reviewer B included a different report with the words of explanation "THIS is my report on the manuscript".
In good faith, and preserving anonymity, the editor forwarded that "second" report from reviewer B to the contact author whereupon the author replied that even that report referred to concepts that were no longer present, or no longer presented in such terms, in the revised manuscript. That observation further added to the author's and editor's concern that the revised manuscript had not been judged properly, or even at all, by reviewer B, and that the process of peer review had been compromised in several ways.
An inevitable conclusion is that the peer review of this manuscript was compromised in respect of the confidentiality and proper conduct that is expected of peer reviewers. Although it is often possible for a second round reviewer to see—verbatim—the report of a previous reviewer included with the author’s response letter, this was not the case with the above manuscript. The editor double checked the manuscript submission system: the verbatim version of reviewer A's report was not included with the author’s response that reviewer B was able to see, although the author did address reviewer A's points in that response. Therefore, the editor can only assume that the first report that reviewer B submitted actually came from, or by way of, reviewer A. Furthermore, the second report from reviewer B refers to concepts that were in the R0 version of the manuscript, but not in the R1 version, hence indicating that reviewer B had reported on the wrong manuscript, which he/she could only have obtained via reviewer A.
On receiving feedback on the second reviewer B report from the author (ie, that it must refer to the R0 manuscript instead of the R1), the editor emailed reviewer B, laying out the events and concerns, as described above. The email ended with the following observation: “Both the contact author and the editor have important concerns about the peer review of this manuscript: ie, that it has been compromised in serious ways that might even have influenced the careers of the younger authors. Clearly, the proper review of manuscripts in a journal that maintains confidential peer review is of paramount importance, given the lack of knowledge that the author has as to who has reviewed his/her paper. I trust that you appreciate my concerns”.
The editor received no reply but has marked both reviewer A and reviewer B as excluded reviewers in the manuscript submission system, and has made the case and identity of the reviewers known to his publishing department. From the course of events, it is highly likely (although not provable), that reviewers A and B conspired to get the manuscript rejected. What further action is necessary/advisable?
The Forum agreed that breach of confidentiality is a serious matter and should be investigated. As the editor confirmed that the instructions to reviewers in his journal stress the confidentiality of reports, it does appear very likely that reviewer A did breach confidentiality. The editor should contact reviewer A and ask for an explanation. It may be that this was an honest mistake and reviewer A thought s/he was being helpful in forwarding the report to reviewer B. However, if the editor has clear evidence that the reviewers behaved inappropriately, he should contact their institution and request an investigation. He should also tell the reviewers that they have been excluded from the journal’s manuscript submission system. The editor should also contact the authors and assure them that he is investigating the case and that the journal takes reviewer confidentiality seriously.
The Forum also suggested that the editor may like to write an editorial on this issue in general, after the case has been resolved.
The editor tried to contact the other reviewer but received no reply. He has continued to exclude the reviewers from the journal’s manuscript submission system (both as potential reviewers and as potential authors). The editor also communicated the problem to the rest of his department.
I am seeking advice on a confidential ‘letter of concern’ from an author (X) of a manuscript submitted before I was appointed editor of the journal but rejected by me on the advice of the associate editor.
Author X is concerned with similarities or parallels between his manuscript, rejected in 2008, and a recently published article. I have looked over our file and contacted the associate editor who handled the manuscript. One of the authors of the published article, author Y, was in fact a reviewer of the manuscript by author X and recommended rejection, as did two other reviewers. In the opinion of the associate editor, there are clear parallels between the article by author Y and the manuscript by author X, but these seem to be the result of common research interests rather than appropriation of ideas or data.
Author Y has published previously on this subject. Both authors X and Y are well established scientists, although from somewhat different disciplines. At this point, it is my view that author Y should have declared a conflict of interest in the review of the manuscript but has not appropriated ideas or data. Unfortunately, our system at the time of this review did not include explicit guidelines on conflicts of interest. I can also imagine that the reviewer would have assumed that his overlapping interests were obvious from his previous publications.
My options seem to be the following: (1) Reply to author X, acknowledging the parallels but communicating the view of the associate editor that there has not been appropriation of ideas or data. (To acknowledge the apparent undeclared conflict of interest would seem to violate reviewer Y’s anonymity.).
(2) As above, but ask author X if he wishes to make a more formal complaint (waiving his own confidentiality), in which case we would need more specific details about the suspected appropriation of ideas or data.
(3) Write first to reviewer Y and request a response to the ‘letter of concern’. However, I do not think this is appropriate, given that author X indicated his communication was confidential.
I have consulted the COPE flowchart but find that the issue of a conflict of interest is not well covered.
The Forum agreed that this was a case of reviewer misconduct and the editor should follow the flowchart on ‘What to do if you suspect reviewer misconduct’. The editor should contact author X and ask him to provide as much evidence as possible and then the editor can assess the situation. The Forum agreed that the editor’s best course of action was (2) above. If the case cannot be resolved, the editor might consider contacting the author’s institution.
A separate issue is that author Y should have declared a conflict of interest in the review of the manuscript and the Forum agreed that the editor could contact author Y informing him of this.
This is a complicated case which involves possible plagiarism, double submission and reviewer misconduct. The timeline is as follows:
In year n, a paper P1 authored by A1 and A2 was published in the English language journal X. The paper describes a theoretical analysis of a particular phenomenon.
In year n+6, paper P2 was published in a non-English language outlet by authors A3 et al, which cites P1, but carries essentially the same scientific message.
In year n+8, A3 et al submitted paper P3 to conference Y without referencing P1 or P2. The main content of the paper was essentially the same as that in P1. This paper was awarded a best student paper prize at the conference and journal X, which has an arrangement with conference Y to fast track “extended” versions of best papers , invited submission of such an extended version. Journal Z, unbeknown to journal X, also invited a paper to be published in journal Z based on P3.
In year n+8, paper P4 was published in journal Z; the paper did not cite P1 and was only a very minor extension of P2; under journal X’s rules, P4 would have been rejected as not being sufficiently different from P3 since conference Y is regarded as archival in the field. The editors-in-chief of journal Z were two of the reviewers of P3.
In November year n+8, A3 et al submitted paper P5 to journal X. P5 has the same theoretical content as papers P1–P4, but also has a new experimental section, which does make a new contribution. P5 does reference P1, but only incidentally and does not properly acknowledge that the theoretical content of P5 has previously appeared in P1 (or indeed in P2–P4). The editor-in-chief of journal X was not alerted to the overlap with the previous papers by the two reviewers (who were, in fact, the editors of journal Z). It is not a coincidence that the reviewers of P5 were the same as for P3 since this is part of the journal’s fast tracking process. The editor-in-chief of journal X accepted the paper and it was published in year n+9.
Around 6 years later, journal X (with two new editors-in-chief) received two independent complaints that P5 contains large sections of material plagiarised from P1, noting that although P1 is referenced, the reference is not sufficient. Journal X starts investigations. Two editorial board members and an independent reviewer confirm the facts as stated above. One of the complaints was submitted in the form of a paper for publication; at present, this has not been sent out for review but is simply being treated as additional evidence/confirmation of plagiarism. (We have recently discovered that this paper has been posted on a web site devoted to plagiarism discussions.)
The co-authorship has changed over the papers P2–P5. A3 is constant (although not always first author) but the “et al” changes. Of particular note is that the authors of P3 are not a subset of P5, despite the fact that content-wise P3 is a subset of P5.
P5 has become highly cited and A3, although junior at the time of submission of P2–P5, has become well known with many papers and sits on the editorial board of journals. This should of course not affect our action, but it is worth noting that our decision could have a significant impact.
A3 has admitted in a non-English language web site that he was invited to submit a revised version of P2 to journals X and Y.
One of the complainants has just pointed us to another publication by A3 et al in a foreign language journal which again appears to have a high degree of overlap, published in the same year as P3 and P4. At the time of submission of this case we have not yet contacted A3 or the referees of P5.
Questions for COPE:
It is clear that the theoretical part of P5 is effectively plagiarised as the reference to P1 is insufficient. How severe should our response be?
There is some element of double submission (P4, P5): is this worth pursuing?
Should we take any action against the reviewers of P5 who have arguably acted unethically, or at least less than ideally?
Other comments are welcome on this complex case.
The Forum discussed this complicated case and agreed that there was some culpability on the part of the editors, given that authors A1 and A2’s work was plagiarised, there was redundant publication and possibly dual submission. The advice was to contact authors A1 and A2 and solicit their opinion. This will give the editor a stronger case against author A3. For multiple papers, the editor should assess the level of overlap and consider retraction of the second paper if the overlap is unacceptable. A3 was a junior author but was also the supervisor on the paper but it may be that publication practices were not correctly understood. The advice from the Forum was to address the plagiarism issue. If there is an acceptable explanation, then the editor should consider the less serious offense of redundant publication. Or the editor may wish to issue a correction, mentioning that papers P1 and P2 should have been cited in the other articles.
We sent a letter to the author A3, setting out our concerns and asking for a response. We also followed the advice from COPE to contact the authors (A1 and A2) of the allegedly plagiarised article. One of these two authors (A1) replied (the other is now emeritus) and said that they had already been contacted by A3 asking for their help in defending the charges. A1 confirmed our view—essentially that the paper did replicate ideas without proper acknowledgement. He was perhaps inclined to be lenient to a junior researcher and regard it as ‘unintentional plagiarism’ but left the decision to us of course. A3 replied, heavily defending their position both on the count of plagiarism and that of double submission. This response was reviewed by the Editors-in-Chief and the two editorial board members who had advised initially as well as the same external referee.
Our conclusion was that the charge of double submission could be dropped (since P3 contains sufficient novel material) but there was definitely inadequate reference to the earlier paper in the theoretical part of the paper. We also decided that there was sufficient novel (and interesting and important) novel material in the paper so that a retraction was inappropriate. We therefore wrote to A3 et al again asking them to sign a short note to be published in the journal acknowledging the inadequate reference to prior work, and apologising for this (we also said that if no response was received we would publish the note in the names of the editor in chiefs. This note also (implicitly) acknowledges that no citation was made to P1 in P3 published in conference Y.
We have recently had a response from A3 et al, agreeing in principle to sign an apology note to be published, but disputing the exact extent of what was to be apologised for. We are currently reviewing these questions within the Editorial Board and will respond to A3 et al shortly.
We also considered the issue of possible unethical behaviour by the editors of journal Z who published paper P4 and who reviewed P3 for journal X. We have decided not to pursue this further owing to lack of hard evidence.
It seems that the substantive issues have now been addressed and the case can probably be regarded as closed (subject to our final editorial board review).