We have received threats of legal action from the authors of a manuscript rejected by our journal, henceforth referred to as journal A. These “aggrieved” authors claim that their manuscript was unfairly reviewed by a close competitor, who then used some of their findings in a paper subsequently published in journal B, without either attribution or citation.
The “accused” scientist had indeed reviewed the paper for journal A, and the date on which he/she had first been sent the paper preceded that of his/her own submission to journal B. The steps of our investigation were as follows:
The aggrieved author was asked to provide additional details on which aspect of his work he/she suspected of being unethically used, and he/she identified a particular paragraph in journal B’s paper, which named two genes which our authors claimed to have identified for the first time in the particular bacterial genus studied in both papers.
Meanwhile, the “accused” scientist was asked to respond to the accusation. His response identified the paragraph in question as being a small area of overlap between the two papers, however, he categorically denied that the content of this paragraph drew in any way on the information presented in the manuscript which he had reviewed for journal A. The accused backed up this denial by sending us a copy of an earlier version of the paper, which had been submitted to and rejected by a previous journal (journal C) months before he had first reviewed the complainant’s paper in journal A.
We confirmed this by contacting the editors of journal C who, after obtaining permission, provided us with an independent copy of the manuscript that had been submitted to his journal. On examination we found that the paragraph in question had remained unchanged, and that the description of the two genes was indeed present before any submission to journal A took place.
We agreed with the accused that this data analysis was a very minor part of the paper published in journal B.
Questions for COPE • At this point, we feel that our investigation has exonerated the accused reviewer of one allegation (unethically using information obtained during the peer review process in his/her own publication). Does COPE agree?
• If the manuscript submitted to journal C (providing independent confirmation of the accused’s defence) had not been available, how would such a case be investigated?
• The other allegation (of the reviewer causing the authors’ manuscript to be unfairly rejected) remains unresolved. The reviewer denies misconduct, but there is at least the appearance of misconduct on the basis of conflict of interest. However, we do not think that any further investigation can resolve this issue. Does COPE agree?
• The aggrieved authors have asked for a correction to acknowledge their work (which was published in yet another journal one month before journal B published its article). While the reviewer did not “steal” any data or ideas, he may have unfairly “squashed” the authors’ publication. However, the data analysis in question is a very minor point in the article published in journal B, and the authors’ work may simply be independent corroboration. At this time we do not feel a correction is warranted because we have no evidence of wrongdoing. Does COPE agree?
• Are there other options that might be used in place of a correction?
The Forum agreed that the accused reviewer had been exonerated. The advice from the Forum was that the editor should obtain permission from the reviewer to contact the authors, tell them that their allegations were unfounded and explain the situation to them. The authors should be informed that the reviewer has given his permission for this disclosure as the editor is not obliged to reveal the names of reviewers if the journal operates a closed peer review system. The editor might also suggest that the authors may like to consider an apology to the reviewer. However, some Forum members voiced concerns that the reviewer did have a conflict of issue and that he should have declared this initially.
The reviewer was notified (as were the editors of the other journals) that he had been exonerated, with thanks for his patience and for his cooperation throughout the investigation. The author was also contacted and told that the reviewer had been exonerated. The authors did not formally apologise to the reviewer.
A manuscript was submitted via our electronic submission system and processed in accordance with the standard procedures of the journal. This was originally a single author submission, and in the covering letter the author suggested two potential reviewers.
The Associate Editor assigned reviewers, choosing reviewer A along the suggestions of the author, and reviewer B from his own list of reviewers.
The reviews of the original version came with conclusions "Accept after major revision" (rev A) and "Accept after minor revision" (rev B). On that basis, on 12 December 2008 the Associate Editor submitted a decision "Accept after major revision", and requested the author to prepare it within 90 days.
The revised version of the paper arrived on 20 December 2008. Without sending it to any more reviewers, the Associate Editor decided to recommend acceptance of the paper in its present form. According to the Journal's procedures, the manuscript is available to the editor-in-chief EIC for a final decision.
Examination of the revised manuscript led to a disturbing discovery. This version was headed by two authors, and the name of the second author was the same as the name of reviewer A.
The whole reviewing procedure was immediately halted. The editor-in-chief together with the Managing Editor sent an email to the original author with a request to confirm in writing the authorship of the revised version (this was done also because in the covering letter and in the revised version there were different sets of names). The author confirmed that the revised version was co-authored by two authors: he and reviewer A.
The conclusion of the editors was that indeed there was serious misconduct, most probably on the side of the reviewer. We can only speculate if there is misconduct on the side of the author or of both people together.
The author was asked by email to explain how the second author, reviewer A, had been included as a co-author of this contribution? The reply was that: “Reviewer A helped me improve the manuscript in grammatical and logical feature, and provided some new references. Furthermore, we share some detailed skills in the experimental methods, so I added him as a co-author in the revision paper.”
This situation led the editor-in-chief to assign the paper to reviewer C to determine if the manuscript is indeed worth publishing. The final recommendation of that review was that the manuscript should be rejected.
The editor-in-chief is asking for COPE recommendation as to the further processing of this manuscript: • The editor-in-chief is convinced that the paper should be rejected. However, should it be rejected on pure scientific or also ethics grounds? • Should the authorities from the author's institution be informed? • It seems that more obvious guilt is on the side of the reviewer A. Permanent removal from the journal’s database seems to be an obvious decision. However, from other sources we also know that he is a member of editorial boards of other journals. Should we try to contact editors and inform them about the whole situation? • This reviewer was also keen to become a member of our Editorial Board. This would of course be impossible in the present circumstances. However, should we try to inform the authorities of his institution about his serious misconduct?
The Forum wondered whether the editor has asked the reviewer for an explanation of his behaviour. Has he given his side of the story? The Forum noted that it is possible that the criteria for authorship might be satisfied by the reviewer. If reviewer made a substantial contribution to the revised paper, he could legitimately become an author. So there may be a legitimate reason for the reviewer being an author and the editor needs to contact the reviewer and clarify this. If the editor is satisfied that the reviewer is an author, the paper should be re-reviewed and sent out to a new reviewer. It may then be rejected on scientific grounds. The Forum did not think reporting the case to the institution was a good idea at the present time.
Following presentation of this case at COPE, we followed the advice of the Forum and contacted the reviewer with a kind request to explain his side of the story. At the same time, the manuscript was evaluated by an independent reviewer and the recommendation was to reject this submission.
When the explanation was received from the reviewer, it differed from that of the authors and thus we decided to reject the manuscript and not to undertake any further action against either of the persons involved.
The reviewer is still providing services to our journal and no further signs of misconduct have been observed. However, we have decided that we will not propose the reviewer to become one of the associate editors for the journal.
This is a report of two cases of possible misconduct by the same author(s): one that was identified during the review process and one only after it was published.
We believe the author tried to publish a paper that was a verbatim copy of one that had appeared in another journal a few years earlier. A vigilant reviewer of the “copied” paper alerted the editor that, on verifying the references, he had found that the paper was a carbon copy of an already published article. Having realised that the author and the same graduate student had already published a paper in our journal a year before, we took the time to search the literature for any IP violation from the first paper. We discovered that the paper already published in our journal was a verbatim (not a single word or graph changed) copy of another one.
Also, one of the two reviewers who accepted the first paper that was published in our journal was the author of the original paper from which it was copied. Did he accept it inadvertently, not recognising his own original publication, albeit after a few years? Was he in collusion because he was a friend or a compatriot “wanting to help”?
We then wrote to the authors informing them of the two discoveries and requesting an explanation, an apology or retraction, and notifying them that we may contact the University President about their unethical behaviour. The senior author withdrew the paper being currently reviewed but nothing else. We then wrote to his University’s President, only to discover a couple of weeks later, through a more thorough search, that he was indeed the University President.
We then wrote to the Ambassador (High Commissioner) of this person’s country, explaining the incident and the cloud of suspicion such behaviour (far from being isolated) would bring to science from their country. What we found particularly repulsive is how a professor can act like this, in collusion with graduate students. We received no response despite a reminder. We then decided to write to the President of that country directly, as he was known as an eminent mathematician. We got no response. Finally, we wrote to the President of the Maths Society of that country but again no response was received.
The first published paper was retracted from our journal and the guilty authors were named. We also informed 6–7 journals in our field not to accept any papers from this individual or his group.
I would be very curious to know what COPE would bring to cases like these (denunciation, banishment, penalties, general alert?).
The Forum congratulated the editor on his handling of the case and considered that this was a model way of proceeding under the circumstances. The Forum noted that it can be very disheartening to follow-up on these inquiries when no response is forthcoming. It was suggested that the editor could now mention the fact that he has brought the case to COPE - sometimes this elicits a response. The Forum wondered how the reviewer did not spot the plagiarism and suggested looking into the reviewer’s conduct. Another suggestion was to see if the author belongs to a society or association that the editor could lodge a complaint with. Other advice was to write an editorial in the journal highlighting the issue. This could be done anonymously and would demonstrate to the reader that the journal’s system is working and also that this type of misconduct will not be tolerated by the journal. The Forum also agreed that it would enhance the reputation of the journal. The Forum reiterated COPE’s general view that it doesn’t endorse sanctions against authors.
We ask our contributors to send us short mini-reviews of interesting articles they have come across in their regular reading. Most of our members also act as peer-reviewers and come across interesting articles as part of the peer-review process, before they are published .
If they sent us one of those mini-reviews of an article they have peer-reviewed, and we kept the submission on file inhouse until the article is published (on a password protected contributor page), would you regard this as a breach of confidentiality?
The Forum were unanimous in their opinion that this would be a breach of confidentiality. It would also be misconduct on the part of the reviewer as the peer review process should be completely confidential. The issue here is the fact that the article has not been published. In addition to the confidentiality and ethical issues, there is also the problem that the peer-reviewed article may be revised and so would not be the same as the published article. All agreed that it was acceptable to comment on a published article but not on a submitted article.
We have dismissed the idea of using peer review reports or notes in any way. We consider this case now closed.
A paper was submitted to us describing an RCT carried out in a Far Eastern hospital. Soon after the manuscript had been sent out for review, one of the reviewers sent a letter alerting us to a “possible case of fraud”. The reviewer in question appears to have compared notes with another investigator in his institute, and together they realised that the same group had submitted two similar trials to two different journals (without enclosing the related paper in their submission to us).
There is ambiguity here, but we believe that the allegation is one of fraud (Do the patients really exist? Are the two groups of patients overlapping?) rather than duplicate publication.
We challenged the authors, asking them to send us the related manuscript and protocol. This they did very willingly, and they sent files of primary data too.
The authors then withdrew the related paper submitted elsewhere. Although this seems suspicious, it seems that the authors thought we would be less favourably inclined to the paper they had submitted to us if a related paper from them was accepted by another journal first.
Review of the paper submitted to us proceeded, although the individual who had alleged fraud did not send a report.
Sufficient technical criticisms were raised to justify rejecting the paper, in our opinion. However, as far as we know, independently, one of the other referees commented “somewhat puzzling are the exceptionally well balanced, perfect patient characteristics in table 1”.
We have now rejected the paper in question. We would like COPE’s advice on what to do further—we are open to persuasion, but are not sure that there is sufficient evidence of wrongdoing to ask for an institutional investigation. We have not yet responded to the reviewer who raised the initial allegation of fraud.
The Forum questioned the idea of requesting an institutional investigation in view of the fact that there is no clear evidence of wrongdoing. Also, would the investigation be conducted properly and would the authors receive a fair trial? Others questioned whether it would be a sensible use of editorial resources. The Forum suggested that as the authors are aware that the editor has raised suspicions regarding the paper, that may be sufficient warning for them. Other advice was to contact the reviewer explaining that it is not good practice to compare notes with other investigators as such material should be treated as confidential.
The paper was rejected and the editor decided not to try to initiate an institutional investigation owing to insufficient evidence of wrongdoing. Later the editor heard from the refereeing “whistleblower” (who had written to the editor to allege “possible fraud”) that the same paper had been accepted at another journal, and that he had been invited to write an editorial. A couple of weeks ago, the editor heard from the same “whistleblower” that the other journal rejected the paper and were considering an investigation. The journal is no longer actively involved in pursuing this matter.
The journal submitting this case to COPE sent a paper [paper 1] to a reviewer who wrote this in the review: “…That apart, this manuscript seems to be another report of the already published **** trial, looking at the data from a slightly different angle. I am not convinced, however, that the data is worthy of so many submissions.”
And, in a separate email to the handling editor: “Just by chance, I have already reviewed a paper [paper 2] by the same group involving the same study for xxxx journal recently. I do not know the outcome of the refereeing process at that journal, but it does seem to me that the two papers are similar in many respects, and too similar to be both published. I have taken the unusual step of attaching the paper [paper 2] I was asked to review by that journal so you can decide whether or not you really wish me to comment on the one submitted to you. If you think this is "inappropriate", just ignore the attachment, let me know, and I will review your paper tomorrow. Sorry for this convoluted message, but I thought you ought to be aware of the situation.”
The handling editor felt that paper 2 did not overlap too much and when the editorial team discussed paper 1, paper 2 was included in the pack of reading material and read by all or most of the editors, the external editorial adviser and the statistician.
At the meeting, the team discussed the ethical problem raised by this and decided that:
The reviewer should have said “I know about this other paper - would you like to see it (not “here it is, tear it up if you like”)?”
The editors should have contacted the authors and said “the reviewer’s told us you have another similar paper - you should have mentioned this in your cover letter, can you tell us about it now?”
The editors should not have read paper 2 without the author’s permission because it was being considered in confidence at another journal.
Outcome so far:
The editorial team discussed paper 1 on its merits and rejected it because the research question was only indirectly answered with an over technical analysis and because the paper did not add enough to previously published work, including the author’s own.
The editors did not mention to the authors that they had seen paper 2.
The editors agreed to ask COPE’s advice on whether to take the ethical problem further.
Questions for COPE:
(1) Should the editors tell the authors all the above now, apologising, and explaining again that there were standalone reasons for rejecting paper 1?
(2) Doing so would unblind the reviewer of paper 2: this journal uses open (signed) peer review but the other journal doesn’t. Should the editors seek the reviewer’s permission before contacting the authors?
As there were standalone reasons for rejecting paper 1, the Forum agreed that contacting the authors would serve no purpose. The advice was to contact the reviewer and explain that he should not have sent paper 2 to the editor, breaching confidentiality. The reviewer should have raised the issue with the editor stating that he had concerns regarding the paper but should not have shared confidential information. All agreed that the reviewer should be made aware of his mistake so as to prevent the occurrence of such an incident in the future.
The editor concerned has found this a useful learning experience. The reviewer was contacted (very tactfully but making it clear that he too had slipped up). No reply has been received to date.
One of the figures in an article under review was said by the authors to appear in a presentation given at a conference while the paper was still under review and from this identified the reviewer and accused this person of abusing their position. We could not confirm to the authors that they had correctly identified the reviewer. The authors contacted the reviewer directly and also contacted the Brain office.
When contacted by our office, the reviewer confirmed that s/he did use some data previously presented by this group of authors but in no way used this figure and did credit the authors. The reviewer had deleted the slides of the talk when I asked for them. The authors claim that the figure presented by the reviewer was identical to that in their paper under review and could not have been created using any of their previously presented data.
The referee was removed from the list of reviewers for this article and told why, although the reviewer insists that no figure was used from this paper. The authors wanted us to remove the referee from our database completely and when we disagreed with this, withdrew their article. They have since requested to reinstate the article. (The editor declined this request as the paper was unlikely to be recommended for publication in any case for scientific reasons).
The authors of the paper used to work in the same group as the reviewer and did not wish for the reviewer to be professionally harmed by the incident and therefore the department wasn't informed. The Editor of our journal does not think the issue should be taken any further. I am bringing the case to have some opinion on how others would have handled the situation.
Bearing in mind that the authors did not the reviewer to be professionally affected, the actions we took were to:
remove the reviewer from this submission
offer not to send any future submissions from these authors to this reviewer
contact the reviewer to explain the accusation.
The reviewer was wholly apologetic that there had been any misunderstanding and assured us that s/he takes the confidentiality of the review process very seriously.
This case regarding the conduct of a reviewer prompted mixed views from the committee. Some argued that the reviewer should be permanently removed from the journal’s list while others argued that such action was too harsh. Bearing in mind that there was no hard evidence, most agreed that the editor had acted correctly. On balance, there was general approval for the editor and his actions.
The editor has had no further contact from the authors or the referee. The referee has not been used since by the journal, although he has not officially been removed from the database. The authors made no comment when the editor told them the advice they had received from COPE. The editor still feels he was right not to remove the referee from the database. The journal considers the case closed.
During refereeing of an article, one of the referees made an accusation of theft regarding a model described in the article. The referee and the authors had been collaborating on a review article previously, but had fallen out. The journal requested evidence from the parties. This involved several rounds of requests to the accuser, as the journal felt that the accuser was not providing anything amounting to actual evidence of the alleged theft. Owing to the technical nature of some of the evidence, the journal informed the parties that the material would be sent to an anonymous expert for adjudication. The adjudicator concluded that no evidence had been provided that supported the accusation. The journal will therefore be continuing its usual editorial consideration of the article. The investigation has delayed the progress of the article for several months.
Should the journal inform the accuser’s institution of these events?
Are there any other steps the journal should take?
There was obviously an existing dispute between the reviewer and the author and it was suggested that they should settle their argument between them. However, it was felt that this would not happen as they were no longer on speaking terms.
As the reviewer’s actions had caused some delay in the processing of the authors’ manuscript, it was suggested that the editor might like to determine if the reviewer had an undeclared conflict of interest. The injured party in this case was the author of the paper, and one possible course of action would be to suggest to the author that he write to the reviewer’s institution and complain about the reviewer’s behaviour.
It was felt that the editor should not write to the reviewer’s institution, as he had no evidence that the paper was deliberately delayed by the reviewer. However, he might wish to write a moderately worded letter to the reviewer, pointing out concerns about his behaviour and including details about what is expected of reviewers of papers for the journal. While it would be up to the editor to decide whether or not to use the reviewer in future, any suggestion of producing a “blacklist” of unsuitable reviewers was to be rejected.
In short, the editor in chief wrote to the complainant indicating that the journal had asked an independent expert to review the evidence presented, and that the result of the inquiry was that no evidence to support the complaint could be found. The complainant was informed that the journal intended to go ahead with the publication of the article. The author was also informed of this decision.
The article has been published, and no further communication from the complainant has been received.
We are aware, however, that the complainant has subsequently raised similar objections with another journal after the publication of a separate article in this area by the same author. We have informed the editor in chief of that journal of the circumstances of the complaint lodged with us, our investigation, and actions.
A concise report on a rare disease was submitted and sent out to an internationally renowned reviewer in the field. He felt that some of the data had been obtained in his unit, and this had not been acknowledged by the authors. The authors responded that the tests had been performed in their own laboratory, but that the scans had indeed been done elsewhere. The editor suggested that perhaps the authors should consider an appropriate acknowledgement with the agreement of the unit where the scans had been carried out. The authors agreed to this, bur the reviewer would not agree until he had seen the final version of the paper. The manuscript was forwarded to the reviewer, who was no longer the official reviewer for the paper, because of the conflict of interest. He revealed his identity by writing directly to the authors, and asked for extensive changes to be made to the manuscript. The authors complained that the reviewer had abused his position by requesting such extensive changes. Both of the subsequent reviewers thought the study was sound. They were unaware of its history.
- Many journals have a policy of requiring the authors to obtain the signed permission of the person being acknowledged to prevent disputes. - Any acknowledgement must be agreed by the person being acknowledged. - The second unit is really disputing the authors’ interpretation of the results so it might be better for the second unit to write an accompanying commentary setting out their views. - It is the editor’s decision as to which reviewers’ comments will be taken into consideration, and a reviewer does not have the right to demand that certain alterations be made to a paper. - Ultimately, this case is analogous to a dispute between co-authors, and they should sort it out for themselves before publication goes ahead. - The editor should clarify the review procedure for the paper with the authors and ask them to sort out the dispute before publication can go ahead. - One option might be to publish a letter alongside the article setting out the points of dispute, if the authors cannot resolve it.
A member of the editorial board of Journal A was approached by an overseas colleague with a strange tale. An epidemiological study had been conducted in the community around an industrial facility, funded by a group of plaintiffs’ lawyers. The study concluded that health effects in the community were related to exposures emanating from the facility. A paper based on the study was submitted to Journal A and rejected. It was also submitted in support of a lawsuit (relating to the same plaintiffs). As part of the “discovery” process, the author, who was an expert witness for the plaintiffs, disclosed that the paper had been rejected by Journal A and he had to submit to the court the reviewers’ reports. The reports were seen by the overseas colleague. One review was detailed and critical; the other was general and positive, and recommended publication. It emerged in court that the positive review came from an individual who was working on behalf of the plaintiffs as a paid expert and who “had had a relationship with the study author for more than 10 years. ” The primary question from the overseas colleague is whether the reviewer was nominated by the author or was chosen quite independently by the Journal. Bias by the reviewer and collusion seems more likely if the reviewer was nominated by the author. Journal A encourages nomination of suitable reviewers, but only uses them sometimes, and always with another one chosen separately. The editor of Journal A is seeking legal advice about revealing whether the reviewer was nominated by the author. The Journal is also going to introduce a specific requirement for reviewers to declare any possible competing interests. This would not necessarily prevent malpractice, but it does show reviewers this is an issue that is taken seriously. This case is submitted as a reminder that reviewers can also misbehave and to seek guidance about any further action required. The positive review by the reviewer suspected of misconduct was apparently presented during the court case in support of the scientific validity of the paper rejected by Journal A. Legal advice to the editor of Journal A is that it is permissible to reveal that the reviewer in question was nominated by the author of the paper (as is the case) but without offering any comment on the case.
_ This is a case for the record. _ It is a salutary reminder about requesting that both reviewers and authors declare competing interests. _ Authors can pressurise editors, but they should resist such pressure. _ When reviewer comments are sent to authors perhaps they should carry a disclaimer.
The Editor provided a signed declaration stating the journal’s practice of asking authors to suggest reviewer(s) who may or may not be used for that purpose. The Editor’s declaration stated that the reviewer in question was nominated by the authors and that no competing interest was declared by either the authors or the reviewer.