We are a publisher with a portfolio of about 25 journals, with journal X being the flagship journal. Journal X has a high impact factor. We also publish a range of other, newer journals, some of which are ranked highly but most have no impact factor.
An author submitted a manuscript to journal Y where it underwent peer review and was accepted after revisions. After acceptance, the author contacted the editor saying that he had made a mistake and wished to have the paper considered by journal X instead, because it has an impact factor, and stated that if the editor would not publish the article in journal X, the consensus of all authors is to withdraw the paper from journal Y in order to submit it to a journal with an impact factor. The editor informed the author that the paper was not suitable for journal X and that his behaviour was unethical: withdrawal after acceptance violates scientific community norms, as it wastes editorial and peer reviewer resources, in particular if there are no scientific reasons to do so.
The editor wrote to the authors stating that if they insist on a withdrawal at this stage there would be three sanctions: 1) they would be blacklisted (ie, none of the publisher’s journals would consider future submissions from any of the authors, 2) the journal would write a letter to the superiors of the authors outlining the case and 3) they would still be responsible for the Article Processing Charge which is payable on acceptance; ours is an open access journal, with the fee schedule clearly disclosed and agreed upon by the submitting author (the fee schedule specifies that if the paper is withdrawn after acceptance it is still payable and will not be refunded).
The author continues to say that they made a mistake—they thought that journal Y was a section within journal X (in reality the submission form clearly allows the author to pick a journal from a dropdown list and the submission acknowledgement email also contains the name of the journal, as does all subsequent communications). On submission, the author checked a box where he agreed on a possible transfer of the paper within the publisher family.
The author pleads that “The kinds of journals that my PhD student publishes in potentially affects his graduation prospects” and that publication in journal Y “could have terrible repercussions for a very promising PhD student”, as well as “going to negatively affect my prospects [for promotion and tenure]”. The editor is not impressed by these arguments as they illustrate a misuse of the impact factor, and PhD students should be taught to respect the journal submission and peer review/publication process and not taught that it is acceptable to waste editorial resources in order to play impact factor games.
Question(s) for the COPE Forum
• What does the Forum think about the ethics of withdrawing a paper during or after peer review in order to publish in a higher impact factor journal?
• If the Forum agrees with the assessment that the authors acted in an unethical fashion, are the sanctions proposed by the editor in this case reasonable?
• Is there anything else that should be done?
The Forum agreed that this was not good behaviour on the part of the author, but COPE would always advocate a more educational rather than a punitive approach. COPE guidance also advises against blacklisting authors.
Although it seems that the authors’ behaviour was intentional, it is the authors’ prerogative to withdraw a paper at any point before it is published. While the Forum agreed that such behaviour is deplorable and a waste of editorial resources, the advice was to communicate this message clearly to the authors but not necessarily to directly punish them. This is especially applicable to more junior authors.
A suggestion was to write an editorial on this issue in general, explaining why it is not good practice.
Another suggestion was to review the journal submission system and consider outside user testing to make sure there is no confusion for authors regarding submission to different journals in the publisher portfolio. The Forum also noted that it is unusual to charge an author if they withdraw a paper that is not published and hence the editor may wish to reconsider this decision.
Despite communication with the authors that their behaviour was "not good" and in fact "deplorable" (citing the COPE Forum), and despite communication from the dean of the university that the authors’ behaviour is based on a gross misunderstanding on how the university evaluates the value of a publication (which is not based on the impact factor), the authors still insisted on withdrawing their manuscript.
The journal and publisher refrained from any further sanctions, such as blacklisting authors or charging the Article Processing Fee for a peer-reviewed and accepted (but not published) manuscript. The publisher has also discontinued its use of any formal blacklist.
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 author submitted a redundant publication to one of our journals. After reviewing the report from the anti-plagiarism software, we followed the COPE flowchart up to and including contacting the author's institution. We have not received a response from the author or the author's institution. Shortly afterwards, the same author submitted a (different) redundant publication to one of our other journals. We followed the same steps and have not received a response.
The institution listed in the author's submission form is not an academic one. We cannot find the author on the staff list and the only email address the author has provided is a Gmail account.
Question(s) for the COPE Forum • What additional steps can/should we should take if the author/institution is unresponsive?
The editor provided additional information to the Forum that the two submissions contained plagiarised material and were replications of two already published articles. The editor has written to the author and the institution but has received no response.
In such cases the Forum would normally advise approaching a higher authority than the institution if that is possible. Is there a professional body that the author belongs to or a funder that could be contacted? In the UK, for example, you might contact the General Medical Council (GMC) if the author was a registered doctor.
However, the Forum acknowledged that there is only so much the editor can do, and it may be the case that the editor has to accept that there is nothing more he can do. The Forum advised making all the journal editors aware of this person in case future submissions are received but advised against blacklisting, especially if the true identity of the author is in doubt.
The editor attempted to contact the author/institution again but to no avail. Both papers were rejected (and the journal’s concerns about the high level of textual overlap were included in that letter, following COPE sample letters). The journal considers the case closed.
A reviewer, R1, brought to our attention several suspected cases of plagiarism in paper A1, submitted by authors A.
The main concerns were: — large parts of paper A1 resembled paper B submitted by a different group of authors B, with one of the most major changes being a change in the observation day; — large parts of a section were taken from paper C by author C, including an entire figure; — other sentences were copied from other papers.
The paper was rejected with no further repercussions for authors A. Authors A then resubmitted the manuscript to our journal a year later. We had since become more aware of pursuing cases of suspected plagiarism and asked for a statement before submission to peer review. Authors A answered in great detail, providing lots of information, apologizing profoundly and promised to take the utmost care that this would never happen again. We discussed this case and decided to proceed with peer review, treating this as a once only mistake and noticed that all of the criticized sections and more had been removed and/or rewritten.
Paper A2 was then reviewed by reviewer R2, who found new cases of plagiarism, different from the first. Again, the corresponding author A, when asked to comment, apologized profusely. We are unsure how to treat this, as the sections copied are not too extensive. However, given the author's history, we feel the need to issue a ban or possibly notify the institute? Does the Forum agree?
The Forum advised contacting the author’s institution. The editor should write to the institution informing them of the misconduct, but emphasising that the authors perhaps need to be educated on how to correctly cite papers, reiterating that this type of behaviour is unacceptable. The Forum agreed that it is likely that the author will continue to submit articles unless there is some intervention from the institution. The Forum again noted that COPE does not support sanctions against authors or banning authors from submitting papers because of the legal ramifications,
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.
The editors in chief of journal A and journal B, both owned by society C, received a letter from the last ‘senior’ author, also the corresponding author on one of the papers (author D), concerning separate papers published in both journals (paper E published in journal A and paper F published in journal B), informing them that one of the co-authors on both papers is under investigation for scientific fraud. The results of the investigation are expected to take a further 6 months to complete. The case has, however, attracted some press attention and there is a danger that the journals will be brought into disrepute by association. Author D listed the figures in both papers E and F which the other co-authors had determined, on subsequent examination, to be fraudulently manipulated and/or duplicated and asked for advice on further action. Figures had been duplicated from a third publication, journal G. Author D is a member of the editorial board of journal A. The letter sent by author D was co-signed by all authors except the author accused of fraud. The accused author was the corresponding author on one of the papers.
The editors in chief of both journals also received a letter to the editor from an independent observer of the case, criticising the editorial process that led to the papers being accepted and published.
The society and editors in chief naturally wished to respond rapidly to author D and to avoid any damage to the reputations of the journals through association. Following standard society policy and procedure, and consulting the COPE guidelines, the editors in chief referred the case to the society’s independent publication ethics committee.
The editors in chief also instigated a review of the editorial processes for the two papers to be conducted by (1) a former editor of both journals who was familiar with the subject area covered by the papers and (2) the chair of the society’s publications committee.
The publications ethics committee investigated and confirmed the figure duplication and manipulation described by author D and recommended:
(1) that author D should be asked to retract the papers (2) that all authors should be banned from submitting to either journal for 1 year, as is standard practice, on the grounds that all authors take joint responsibility for the content of submitted papers (3) the third journal, journal G, should be informed of the actions being taken (4) that author D be asked to resign as an editor of journal A to avoid bringing the journal into disrepute by association.
The outcome of the internal review of the editorial process leading to the publication of the papers is incomplete at the time of submission. Findings will be fed back to the editorial boards at meetings in July for discussion and action.
The society and editors in chief seek a second opinion on the recommendations of the publications ethics committee and advice on improving the editorial process to avoid similar cases in future. We would also like advice on:
(a) what opportunity to reply must be afforded to the author, who is effectively accused prior to a public notice by the journals; (b) in light of the COPE guidelines and the COPE definition of 'author', should the nature of response depend on whether the corresponding or another author notifies the publisher/journal of a potential problem.
COPE never recommends banning authors because of the legal implications involved. The Forum agreed that author D acted honourably by acting quickly and co-ordinating the retraction but agreed that the journal’s response should not depend on whether the corresponding or another author notifies the journal of a potential problem. The Forum was told that the editor has contacted the accused author and given him the opportunity to respond. He has not responded to date. The Forum agreed that the editor can go ahead with the retractions, even if the accused author does not respond. The Forum suggested contacting all of the authors and giving them the opportunity to respond.
However, some suggested that if the editor is in doubt about any aspects of the case, he should wait for the results of the investigation before proceeding.
In view of the general interest in the case and further accusations of lax editing, and in order to preserve the reputation of the journals, the editors-in-chief decided to retract the papers, with the agreement of all authors, except for the author accused of misconduct, without waiting for the outcome of the external investigation. The society is continuing to review editorial procedures to heighten awareness of figure manipulation and duplication among reviewers and editors. The practice of banning authors will be reviewed.
Our case relates to a paper (by author’s A and B) that was retracted because of lack of acknowledgement of the contribution of another author (C). The retraction statement noted: “While the A/B paper is largely the work of A and B, it includes some sentences and ideas that previously appeared in an unpublished paper and/or Power Point presentation only with A and C listed as authors. We regret that the paper was published without any acknowledgement of the earlier collaborative work.” Author A has contacted the journal expressing concern that this retraction is damaging his reputation.
The basis for the retraction was evidence from C that parts of the A/B paper were the same as parts of a paper started by A and C but never finalized or published. C provided six specific cases involving about 23 lines of duplication. While this represents a small percentage (about 4%) of the total number of lines in the paper, because they duplicated lines from some version of the A/C paper, the editor believes there was a moral obligation on A and the new author (B) to acknowledge the earlier paper and/or the collaborative efforts of C.
However, A claims that (1) s/he wrote all of the A/C paper, (2) asked C to identify his/her own material, (3) offered to delete any such material from the final paper with B , (4) received no instructions regarding what to delete and (5) proceeded to use whatever he liked and drop whatever he did not like. There is no way for anyone now to know exactly what A and/or C wrote in the various versions of the A/C paper or what exactly each contributed to the ideas that were presented in the PowerPoint presentation.
The editor felt that there was a clear obligation on the part of A to acknowledge the earlier collaborative work with C, and that there was an equally clear obligation on the part of the journal to inform its readers that this acknowledgement was neglected in the A/B paper. A’s obligation resulted from (1) all the collaborative efforts between himself and C, (2) the fact that both A and C were listed as authors of the PowerPoint presentation and the various versions of the unpublished paper, and (3) the fact that A’s signature on the Statement of Authorship claiming originality of the entire work was not true.
Author A is contesting the retraction and states that the posting has damaged his personal reputation and career. The case was referred to the publisher’s Plagiarism and Piracy Task Force, but this committee could not agree, since some felt the editor had acted correctly, but others felt some sympathy with author A.
The Forum was unanimous in their opinion that they would not recommend retraction for misattribution of authorship or a missing acknowledgement (which could be resolved by a correction) or as a form of punishment for the authors (as stated in the COPE guidelines). A correction, rather than a retraction, would appear to be more appropriate in this case. An article should be retracted only if the findings are unreliable or in cases of serious misconduct such as plagiarism. Also, COPE does not advocate banning offending authors from publication for any period of time as it may have legal implications. The advice from the Forum was to retract the retraction using carefully agreed wording and publish a correction that acknowledges the original co-authorship of the original complainant. The Forum advised the editor to check the journal’s guidelines on retraction and consult COPE’s guidelines on retraction.
We have implemented COPE’s recommendations. We consider the case now closed.
The PhD supervisor and a co-supervisor published a paper. The paper contained the work of a PhD student; approximately 90% of the paper was from the thesis. The PhD student found out when the paper was electronically pre-published. He contacted the supervisor. The supervisor’s first reaction was “How did you find out”? The supervisor did not want to include the PhD student as an author since he himself had done most of the work. The editor decided to remove the paper from the journal until the case was decided.
The editor contacted the supervisor and he stated that he would have included the student as an author when the paper was accepted. Contact with the co-supervisor (and co-author) showed that he was not aware of the paper. He found the quality too low and did not want to be involved. He informed the editor that a similar case with the supervisor had occurred in another journal, 2 years earlier. (The editor contacted the editor of the other journal who confirmed that a similar case had occurred and the paper had not been published.) The paper was finally removed from the journal; no paper version had been printed.
What do we do in this case? We want to ban the supervisor but allow the student to publish. The editor told the PhD student that he could submit a paper himself. However, the quality may not be sufficiently high for it to be accepted. To date, the PhD student has not submitted a paper to the journal.
The Forum emphasised the fact that if something is published online (especially it it has a DOI number), then it should be considered published. Hence, an editor cannot simply remove a paper from their website. A paper should only be removed from on online site if it has been formally retracted. In this case, the paper should be re-instated on the website, with an expression of concern. The editor should contact the author’s institution at a high level—perhaps the head of department or dean of the university—and request that they conduct an investigation into this case. An expression of concern can be published on the website while the editor is waiting on the outcome of the investigation. Depending on the outcome, the editor may then decide to retract the paper. COPE does not recommend banning any author because of the legal implications. The editor may want to discuss this with his publisher.
I followed the advice from COPE and contacted the university in question and asked them to investigate the case. They have responded that they will investigate and come back with their results.
Follow Up (December 2010): The editor contacted the institution and asked for their decision but they did not respond. The editor now considers the case closed.
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.