Journal A received a number of concerns from a reader regarding a paper published in the journal. These concerns were reviewed and sent to the authors of a paper, along with additional comments from the editorial board. The concern was largely around retrospective registration, and an inconsistency between the trial registry record and the published paper. An editorial board member conducted a full comparison of the trial registry entry with the paper.
The authors have admitted honest error with full explanations. The editor-in-chief has asked for confirmation that all authors and institution are aware and outlined options for next steps. The suggested options for next steps from the editor-in-chief are: (a) retraction of the paper; (b) substantial corrections and explicit declaration of the flaws of the trial procedures and protocol violations and selective and misleading reporting; which may well render the trial invalid or at least biased, and then providing a better and corrected summary table and narrative of what can be legitimately said. This is not ideal and will regrettably give the impression of insufficient rigour in the execution of a trial and the data still being in the public domain, although a more confident statement of a negative trial is better than selective reporting of some positive findings; (c) or we invite retrospective critique and commentary on trial and trials in general when reported to be invalid or flawed; this is an important educative role, but does not remedy that the trial data are in the public domain and are misleading.
Again, the authors offered an apology claiming honest error and preference for the article not to be retracted. They have offered to publish a correspondence letter to explain the registration issues in due course or correct any inconsistent sections according to the review comments and registry information. The journal is now questioning the next course of action: retraction, corrigendum and/or an editorial outlining the issue.
Question(s) for the COPE Forum
• The Editorial Board were initially considering retraction but are now considering publishing a narrative/editorial of the issues for transparency, confirming the journal’s current/new policy of requiring prospective registration and an explanation of any changes in protocol in the methods section. Should this accompany a corrigendum?
• Ethics approval: approved in April 2011, but the protocol states study execution time is August 2010 to July 2013. The authors state that the first patient was referred in May 2011. Does this need further explanation?
• Should the editorial board consider retraction?
• Are there any other actions the board should consider?
The Forum asked if the journal had contacted the institution and if there was an investigation in progress. The editor informed the Forum that the journal has asked for confirmation that all of the authors and the institution are aware of the issues, but no response has been received to date. The authors have stated that the institution was not aware of the need for prospective registration. The editor may like to pursue the institution for more information.
The Forum suggested publishing an editorial note on the paper or, if the institution agrees to undertake an investigation, publishing an expression of concern. As there seems to be no institutional oversight, perhaps the editor should give the authors the benefit of the doubt. This could be an important educational opportunity, to educate the authors regarding trial registration; although now an international standard, many authors do not know about prospective registration. Hence a lengthy corrigendum and an editorial highlighting the issues would be appropriate.
The Council of Science Editors has a lengthy section on their website about correcting the literature with samples of actual corrections (https://www.councilscienceeditors.org/resource-library/editorial-policie...). In general, the correction options are errata, corrigenda, expressions of concern, and retractions, although some of the wording is nuanced in ways that might be helpful in this situation. The editorial note referenced above seems to fall under the category of an Editorial Expression of Concern. The National Library of Medicine has a fact sheet (https://www.nlm.nih.gov/pubs/factsheets/errata.html) detailing the types of corrections that can be linked to an article. This list includes “Comments” which could be used to link commentary from the authors as well as from editors.
Some journals ask for the full protocol to be submitted to the journal along with the article. The journal then checks the protocol against the paper before the paper is peer-reviewed. The authors are asked to explain any deviations from the protocol. The editor may wish to consider this approach to avoid similar situations in the future.
The Senior Editorial Committee reviewed the advice from the COPE Forum and agreed with the suggested actions. The authors have drafted a Corrigendum, and this is currently undergoing review and revision by a board member with expertise in the field. Members of the editorial board are currently drafting an editorial for publication alongside the Corrigendum. An Expression of Concern will be published shortly to alert authors while the Corrigendum and editorial are drafted.
Advice on follow up:
Follow-up (May 2019)
The authors requested changes to the corrigendum which could not be accommodated. On this basis the Senior Editorial Committee decided to retract the paper. The retraction notice and editorial have been drafted and will be published online shortly.
As managing editor, I view all manuscripts before they are assigned to an editor. Within a 4 week period, I have detected five manuscripts where photographs of either gels or plant materials were used twice or three times in the same manuscript. These manuscripts were immediately rejected.
However, we are not convinced that these are cases of deliberate misleading of the scientific community. It rather seems to us that many laboratories consider photographs as illustrations that can be manipulated, and not as original data. Thus gels are often cleaned of impurities, bands are cut out and photographs of plant material only serve to show what the authors want to demonstrate, and the material does not necessarily originate from the experiment in question.
When the editor-in-chief rejected such a manuscript, a typical response was: “I am surprised by the question and problem you pointed out in our manuscript. I checked the pictures you mentioned and I agree that they are really identical. But please be reminded that the purpose of these gel pictures was only to show the different types of banding pattern, and the gels of a few specific types were not very clear, so my PhD student repeatedly used the clearer ones. This misleading usage does not have an influence on data statistics or the final conclusion”.
Question(s) for the COPE Forum
What can be done to ensure that all gels and all photographs originate from the experiment and that they should never be tampered with?
How can the scientific community of some particular countries be taught correct scientific publishing standards?
The advice from the Forum was for journals to strengthen their guidance on this issue. Journals should provide clear guidelines in their instructions to authors on what is acceptable. Original data, such as gels, should not be used as illustrations, without an explanation. Line drawings, for example, can be used to illustrate a point, but if original data are being used just to illustrate a point, this should be accompanied by a very clear statement in the manuscript telling the reader this and explaining what is being demonstrated.
The Forum advised looking at the guidance published in other journals. Some journals have very good guidance on this issue and editors may wish to incorporate such guidance into their instructions to authors (with full attribution and after obtaining permission).
On a poll of the Forum, less than half of the delegates said that they screen for image manipulation. COPE has an eLearning module on image manipulation. Also, Mike Rosner has written extensively on this topic (Journal of Cell Biology 2004;166:11–15 http://jcb.rupress.org/content/166/1/11.full)
A subject editor, who oversaw a manuscript, was invited by the authors to become a co-author after the first review round. After inviting the subject editor to become an author (and adding his name to the author list), the revised version of the paper was submitted to the journal. The authors expected that a different subject editor would handle the paper in the next review round.
However, when the revised version was submitted, no one (including the subject editor himself) noticed the addition of the subject editor’s name to the revised paper, and the subject editor took "automatic" care of the revised manuscript when it was assigned to him by the editor-in-chief, who also had not noticed the addition of the subject editor’s name to the paper.
The second revision was directly accepted by the editor-in-chief. During proof corrections, no one noticed that the subject editor was listed as an author and also as the communicating editor (it is standard practice on the journal to name the subject editor on the published paper—ie, "Communicated by ...").
Thus the article was published online before the authors became aware of the problem and contacted the editor. The editor-in-chief believes the subject editor was acting in good faith, but is very concerned about the situation and the breakdown of the journal process. The manuscript managed to slip through two rounds of the journal’s editorial process.
The authors are also very concerned about this awkward situation, which looks like preferential treatment, and have asked the journal what can be done to avoid this impression.
Question What can the journal do?
The Forum agreed this was a failure of journal processes and the editor in chief must take responsibility for this. The change was not detected but there should be processes in place when any change in the authorship of a paper is noted. Authors should be required to clearly state when any changes in authorship are made after the initial submission, and the journal needs to ensure it tightens its processes to detect this. So the journal should reinforce the processes it has in place and make any necessary changes.
The editor confirmed that a conflict of interest statement was signed by the corresponding author on behalf of all of the authors. The Forum suggested that, in future, the journal may like to consider asking each author to sign an individual conflict of interest form. If this had been done in this case, for example, the addition of another author would have been spotted.
The advice from the Forum was to publish an erratum, with the editor in chief as the “Communicated by” editor, and also explaining clearly what happened in this case. The journal may also have to publish a correction to its conflict of interest statement on the paper.
The Forum also advised that the journal should have a written process in place for what to do when an editor becomes an author and wants to publish in his journal.
The journal added a note to the paper from the editor in chief, stating that due to an unfortunate technical mistake when handling the article, one of the authors was also a subject editor at the same time. The editor in chief also stated that he guaranteed that the scientific standards and honesty had not been violated in any way.
In March 2012, our journal published a posthumous excerpt of a book by a prestigious scholar, who had died before completing the book. We chose to publish because the unfinished book represented the scholar's life work, and would not find another publication venue. The excerpt included a number of large figures, which we also published.
At our publisher, we had a new production team, and they had a very difficult time getting the issue out, but there were an exceptional number of errors introduced to the posthumous excerpt during the layout process. (Our upload to the publisher was free of errors, and we have documentation to establish that this was the case. It appears that a considerable amount of information was stripped from the file during our file export process. We had used the publisher's software to do the upload, and followed their procedures throughout the production process. We forwarded documentation establishing the fact that our upload was clean to our production editor.)
We received the first set of proofs and made all corrections. At that time, because of the extensive number of changes required, we requested that we have the opportunity to review a second and third proof. When we received the second proof of the excerpt, some corrections had been made, but other, new errors appeared. We made all of the required corrections and forwarded them to our publisher's production editor. The production editor acknowledged receipt of the corrections to the second proof. When we repeated our request to see a third proof, the publication editor assured us that all corrections would be made before publication.
When the excerpt was published, some corrections appeared, but new errors were added to the earlier problems. Figures were out of order. Some captions were incomplete, others were incorrect. Paragraphs of text were scrambled and appeared as gibberish. We contacted our publication editor immediately, and requested that we be allowed to correct the article, and have the corrected version appear in the electronic version. Our publisher said that it was impossible to change the electronic version (?!).
Since that time, we have found a new publisher, in part because of the quality control problems we experienced with our original publisher. Now we need to publish an erratum for the excerpt, which will go on for a number of pages. Since our intention was to honour a deceased colleague, would it be appropriate to 'republish' the entire excerpt free of error, so it can appear in the form the author originally intended? My board feels that the extent version of the excerpt is an insult to the author and her family (who kindly edited and prepared the excerpt for publication). The excerpt was originally presented as part of the editorial (non-peer reviewed) content of our publication.
The Forum agreed that a new, error-free, version of the paper should be available but it is essential that this is linked to the old version so that readers are aware of the correct version. Hence it would not be appropriate to “re-publish” in another issue. The Forum suggested contacting the former publisher and asking them what they can do to correct the article. Failing that, another suggestion was to retract the article, naming the publisher as the reason for retraction, and publishing the correct version in the retraction notice. Or the editor could publish an erratum, effectively reprinting the article in the erratum notice.
Some years ago our journal published a paper reporting concentrations of a substance in an organ in a small number of people of a particular occupational group who had died of a rare disease. The results have been reanalysed in two subsequent papers and discussed in five pieces of correspondence in two journals. The original paper contributes to a body of evidence used by the defence in some compensation claims in the USA. One of the authors of the original paper is prominent as an expert witness in such cases.
In the course of one of these compensation cases, some original laboratory results behind the original paper were disclosed to a court and were published in another journal. A lawyer complained to us that they undermined the original paper, which the complainant said should be retracted.
We have examined the original paper and the newly published data, and have concluded that the paper is consistent with the new data and the complaint cannot be upheld. However, in the course of this we noticed a completely independent problem: important statements made in the discussion in the paper do not agree with the results presented in the tables in the paper. Although this seems clear once it is pointed out, it has apparently not been noticed by authors of the seven subsequent publications on the data. Our conclusion is that we should not have accepted the original paper in its present form.
The heart of the inconsistency is that the text makes statements which it says are true of all the cases observed, but inspection of the results makes it clear that there is at least one exception, which weakens the impact when there are only a few cases anyway.
Close examination of the original paper also discloses that many of the measurements must have been at low levels, close to the limit of detection, and subject to large uncertainties which make the conclusions insecure statistically. The low level of the results is confirmed by the newly disclosed laboratory data. The paper does not discuss these uncertainties, and they have been ignored in references to the findings in later papers. Although this reinforces our view that we were wrong to accept the original paper as published, there is always room for argument about statistical analysis, so we regard this as a less serious problem than the inconsistency between the discussion and the tables.
The paper was processed before we started using online submission, and the reviewers’ and editor’s reports no longer exist.
We believe that this inconsistency would justify a notice of correction to the original paper, by the criteria in the COPE guidelines. However, the case does not fit the usual pattern because we are not responding to new information but to a realisation that we made a mistake and that we published a paper which was seriously flawed in parts—we would like to correct the paper because we have changed our mind about it.
Has the COPE forum any comments please?
The Forum suggested issuing a notice of correction but the editor should perhaps consult with the publisher’s legal department before publication. As the problem occurred nearly 10 years ago, another suggestion was to write an accompanying editorial explaining the whole case. The journal can issue a notice of correction without the approval or consent of the authors, but the advice was to contact the authors in the first instance and try to agree on the wording of a correction that is acceptable to all. The journal could draft the notice and send it to the authors for their comments. If agreement on the wording cannot be reached, the editor could suggest an arbitrator or panel of arbitrators. The editor could also allow the authors a chance to reply or comment further in the journal.
As advised by the Forum, the journal discussed the issue with their publisher's legal advisers and wrote to the authors proposing a notice of correction. They have just received a reply. The editor is trying to avoid involving arbitrators. Meanwhile, the editor has had a new submission from a third party reanalysing the original data.
Follow up (September 2012): The author has proposed simply updating the table, and has given an explanation of all the inconsistencies except one. The faults in the paper have moved into the area of what the editors consider to be poor scientific judgement rather than deceit or factual error. The editors regret that these questions of judgement were not dealt with before publication, but in view of the age of the paper they have decided to accept the author's proposal just to correct the table, and to leave discussion of the paper's conclusions to other authors.
One of the referees of our journal has brought to our attention a potential case of plagiarism.
The referee feels that the a manuscript submitted to our journal plagiarises an article published in another journal. The authors are from an institute in a far-eastern country.
We would be grateful if COPE could provide an opinion on this issue, as well as advice on what would be the best course of action.
The Forum was informed that one paragraph in the introduction and one other sentence had obviously been cut and pasted from another (cited) paper but that the work itself was not duplicated. The advice from the Forum was to write an educative letter to the authors pointing out that if they directly quote from another paper they should either place the words between quotation marks and state who had written them or report them indirectly citing the author. The Forum did not consider it was necessary to go any further.
The editor-in-chief wrote to the authors pointing out that quoted text should be placed between quotation marks, stating who has written the text, or alternatively, authors should create their own text to describe the situation and not use other individual’s text. This letter was sent to the corresponding author together with the decision letter. The authors have responded with a letter of apology, acknowledging their mistake.
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.
The editors received a manuscript from a Far Eastern country ready to accept. The senior author (who has spent a lot of time in the West) was in the US when the editors asked for final signatures to be sent. The senior author instructed his team to collect and fax signatures while he was away and this was sent to the editors.
When the signatures were examined by the editors, it appeared that some of the signatures had been written by the same hand. The editors challenged the senior author who investigated immediately upon his return and a fax was sent:
“…The last copy was signed in my absence and not all signatures were signed by the authors personally but by other colleagues with oral permission from the relevant authors ……Some of the signatures may still look similar in writing style and this was due to the fact that some of the colleagues were not familiar to [sic] signing their names in English, but these were truly their signatures.”
The new batch of signatures show differences from the previous signatures and now appear to be signed by separate individuals.
This highlights a potential issue applicable to anyone not familiar with using non-European scripts.
Should the editors be worried about this? Should the explanation be accepted? If not, what is the next step?
Members of the Forum agreed that the editors should accept the explanation of the authors and believed that the case has probably arisen out of cultural differences. From an educational point of view, the editors could point out to the authors that it is not good practice for anyone to sign on behalf of an author. However, in the absence of any other evidence of misconduct, the Forum believed this was a minor discretion that could be overlooked.
Following the COPE meeting, the editor was greatly reassured and was happy to accept the signatures. The journal still insists on signatures but is now happy to accept signatures in the authors’ mother-tongue script.
An online post-publication literature evaluation service, aiming to highlight the best articles in medicine, received an evaluation of an article on which the evaluator was listed as an author on PubMed. The editor queried the evaluation and the evaluator replied explaining s/he had no involvement with the study but had commented on it. When the editor looked at the full text HTML version on the journal website, the evaluator was not listed as an author on the article but featured as an author on the side-bar search tool. When the editor looked for the commentary in the HTML version, it could not be found. Only when the editor looked at the full text PDF version could the commentary then be read, where it was included on the last page of the article. Essentially, the article and commentary were published as one. The editor discussed the issue within an in-house editorial meeting, to ascertain whether the evaluation should be accepted, given that although the evaluator commented on the page, s/he was listed as an author. It was also discussed whether the evaluator might be too involved with the original article and it might be construed as self-promotion.
Questions we would like to ask COPE:
(1) Would you have taken a different course of action?
(2) Would you feel differently if the competing interest was that he/she was the peer reviewer?
(3) This is a form of consensus paper; therefore, it would be hard to find any expert/evaluator who was not involved in some way (it is very difficult to find anyone who hasn't been involved or consulted in the writing process). Could you offer any advice on how we could get round this?
(4) Since the evaluator appears as an author on PubMed, but not on the journal’s website, should it be our responsibility to raise this issue with the journal?
The committee thought that this might simply be an error. In the first instance, the advice from committee was to contact PubMed and the journal in question, to see if an error has been made, as the paper and commentary, although linked, should be two distinct entities. Further advice was to re-check the contributorship statements from the evaluator.
An article by a Far Eastern group was published in our journal in November 2005. We were later alerted by an interested reader that the same article, slightly changed, was published in an American journal. I contacted the American journal and the article will now be officially retracted from that journal. Part of the explanation could be poor communication between the authors, but I am not sure this is the whole truth. Two of the authors accept guilt but are now asking that the others not be “punished”.
I would appreciate the committee’s advice on this matter as I have no experience regarding how to react to such situations. What is “the accepted way to react/punish”?
The committee agreed with the editor that it is unlikely that this was “an honest mistake” or misunderstanding on the part of the authors. It is most likely that the two papers were submitted for publication at the same time. The advice was to contact the author’s head of department informing him of the situation and asking him to consider investigating the case. Other advice offered was to contact the American journal and ask them if the authors had stated in a letter that the paper had not been published previously.
The editor received a very profuse apology from the authors who stated that the misunderstanding arose because of lack of communication between the authors. Those authors who thought that the paper had been rejected started a process with the American journal (where the paper was published 6 months later). The editor contacted the chief editor of the American journal and informed him of the situation. The article was officially retracted from the American journal. The editor has decided not to pursue the matter any further.