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.
Mistakes in research are inevitable, and publishing corrections is vital for the integrity of the literature. These errata rarely require a retraction, and are therefore considered a lesser concern. This perception might be wrong, however, because the actual prevalence, nature and impact of errors across disciplines are unknown. Indeed, while several large studies have looked at retractions, existing studies on errata are small, limited in scope and rather different in methods and aims.
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)
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.
We were contacted by a reader who told us that he had spotted a number of cases of image duplication and mislabelling of fluorescent tags that had occurred over the past 4 years. These involved two papers published in our journal, and two other papers published in two different journals. The two papers in our journal were both reviews, and the one that had the most occurrences involved a poster (associated with the review) that we had recently published. Although each paper had different authors, there was one author, author X, common to all the papers. The reader provided extensive evidence.
I checked all the evidence myself, looking up the original sources and concurred with the reader that there was at least image duplication (I could not verify myself whether mislabelling had occurred). I also discussed the case with our publisher. I then contacted the head of author X’s institute, copying in author X and his co-authors on the poster article. I told the institute head that I was making no assumptions about wrongdoing but presented the evidence and asked for an explanation.
The matter was referred by the institute head to Dr Y, the Associate Vice President for Research of the university, who appointed a Committee of Inquiry. This committee found reason to launch a full investigation, and so an Investigatory Committee was appointed. I was told that I would receive their report.
While I was waiting for their decision, the editors of the two other journals in question approached me to ask that I keep them informed. I told them about the Investigatory Committee and recommended that they contact Dr Y if they wanted to be kept abreast of the outcome.
Almost 2 months later, I received an email from author X, copied to Dr Y, with an explanation of what had happened. He could not provide an explanation for the error in the first paper. There was one image in that paper that claimed to show something labelled with a particular fluorescent tag, but a different, although similar, tag was in fact used. He said he spoke with his co-authors, who agreed that the error did not affect the scientific conclusions of the paper and that he could either correct the tag name or provide a new correct image.
For the poster, he said that there were a number of images mislabelled, and that this occurred, in essence, because he used ‘placeholder’ images while creating the poster but forgot to replace them with the correct images. He offered to redo the poster with the correct images and also wanted to replace some other images that were correctly labelled because he had ‘better versions’ of them. He assured me that the text did not need to be changed and again said that his co-authors agreed that the scientific conclusions of the paper were unaffected.
After again conferring with our publisher, we have come up with a plan:
I have contacted Dr Y and asked him to verify that the Investigatory Committee has accepted author X’s explanation and found no evidence of fraudulent intention.
I have asked author X to have his co-authors on both papers contact me directly to confirm that the scientific conclusions of the papers were not compromised and that they are satisfied with the replacement images author X is proposing.
I will ask author X to provide a replacement image for the first article.
I have told author X that it is not acceptable to replace correctly labelled images with ‘better versions’ and that we will only deal with those that are incorrectly labelled.
I plan to issue corrections for both papers. On the poster article, because it involved 10 images, I also plan to include, with the correction, a statement to the effect that a committee was appointed by author X’s institute to investigate the mislabelling and that they found no evidence of malicious intent (I’m wary of the wording I use here).
I also want to reprint the poster and send a copy of it to each of our print subscribers as they will have received a copy of the incorrect version. I am talking to our online hosts about how we can provide a link to the corrected version of the poster because, although I feel strongly that the original should remain online as it is, a correct version should be available.
I will ask author X to cover all costs associated with the redesign, printing and mailing of the poster, in addition to the costs of the corrections themselves.
I am not convinced by author X’s explanation and did look to see whether there were any other published corrections associated with author X’s previous publications but did not find any. If the Investigatory Committee confirms that they did not find evidence of fraudulent intent, however, then I feel I have to accept that decision and will proceed according to our plan outlined above. I would very much appreciate COPE’s advice on how we have handled the situation so far, and whether our plan of action could be/have been improved.
The Fourm agreed that the editor had done all he could and had handled the case well. The institution has investigated and found no fraudulent intent. The editor should publish corrections, stating the facts and avoiding accusing any of the authors, and then let readers draw their own conclusions. Regarding the whistleblower, the editor does not have a duty to keep him/her informed of all of the details of the case. The whistleblower cannot expect to be involved in the case. The whistleblower can contact the institution if they want. The editor should keep correspondence with the whistleblower as formal as possible, reply only to direct questions and not involve him/her in the investigation.
The editor followed the plan that he outlined, taking into consideration the advice received from the Forum. Corrections were published for both of the articles involved, with agreement from all co-authors, that stated the facts; a link to a corrected version of the poster was provided (keeping the original in place as published) and print copies were sent to all print subscribers (all costs covered by the author). The whistleblower was contacted only to confirm that corrections had been published. The editor considers the case to be resolved.
We published a randomised trial by six authors. Some years later, we received a letter from a researcher who had been looking into the trial in the context of a meta-analysis. She noted “implausibilities of serious concern”, including “a highly unusual balance in the distribution of baseline characteristics”, 95% CIs that were non-symmetrical about the effect estimate, and use of a stratification variable the value of which could not have been known in all patients if the trial was conducted in the way reported.
We asked the corresponding author to write a letter of response, which he eventually supplied a few months later. Owing to the author’s poor English and the level of statistical knowledge needed to assess the response, we sent the exchange of letters to a statistical reviewer. The reviewer said that the letter of concern was “completely correct” in everything it said and that the author’s explanation for the unusual degree of balance in the covariates was “rubbish”, and that the 95% CIs had either been “doctored” or “incompetently estimated”.
In the meantime, an exchange of to-and-fro letters between a different researcher and the same author was published in another journal, relating to a paper reporting on a subset of the same trial data. We were alerted to this by the editor of that journal.
We sent the reviewer’s remarks to the author of our trial, who then consulted two independent statisticians of his own. He soon contacted us to say that, “surprisingly and regretfully”, these statisticians agreed that there were implausibilities and inconsistencies in the data, and asked for more time to investigate more fully. During this time, the author of the letter expressed concern that we had not made the possibility of these problems know to our readership, so we published her letter.
The author has now sent us a more comprehensive response, admitting that the randomisation process was not as described, the 95% CIs were all wrong (he supplied a recalculation), and the trial report had omitted some details of the protocol necessary for understanding it properly (now supplied). Our reviewer suspects that, given his free admission of all this, the author is probably incompetent rather than fraudulent, but that the extent of the incompetence could not give us confidence in any of the data. What now?
The Forum agreed with the editor’s opinion that the author is probably incompetent rather than fraudulent and should be given the opportunity to redeem himself. It was suggested that perhaps the paper should be submitted for review again. The Forum noted that this was probably a good internal learning exercise in that the statistical errors should have been picked up when the statistical review of the data was performed by the journal. A suggestion was made for the journal to set up a “sin bin”. Some journals operate a “sin bin” or “publication review committee” where once a year papers which readers or others have expressed serious doubts about post-publication are reviewed to determine whether or not it was “a mistake” to publish the paper.
However, some members of the Forum argued for stronger action and suggested contacting the author’s institution. But most agreed that the paper should be retracted as the research may be unethical.
August 2008 We have managed to find details of whom to contact regarding informing the author's institution, and the deputy editor has written to him. We await a reply with anticipation.
May 2009 The institute has responded to say that an investigation is under way and will take another couple of months to conclude.
November 2009 Following an internal investigation by the author’s institution, a number of serious problems were encountered, including: lack of ethics approval, lack of written consent, lack of treatment-allocation concealment and an inability to verify the authenticity of the data. We therefore retracted the paper on 10 October 2009.
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.