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.
Dr X submitted a paper to a journal that was assigned by a rather hung-over editorial assistant to an associate editor who was a co-author on the paper. Realising the mistake, she emailed the associate editor to reassign the paper. He expressed surprise as he did not know Dr X, had not seen the paper before submission, and knew of no reason why he should be a co-author.
Dr X was asked to explain and account for all the co-authors’ accreditations. From his reply it was clear that he did not understand the requirements for authorship as the associate editor was listed as having been the inspiration for several of his papers.
A decision was taken to contact the head of department who also appeared on the paper as the final co-author, asking him to clarify the accreditations given by Dr X. The head of department replied:
“I share your concern regarding the proper use of the authorship credit. As the Chair of the Department, it is my responsibility to provide academic and professional guidance within the department for all of our students, including our post doctoral associates. This includes developing and disseminating an accurate understanding of what “authorship” means academically.
Upon reading your email I was at first quite surprised to see my name listed as a co-author. My second thought was that the questions that you raised with respect to co-authorship are related to the relative naivety of Dr X. He has only been in this country and at this university for the past three months.
Earlier today I met with both Professor Y, who is Dr X’s faculty sponsor, and Dr X. We discussed your concerns and questions in detail, as well as the greater implications of the ethical principals of authorship. During that meeting it became clear to both Dr X and myself that the inappropriate crediting of authorship was not intentional and instead represents a cultural misunderstanding. Dr X used the author title as an honorific with some of the persons he identified. It was his belief that such a practice was expected and condoned in this country.
Professor Y did not catch this error since Dr X submitted the manuscript to your journal without his review and input. Your email and the resulting meeting allowed me to fully explain this misunderstanding to Dr X in hopes that he does not make similar mistakes in the future. It also provided a mechanism by which Professor Y and I could explain the responsibilities of an author in properly submitting a manuscript for review and publication.”
The head of department asked Dr X to:
Withdraw the manuscript from consideration for publication while all the issues related to authorship are resolved.
Make clear that the work described was conducted in his country of origin and not at this university, should he resubmit.
Work with Professor Y to ensure that any future articles for publication meet the highest ethical and professional standards.
Is this case resolved?
This issue is worth writing about, but by someone who is not already involved in the case.
There could perhaps be three related articles: one investigative journalism piece; one on the science; and another on the data analysis.
A new Editor was appointed to a society journal in a minority medical specialty. An officer of the society immediately handed him an anonymous letter from a reader of the journal complaining that an article recently published was unethical. The Editor is a personal friend both of the previous editor who accepted the paper, and the author of the paper. The paper is by a single author who gives no affiliation to an academic organisation. The report describes a cohort study of patients to whom he had given treatment X over previous years. In the world literature, treatment X has been reported to cause endocarditis in a small number of patients, the majority of whom had risk factors. The author invited his patients back for a clinical examination together with blood and urine tests for markers of endocarditis, and echocardiogram. He did not seek permission for the study from an ethics committee, and did not obtain informed consent formally from the patients, though the study’s purpose was discussed with them all. The report is of considerable scientific and clinical importance, being the first in which the presence of endocarditis after treatment X was systematically sought, and its results (no cases were found) provide some supporting evidence that the risk of endocarditis after treatment X is low. The author said that the project grew out of his initial concern for the wellbeing of his patients, and he did not realise he had passed the threshold of requiring ethics approval. The Editor’s close personal involvement at several levels makes it very difficult for him to make a decision on what action should be taken.
The committee discussed whether or not this was a retrospective cohort study without informed consent or ethics committee approval. The committee felt that this could also be an example of good clinical practice by the author in that having read about the potential for adverse effects of treatment X in patients with specific risk factors, he/she called back those patients at risk for a check up. The paper could then be said to arise from the writing up of the clinical practice. On balance the committee felt that the case as presented provided no cause for concern.
An author who published an article in Journal A at the end of the year wrote to advise that it would have to be retracted on the grounds that his PhD tutor, Professor X, had already submitted a similar manuscript more than a year earlier to another journal. In the absence of any contact from the tutor, the author had assumed that this manuscript had not been accepted and went ahead with her own submission. She then explained that some personal and professional issues had distracted her for some time, after which her PhD tutor told her that his manuscript had indeed been accepted and published elsewhere. The lengthy review process had caused serious delays since it was first submitted, he said. The second paper was published two months after the first. The letter writer and Professor X are listed as authors on both the papers. The copyright assignment form for Journal A shows that Professor X was a signatory and therefore knew that the paper was under consideration.
The journal in question only requests licence to publish at the point of acceptance. If both authors had signed the licence form then the professor clearly knew about the publication in the first journal.
On the facts presented, the editor of Journal A has no grounds to retract the paper.
The author has no "right" to request a retraction without appropriate grounds. The author may have been under pressure to request retraction of the first paper.
The editor should write to the authors' institution to look into the case, informing the authors of his intention to do this.
The editor should contact the other journal to publish a notice of duplicate publication.
A journal had two incidences in which a questionnaire was used in studies without permission of the originators of the questionnaires. Both manuscripts originated in different countries, and used different questionnaires. 1. A manuscript was submitted which addressed quality of life issues. The referees had various concerns about the data and methods, and the authors were invited to revise the manuscript. At that point the authors contacted the originator of the questionnaire they had translated and used, requesting permission to use the questionnaire and asking for assistance with the issues the referees had identified as problematic. Permission had not been sought to translate and use the questionnaire before this. The creator of the questionnaire objected to its use in this particular study, and to it being used in a non-approved translation. Culturally specific translations are apparently available. The main concern was that an inappropriate translation could lead to potential errors in the study, as well as concerns about the propriety and legality of the study. The editor contacted the author, highlighting the concerns of the questionnaire’s originator, and the author chose to withdraw the manuscript. No other action has been taken to date. 2. A submitted manuscript reported a study based on a specific, validated questionnaire. One of the referees pointed out that the centre where the study had been conducted was not registered as an approved centre for this survey, and that neither the relevant Steering Committee nor the relevant International Data Centre had any contact with the authors. The survey’s publication policy states that non-registered centres may not use the acronym. The manuscript was rejected on the basis of poor science, and the authors recommended to contact the survey, regarding registration and for permission to use the questionnaire.
_ It may have been an innocent mistake on the part of the authors, who thought the first questionnaire was in the public domain and could be translated and used by anyone. _ The editor needs to find out more information on why the author felt compelled to withdraw the paper. It would be useful to find out whether the questionnaire was copyrighted. _ For the second case, the likely problem was the authors’ ignorance of the correct mechanism for being able to use the questionnaire and the editor’s course of action seems entirely appropriate.
A paper was submitted and reviewed by one referee, who recommended that the paper be revised and then refereed again. The authors submitted the revised version which went back to the initial reviewer. In his second report the reviewer raised concerns that the revised version was fundamentally different from the first paper. The number of patients and the inclusion criteria had changed. This was put to the authors, who explained that the studies were of two different non-overlapping patient populations that they were investigating at the same time. They had intended to send only the second study in their original submission, but inadvertently submitted the first one by mistake. This was realised at the point of revisions, so they submitted the second study with an explanation in the covering letter. What should the editors have done?
_ The authors added that the error had been due to the wrong email attachment having been sent. _ The editors should have asked to have seen the original protocol for the study.
The first paper submitted was ignored and the second paper was peer reviewed and subsequently rejected.
An author published a paper in Journal A that looked extremely similar to one already published as guidelines in Journal B. Of 48 paragraphs of text, 41 were almost identical. It has since transpired that several authors who were involved in the writing of the article published in Journal B have not been acknowledged. Prior publication elsewhere had not been acknowledged in the Journal A paper. The editor wrote to the authors requesting an explanation. He informed them that the journal takes a strong line on duplicate publication and disclosure of related publications, and that there should also be an appropriate acknowledgement of the contribution of other authors. The editor also wrote to the editor of Journal A asking him to look at both of the papers and to give him his views. Has enough been done?
_ This is a clear cut case of duplicate publication. _ Publish a notice of duplication in both journals. _ The editors of both journals should also write to the head of the authors’ institution, informing them of this indiscretion. _ Inform the authors that this course of action is to be taken before writing to the institution.
The author of the Journal A article contacted the editor of Journal B, stating that it was an error of omission and not a deliberate attempt to deceive. The editor accepted this explanation, but intends to contact head of the author’s institution, and the authors have been informed of this. No reply has been received from the editor of Journal A, but the editor of Journal B will attempt to find some agreed form of wording that both journals can publish. The author involved has apologised to all of the individuals involved.
A letter was published that provides guidance on prescribing a particular drug in children. There are anxieties about the use of this drug in children, and sometime back a letter from essentially the same group on the same subject was published in the same journal. The electronic version of this original letter included a conflict of interest statement, but the paper edition did not. This was a mistake. Unfortunately neither the paper nor the electronic version of the new letter included the conflict of interest statement. It clearly should have done, not least because it seems that one of the authors of the current letter received funding from the manufacturers of the drug. The intention is to go ahead and gather conflict of interest statements and publish them in both the paper and the electronic versions of the journal, but the lead author of the second letter seems to be opposed to this move. The journal plans to override his objections. Does COPE agree with this? A further issue raised by the second letter is that the third party wrote to say that three of the authors of the letter do not support everything that is contained in it. Wouldn’t most people who read a piece that is signed by many authors believe that all authors support what is published unless it specifically states otherwise? What action should be taken on this issue?
The exclusion of the conflict of interest statement from the paper version was the fault of the editorial process. Statements were included with other published articles but not “letters”.
In 1990 a case report was published in which it was alleged that the use of a particular endotracheal tube had led to tracheal damage, requiring the child to have a tracheostomy and a tracheal reconstruction. This paper was from a specialist surgical unit, and a letter was subsequently received from the paediatricians who had cared for the baby at the referring hospital before and after the transfer to the surgical unit. They pointed out that the baby had never needed a tracheostomy, and that in fact the child had had dysmorphic features with an abnormal upper airway, which may have accounted for the problems that occurred subsequently. This letter was shown to the authors of the case report, who replied; both letters were published in the journal. The reply was an extraordinary brush-off, which said that misuse of this particular tube could lead to tracheal stenosis, and that whether the child was dysmorphic or whether he did not eventually require a tracheostomy was irrelevant, adding “we believe that the child was fortunate not to need tracheostomy. ” This issue was resurrected because over nine years after the original publication one of the authors of the critical letter offered the journal a filler article, using this story as a lesson about the possible unreliability of conclusions from single case reports. The writer of the filler article did not give a reference to the paper or the journal, but since he seemed to be suggesting misleading and inaccurate publication, he was asked for the reference and it turned out that the journal was responsible. It is clear that the case report published was grossly inaccurate and misleading, and it is very surprising that the journal allowed the authors of it to get away with such an offhand reply. At the very least the journal would now have made the authors of the original paper publish a correction, with an apology from them, or that perhaps more probably the journal would have made them withdraw the paper, saying that the report was inaccurate and the conclusions could not be relied on. Is it worth doing anything about this now? The main conclusion is that the journal’s standards about what is acceptable in publications and in errors in publications have markedly changed over the past nine years. But should the journal now acknowledge errors made long ago, and if so how long ago?
_ There are three main issues: the continuing possibility of harm, pollution of the scientific literature, and results that had been obtained through scientific fraud. _ There should be no time limit on retractions, but editors cannot be expected to retract all obsolete work. _ An editorial on “lessons in retraction” could be written, airing concerns that had come to light recently, to which the authors could be invited to respond, and asking the question “how far back do we go?”
The journal decided not to retract the article, and the editorial is still pending.