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.
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.
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.
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.
An author submitted a review to journal A in February 1997. It was accepted for publication in November, after peer review. The same author submitted a review on a similar topic—sufficiently similar that there was substantial overlap of content—to journal B in September 1997. Journal B accepted it in January 1998, after peer review. Neither journal editor knew of the parallel paper.
Journal B published its review in March 1998. The editor of journal A saw this paper and contacted the author. The author claimed that during negotiations in 1997, journal A had led him to believe that his review was not acceptable for publication.He had then contacted journal B.
In January 1998,the author,realising that he should inform journal B about the paper with journal A, sent a letter to the negotiating editor explaining that there was a similar review (which he claims was enclosed) elsewhere. That letter was received and filed but not seen by an editor. There is no record of the paper having been received. The editor of journal A has now rejected the review that he had accepted. The author believes that this editor should honour his earlier decision and publish his review. The paper, he claims, is sufficiently different to merit a separate publication. What should these editors do next?
Journal B is at fault for for failing to act on receipt of the letter from the author.
The authors are also at fault for failing to tell journal B until much later.
Journal B should get an independent expert to assess the degree of overlap of the two papers first, and if found to be acceptable, contact the author apologising for the administrative error.