It has been drawn to our attention that a paper published in a high-impact journal in the field of biological sciences (Journal A) draws very heavily on research published in the lower-impact factor journal for which we work (Journal B), as well as on work published in other journals. One of the authors of the paper in Journal B has contacted the editor of Journal A to register his/her concerns, as have several other high profile scientists in the field, including some whose work has also been appropriated. These scientists have each asked Journal A to investigate the peer review process for the paper in question. The author of the paper in Journal B has also asked the editor of Journal A if s/he might write a piece, to be published in Journal A, to ‘set the record straight’. This request was denied. Journal A, instead, suggested the author post a comment about the paper online on Journal A’s website, which would be of lower visibility than the article of concern itself.
·Should Journal A accede to the request to publish a response by the author of the paper in Journal B? Such a response would place the article of concern in the context of previously published data and hypotheses, and engage readers in the debate about the provenance of the published theories. If this is not published as a mini-review, as requested by the author, then would it be appropriate for it to appear in another form in the published journal that is equal in profile to the paper in question?
·Should Journal A have offered to conduct an investigation into how the paper in question was peer reviewed to allay the concerns of the scientists who have contacted them to request this?
This case prompted much debate among the Forum with several different views being proposed. However, all agreed that the peer review process is notoriously bad at detecting fraud or most forms of misconduct and is not really the issue here. Moreover, it is not open to complainants to demand an editor review their journal’s peer review system. The focus should be more on defending the reputation of the authors. In the absence of an ombudsman for Journal A and the fact that it does not appear to have a printed letters section, most of the Forum agreed that the authors should accept Journal A’s offert to post a comment on their website. Once the issue is in the public domain, it can be discussed and debated.
However, others argued that it was not sufficient for the authors to post a comment on the website because it is not citable, does not have a doi and so would not be linked to the original article. The authors should complain to the editor and ask him or her again to publish their response; but it was pointed out that you cannot force an editor to publish.
COPE’s code of conduct states that editors have a duty to “encourage debate” and that “cogent criticisms of published work should be published unless Editors have convincing reasons why they cannot be”. Hence if the editor refuses to publish the complaint then the author could call into question their compliance with COPE’s Code of Conduct. However, in his or her defence, the editor would probably note that posting the authors’ comments on the website constitutes publication, given that there is no correspondence section in the paper journal. This then led to a debate on the definition of “published”. Is something published if it appears on the website or does it have to be citable?
There was a general feeling that the authors should do something, and if nothing else is available, they should be encouraged to post a comment on the website, which might at least spark some debate. Having done so, if the authors continue to believe the editor has treated them unfairly, then they could complain to a higher authority, perhaps to the publisher or society, if it is a society owned journal.
COPE also agreed to look again at its Code of Conduct with a view to clarifying what is meant by “published”.
I received a phone call from the first Author (A) of a case report published in our journal in 2005, who informed us that he had received a letter from an Author (B) of a research letter which had been published in another journal in 2000, stating that 12–15 sentences from the research letter had been copied in the case report.
Having compared the papers, about 50% of the introduction (the whole of one paragraph and 60% of another), about eight sentences from the midsection, and the entire conclusion from the research letter have been used in the 2005 case report. The layout of a table in the case report is also similar to the one published in the research letter. No data have been copied and we have been reassured by Author A that the data are genuine.
Author A wrote to Author B apologising for the incident. Author A phoned me again to say that Author B had requested that the case report be withdrawn from our journal. At no time has Author B communicated directly with me.
Following discussions with his/her Director of Research and Education, Author A had been advised that the best solution was to withdraw the case report voluntarily. Author A wrote to me requesting formal withdrawal of the case report. However, before I received this letter, Author A telephoned again to say that having taken legal advice he wished to retract this request and leave it with me to decide on the appropriate course of action.
The journal subsequently received a letter from the Director of Research & Education at Author A’s institution summarising the situation and informing us that Author A has been asked to step down from some of his responsibilities while his other publications and research activities are investigated. In this letter, it was also pointed out that most of the discussion in the 2005 case report had been duplicated from a review article published previously in our journal by Author A (sole author).
Our journal operates in an area of medicine which is very close knit and as Editor, I personally know both Author A and, to some extent, Author B, which is the main reason for submitting this case to COPE for independent evaluation and recommendation. I would be very grateful for your advice.
As the author is being investigated by his institution, there is little more that the editor can do in this respect until the results of the investigation are available. It is up to the institution to confirm whether or not the case report is genuine. If it is found that the case report is not genuine, then it must be retracted. If the case report is genuine, then the editor should publish either an expression of concern about plagiarism or a letter of apology from the author. The Forum suggested finding out if one or both of the authors were involved in the plagiarism. The Forum noted that it is important that the published paper, if genuine, is linked to some form of formal correction, which could be either an expression of concern of a letter of apology.
I confirmed independently that the case was genuine and wrote an “expression of concern” that will be published in the October issue of my journal. The advice provided by COPE was very helpful in resolving this issue.
A letter was sent to the editor indicating that three articles (one of them in the editor’s journal) on identical subjects had been published in the same year (2006) by the same authors, accusing the first author of all three articles of stealing data from and plagiarising a previously published article from the academic institution where the first author previously worked. The letter, sent by a senior academic and former supervisor of the first author, said that the data had been published without his permission or acknowledgement and he requested that the author be contacted and he and his colleagues punished for their unethical behaviour.
Soon after, the same allegedly victimised head of department sent a second letter to the same editor saying that he was planning on contacting the author’s university and Ministry of Health, informing them of this matter, and also requesting that these papers be immediately retracted from the journal, with an explanation published. Moreover, he stated that he would be submitting a letter to the editor which he hoped would be published with an editorial comment in the next issue of the editor’s journal.
On close inspection of the initial paper published in 2005, referred to by the two letters (the plaintiff was the first author and the alleged culprit the second author), it was clear that the data constituting the only original part of the three 2006 articles were published previously and had been reproduced in identical format in two and differently in the third article. The rest of the data were comparisons with previously published data sets from other countries. The “original” data set had indeed been plagiarised. In addition, the description of the methods was verbatim from the 2005 article, except for the instrument used in all three articles. As a result, there appeared to be clear plagiarism, illegitimate use of data and duplication of data. None of the 2006 articles cited each other and the initial 2005 article was cited in only two of the three articles.
The announced letter to the editor was indeed submitted but rejected on the grounds that informing the readership and issues of sanctions are the prerogative of the editor, not of scientists external to the journal.
The following actions were taken:
The editors of the two other journals involved were contacted suggesting coordination of effort and, if possible, reaching a consensus as to the sanctions. Only one editor replied suggesting: (i) retraction of two of the three articles without indicating which; (ii) contacting the accused scientist and requesting a response to this apparent violation of ethical standards; and (iii) the senior and corresponding authors be restricted from publishing in these journals for a specified period of time.
This editor replied to his colleague suggesting that all three articles be retracted on the basis that none of them provided original data; to simultaneously publish a common letter in all three journals; and lastly to ban the main author for five years and the co-authors for three years.
Questions to COPE: (i) should the current academic institution of the main author be contacted for information? (ii) should there be any dissemination of this case beyond the three journals directly involved? (iii) is attempts to coordinate between journals a good idea or should each journal go on its own and make its own, probably different, decisions?
The editor updated the COPE Forum with the following information. The editor had written to the first author requesting that he retract the paper. The author agreed and his letter of retraction was published together with an editorial from the editor outlining the issues. The paper was retracted.
Members of the Forum questioned whether this was in fact a case of plagiarism, and argued that duplicate publication might be a more accurate description. However, the Forum were unanimous in recommending contacting the academic institution of the main author. The Forum emphasised that the editor should not make any allegations and should not get involved in an investigation except to provide factual information. The institution should be presented with the facts and the details of the 2 other titles, and then asked to investigate the matter themselves. The Forum found the attitudes of the editors of the other journals very worrying. The editor was right in contacting them, but their responses, or lack of response, were disheartening. The advice was to consider contacting the editorial boards of these journals.
The Forum also noted COPE’s usual recommendation of caution in applying sanctions against authors where there has been no due process of investigation, such as an institutional finding of misconduct.
No further action was taken. The editor considers the case now closed.
In 1997 a book was published (in Italian) on the life of an Italian composer, assembled through analysis of his mummified remains. Author A contributed a chapter on anthropological analysis (chapter X) and author B co-authored a chapter on paleopathology (chapter Y).
In 2003, our journal published an article (in English) co-authored by author B on the paleopathology of the same composer.
In 2006, the journal received a complaint from author A, who accused author B of plagiarising chapter X in the journal article. We now have copies of both texts with the similar text highlighted (by author A). The publishing editor has contacted author B on numerous occasions for an explanation with no response.
As authors A and B work at the same institute and author A has inferred that this is not an isolated incident, the editor has been advised to contact the institute with details of this specific allegation.
However, we were interested to note that advice from our legal department clearly stated that plagiarism could only be proven if the alleged plagiarism was word-for-word the same as the original text, with the implication that as the text was in a different language, plagiarism could not be proven. Have any other committee members encountered plagiarism in different languages and, if so, how was it proven/resolved and what advice can you provide.
The committee unanimously agreed that this was indeed a case of plagiarism. Plagiarism does not have to be word-for-word the same, and plagiarism can be proven even in two different languages. The advice was to seek more legal advice as it is possible that the legal department may be confusing copyright with plagiarism.
As the authors involved worked at the same institution, the heads of the relevant departments were approached by the publishing editor and asked to try to resolve the matter internally.
They investigated the situation and agreed that the accusation of plagiarism could not be sustained, although author B should have included a citation to author A’s book chapter in the journal article. It has been agreed that an erratum to the journal article can be published to correct this oversight. Both authors and both faculty heads have approved this decision and the matter can be considered resolved.
This is regarding a case of suspected plagiarism in our journal. I as editor have received a manuscript which was published by me in our January 2006 issue and on subsequent follow up after availability of plagiarism detection software the manuscript - a review article - seems to have a lot of similarities to another article written in a website and though the language is not the same -the flow of the article and the subheadings and the text is too similar.It was pointed out to me by my associate editor.There have been no complains yet but does that mean one should not investigate?Is the editor entitled to conduct investigations without complaints.Can plagiarism detection software be applied retrospectively?What action can be taken if only ideas are copied in the same sequence though the article is not copied verbatim.The photographs seem to be same but captions different.Should this be investigated further?How?
The committee agreed that plagiarism detection software can be applied retrospectively. Even if the editor has not received a complaint, plagiarism is serious misconduct and should be investigated. The fact that the illustrations were the same could raise issues of copyright. The advice was to contact the author in the first instance, requesting an explanation. The letter should set out the case but not make any allegations. The author should be given a time limit in which to respond. If no reply or an unsatisfactory reply is received, the editor should inform the author that he will contact the author’s registration body. If the editor decides to contact the author’s registration body, he should include the two papers, express his concerns and request an investigation. If plagiarism is proved, the editor can then decide to retract the paper. Other advice was to inform the website of the situation to determine if there has been a breach of copyright.
In 2003, Journal A published an original article. In 2006, the editor received a complaint of plagiarism relating to a case report published by Journal B in 2000.
The introduction of both articles had one identical paragraph and some paragraphs in the discussion were similar.
The article published by Journal A did not reference Journal B, despite: (a) being easy to find on a simple literature search; (b) having similar paragraphs; and (c) being on the same rather unique topic.
Journal A does not see this as an issue of scientific fraud but is concerned as to whether there is copyright infringement and about the publishing ethics involved. They would value COPE’s opinion on how best to handle this issue.
The committee did not discuss this case due to time limits, but the COPE chairman offered this personal advice.
COPE views plagiarism very seriously. Given that there seems to be only extracts involved, the suspicion must be that the author has "cut and pasted" material without attribution. The editor is advised to write to the author pointing out that to appropriate the words of others without making it clear that they are a quotation, represents intellectual theft. Moreover, it might also be breach of copyright. If the author is a young researcher or his or her first language is not English, then a gentle warning and advice on how to cite (ie, quotation marks and/or reference to the original article) should suffice. Of a senior or experienced researcher, some COPE members take the view that the author’s institution should be informed and that the second journal should publish a corrigendum.
As to copyright, this is rarely enforced so it need not be an issue in this case.
The editor contacted the author in question and notified him about the complaint and of the journal’s conclusions. The author has responded in a satisfactory way and the journal is considering whether or not to take any further action.
Further update The editor contacted the author who plagiarised the article and the author responded. The author said that he was not personally aware of the previous article and of the plagiarism in the two paragraphs, but being the first author, he took full responsibility for it. He agreed that the previous article should have been referenced by them and asked to convey his apologies to the author of the previous article. Our editor-in-chief is now dealing with this matter. He will probably publish the letter or an apology and he is considering writing an editorial on good publication practices.
Update (May 2007) The journal has drafted an editorial on this matter, which has been approved by the publisher and so should appear in the next available issue of the journal. The editor is considering whether or not to publish the letters of complaints that have been received, the journals correspondence to the “offending” author and his response. This is being discussed with the publisher in terms of legal implication. The editor considers the case now closed.
Journal A published a paper in 2002. In 2004 the Editor of Journal A was contacted by a reader, who expressed his doubts as to the integrity of one of the authors associated with the 2002 paper. The reader suggested that the author in question had been involved in the fraudulent publication of a paper published in Journal B in 2001. The reader had noted that the article published in Journal B in 2001 was almost an exact copy of an article published in Journal C in 1990.
The Editor of Journal A examined copies of the articles from Journals B and C and concluded that this appeared to be a case of plagiarism.
How should the Editor of Journal A act in this situation, given that Journal A is not the victim of the alleged plagiarism and that Journal C has ceased publication?
The committee questioned if there had been any attempt to contact the editor of journal B and make him/her aware of the situation.
Write to the author and ask for an explanation and if that is not satisfactory contact the author’s institution. Also journal A should check the 2002 article to make sure it is not plagiarised.
We have followed COPE’s advice and have sent a letter to the author at the centre of this case expressing our concerns that the papers in question are very similar and asking for an explanation. We have also written to the Editor-in-Chief of the journal in which the second paper was published to alert him to the situation. We enclosed a copy of our letter to the author and also copies of both papers so the journal has all the information to hand.
Each letter was approved by our legal department before it was sent so the process took a little longer to complete than expected. We do not yet have any response from either the author or the journal but hopefully we should hear soon.
Further update (April 2007)
Following dispatch of the letters referred to in the first update, we did receive a response from the Editor of the journal in which the allegedly fraudulent paper was published. As a result of our letter the Editor had written to the author and asked for an explanation. We have not had any response from the author.
A review article by an expert group plagiarised an article from another journal. It was largely a direct translation, involving large slabs of the text. Some of the authors are on the editorial board of the journal where the paper was published. There was no declaration that this was a translation of another article.
The editor is potentially in a very difficult situation, and someone will have to search through the work of the entire group to see if this has happened before.
The minimum charges here are that the authors have received gift authorship.
Write to all the authors separately and ask for an explanation.
Write to the authors’ institutions.
Inform the advisory board.
Retract the article.
Check all the articles from the authors.
Remove the offenders from the editorial board.
The paper was retracted by the authors, who gave all sorts of explanations, from trying to get around the allegations, to saying they shouldn’t have been listed as authors. The editor wrote an editorial on the paper, which attracted considerable media coverage. Members of the editorial board were removed and the institutions involved took the matter very seriously.
A complaint of redundant publication was made by a reader, who claimed that a second paper had been published in the journal, after the first had already been published elsewhere. No permission letter was obtained by the author of the second paper and the first paper had not been cited.
- The editors should write to the authors and publish a retraction. - The editors should write to the authors’ institutions.
The editors decided not to write to the authors' institutions, but they have taken steps to write to the authors and publish a retraction.
The authors of a paper published in another journal wrote to the editor of Journal A, complaining of apparent blatant plagiarism of their work by N et al. , whose paper had been published in the journal earlier in the year. Further investigation revealed that the text of the two papers was almost identical. S et al. had used one drug and N et al. had used a different one of the same class. The published results in the second paper closely matched those of the first. The paper also seemed to have been copied entirely from the first paper, including the ethics committee approval. The editors wrote to N et al. asking for an explanation, evidence of the raw data, and copy of the ethics committee approval. The time line of ethical approval, submission, and publication meant that it would have been difficult to have recruited for, and completed, an eight week treatment study. N responded, stating that ethical approval was not required even though it was a double blind, placebo controlled study in children, and so had not been sought. The author also claimed that the lack of response from the ethics committee was synonymous with approval. The author then claimed to have sought ethical approval retrospectively, and a letter from the ethics committee was sent to the editors. When the editors attempted to contact this committee they were passed onto another ethics committee in a different area. The letter was sent to the author’s institution head. Unsigned letters and emails, purporting to be from the co-authors’ head of institution, were sent to the journal, and the author supplied an Excel spreadsheet detailing data from just 15 patients. A review of the author’s publication history revealed that s/he had changed “routes” over the past 5-6 years, publishing only fairly brief reports.
- The letter from the ethics committee chairman might have been fabricated. - A spreadsheet on 15 patients is unacceptable; the original data should definitely be available for such recent research. - The editors should write directly to both the current and previous institution heads. - The editors should also consider contacting the author’s regulatory body. - The journal should also write to the co-authors’ head of institution as they seemed to have taken complimentary authorship. - The journal should retract the article if it felt that there was sufficient evidence to suggest fraud; but if not, it should certainly publish a notice of concern.