As editor-in-chief of a journal (journal A), I was contacted by an individual (N) who indicated the following: authors of an article published in journal A were questioned as to the similarity of a figure and a table appearing in both journal A and in another journal (journal B). N noted that reanalysis of the data of the published work by the authors suggested errors and inconsistencies of the similar data across journal A and journal B.
Subsequently, N provided additional details, including notice of a third journal (journal C) that appeared to have published a table similar to those in journals A and B. The editor of journal B responded to this saying that although the authors had been contacted by the editor of journal B and a response from the authors was pending, they agreed that retraction from journals A, B and C was required. Of note, journal B had previously resolved a challenge from N with respect to the study in question as a letter to the editor regarding data interpretation with a response from the authors. The editor of journal B shared both of these publications with the other journals involved at the request of journal A.
Although the authors referenced journal B in the article they published in journal A and stated that it was an extension of the study published in journal B, they only indirectly referenced the figure and table. The figure and table did not include a reference or acknowledgment to indicate where they were initially accepted/published or submitted elsewhere. Hence it appears that a very similar figure and table appeared in three publications and a figure in two publications without appropriate assigning credit.
This appears to journal A to be a possible case of overlapping publications by the authors. Taking the first publication dates (including Epub dates) on PubMed, it appears all three articles were published at around the same time, with the article in journal C publishing first as an Epub article.
It should be noted that the authors retained the copyright to their article published in journal B. I am not sure about journal C.
Most recently, N sent another email to all three journals questioning the housing conditions of the animals used in the study and whether the statement indicating that the authors had received approval from their ethics committee of experimentation on animals is actually true.
As editor of journal A, I forwarded all the information to my publisher. I plan to contact the authors on review and after discussion with COPE. My publisher has also informed journals B and C of our plans to contact COPE before taking any initial action.
As well as asking for guidance on how best to handle this case, we would like COPE’s opinion on which journal should be taking the lead to resolve these concerns, as it involves multiple journals.
The advice from the Forum was to follow the COPE flowchart on redundant publication. Initially the editor should contact the authors and ask for a full explanation. If the editor feels that the explanation from the author is not satisfactory, he can then retract the paper, if his is the second journal which published the paper. If a paper is published online it should be considered as being published, so the epublication date is the date to go by. The first version of the paper should remain and the others should be retracted.
However, if the editor feels that there is only partial overlap and readers would benefit from the availability of new data, then the editor could issue a notice of redundant publication.
Another scenario would be if the editor accepts the explanation of the authors that they made a genuine mistake. In this instance, the editor could issue a correction (for example, figure 7 has appeared in a previous publication).
The Forum stressed it is important to contact all of the authors, not just the corresponding author. The Forum also agreed that regardless of whether or not N is acting in good faith, the editor should investigate the accusations by contacting the authors and asking for an explanation.
The Forum advised liaising with the other editors if possible, and jointly contacting the institution.
The Forum also suggested looking at the copyright issues (e.g. the date on which copyright was transferred to a journal, if applicable).
The editor retracted the paper. To the best of his knowledge the other papers in question have also been retracted.
A study was submitted in which the authors describe a new surgical technique, which includes radiofrequency coagulation, to treat complete prolapse of the rectum. They say in their paper that: “in the treatment of complete rectal prolapse, no operation stands out in comparison to the others.” The authors do not seem to have received either ethics committee approval or consent from the patients. How should the editors proceed?
_ The committee assumed that the editor had already queried whether or not the authors had ethical approval and consent. _ What constitutes research in a surgical case series is a very grey area. _ How “informed”would the patient consent be? _ If the editor has any remaining doubts then he should report the authors to the head of their institution.
The case was sent to the journal’s ethics committee as well as COPE, who disputed the authors’ suggestion that their country “did not have any ethical committee whose permission is needed to carry out any new procedure.” The authors’ country had recently enacted research guidelines. The key issue would be whether surgical innovations would fall within the guidelines’ remit. The editor wrote to the authors including the new guidelines adopted in their country and invited a reply. It was unclear who the editor should approach as a higher authority, because the authors appeared to be working at their own organisation. The journal’s ethics committee suggested that if there is no local ethics committee, then the editor should consider writing to the relevant licensing body. The author wrote back to the editor, contesting that his use of the established technique in the context described was experimental and providing references for the technique. The editor referred the file to another senior editor who felt that this case was on the borderline between clinical innovation and research. Any problems with the work were unintentional and below the threshold of work requiring censure. The journal’s ethics committee debated the case again and decided that no further action was required. It had been a useful interchange and it would be useful to debate with the readership where clinical innovation ends and research begins.
An author received a manuscript describing the biological behaviour of an infectious agent in an animal model. The manuscript contained new information, but the experimental procedure involved interventions that would not be permitted by UK Home Office regulations. What should the editor do?
_ Use of material from old data could be permitted. _ The committee agreed that this was a difficult area because there is currently no international convention that applies to all countries. _ It was suggested that the article could be published with an editorial that could potentially stimulate further discussion (unless the details of the experiment were particularly gruesome). _ It was agreed that a debate on this subject was well overdue
The details of the experiment were “particularly gruesome” which meant that the validity of the data as a model for human disease was questionable. The editor intends publishing an editorial comment relating to submissions in general, possibly in the form of a review article on some aspect of good animal practice, with an accompanying editorial.
A manuscript was submitted which described an intervention that partially corrected the results in stress injury in an animal model. Two reviewers drew attention to the fact that the stress model used in these experiments would not be ethically acceptable in the UK. The editor raised this with the senior author, who responded promptly stating that the work had already been presented at an international scientific meeting and that an ethical committee for experiments involving animals had approved the study. Documentation was subsequently provided supporting the statement. What should the editor do now?
_ Different countries have different standards but there should be a universality of procedures and editors should not encourage lower standards allowed elsewhere. _ The editor should obtain written evidence that ethical approval had been obtained locally and to determine whether this technique would be acceptable in the UK. _ The case raises the ethical issue of variable ethical guidelines for animal research in different countries.
Written evidence (in the local language) of ethical approval was provided, and this was confirmed to be correct by expert translation. The editor wrote to the UK Home Office for clarification of the status of this model in the UK who advised that a particular procedure such as that discussed in the paper would not be absolutely excluded, but the editor was reminded that at all times the minimum stress should always be applied to answer the research question raised.