This single author manuscript describes the treatment of 300 women with psychological problems. The women were randomised to either therapy or pharmacological intervention, and this study reports the relative effectiveness of these strategies.
At submission, the manuscript did not contain any mention of ethics approval, consent or trial registration. When the author was queried on these issues, he claimed that the study was performed ethically, but that he did not have ethical approval because he did the study privately, and is not associated with any organization or institution. Since he had listed his affiliation with university X, we questioned how he had access to these patients. The author responded that he runs a private practice, and that he wanted to mention university X out of “personal interest”, and to please remove the name of the institution from his submission.
This author does not have a Scopus or PubMed record, or an institutional email address. Upon searching for his email address in Google, we identified two papers that appear to have been published by this author in journal A and journal B, neither of which is indexed in Scopus or PubMed.
We have contacted university X through their general email address to alert them of this individual, since he appears to be using their name in an unauthorized context, but have not received a response. We contacted the author to express our concerns and inform him that we would keep his file open until the issue has been resolved, but received no response. We attempted to contact the author’s medical council to report this individual, but were unable to find contact information as their website is not in English. We also contacted journal A and journal B to notify them of our concerns, in the event that they also wished to investigate this author; neither journal has responded.
Two months later, we re-sent the notification to university X general email address and received an out of office response.
We would greatly appreciate any suggestions on whether there is anything further we can do other than to reject the manuscript.
The Forum suggested that the editor has a duty to pursue this further and to continue to try and make contact with the author and the institution. Suggestions were to send an email to a specific person or department at the institution, not just use the general institution email; find out the name of the vice-chancellor or head of the department; locate a phone number or email contact for the secretariat in charge of the department; find someone to translate the information on the website. The university needs to know that their name is being used in this context by this author, and they need to start an investigation. The Forum also advised contacting journals A and B again. Are there any co-authors on the other papers? If so, the editor should try to contact them. Does the journal have any editorial board members in this country who could tell the editor the relevant person to contact?
If the editor still gets no response, another suggestion was for him to write an editorial on this issue.
Based on advice from the COPE forum, we have again attempted to contact the institution through their general email address—we have still not been successful in identifying a personal contact at the institution. Our next step will be to find someone to help us translate the website or an editorial board member who may be able to help us identify a committee or other point of contact in the author’s region.
Last March we accepted a paper written by a post-doctoral fellow (PD) and an assistant professor (AP). The work was done by PD in AP's laboratory; PD has now moved on (to another country, in fact). Soon after the manuscript was sent to production, AP sent an email asking to delay production of the manuscript because AP was worried that there may be an ‘error’ in the manuscript that might require ‘some adjustments’. Months passed with no further word from AP. A few weeks ago, I wrote to AP regarding an update. Last week, AP replied, asking to remove his/her name from the manuscript because AP and PD “... have an insurmountable scientific disagreement over how the data for this study should be tabulated and presented”.
AP called yesterday to provide some additional background. AP believes that PD made some questionable decisions with respect to the data and AP is unable to replicate the findings in his/her own analyses of the data.
AP's university looked into the matter and found insufficient evidence to pursue a claim of scientific misconduct. According to AP, PD interprets this to mean that PD has done nothing wrong.
I have not yet said anything to (or heard from) PD. I am certainly not comfortable in moving forward with this publication. Yet, without knowing more details and without hearing PD's side of the issue, it would seem unfair to PD to withdraw our decision to publish the paper. And, anticipating what PD might say ("I did everything correctly"), I find it hard to imagine how we can adjudicate the issue.
The editor updated the Forum by telling them that PD had provided him with a copy of the email from AP’s institutional panel saying that after careful review of the evidence, the panel unanimously reached the conclusion that allegations of misconduct against PD were not merited and no further proceedings were warranted. Also, AP emailed the editor and requested that the manuscript be withdrawn. AP continues to insist that s/he cannot back up the data but refuses to say why.
The Forum agreed that for the editor to make a decision on whether or not to publish the paper, he needs more facts. The Forum suggested the editor should contact the institution and ask them for the details of the allegations. The editor is perfectly within his rights to push the institution for this information. It is critical for the editor to know why AP wants the paper withdrawn before he can make a decision. Another suggestion was for the editor to respond to AP asking her for her scientific reasons as to why the paper should be withdrawn.
The editor contacted AP’s university for additional information regarding its inquiry but was provided with nothing useful. In essence, the editor was told that the inquiry had found no evidence for scientific misconduct.
At this point, with no firm evidence of misconduct, the journal was inclined to move forward with the paper. The editor told AP that she had one last chance to provide specific details regarding the nature of her disagreement with PD. It turns out that it involved two data points (out of 22) in a supplementary analysis. AP and PD could not agree on the value of those data points.
The editor then suggested to AP and PD that they re-do the supplementary analysis, based on the 20 scores that were not in dispute; if the pattern reported originally was confirmed in the new analysis, then the journal would publish the paper.
The editor has just received the revised manuscript reporting these new analyses; it looks as if the results are not affected by the disputed data points so that the journal will be able to publish the paper.
In May 2011 a letter from the Vice-Rector for Personnel of a reputable university was sent to the editor mentioning that two articles published in the journal contained two statements not supported by documented evidence. The two statements related to: (1) approval of the local ethics committee and (2) representation of the experimental evidence.
With regard to point (1), the authors stated in the article that they had approval in 1995 for their research protocols but the authorities state that there is no written documentation of this agreement and that this cannot substitute for formal approval of the research. The journal and the university rules indicate that formal approval of an ethics committee is required.
With regard to point (2), a statement in both articles cannot be sustained for one of three patients in one of the articles and for one case in the second article. Laboratory analysis revealed contradictory evidence from the authors’ statements in the articles. The authors gave three reasons why they ignored this information. Unfortunately, the samples kept in the authors’ laboratory were destroyed in a fire.
According to the letter from the academic authorities, “the authors have been kept informed of these facts, which are in breach of the rules of good scientific conduct”.
One of the articles is coauthored by three colleagues from another university. They have asked the journal that their names be removed.
The author of the articles, who received a copy of the letter from the Vice-Rector, asked to have some time to send in his rebuttal of the accusations. For both issues the answers provided by the authors were submitted to the university and were judged as unsatisfactory.
Long discussions within the publications committee of the journal with representatives of the publisher and the scientific society led to the decision that an “expression of concern” should be published. Prior to publication, the expression of concern was sent to the authors and the university for their comments. Just before the deadline, a letter arrived from the university (signed by the Vice-Rector and the Rector). The conclusion of the letter was that the university believed an expression of concern was not needed. The university believed that the authors recognized that they made mistakes in relation to both issues but since they acted “in good faith” the university had closed the case and did not consider an expression of concern appropriate.
So the journal was faced with an author admitting two serious “mistakes” in two articles. The institution that originally raised the concerns backed off in the end. After consulting with the editorial team I wrote to the author asking him to send a letter to the editor signed by all authors correcting the serious mistakes in the literature. A confidential draft letter was received from the author, and edited and completed by the editor so that both issues were mentioned. This letter was signed by all authors at this author’s institution. Three authors at a different institution refused to sign the letter as they believed that the letter to the editor did not clarify the situation. These three authors confirm their initial position and encourage the other authors to retract both articles. A copy of the email correspondence between the author and a spokesman for the other institution indicates that the author does not want to do this.
A possible conclusion would be to publish the letter to the editor signed by the authors from the institution of the first author as well as a letter to the editor from the three authors from the other institution. This would be accompanied by an expression of concern or an editorial by the editor, highlighting the necessity of proper ethics approval and reporting all experimental data.
An additional question to COPE: should other editors be informed of this? In a sister journal, an article was submitted mentioning the same very outdated ethics approval.
The Forum agreed that this was a very interesting but complicated case. There are two issues here: (1) approval of the local ethics committee and (2) representation of the experimental evidence.
Regarding the first point, the Forum suggested that if the validity of the ethics approval is not in question, then this may not be an issue. The editor does have a right to expect a higher standard from the authors, but they do not seem to have broken the rules as at the time of submission (in 1995), formal approval was not considered mandatory.
In terms of the data, the Forum agreed that the editor needs to decide whether the basic findings of the study are sound. By leaving out some of the data, were the readers mislead? If the data that have been omitted are incidental and do not change the findings of the study, then the advice was for the editor to issue a correction. If however, the editor feels that the study is flawed and the findings were presented in a misleading way, then the article should be retracted.
Some felt that as the authors at the second institute want the article retracted, then the editor should consider retracting it (since these authors no longer stand by the findings). As these three authors believe there are grounds for removing their names because they were unaware of the lack of ethics approval and the omitted data, then the editor should consider this option too.
In the end, it is up to the editor to decide. If s/he decides to issue a correction, s/he could detail in the correction notice which authors were aware of (or responsible for) the errors that occurred. But if the editor has doubts about the underlying science, then s/he should retract the paper.
After the COPE Forum discussion, a decision was taken to correct the literature by publishing two letters to the editor. The first letter from all of the authors recognises the errors made and explains the reason why the omission of the experimental evidence did not put into question the validity of the work. The letter was signed by all of the authors except the three authors from the other institution; they had asked that their names be removed as authors and they explain in a letter to the editor why they requested this. An editorial was written in relation to these two letters, reiterating the facts and insisting that proper ethical approval is required and that all experimental evidence needs to be reported. The conclusion of the editorial is that the journal decided not to retract the paper but to publish a correction. Both letters to the editor and the editorial will be linked to the two articles in the literature.
During the 2nd World Conference on Research Integrity in Singapore in 2010, COPE helped develop two position statements setting out international standards for responsible research publication for editors and authors. They have been published as part of the conference proceedings under a Creative Commons licence* (details of the proceedings are available from the publisher, here).
Our journal was contacted by a representative of a company following acceptance of a manuscript that was based on a clinical study sponsored by that company. Upon acceptance, the senior author had forwarded a copy of the manuscript to the company, who had identified some discrepancies between the data presented in the article and an initial report that had been presented to them while the study was still underway. They stated that these discrepancies had been brought to the authors' attention but that a satisfactory resolution had not yet been reached and that they had requested a full independent audit.
The authors, who were copied on this correspondence, were asked by the journal to clarify the discrepancies. In a letter to the company and the journal, the authors responded to each of the concerns that had been raised. They stated that the discrepancies resulted to some degree from the use of a different analytic technique in the submitted article, citing the CONSORT statement as evidence that this technique has become the favoured form of analysis since the initial report, which was presented almost 15 years ago. They also acknowledged that one of the numbers presented in the initial report was inaccurate and that they had redone their analysis to ensure accuracy in their results. A revised manuscript was included with this letter.
The company responded that they were not satisfied with the authors' responses and repeated their request for an independent audit. The authors responded that they did not have the resources for an independent audit but would conduct an extensive internal one. The associate editor who had accepted the manuscript and a representative of the editorial board were asked to assess the company's claims and the authors' responses and they felt that the authors had satisfactorily answered the questions that had been raised.
The company contacted the ethics committee of the authors' institution and reported their concerns. The institution's CEO reported that the ethics committee, as well as the institution's board, had investigated the situation and found that while errors had occurred, they did not constitute research misconduct and that they did not see this as an ethics issue. They said that the decision regarding publication should be left to the discretion of the journal's editors.
Our publisher's legal team was consulted, and they felt that if the journal editors were satisfied with the authors' responses and the relevant changes to the manuscript, then they did not see any reason not to publish the paper. They also advised that our society's board of directors should review the situation and recommended that the case be submitted to COPE, a recommendation endorsed by the society's board.
The company continues to maintain that an independent audit is needed. The authors contend that the company is seeking to delay or stop publication of the article, perhaps because of its implications for a line of products produced by the company.
The Forum asked whether the company had any contract with the authors requiring them to have company approval before publication. The editor told the Forum that the only contract that was found was a 15 year old letter about the authors promising to produce results.
As the institutions found no evidence of misconduct, and the editor is satisfied with the paper, most agreed that the paper should be published but that the editor should perhaps consult the journal’s legal team and the society's board. All agreed the editor has done all the right things and ultimately it is his decision whether or not to publish. An editor does have a duty to publish good research.
The Forum thought it might be helpful to consider whether the editor is reacting differently because a commercial company is involved. Also, the editor should be prepared for any negative publicity or even legal ramifications if he publishes the paper. How will the editor handle letters from the company criticising the paper? Will he publish them?
Another suggestion was for the editor to write a commentary or editorial outlining the issues involved in this case.
Following review of the Forum discussion, the society's board of directors agreed to proceed with publication of the article. Rather than drafting a full editorial to explain the controversy, a footnote was added to the manuscript to explain the unusual delay between acceptance of the manuscript and publication. The authors were notified of this, and agreed to the proposed language for the footnote. The company that had raised the concerns was also notified that publication would proceed and provided with the relevant deadlines should they wish to submit an official correspondence. The correspondence arrived within days and it and a response from the authors were both published in the issue that followed the one with the article itself. Because the letters are now linked to the article and its entry in most citation databases, the company's concerns and the authors' response are now entered into the public record. The society and editors are grateful to the Forum for its advice; being able to say that an independent body had reviewed the situation was beneficial.
The editors in chief of journal A and journal B, both owned by society C, received a letter from the last ‘senior’ author, also the corresponding author on one of the papers (author D), concerning separate papers published in both journals (paper E published in journal A and paper F published in journal B), informing them that one of the co-authors on both papers is under investigation for scientific fraud. The results of the investigation are expected to take a further 6 months to complete. The case has, however, attracted some press attention and there is a danger that the journals will be brought into disrepute by association. Author D listed the figures in both papers E and F which the other co-authors had determined, on subsequent examination, to be fraudulently manipulated and/or duplicated and asked for advice on further action. Figures had been duplicated from a third publication, journal G. Author D is a member of the editorial board of journal A. The letter sent by author D was co-signed by all authors except the author accused of fraud. The accused author was the corresponding author on one of the papers.
The editors in chief of both journals also received a letter to the editor from an independent observer of the case, criticising the editorial process that led to the papers being accepted and published.
The society and editors in chief naturally wished to respond rapidly to author D and to avoid any damage to the reputations of the journals through association. Following standard society policy and procedure, and consulting the COPE guidelines, the editors in chief referred the case to the society’s independent publication ethics committee.
The editors in chief also instigated a review of the editorial processes for the two papers to be conducted by (1) a former editor of both journals who was familiar with the subject area covered by the papers and (2) the chair of the society’s publications committee.
The publications ethics committee investigated and confirmed the figure duplication and manipulation described by author D and recommended:
(1) that author D should be asked to retract the papers (2) that all authors should be banned from submitting to either journal for 1 year, as is standard practice, on the grounds that all authors take joint responsibility for the content of submitted papers (3) the third journal, journal G, should be informed of the actions being taken (4) that author D be asked to resign as an editor of journal A to avoid bringing the journal into disrepute by association.
The outcome of the internal review of the editorial process leading to the publication of the papers is incomplete at the time of submission. Findings will be fed back to the editorial boards at meetings in July for discussion and action.
The society and editors in chief seek a second opinion on the recommendations of the publications ethics committee and advice on improving the editorial process to avoid similar cases in future. We would also like advice on:
(a) what opportunity to reply must be afforded to the author, who is effectively accused prior to a public notice by the journals; (b) in light of the COPE guidelines and the COPE definition of 'author', should the nature of response depend on whether the corresponding or another author notifies the publisher/journal of a potential problem.
COPE never recommends banning authors because of the legal implications involved. The Forum agreed that author D acted honourably by acting quickly and co-ordinating the retraction but agreed that the journal’s response should not depend on whether the corresponding or another author notifies the journal of a potential problem. The Forum was told that the editor has contacted the accused author and given him the opportunity to respond. He has not responded to date. The Forum agreed that the editor can go ahead with the retractions, even if the accused author does not respond. The Forum suggested contacting all of the authors and giving them the opportunity to respond.
However, some suggested that if the editor is in doubt about any aspects of the case, he should wait for the results of the investigation before proceeding.
In view of the general interest in the case and further accusations of lax editing, and in order to preserve the reputation of the journals, the editors-in-chief decided to retract the papers, with the agreement of all authors, except for the author accused of misconduct, without waiting for the outcome of the external investigation. The society is continuing to review editorial procedures to heighten awareness of figure manipulation and duplication among reviewers and editors. The practice of banning authors will be reviewed.
Following publication of an article, the editors noticed that the paper reported results of a clinical trial, but no details of trial registration were included in the article. (The journal does have careful checks on trial registration by staff at submission but this paper was not well written and it took careful reading to work out that it did in fact report on a clinical trial).
We contacted the authors to request details on trial registration and the study protocol, which are journal requirements for clinical trials. The senior author (co-chair A of his institution) eventually acknowledged that the trial had not been registered and they provided a document for the study protocol which we considered unsatisfactory. The authors at that stage requested ‘withdrawal’ of the article.
We replied to the authors to indicate we had the intention of issuing a notice of concern based on lack of trial registration. Given the new issue about the lack of a satisfactory protocol for the study reported, we then requested a copy of the letter of approval issued by the ethics committee/institutional review board cited in the article. Around this time, we were spontaneously contacted by co-chair B of the authors’ institution (who is not an author on the paper) expressing serious concerns over the work reported given that:
(1) they considered the description of the work as potentially misleading given it fulfilled the criteria for a clinical trial; and (2) the ethics committee/institutional review board cited in the article does not exist at the authors’ institution.
Co-chair B indicated they would like to remain anonymous but would be willing to publicly outline their concerns as part of an internal investigation if a formal request for an enquiry was sent to the institution. We did not hear back from the authors for some time after our request for a copy of the ethics committee approval, so we posted a comment on the article to make the readers aware about the fact that the article did not adhere to the journal’s requirements for clinical trials and replied to the authors to explain the implications of a retraction—versus a ‘withdrawal’—and also reiterate the request for the letter of approval issued by the ethics committee.
In a further development, the authors finally then contacted us to say that the study was not in fact done at their institution but in a separate part of the country, that they did have approval from an ethics committee other than the one stated in the paper and provided a copy of that ethical approval in a non-English language. They provided no explanation for the discrepancies in study setting and ethical approval. It is not clear to us who recruited the participants as no authors seem to be based at the institution now claimed as providing ethical approval.
We have been unable to independently verify the authenticity of the claimed ethical approval and have concerns about the discrepancies in the various accounts of what took place. We think it is important to retract the paper and propose to do that, highlighting the lack of trial registration, lack of an appropriate protocol and that the ethics committee named in the article did not seem to give approval.
Is it adequate to proceed to retract the article on the basis of the concerns raised and the lack of an adequate response from the authors, given that we have been unable to establish whether the trial did or did not receive ethical approval? We also propose to submit a formal request for investigation to co-chair B of the institution (who currently wishes to be an anonymous complainant) and update the retraction later should we receive further clarification from them.
The Forum agreed that the editor certainly has enough grounds to issue an expression of concern. However, most agreed with the suggestion that the editor should submit a formal request for an investigation to be carried out by the institution. If the investigation provides evidence of misconduct, then the editor should retract the paper.
However, some of the Forum argued that there are already grounds for retraction and that retraction is justified on the basis of the lack of appropriate protocol, lack of trial registration and possible lack of ethics committee approval. Hence, although ideally a formal investigation should be conducted and the editor should wait for the outcome, if the institution does not respond or if the response is unsatisfactory, the editor should retract the paper anyway.
The editor wrote to the co-chair of the institution to ask for a formal investigation, and received an acknowledgement to say this would be done. The editor has not yet received any further details from them but is following up to find out more.
The journal plans to issue an expression of concern and have had to set up the ability to do this as a new type of article in their production systems.
Follow up (December 2011):
We heard from the institution's investigation committee, which determined that the trial had not been conducted by the authors of the paper published in our journal. Rather, the authors of our paper had received samples from the investigators who had conducted the trial, and were reporting results of analyses done on those samples. The individual named in the investigation committee report as the principal investigator for the trial was not named in the manuscript published in our journal, either as an author or as an acknowledged person. The investigation committee reported that the oversight and conduct of the trial had been appropriate, but that ethics approval had in fact been given by a different ethics committee from the one named in the manuscript published.
The investigation committee reported that the trial, funded by a commercial company, had in fact been carried out at the company, recruiting as participants employees of the company. We were not aware of this fact when we published the paper and the setting and participant recruitment for the trial were not well described in the manuscript. The investigation committee reported that they would not have expected this study to have been registered as a trial, bearing in mind their country's local laws. This was because the intervention used in the trial was an approved medicinal product —essentially it was a postmarketing study. In that country, such studies do not need to be registered.
The journal editors have decided to proceed with an expression of concern, noting that the ethics committee named in the paper as giving approval in fact did not, and that a different ethics committee gave approval. We plan to describe the setting for recruitment of participants and state that the company employees were participants. We would like to state that the trial was not registered and should have been, under our journal's criteria and ICMJE criteria, even though it may not have been a legal requirement in that country.
The editorial office of journal A was contacted anonymously by an individual who made allegations against two papers, both published by the same author. Paper 1 was alleged to be a duplicate publication, with the paper previously having been published in journal B. The editorial office of journal A, in accordance with the COPE flowcharts, contacted the author informing them of the allegations and asking for a response/explanation. The author freely admitted to the duplicate publication and paper 1 is in the process of being retracted.
The allegation against paper 2 was image manipulation consisting of false bands being included in an assay figure. The editorial office reviewed the images and believes that they have been manipulated. As such they would like to retract the paper from journal A. When the author was contacted he admitted that some of the figures had been made by copy/paste but he maintained that the conclusions of the article are correct.
Numerous other journals have been contacted about similar alleged misconduct by this author, who believes that the accusations must be politically motivated.
The editorial office carried out further investigation of other papers published by the same author in journal A and found another instance of apparent image manipulation (paper 3). When contacted, the author made the same statement as above. When a co-author of this paper at another institution was contacted for his position, he defended the corresponding author and stated that it was inconceivable to him that serious claims of scientific misconduct made by an unidentified accuser could be applied here. Moreover, he claimed that none of the experiments was performed in his laboratory.
As the author denied any real wrongdoing, but to the editorial team it seems quite obvious that the figures have been manipulated, the editors of journal A contacted the author’s institution and asked for a response within 3 months. They have not received a reply from the institution.
The editorial team is certain that the figures have been manipulated to provide false data and would therefore like to retract the relevant articles (papers 2 and 3) despite the author’s denial of any wrongdoing and no contact from the author’s institution. In consultation with the publisher for journal A, it is felt that the best way to proceed would be to issue a non-specific notice of retraction for the relevant papers, thus avoiding potential charges of defamation.
Would the Forum agree with this course of action or does it have any other views?
The Forum questioned whether the editor had contacted the correct person at the institution. Ideally the case should be investigated by the institution so perhaps the editor should keep pursuing the institution. The editor could send a registered letter if email has elicited no response. If there is a funding body or ethics committee, this could be another avenue to pursue.
Ideally the editor should issue an expression of concern and then issue a retraction if there is evidence of misconduct after an investigation has been conducted by the institution. The Forum would advise against issuing a non-specific notice of retraction. However, if there is no response from the institution and the editor wants to retract the article, he should state all of the facts in the retraction notice, in a non-accusatory way, with his reasons for retraction, and mention that the institution has failed to respond.
As one of the authors is from a different institution, another suggestion was to contact that institution and request an investigation on the basis that all authors should take responsibility for published work.
The articles involved were retracted from the journal.
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.
This query refers to a clinical trial comparing two forms of treatment which has since been published in another journal.
I originally received this manuscript in 2009. One of the referees alerted me to the fact that the data looked strange. Furthermore, the test and controls groups were perfectly distributed, which is almost impossible. Along with the usual requests for modifications, I asked for the ethics approval letter to establish if the trial had been registered or approved somewhere and also expressed the concerns to the authors.
In the revised submission, I received a letter signed by one of the authors stating that the study was discussed at a departmental meeting and it was established that there was no need for ethical approval. According to my understanding of the matter, running a clinical trial in my country without ethics approval is a criminal offense. The authors also acknowledged that severe mistakes had been made to some of the measurements but did not admit to any wrongdoing.
I asked the authors for a file with some of the images from their study and the clinical data for each individual case. Authors who submit to our journal agree to make the original data available upon request during either peer review or later. The paper was withdrawn by the authors.
In the paper recently published in the other journal, the senior author as well as an assistant professor from the same institution listed as authors in the original submission that I handled no longer appear on the list of authors. Two additional authors are now listed. I originally did not pursue the matter when the paper was withdrawn from consideration in my journal as I understood that the authors had realised that there was something wrong. On publication in a different journal, however, I was alerted by the original referee that the paper that was withdrawn was now published.
I contacted the editor of the other journal who did not seem as concerned as we are with such possible misconduct. Essentially the complexity lies in the triangle between two journals and two institutions as well as in the possibility that two aspects may be wrong: the ethics and the data. The change in authorship for the same manuscript in the two submissions is also significant. Even though the paper was withdrawn from my journal, should I pursue the matter with the relevant officers of the two institutions involved?
The Forum agreed that the editor does have a duty to follow-up the case, even though the paper was withdrawn from his journal.
The editor should contact the ethics committee and/or the institution, and copy in the authors so that they are aware of what the editor is doing. The editor should send the ethics committee a copy of the paper and ask them if they approved the study. If they say they did not approve the study, then the editor should request that they investigate the matter. The editor should also raise the question of the change in authorship with the institution.
The editor should try and involve the other editor if possible.
Another suggestion was to write a letter to the other journal, as an author, raising the issues of the unusually smooth data and also comment on the apparent lack of ethics committee approval.
Acting on the advice from COPE, I contacted the editor of the journal that published the article. The answer was as follows: “I welcome any opportunity to collaborate to reduce scientific misconduct. With that said, the practical actions become more challenging. Perhaps if we can discuss this in person, we can define some practical steps to get started. We investigated the human subjects ethical review for the paper you identified, and the responses were acceptable. Although I have worked closely with ethical review boards in my country, you are certainly more knowledgeable than I about the details in your country. The practical details always make me nervous.”
Apparently, the journal found the ethics review acceptable and in the response it is apparent that no further follow-up is planned.
At this stage, contacting the ethics committees of the two institutions involved will be my next step. This is very delicate as this has already been done by the other journal (I am not sure if the ethics committee or the authors were contacted).
How should I proceed? Should the editor of the other journal be copied in on the correspondence? To whom should my letter be addressed—all authors from both versions of the papers or only those of the version that was originally submitted to my journal? And in terms of the ethics committee for the two institutions, should I cite in my letter that since the case falls outside the normal best practice guidelines, I have sought input from COPE? Should I say that I contacted the other editor but failed to obtain a satisfactory response?
Advice on follow up:
The Forum agreed that this case should ideally be investigated by the institutions. The advice was for the editor to contact the institutions, outline the facts, in a non-accusatory way, and request that they carry out an investigation. There is no need to copy in the other editor. If there is no response from the institutions or their responses are unsatisfactory, the Forum again suggested writing a letter to the other journal, as a reader, raising the issues of the unusually smooth data and also comment on the apparent lack of ethics committee approval.
As the other editor seems very reluctant to pursue the case, another suggestion was to go above the editor and contact the publisher of that journal.