An article was published with three authors’ names. Not all of the authors’ signatures had been included on the original submission letter. A complaint was lodged by Y, who said that X had submitted the paper without either his or Z’s consent or knowledge, and that there were several specific errors and omissions. Y then submitted a statement for publication in the journal dissociating himself from the published article. The statement was copied with Y’s approval to the corresponding author, X, to give him the opportunity to respond. X responded and arranged for two colleagues, A and B, to submit statements about the research work in question. Y (the complainant) also submitted further information about the research work. This correspondence spawned a series of allegations, denials, explanations and counter-allegations. Although the journal feels it should publish Y’s dissociation from the article in the journal, would it be wise to publish this without anything from X? Additionally, if the editors are sure that X submitted the article without the approval of his supposed co-authors, should action be taken against him, such as barring him from publishing in the journal for a period of time?
_ The corresponding author should have the right to reply. _ There had been a clear breach of publication ethics as not all the authors signed the original agreement on submission. _ It probably is not enough to publish a statement and the matter should be referred to the head of the institution for an investigation, after which the journal should publish the consequences. _ A representative from the other institution—that of author X’s—should also have the right of reply, and the editor would also need to comment on the issue. _ Institutions can hide behind confidentiality agreements and there is evidence that internal enquiries are not always useful. _ The heads of the institutions of all the authors should be informed and the journal should not make any public statement until the responses had been received.
A letter of dissociation from the author was published by the journal. The heads of the institutions were not contacted.
After a randomised controlled trial from a single author had been published, a letter was received in which the correspondent suggested that the original trial might be fraudulent. Firstly, the writer claimed that it was highly unlikely that just one author could perform a prospective, randomised, double blind, placebo controlled trial, especially in a small district hospital. The correspondent was also worried that there was no mention of other standard treatments. Advice was sought from a statistician and a gastroenterologist, both of whom raised serious doubts about the paper. The editor asked the chief executive of the hospital to investigate. Initially, the medical director of the hospital wrote to say that it would be impossible for them to investigate unless the journal was willing to pay for the investigation. The editor replied, saying that he thought this absurd, on the grounds that if someone makes a serious complaint to the police, they don’t expect to be asked to pay for an investigation. The medical director eventually agreed with this and arranged for an experienced and independent researcher to examine the case. It emerged that the author had already been suspended for clinical reasons and that a university professor had been asked to look at the research when it was first published. An experienced statistician, he found no serious problems. Nor did the independent researcher find any serious problems. No further action has therefore been taken, but are there any conclusions to be drawn?
An attempt should be made to find who else had worked on the paper. A sole author rarely does all of the work, but yet has complete intellectual ownership of the data, although it is not impossible to be a single author.
This is a good example of why lists of contributors should be published, but this will not be pursued further in this case.
Three papers concerning one hospital problem had been submitted to three different journals. Before publication the three editors of the journals became aware of the three different papers and the substantial overlap between them. The three editors communicated with each other and realised that they had four concerns: 1. There was very considerable overlap among the three papers. There didn’t seem to be any justification for publishing three papers rather than one or two. 2. The authors of the papers had not disclosed the existence of the other papers to any of the editors. 3. The three papers all had different sets of authors, and it seemed most unlikely that all authors met the definition of authorship devised by the International Committee of Medical Journal Editors. It also subsequently emerged that at least one author was unaware that he had been listed as an author on one of these papers. 4. There were inconsistencies among the papers. One particular patient was described in all three papers, and there were inconsistencies in the nationality of the patient, the readmission date, the results of a particular test, and the final diagnosis. The three editors took a very long time to decide what action to take, and in the end differed in their responses. One editor decided simply to notify the authors that she would not publish the paper and that she was concerned about the circumstances of the paper. The two other editors decided to ask for an investigation. One editor wrote to the chief executive of the institution where the authors had worked some ten months ago, but no explanation of what happened had been received. What should the editor do now?
_ The chief executive has now responded and agreed there were problems with redundant publication and as a result they will be revising their policies. Reasonable answers had been given that explained the discrepancies raised. _ A letter should be published in all of the journals regarding the redundant publication. _ A common agreement between all of the editors should be obtained, noting that it could be a prolonged procedure.
The matter was investigated by the chief executive, who agreed that the overlap was evident on re-review. But he believed there was no deliberate intention to deceive.
A paper was published in January 1998,and seven authors were credited. B was thanked for his contribution in the acknowledgements section. One year later B wrote to the editor, outlining two alleged incidents related to this paper. First, the cohort reported in the January 1998 paper was one that B had been working on since the early 1990s. In 1992–3 he sought collaboration with another research group. A grant was applied for and granted. At that time B, who was a co-signatory on the grant application, moved abroad but the grant specifically included money for him to travel back to his home country to continue the collaboration. Moreover, all the collaborators agreed that he would be a co-author of all subsequent papers. As the collaboration proceeded, B felt he was being edged out of the group. A senior colleague in his home country felt the same way and eventually resigned from the collaboration. B was unaware that a paper was being prepared for publication from this study. The first time that he saw the paper was after publication. He only contacted the editor after several colleagues urged him to bring the matter out into the open. Not only was he not included as a full author on the paper, but his permission had not been sought for acknowledgement, in direct contravention of the Vancouver Group guidelines. The second allegation concerning this paper is that the hypothesis subtly shifted between the grant application and the published paper. The hypothesis as stated in the grant application is different in an important way from that stated in the introduction to the paper. The results of the research support the hypothesis as cited in the paper,but directly contradict the hypothesis as cited in the grant application. B alleges that the research group concerned has indulged in post hoc hypothesis generation so that the results reflect their beliefs about the meaning of the data rather than their pre-specifed hypothesis. Another paper from this research group,in which B is cited as an author, again without his permission, is currently being held by the editor of a specialist journal pending the outcome of this particular case. All of the co-signatories and collaborators on the original grant application have been asked (with B’s permission) for their view on the allegations. A further complication is that although the grant awarding body has a procedure for dealing with allegations of misconduct, one of the authors of the paper is one of their unit directors.
The editor was advised to inform the grant awarding body of this case and tell them that he had referred the matter to COPE. The editor should also urge the grant awarding body to act with some urgency and, that given the circumstances, the initial investigation cannot be referred to the unit director. The editor should await responses from all collaborators and authors and then show them to B. It was agreed that editors should not get involved when authors fall out but the fact that the paper is published has involved the editor.
The editor heard from all of the authors that the individual making the allegation knew about the work all along and they refute his allegations. Their response to the editor’s challenge about the hypothesis change was that that was the nature of scienti?c progress. However, from the responses,it is clear that there has been a major falling out between the two sides of the collaboration. However,this team did not agree with the allegations either. The senior author now feels that the editor is “destroying”the collaboration and that all parties should get together and discuss. In addition the editor has now been contacted by an editor of another journal who has received a paper from the same stable which has problems around authorship.
Advice on follow up:
COPE advises that the editor should now: Go back to the person who made the original allegations and get his response to the above. Discuss this with the grant awarding body. Involve the journal ombudsman. Invite a representative of the grant awarding body to attend a COPE meeting so that the case can be considered in its entirety. Inform authors and heads of institutions and research council that COPE are considering this case. This gives a line of accountability. The journal ombudsman felt that there was nothing further the journal could do. Two representatives of the grant awarding body attended a COPE meeting. They agreed to instigate an investigation and to raise additional questions about the change in hypothesis with the authors. The grant awarding body has clear procedures and guidelines for research misconduct and they will be revising these to clarify the issues of authorship.
A paper describing an outbreak of infectious disease was submitted to three journals. The submission to one journal described the index case; the submission to another included investigation and follow up of other cases and contacts in the country where the outbreak had occurred. The third paper looked at the spread of the disease into other countries.
A considerable amount of the epidemiological data had been repeated in all three papers. Additionally, the authors did not submit copies of all three papers when making their submissions to each journal. The most important problems were the discrepancies between the papers: the nationality of the patient differed; the time of readmission differed;even the final diagnosis differed. There were also inconsistencies in the details of the secondary cases. What should the editors do?
It was noted that specialist journal editors are in a more difficult position as they are part of the “community.”
Write to the authors submitting copies of all three papers, asking for an explanation.
Write to the heads of the institutions,submitting copies of the papers,plus the correspondence and ask for an investigation to be conducted.
All three editors met up and wrote to the authors (letter signed by all three).This elicited a trenchant response and elaborate explanations. The consensus was that the institution should investigate the case further and the case was referred to the chief executive.
Two of the journals asked the chief executives of the organisations to investigate.They did, and found that things had not been done correctly. However, they did not think that any sanctions were necessary, but they revised their guidelines on authorship.