A publisher is responding to allegations about a particular group of authors. The complainants have accused this group of authors of wide scale research fabrication and misconduct, relating to a large number of their papers across many different journals (published by a variety of publishers).
The publisher and the journals that are investigating and responding to these claims have referred the concerns to the institution responsible for the research governance of the authors. The institution said they would investigate and respond by a certain date, but their response is slightly overdue.
Question(s) for the COPE Forum
Should an expression of concern be published while waiting for the outcome from the institution?
One of the journals has received another submitted paper by the same group of authors. Should the paper undergo normal peer review, or should it be delayed because of the unresolved investigation about the other papers?
Should different publishers/journals share information with each other about cases that involve multiple papers and journals? If so, how should the information be shared with others?
COPE typically advises that cases should be handled and judged individually. A new submission should not automatically be dismissed from being peer reviewed, but the editor may wish to consider additional precautions in its review. One suggestion is to ask the author to provide all of the raw data or any underlying images. The journal may wish to do additional statistical analysis to see whether there are unlikely patterns in the data.
Communication with other editors might be fruitful where there are duplications among different papers in different journals across publications. Otherwise, the editor should try to respect confidentiality. The editor should look at their own journal independently of other journals. It is not appropriate to correct or retract a paper just because there are problems with other papers.
During the review process for a manuscript submitted to our journal, one of the reviewers alerted us that the manuscript appeared to be the work of a collaborator (Dr X) who was not listed as an author on the paper. It became clear that the manuscript’s corresponding author (Dr Y, affiliation A) was a postdoctoral researcher supervised by Dr X (previously at affiliation A, recently moved to affiliation B). A third researcher, Dr Z, was an author on the manuscript and at an institution in a different country.
We asked Dr X whether they were aware of the manuscript from their postdoctoral researcher, Dr Y. Dr X was not aware and stated that Dr Y was funded solely by Dr X’s grant, and that they were working on a similar manuscript for submission elsewhere. Dr X requested that we withdraw the paper.
We asked Dr Y to confirm whether the author list on the paper was complete and to provide us with funding details. Dr Y replied that there were no other authors, and that the work was completely self-funded.
Question(s) for the COPE Forum
Should the journal contact the author's institution (and/or the supervisor's institution) to investigate?
Should the journal withdraw the manuscript from consideration at this stage, or wait for the results of an investigation?
The editor updated the Forum that the journal had contacted the author's institution. It seems that the supervisor, Dr X, is in the process of moving to a new institution but is still at the same institution as the first author. The department chair said that they will look into the matter. The journal told Dr Y that they had contacted the institution and Dr Y asked to withdraw the paper. The journal withdrew the paper as requested but let the institution and author's postdoctoral advisor know that the paper had been withdrawn. The institution is continuing their investigation.
Author Y is stating that this work is under their own funding even though they put their affiliation as the institution where they are employed and supervised by Dr X. How should institutional affiliations be reported correctly or what constitutes a misrepresentation of an institutional affiliation? Perhaps there is some form of misrepresentation here. Editors should be able to validate whether affiliations that are reported by authors are real. They should be publicly verifiable. According to the American Psychological Association (APA), institutional affiliations should be included to the extent that the institutions have contributed substantially to the research being done or to the paper that is being produced from that research.
As Dr X stated they were working on a similar manuscript for submission elsewhere, withdrawal of the article seems a reasonable response by the journal.
Session on retractions at the European Seminar 2019, chaired by Heather Tierney, COPE Council, with a publisher's perspectives from Catriona Fennell, Director of Publishing Services, Elsevier. During the session we also heard from Howard Browman and Thed Van Leeuwen. Links to their presentations are below:
An article was submitted to our journal (journal A) in March. According to the journal’s working policy, the article was initially reviewed inhouse and comments were sent to the author. The authors replied to the comments but did not agree to the suggestion to convert the article to a short report. A rather impolite letter was sent by the author criticising the policies of the journal. We sent a reply that if the authors were not happy with the journal’s decision, they could withdraw the article according to the guidelines which are clearly given on our website.
The authors did not follow the journal procedures for withdrawing the article—they did not submit the withdrawal form signed by all authors. According to journal policy, the copyright of any manuscript remains with the journal, unless it is withdrawn in the proper manner.
The authors submitted the article to another local journal (journal B) where it was immediately published.
As the file was not closed at journal A, multiple reminders were sent to the authors. We wanted to remove the file from our database if the authors were no longer interested in publication. The authors wrote back that the article was published in July.
We first wrote to the authors that this was unethical and amounted to dual submission. We again received a rather impolite reply. We then wrote to the editor of the journal in which the article was published. Apparently, this journal does not ask for a non-submission undertaking from the authors. The editor was quite vague in his reply. We sent him the details of dual submission to which he sent a two line reply asking as to what should be done. We suggested that the copyright of the article is still with us so he should remove the article from the journal’s website until the article is withdrawn in the correct manner. The editor has not taken any steps and the article is still displayed on the other journal’s website.
Question(s) for the COPE Forum
Should we do nothing about the authors’ wrongdoing?
If no action is taken, will it encourage the authors to misbehave in the future for the sake of convenience
Should we pursue the matter with the editor of the journal who has made the mistake but is not responding.
It seems the authors did not follow the preferred journal policy, but the behaviour is not necessarily unethical. The editor told the Forum that copyright is transferred to the journal on submission. The Forum noted that although copyright does formally belong to journal A, the journal does not have the article or the revisions, and hence they are holding copyright on an article that they do not want to publish. Manuscript submission systems can be very cumbersome and inconvenient, and it seems harsh to punish the authors for a technical issue. Perhaps a production editor could help with the process if an author decides to withdraw their paper.
Although the authors’ behaviour was impolite, using copyright as a reason to have a claim on a paper is not reasonable. The behaviour was impolite, but it was not unethical. The journal may wish to modify their policies so that withdrawing an article does not involve this technical hitch.
A suggestion was for the journal to revise their policy of requiring copyright transfer on submission. It is unusual internationally, and it can in effect hold the authors hostage. Another suggestion was to email the authors explaining their error, and then letting the matter rest. The editor might also contact the editor of the other journal one last time to discuss the matter. Perhaps journal Y did have a discussion with the authors and from their perspective they may think the authors correctly withdrew their paper.
Advice on follow up:
As suggested by the COPE Forum, we wrote to the editor of journal B demanding an action in the form of contacting the authors and asking them to withdraw the article from our journal. Eventually the editor did convince the authors and they submitted the withdrawal form. The case is now closed.
A case report was submitted to our journal (journal X) in February and accepted for publication in September that same year. In late September, the first author on the manuscript contacted us to inform us that this exact case report had just been published in another journal (journal Y) by some of his colleagues, including some of the authors of our manuscript. In the initial submission to our journal, there were 10 authors.
During the review process, two authors were removed from the article at their request. This happened in May, between manuscript resubmission. These two authors then submitted the case report to journal Y, with a new set of co-authors.
We have confirmed with the Editor-in-Chief (EiC) of journal Y that they received their initial submission in May. As noted, the authors on journal Y’s publication include the two authors removed from our journal version, plus one additional co-author who is present on both author lists. This third co-author has since requested to be removed from journal Y’s publication. He was included as a co-author without his consent or knowledge.
We contacted the Research Integrity Office of the author’s institution to request an internal investigation. This investigation confirmed our author’s version of events. We informed the EiC of journal Y of the outcome of the institutional investigation and asked them to take the appropriate action in retracting the article. The EiC assured us that the journal was investigating also but the enquiry was not yet complete. We followed up several times, including attempting an international call with them, but to no avail. We also requested the journal to act in compliance with COPE guidelines on author misconduct.
Journal Y is not a member of COPE but is published by a reputable medical organisation. Finally, in September a year later, the EiC of journal Y responded to our many follow-ups to indicate that they are satisfied with the actions of the authors of the publication in their journal and will not be retracting the article. We asked the EiC for a rationale so that we have all the available information to determine our next steps. We have not received a response despite repeated requests. As we had confirmation from the authors’ institution and journal Y that ours was the original version of the paper, we did not feel justified in holding the paper any longer in production. It was published after several months’ delay. In the meantime, we have asked our authors to approach the other journal directly for further information.
Question(s) for the COPE Forum
Does the author’s institution have any responsibility to contact the EiC to request further action?
What further action can we take to elicit a response from the EiC regarding their rationale for their decision?
The Forum questioned why the editor had decided to go ahead with publication of the paper, knowing that journal Y had already published it in their journal. The editor said that as the paper had already been accepted, that there was a provisional version online and that the institution had confirmed the authors version of events, it seemed unfair to penalise the authors. The Forum asked if the journal had cited the other journal when they published the case report, as there are now two versions of the same case report with different authors. Perhaps the journal might consider putting a note on the paper or an expression of concern to highlight to readers that there is an authorship dispute in relation to this paper and that there are two online versions available.
The editor could ask for the authors to list their contributions to the original paper, and ask journal Y to do the same. This may shed some light on the authorship dispute. The Research Integrity Office were part of the original investigation, so they should be in a position to know the contributions of the authors. Hence the advice from the Forum was to pursue the institution. This is clearly an author conflict and so concerns should be raised to the institution. As the authors are from the same institution, and indeed the same department, this authorship dispute should be handled by their employer.
If the second journal is not open access, then the second group of authors may have signed over copyright, so they may be copyright issues. This is impossible for the editor to adjudicate and so again, the institution needs to be involved.
The journal may wish to consider always requiring author contribution statements to be submitted with any paper, thus preventing a similar situation in the future. The Forum stressed that it is very important to communicate with all authors, not just the corresponding author, regarding any aspects of a paper.
Journal A accepted a manuscript with six authors in June 2017, which was published in January 2018. Several months later, the editors of journal A found that journal B had published paper B, which shared striking similarities to paper A. Journal B accepted paper B in November 2017 and published it in February 2018. The first author of paper B was different but the remaining four authors were from paper A.
The editorial board of journal A concurred that papers A and B were written (i) in an identical manner or format of presentation; (ii) under the same study design with only minor changes that would make little clinical difference; and (iii) with extensive use of recycled texts which covered most of the papers, including the majority of the materials and discussion sections.
Had the editors of journal A known that the authors had submitted or planned to submit paper B to another journal, they would have rejected paper A. The claim now is that the authors have self-plagiarised the manuscripts, with potential salami publication.
Question(s) for the COPE Forum • When self-plagiarism and suspected salami publishing is found in a published article, what can the editor do? • Should the editor inform the other journal editor? • In such cases, should the article be retracted from both journals?
Articles should be retracted to correct the literature not to punish the authors. The Forum advised that it is up to journal B to retract the paper for redundant publication or salami publishing because journal A published the article first. Hence it is journal B’s responsibility here to address the misconduct. The editor should contact journal B and inform them of the issue.
Is it possible that the authors were inexperienced and did not think their paper was going to be accepted by journal A because of the time between acceptance and publication? The authors may then have slightly altered the paper and submitted it to journal B? The advice from the Forum was to give the authors the benefit of the doubt, and to contact the authors for an explanation. It is always best to first ask the authors to explain how this has happened. It may be that this is an educational opportunity.
The Forum advised that salami publishing is difficult to prove, and is a judgement call on the part of the editor. In this case, it is a judgement that journal B needs to make.
The editor followed the COPE flowchart on what to do if you suspect reductant publication, asking the authors for an explanation. After receiving an explanation, the editorial board made a final decision and informed the authors of their decision.
The editorial board found that redundant publication, or salami slicing, was not applicable in this case. Regarding text recycling, however, the board found that this case did meet its definition, based on the excessive volume of verbatim sentences shared between the two articles. In the light of this development, a note was added on the front page of the article to this effect. The editor also notified journal B of their decision.
An editor received a query from an author: “Your guidelines are clear that presenting data at a society meeting does not preclude publication. But what if the society records the presentation, retains copyright of that recording, and posts it online? Is asking presenters to turn over copyright of a recording of data presented at a prepublication stage and disseminating the recording as they see fit crossing the "prior publication" line?”
Question(s) for the COPE Forum • Are presentation audiotapes considered prior publication? • If tapes are copyrighted, does that preclude publication?
Copyright laws are there to protect publishers and they cover only the presentation of something and not the underlying research or data. In the case of audiotapes, the organisation only owns the audio rights not the paper rights, so the editor should check the copyright that has previously been assigned. It is also possible that the audiotapes are behind a paywall for members only, so the distribution of the material might be very limited. There is a need, however, to seek legal advice in such cases and the editor should consult the legal department of the publisher if there is any question. Additionally, when a paper is presented, it is not generally presented in the same format as a scholarly paper submitted to a journal, so there might be significant differences between the audio and the written material, with the exception of the data presented. The main concern is duplicate publication; however, audiotapes are not generally considered primary sources for the purpose of reviews of the literature.
There is a similar situation with dissertations. Do poster presentations have the same copyright rules? Generally, previous presentations in the form of papers presented at a conference are allowed although there might be some text overlap with the abstract, which is usually all that is printed. In other situations, a published abstract in English might accompany an article written in another language, but with appropriate credits, a complete translation of that article might be appropriate for publication.
The parameters of prior publication are a journal decision. For example, journals can decide to publish papers arising out of a dissertation or an audit that has been circulated internally in an institution, but they should be transparent and disclose previous publication or copyright of any portion of the material. One view from the Forum was that copyright issues support paternalistic ideas of protecting people from something that has not been peer reviewed, and this might be an issue for certain disciplines. Another question journals might consider relates to their policies of issuing press releases. Some journals employ the Ingelfinger Rule and embargoes to preclude the spread of misinformation, particularly in research related to public health and safety.
The matter was resolved in the author’s favour. The association changed its policy requiring presenters to have presentations taped and to hand over copyright.
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Full page history
A common issue encountered by editors is overlap of text with an author’s own previously published work, particularly with the increasing use of plagiarism detection software. This practice is known as ‘text recycling’ (also sometimes referred to as ‘self-plagiarism’). Opinions on the acceptability of text recycling vary greatly and it can be a challenge for editors to know how to deal with it once it has been identified.
Research higher degree theses have traditionally been seen as part of the scholarly communications chain, and have been made available by university libraries in print and, latterly, online via institutional repositories.