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.
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.
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.
An author submitted work to our journal (journal A) which, after two rounds of peer review, was accepted and published. One week after it was published, the editors of journal B contacted our journal stating that this work, with the exact same title, authors and content, had been submitted to journal B and, after receiving an acceptance letter, the author withdrew the paper, informing them that it had been accepted by a different journal.
When the editor of journal B asked the author for an explanation, the author did not provide a satisfactory response. Journal B, in consultation with their editorial board, banned the author from submitting to the journal in the future.
Editor B contacted us, alerting us to the situation. After verifying the submission records, we concluded that the submission to both journals had been done on the same day. We contacted the authors for an explanation. The author replied that indeed he had submitted to two journals but that the submissions were several weeks apart. He said he forgot to withdraw the article from journal B and apologized for the situation. However, the submission records for both journal A and journal B indicate that this statement is not true.
We have discussed with the editor of journal B what action should be taken in relation to the author. Journal B has already banned the author. The editorial board of journal B would like to make this misconduct known to the author´s institution and suggests that it should be us who contact the institution. We are reluctant to contact the institution as the author has apologized, admitted his mistake and withdrew the article from journal B. We believe journal B should contact the institution.
Question(s) for the COPE Forum • What is the appropriate action in such a case. Should the institution be informed or is banning the author from both journals for a period of time enough? • Who should initiate the action—journal A or journal B? • Both editors agree that something should be done so that the author does not repeat the behaviour at other journals, but are unsure of what to do.
The Forum advised that in deciding whether to inform the institution, the editor may want to take into consideration the seniority of the author and the country of origin of the author. If the author is from a country where ethical norms are not well entrenched, the editor may wish to be more lenient. COPE would always advocate educational rather than punitive action. Even if the editor feels that the author deliberately tried to deceive, COPE would still recommend an educational approach in the first instance. If the author demonstrates a repeat pattern of misconduct, then the editor might consider contacting the institution.
However, while contacting the institution for punitive reasons is not necessarily helpful some argued informing the institution may be preventative rather than punitive, especially if the authors are junior researchers. The institution has a role in mentoring the author and to ensure that this type of behaviour does not persist. This may also serve to convey to the author the seriousness of the infraction.
A suggestion was to write an editorial on the issue of dual submission. Do authors really understand what it means, and the consequences of declaring that their paper has not been submitted to another journal?
COPE does not recommend banning authors because of the legal repercussions.
An author submitted a redundant publication to one of our journals. After reviewing the report from the anti-plagiarism software, we followed the COPE flowchart up to and including contacting the author's institution. We have not received a response from the author or the author's institution. Shortly afterwards, the same author submitted a (different) redundant publication to one of our other journals. We followed the same steps and have not received a response.
The institution listed in the author's submission form is not an academic one. We cannot find the author on the staff list and the only email address the author has provided is a Gmail account.
Question(s) for the COPE Forum • What additional steps can/should we should take if the author/institution is unresponsive?
The editor provided additional information to the Forum that the two submissions contained plagiarised material and were replications of two already published articles. The editor has written to the author and the institution but has received no response.
In such cases the Forum would normally advise approaching a higher authority than the institution if that is possible. Is there a professional body that the author belongs to or a funder that could be contacted? In the UK, for example, you might contact the General Medical Council (GMC) if the author was a registered doctor.
However, the Forum acknowledged that there is only so much the editor can do, and it may be the case that the editor has to accept that there is nothing more he can do. The Forum advised making all the journal editors aware of this person in case future submissions are received but advised against blacklisting, especially if the true identity of the author is in doubt.
The editor attempted to contact the author/institution again but to no avail. Both papers were rejected (and the journal’s concerns about the high level of textual overlap were included in that letter, following COPE sample letters). The journal considers the case closed.
The editor of journal A was alerted to the fact that an article published in journal A had been previously published in journal B and constituted a duplicate publication. The editor contacted the authors who explained that they had tried to withdraw the article from journal B but their request was ignored and the article was published against their wishes.
The authors contacted journal B with a request to retract the article. Journal B removed the article from its website but did not publish a retraction notice or any explanation as to why the article had been removed. The article published in journal B was not indexed in any indexing services, but the title can still be found by a search in Google Scholar.
The editor of journal A wonders if they need to alert the readership to the fact that a reference to the same article in journal B can be found. They feel that retraction of the article from journal A is not the correct course of action in this case because the article is scientifically sound, and currently only the version published in journal A is available. However, readers may still be misled by references to journal B that can be found on the internet.
Question(s) for the COPE Forum • Should journal A publish an ‘Expression of concern’ to highlight the duplicate publication in the past. However, the article in journal B is no longer available. Perhaps a comment in the comments system of journal A would suffice?
COPE does not seem to have clear guidelines in one place on how and when to use Expressions of concern (although we appreciate they are referred to in various Cases and in the Retraction Guidelines). It is also not clear whether they should be used as temporary notes or permanent publications (or can be both?). Different publishers use them on a case-by-case basis in an inconsistent way. PubMed recognizes an Expression of concern as a type of comment. We thought that it may be useful to discuss Expressions of concern in one of the future COPE discussion Forums to gather opinions from different publishers with a view to develop a more detailed set of guidelines for editors.
The Forum discussed issues relating to punishing the author and correcting the literature. Retractions or corrections should only be used to correct the literature—not for “punishment” In the first instance a notice needs to go on the article in journal A, which could be an expression of concern. Under normal circumstances, the article in journal B should be the one that remains, but the article is currently only available in journal A. Hence the only way of having transparency around this case is for a formal note to be added to journal A. It is essential that the formal note is a form that can be indexed and is citable. It could be an addendum, if that is linked to the article or an expression of concern.
The Forum also noted that the authors should be made aware that simultaneous submissions then withdrawing an article from one journal because you wish to publish it in another journal is not acceptable behaviour, if that is what happened in this case.
COPE agreed to consider the topic of expressions of concern for a Forum discussion.
The editor of journal A followed COPE advice and published a permanent notice in journal A (an expression of concern that is indexed and citable) explaining the duplicate publication that was removed from journal B and linking the note to the original publication in journal A. The editor considers the case now closed.