In 2013, our journal published a paper describing an observational study comparing two drugs (A and B) for the management of a chronic disease over a period of 10 years. The conclusion in the paper was that mortality was higher in group A (97 deaths) compared with the other group B (52 deaths) (hazard ratio 1.76, 1.22 to 2.53; P=0.003). This analysis was done after adjustment for a large number of confounders, and was approved by our statistical advisor. The authors of the papers did acknowledge that this was an observational study, and did state that residual confounding might be present.
In 2014 we received a letter of concern by a researcher, employed by the company selling drug A, who felt that the authors of the 2013 paper omitted essential information that might impact on the conclusions. It appears that the routine management of this disease has changed substantially over the 10 year period, and this should have been treated as a confounder for which statistical adjustments should have been made. This change in routine management of the disease is documented in a paper published in 2014, but the researcher felt that these authors were probably aware of this much earlier and should have disclosed this information during the review process of their 2013 paper.
In our initial response in July 2014 to the letter of concern, we asked the researcher who sent us the letter of concern to send us a detailed rapid response to the 2013 paper, which we could publish. We have also asked advice of our statistical advisor who reviewed the 2013 paper, and he acknowledged that this information might impact on the statistical calculations and thus the conclusions of the paper. But with the data available to him, he is not able to make a definitive assessment of how much impact it would have. He has suggested to put these questions to the authors of the 2013 paper.
Question(s) for the COPE Forum
The researcher who raised the concern has not made his concerns public by sending us a rapid response that we could put to the authors and publish, with their response, on our website. We will certainly put the questions to the authors of the 2013 paper, but we wonder if we should publish these concerns?
Another problem is that, due to the complexity of the statistical calculations, we are entirely dependent on the authors to judge whether the routine management data would have seriously impacted the conclusions of the 2013 paper.
The Forum agreed with the course of action of the editor to date—namely, inviting the researcher to write a formal note, stating his concerns, that can be made public and the authors can then be invited to make a response. This ensures the process is transparent. But if the researcher who raised the concern does not want to make his concerns public, there may be little that the editor can do.
One suggestion was that the editor could publish the concerns anonymously and invite the authors to respond. Another suggestion was to treat this as you would a whistleblower by investigating the issue, and asking the authors to respond specifically to the questions raised by the researcher if necessary. It is clear that the editor has concerns about the paper and these should be addressed in some way.
So, the best option may be for the journal to publish the concerns, not necessarily revealing the researcher’s identity, and invite the authors to respond.
The researchers who sent a letter of concern sent a letter to the editor which was published, and which was answered by the authors of the original paper.
The journal’s statistical advisor has found the response satisfactory. The editor considers the case now closed.
Our journal (journal A) received a complaint from a 'Clare Francis' alerting us to a case of duplicate publication involving our journal and another (journal B). The article in journal A was published first, but submitted after the article in journal B. Clare Francis requested that the article in journal A should be withdrawn as it is duplicate publication. However, the article in journal B was an extended abstract, included in a section of selected conference proceedings. Our records do not go back far enough to check whether the authors informed us of this but they did not reference their abstract in the article in journal A. The article in journal A is a full paper, with a materials and methods section, detailed results and enough information for someone else to replicate the experiment. The extended abstract in B was not. When we contacted the editor of journal B, we were informed that they had received several such complaints from Clare Francis which have turned out to be somewhat spurious.
A simple Google search revealed that 'Clare Francis' is a widely known self-styled whistleblower in scientific publication.
We responded that we had looked in detail at both papers and did not consider it to be a case of duplicate publication, and that we considered the matter closed. Clare Francis did not agree, and reiterated the issue of the article submission timings, insisting that the paper be withdrawn, and seeming to ignore the substance of what had actually been published. 'She' appealed to our status as a member of COPE as a reason that we should take on board these concerns. We believe not only that using a pseudonym to pursue these matters is unethical, but that we have followed the correct procedure and have made the correct decision regarding these papers. We would be interested in hearing if the Forum agrees (on the former points, if not the latter).
The Forum agreed with the editor that it would not consider prior publication of an extended abstract as duplicate publication, unless the extended abstract was very detailed and included lots of data, which was not the case in this instance. The editor made the right decision. COPE supports a whistleblower’s right to remain anonymous and would encourage editors to respond to any allegations of unethical behaviour as long as there is specific evidence and not just vague accusations.
We replied to Clare Francis saying we had been to COPE and were satisfied that we had done the right thing, and we are not going to change our course of action. She responded along much the same lines as the original complaint—we did not respond and consider the matter closed.
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.
In a recent and very prominent case of publication misconduct resulting in the retraction of 12 research papers (to date), many journals have been included in ‘round-mails’ from the whistleblower and other scientists. Our journal (a reviews and features journal) has published a review from the main author associated with the misconduct, which contains reference to six of the retracted papers.
As editor, I have been urged a number of times via email (the true sender of which was not always clear) to retract the said review. At first—before the full extent of the retractions was confirmed—I could do no more than wait, rather than react prematurely, although even at that stage, tracking and trying to verify the claims took some time. Now I have analysed the review—which took a significant chunk of time—and identified the parts that cite the six references. Those constitute around 18% of the body text, mainly the more novel insights.
Qualitatively—and that is clearly more important than quantity—it is exceedingly hard to judge whether the retraction of the six articles nullifies those conclusions and insights. I should furthermore assume that the rest of the review is in order unless (till) proven otherwise. In fairness, I think that if any corrective measure is to be taken, it amounts to a corrigendum noting that the said references have been retracted.
However, I am concerned about the additional workload that investigating the impact of retractions could have if we generally adopt the procedure of publishing corrigenda for every article that they affect. An alternative way of looking at the problem is to acknowledge that retracted references are registered as ‘retracted’ in the scientific indexes (although only if the journal concerned is indexed), and in the venues of publication, and hence on tracing a reference to its source, the reader of the review in which it is cited will see that the particular section of text is no longer supported by a published article.
I am in a quandary between providing the most up to date information in immediate connection with an article and getting into something that could consume significant amounts of already very stretched editorial resources, and then, more importantly, require further corrigenda on the same article if more references are found to be faulty at some point in the future: a seemingly never-ending story...
What is COPE’s advice?
The Forum agreed that the main priority is to inform the journal’s readers of the situation. The advice was to issue an expression of concern, stating the facts, that around 18% of the review text relates to retracted papers. It is then up to readers to evaluate the review and draw their own conclusions. The Forum questioned if the editor believed the article is tainted because the author has already been associated with misconduct. Some suggested contacting the author and asking him if he would like to retract the paper, or contacting the institution for a ruling.
Another suggestion was that the editor could write an editorial discussing the issue and whether removal of the six references alters the conclusions of the paper.
All agreed that the main issue was to alert the readers by way of an expression of concern rather than a correction.
The editor decided to publish an expression of concern which listed the papers referenced in the review article that had since been retracted by the respective journals.
The editor in chief received a letter to the editor criticising a paper published earlier in the journal. The editor first told the author of the letter that he would publish the commentary after he had given the authors of the criticised paper a chance to respond. When asked by the author of the letter, he later added that he would also publish the letter if the authors failed to respond.
The corresponding author of the paper explained that the same person had attacked every single article from his group for about 5 years, that they had responded to the critics adequately in the past and declined doing so again in this instance. He portrayed the letter as a disingenuous and fraudulent commentary and asked that we do not publish the letter, which in his view would be a disservice to science.
He attached to his email a correspondence with the editor of another journal, detailing a similar case for one of his previous articles. He also copied in four editors of other journals who received similar commentaries from the same person, as well as one opinion leader in the field. The four editors had rejected the letters and two had banned the author of the letters from publishing in their journal. One of these editors replied to confirm the story, stating that in his view, the letter he had received was not founded on fact, and backed the request not to publish this new commentary.
At this stage, the editor of our journal contacted me as managing editor to ask if he could reject the letter outright. I advised that he could, but only based on the scientific merit of the letter, and not on the history of its author. He sent the letter for review to the associate editor who handled the criticised paper, and who briefly concluded that the commentary was probably not worth publishing. The editor then rejected the letter, initially mentioning various peer reviewers, when in fact there was only one short set of comments.
The author of the letter was quite irate as, based on the editor’s initial replies, he expected his letter to be published in any case (with or without a response from the authors) and found the peer review process and decision letter that he received unsatisfactory. A first clarification of our position resulted in a long threatening point-by-point response, to which the editor responded by reasserting his position and clarifying again why the letter had been reviewed by a referee and himself and subsequently rejected.
The author of the letter then changed tactics and sent the publisher a rather libellous letter in which he argued that the editor is incompetent, was not impartial and was influenced by the author of the article; that the author of the paper and the peer reviewer (whose identity he does not know) have undisclosed conflicts of interest; and that opposite interests and prevalent opinions, relayed by a mainstream advocacy group and the WHO, colluded to silence him, a whistleblower. One of the assumed conflicts of interest mentioned involve the head of an institution from which the authors received a grant and is therefore very indirect. Another, however, relates to a global advocacy group, endorsed by the WHO and which seems to reflect the predominant opinion in the field, and which the authors presumably belong to. The corresponding author of the paper calls this group a forum for exchange on the topic, but it has a clear health policy agenda. The authors did not mention this in their declaration of interest.
Our publisher informed him that she was taking his concerns seriously and would ask me to investigate in accordance with COPE’s guidelines, particularly in relation to our disclosure policy. Although the author of the letter accused us of being in breach of the COPE policy on fair peer review in an earlier correspondence, he then replied that in this case COPE’s ‘concepts’ are meaningless and, for example, anonymous peer review or impartiality are impossible, since he is the only researcher “who has exposed a long series of frauds” on the topic. He went on to reiterate his request that we (a) do not contact the authors of the paper he criticised (he was initially fine with the authors responding to his critique), (b) ask referees specifically if they belong to the advocacy group discussed above and (c) send, if needed, his blinded manuscript to ‘independent’ (from the advocacy group mentioned and industries) reviewers, of which he proposes three names.
We have not replied to this last email and decided to seek COPE’s advice on how to best close the case and what we should have done better earlier. In particular, I'd be interested in your opinion on: — how the editor should have communicated with the author of the letter in the first place? What are the main weaknesses in our handling of the case? — if the authors of the criticised paper belong to an advocacy group, should they disclose this in their declaration of interest section? — how to respond to the author of the letter about allegations of unfair peer review, and his rejection of a blinded peer review system? — should we, and how could we, check whether the author of the letter is genuinely trying to make valid points against prevalent opinion? — on the other hand, should he have an undisclosed agenda, should we take any action against him?
His letters and emails are often unconvincing, based on assumptions, defamatory and threatening, and he seems to belong to an opposite advocacy groups without disclosing it. In addition, the bulk of his contributions to the literature is made of commentaries criticising articles but he does not appear to publish any original research himself.
The COPE Code of Conduct states that editors must be willing to consider cogent criticisms of work published in their journal. However, the editor needs to decide if this is “cogent criticism” or not. The Forum suggested there were three issues here: (1) whether the editor should publish the letter; (2) the undisclosed conflict of interest of the authors; and (3) the defamation of the editor on websites.
Regarding whether the editor should publish the letter, the Forum noted that editors have a duty to publish letters unless they are factually incorrect or libellous, and it is the responsibility of the editor to make that decision. Some of the members of the Forum argued that an editor should veer towards publishing everything, while others noted that there are different types of letters in different journals and it is not always appropriate to publish. However, all agreed that the editor should not make false claims (saying that the letter would be published with or without a response from the authors and then going back on that decision) and that the journal needs to tighten its editorial processes. The journal should have a clear process for handling letters. Are they peer-reviewed? The decision to publish a letter should be based solely on its academic merit.
Regarding the undisclosed conflict of interest of the authors, the editor should contact the authors directly and ask them to respond to this accusation and emphasise that non-financial conflicts of interest are also very important. If it transpires that the authors do have a conflict of interest, the editor could publish a correction. The editor should also check the journal’s policy on this issue.
On the third point, if an editor is defamed on a blog or website, what can he do? Some suggested a dignified silence as the best option as otherwise it can fuel the problem and encourage more debate. However, all agreed that if the accusations are potentially libellous then the editor should seek legal advice.
I contacted Dr C, the author of the letter, to let him know that his case had been discussed at the COPE Forum and to reiterate our decision not to publish his letter. Most members present, if not all, supported the view that the editor in chief can reject a letter or commentary at his discretion. I sent a brief overview of the discussion and explained that the COPE Forum was of the opinion that declarations of interest should relate only to direct potential conflicts of interest. That meant that the disclosure in the criticised paper was satisfactory and appropriate.
The remaining question concerned the author’s role within an ‘advocacy group’.
I said we would contact the author and ask him to clarify the purpose of the group, their involvement in it and whether they think it might be a conflict of interest. We would then assess their response against our current requirements regarding declarations of interest.
Dr C quickly sent a couple of inflammatory emails in his usual style, where he repeated that there is a “universal conflict of interest that must be disclosed” because 90% of authors, editors and reviewers belong to the same bias ‘advocacy group.’ He then went on to contradict himself and, in my view, invalidate his only claim which may have had some merit:
“I would like to clarify that [the group] is absolutely not an ‘advocacy/regulatory group’. To take a modern example, it is something like Facebook where authors [...] advertise and publish the kind of publication that I have criticised in details for their flaws. In that case I don’t really see what the problem is.”
I intended to get the author’s opinion on this but have not pursued the matter.
I’ve not heard anything more from Dr C since and consider the case closed.
A letter was sent to the chief editor of our journal in response to a recently published article in our journal. The author had serious concerns about the ethics and consent obtained as a result of this study and the follow-up by the researchers.
The author explained that he was the physician of two of the “volunteers” who participated in this study and was concerned about informed consent procedures in the trial. Specifically, workers never provided informed consent that their tests, mandated by a company medical monitoring program, be used in any “research” study. His concerns were in four areas. (1) The researchers failed to inform both the company and the injured workers that they should have been removed from further exposures when their test results showed severe impairment. (2) The researchers failed to report abnormal findings to the workers in a timely and appropriate manner, a failure that placed these workers’ health in jeopardy. (3) The researchers failed to fully inform the workers of the known risks of exposure. (4) The timing and location that the researchers used to obtain signatures on the informed consent forms did not permit the workers to adequately question the researchers and become informed. One of the author’s patients who was studied was a previously (pre-employment) healthy 40-year-old woman who was found after a period of time at work to have abnormal results. However, no doctor contacted her to explain the results and written communication did not describe them as serious, and so she did not seek further medical attention. Her tests were repeated again one and two years later. The two year test indicated more severe disease. These findings were reported to her 10 months later by one of the researchers who failed to mention their significance in his cover letter to the radiologist’s report. Given the patient’s history, she should have been removed from work immediately, and the researchers should have reported this case of occupational disease to the state authorities. The following year, she sought care from a non-corporate physician and was removed from work the same day.
Another patient of the author’s had abnormal test results in 2005, which were markedly worse on repeat tests conducted in the same year. The researchers wrote to her in September of 2005 and advised her to have a CT scan and repeat testing. A year later, a member of the researcher’s group ordered a CAT scan. In November 2006, the CAT scan revealed moderately severe disease. The patient requested that these results be forwarded to her personal physician. At the time of the author’s first visit with her in late August 2008, she had never seen the results, and neither the company nor the researchers had communicated with her about her condition or continued occupational risk. The author requested that the researchers send him her complete medical records, including communications with the company and the research protocol. However, only incomplete records were sent, omitting the research protocol and including none of the communications with the company.
In October 2008, the author wrote to the IRB Director and filed a formal complaint concerning these matters informing them that one of the researchers was both a paid consultant advising on occupational health procedures while simultaneously conducting the research/monitoring program. This researcher based his published paper on a mandated monitoring program in which the “volunteer” workers had to participate as a “condition of work” in order to keep their jobs. The “research” was based on test results for which full consent had not been obtained. The Director of the Office of Research Compliance and Regulatory Affairs responded in February of 2009, stating that although the committee’s investigation determined that “no misconduct occurred” with respect to any violation of IRB policies, their findings prompted them to institute “modifications to our processes that will help us to continue to raise that bar.” The author concluded that “IRB protocol modifications” were based on an acknowledgment that the researcher’s study violated patient rights, even if the study did not violate IRB rules. The author believes that journal editors have a responsibility to investigate allegations like these.
All agreed that this was a very serious matter and possibly of criminal concern and were surprised that the complainant had not taken any more action or taken the matter up with the medical authorities or the police. If medical staff are aware of abnormal test results and they do not tell their patients, the staff should be reported to the GMC in the UK or to a similar authority in the country where the research took place. The editor should contact the authors and ask for a detailed copy of the ethics approval. The editor should explain that he has had a complaint about the paper but he should not divulge the name of the whistleblower. The editor should also ask for copies of the consent forms.
It was suggested that the editor might want to consult the flowchart on “What to do if you suspect an ethical problem with a submitted manuscript”. All agreed that this case has wider implications than ethics or patient consent and that the whistleblower should pursue other avenues. There is little that the editor can do other than to contact the authors and request an explanation. All agreed that the journal cannot offer due process to investigate the concerns itself but must leave this to the institution involved or the committee that gave ethical approval for the research.
Advice on follow up:
Following the advice from COPE, the chief editors wrote to the authors of the paper to mention that we had received a complaint regarding the ethics of the paper. The chief editors asked for proof of approval of the study from the authors’ university and also the patient consent forms. These were both received from the authors and the chief editors were happy with the documents provided and have therefore taken no further action.
Professor A and professor B has been in a dispute over a certain type of treatment for over 15 years. Professor A has accused professor B of killing a patient while he was (in professor A’s view) doing research on the patient without consent. Professor B has accused professor A of research and publication misconduct because he published a paper in journal X in 1994 that included a selected group of patients from a paper already published and a selected group of patients from professor A’s hospital that had not given consent to be part of a research project. Professor A has claimed that his patients were not part of a research project, since the treatment he gave them was available to all at that time. Both cases were handled by the national board of research misconduct at the time (in 1996). The conclusion (briefly) was that none of them had behaved unethically, but that they could have done it differently.
Last year this debate “reopened” when professor A published a book were he portrayed himself as a whistleblower and told about how the hospital and the medical community had tried to “hide” the fact that professor B had in fact killed a patient while he was doing research on the patient without consent. In the debate that followed, several things were written from both “sides”. In professor B’s opinion, professor A has throughout this last debate actually admitted that the patients he included in his 1994 paper were part of a research project and that they had not given consent. He now asks the editor of journal X to retract this paper. What should the editor do?
The Forum agreed that there were no grounds for retraction of the paper. Given the very public nature of this case and the fact that it has been thoroughly aired in the public domain, the advice was to do nothing. The editor should consider the case closed. The Forum also advised against publishing any more letters of correspondence.
The editors of this journal check all articles against Medline for possible redundant publications. Two very similar articles from an author were retrieved when the name of the author was searched. The titles were very similar, except for the name of the disease. The abstracts had almost 50% identical wording. The two articles were not related to the article submitted to the editors, but as they came up with such similarity, the editors looked them up, interested more as scientists and colleagues from the same university.
The editors found that the control groups were identical, but there was no cross referencing between the two articles, although they were published more than two years apart. The same controls were used for two different diseases, one more prevalent in women, the other in men. Finally, although the main point of the articles was measuring concentration of a substance in healthy subjects and patients, there was not a single value of the measurement. The only numbers provided in the tables were the results of the Mann–Whitney statistical test.
Surprised by such data presentation, especially because one of the journals was a respected journal from the editors’ country, the editors wrote to the editors of the two journals in question, and then to the head of the institution, explaining how they had learned about the problem, and asking for an explanation. The journals never replied. The institution head replied in quite a rude way, enclosing a letter from the authors, who wrote that they saw no problem because the papers had been through a peer review in respected journals. They stated that they originally submitted real numbers, but the reviewers asked for simplification of the tables (ie, taking out the actual values of the measured variables). The editors wrote to the journals again (twice), asking them to clarify this, but still did not get any answer.
The editors would like COPE’s advice on how to proceed?
As the papers in question were not from the editor’s own journal, the Forum reasoned that really the editor is in the position of whistleblower. The advice from the Forum was to submit a letter detailing the issues. In this way, even if it is rejected for publication, the editor will have to respond in some way and the matter will be in the editorial system. If the letter is rejected, then the editor can decide to appeal. If the editor still feels dissatisfied with the editor’s response, another suggestion was to contact the editorial board of the journals and then the publishers.
Although this case did not directly concern the editor’s journal, the editor felt is was necessary to pursue the issue because of its importantce to the scientific community in his country.
After several inquires, the editor received a response from the authors who stated that the reviewers asked them to remove data and only give statistics. The editor asked the editors of the two journals to provide him with the reviews but a reply was never received from the editors of either of the journals. As all of the authors are from the editor’s country and and one of the journals is an international journal from the same country, the editor has asked advice from the National Board for Ethics in Science and Higher Education, which has a mandate to investigate cases and give opinions to the Minsitry of Science, Education and Sports. The editor is currently awaiting their response.
May 2008 The National Board for Ethics in Science advised the editor to send the case to the University Ethics Board, as this is the next step after his appeal to the deans of the Medical and Dental Schools. The editor did not get the formal letter from the National Board for Ethics, but their decision is available online, in the annual report of the Board to the Parliament. The editor plans to follow the advice from the National Board for Ethics. The case continues.
August 2008 The editor received a reply from the National Board for Ethics in Science that he has to first bring this case to the University Ethics Council, before they (the Board) can give their opinion. The editor then sent the case to the University Ethics Council. The editor is awaiting their answer.