(1) An article was published after peer review. Shortly after online publication we received a message from a reader (an academic who works in the same field as the authors) notifying us of a major concern with one of the figures in the article.
“I am writing with regard of manuscript XXX recently published in XXX. These studies raise significant expectations in XXX patients, because the proposed strategy achieved unanticipated therapeutic success in a preclinical model of XXX.
I am writing because I’ve noticed a major problem in Figure X. It appears that two of the panels (X and X), which are supposed to be representative of two different XX specimens from two different experimental groups, belong to the same tissue section (or quasi-identical serial sections)....However, the major problem in this figure is that the two panels are only partially identical. ...These observations raise the concern that the pictures have been intentionally manipulated, and I believe that this concern should be brought to your attention.”
(2) We contacted the authors without revealing the concerned reader's identity and without implying any judgment as follows:
One of our readers has noticed a potential problem with one of the figures in your paper (see below) and I'd like to get your input before deciding how to respond.
“I am writing with regard of manuscript XXX recently published in XXX. These studies raise significant expectations in XXX patients, because the proposed strategy achieved unanticipated therapeutic success in a preclinical model of XXX.
I am writing because I’ve noticed a major problem in Figure X. It appears that two of the panels (X and X), which are supposed to be representative of two different XX specimens from two different experimental groups, belong to the same tissue section (or quasi-identical serial sections)....However, the major problem in this figure is that the two panels are only partially identical.”
(3) The authors responded initially by sending higher resolution images saying:
Please find the attached fig. X. At original magnification it is obvious that the problematic 2 panels are taken from different samples. We are happy to send the original pictures.
(4) We asked one of our editorial board members who has relevant expertise in the area of science and in digital imaging to look at the higher resolution images, in confidence. He responded with the following:
“If the claim is that the three photos of Fig. X represent different samples I would in indeed have a problem with that. Same elements look identical. Difficult to prove though as there are larger parts that differ. Nevertheless, that concerned reader may have a point. I am suspicious, too, that the figures have been manipulated.”
(5) We went back to the authors asking for the original digital images with the following message:
I had forwarded your high resolution version of figure X to the person who originally expressed concerns and received a message in which the person states that his/her concerns remain. I then sent the high resolution image to one of our regular advisers who has experience in neuropathology and digital images. This person agrees that parts of the lower two panels of Figure XB look very similar and that we should ask to see the originals for all three panels in Figure X and obtain detailed information about which software was used and whether the images were digitally manipulated in any way.
As a consequence, I am now asking you to send the original images and any relevant information you have.
(6) They responded by sending three images and the following:
Please find the attached requested original images. Adobe Photoshop was used to reduce brightness, increase contrast and compress the images to JPEG format. The JPEG images were inserted into Powerpoint file where borders of the tumours were marked. No additional manipulations were made to the original images. Please let me know if you need any additional information.
(7) We asked our production people to look at the originals and they felt that there was no better evidence that the images came from different samples. I went back to the authors one more time to give them a chance to tell us more:
“I have now shown the images to several people who know more about digital image generation and processing than I do. All of them find that the striking similarities between groups of cells in the middle and low panels make it hard to believe that the two images come from different tumors (as is implied in the figure legend and your earlier messages).
As it doesn't seem that we are able to resolve the issue easily, we will need to conduct a more formal investigation (most likely with the help of people outside of PLoS). If there is any additional information you can provide, please do so by XXX.
I regret the inconvenience this is causing for all of us, but we feel that we must take the issue seriously.”
(8) To this the authors responded:
“I find this conclusion rather odd and not in accordance to our laboratory protocols. I can assure you that we shall cooperate in any way you see fit and our records on the study are open.”
and, in a separate message a few hours later:
“I am looking again at these pictures. If you carefully study the images you will find that almost all the fields are different and there is no similarity at all. You always can find groups of cells, with a bit of imagination you can make them look similar. I can assure you that all this study is fully controlled and the reproducibility is excellent. We now have even results with the systemic application of the XXX vector to disseminated tumors. I find it hard to believe that I am going to be under investigation questioning my scientific integrity.”
(9) We then enlisted the confidential help of an editor from a different journal who is an expert on manipulation of digital images and has software that can look for specific alterations. We have not heard back from him yet.
What do we do if he (the editor from a different journal) tells us that he has detected manipulation beyond what the authors said they did?
What do we do if he says there is no evidence of manipulation of these images?
What do we do if he says he cannot confirm either way?
More generally, have we handled this process appropriately thus far?
It was agreed that the handling of the matter to date had been exemplary in the editor’s careful and considered approach. With all parties, except for the authors, feeling that some sort of manipulation had taken place with the figure, the only remaining course of action was for the editor to write to the author’s institution and raise the concerns with them.
The author’s institution was contacted and the editor forwarded all relevant correspondence with the author and, in anonymised fashion, correspondence with the scientists who brought this to their attention. The rector of the author's university has assured the editor that they take this seriously, have asked that the journal take no further action while they are investigating and will inform the journal of the outcome.
A paper reported a radioisotope test for diagnosis of a speci?c,acute,neurological disease with 100% accuracy. Replication studies failed to con?rm the ?ndings and suggested that the test is positive in about half those affected and in a similar proportion of normal controls.Other publications by the same authors produced results at variance with their claims and misreported their ?ndings. One author admitted that the data had been altered to show a better result. An earlier publication from the same department described another isotope test for detecting an unrelated disease with 100% accuracy. It was later proved to be without value for the diagnosis of that disease.
The allegations of unethical experimentation
The study involved injection of a large dose of isotope into patients with acute neurological injury, in whom cognitive function was likely to be impaired. There was no mention of ethics approval or informed consent. The authors later stated that approval was not required because the test was used for clinical management. There was no previous or subsequent publication demonstrating clinical utility. The employing authority was therefore asked to explain how the test could have been used for clinical management. They replied that it was only a preliminary study. When it was pointed out that such a study would require ethics approval,they stated that this had been obtained,although they had not mentioned this in the paper or subsequent correspondence. When asked to provide a copy of the approval form, they threatened legal action. It is believed that the institution did not have appropriate approval to administer the isotope.
Attempts to silence the whistle blower
The whistleblower failed to replicate the observations and noted discrepancies in other papers by the same group.He contacted the patients involved in the study.They described events at variance with those of the published paper and produced documents to prove it. He challenged one of the authors who admitted that data had been altered to give a perfect result. The whistleblower approached the institution and asked for an investigation. Shortly afterwards he was told that an internal enquiry had found no cause for concern. The whistleblower asked why he had not been asked for the names of the patients who disputed the events described in the paper or asked to produce documents. He was threatened with legal action and expelled from an MRC committee on which he sat. The committee chairman was one of the authors of the disputed study.The institution blocked a request from the whistleblower to use information on a national database which is managed,but not owned,by the institution:the database is theoretically open to all investigators in the ?eld.
Having received no satisfactory response to his request from the head of the institution,the whistleblower approached the journal which published the paper, requesting that the journal publish a paper from him explaining that there had been scienti?c fraud and unethical experimentation,followed by a response from the authors. The editor felt that there was a case to answer and asked the authors of the original paper to respond. The editor copied the request to the head of the institution.
The head of the institution, instead, referred the whistleblower to the GMC for disparagement. The GMC investigated the whistleblower for eight months before he was exonerated and the focus of the investigation turned to the authors.
What should the editor do now?
The institution must produce evidence of the investigation.
The editor should refer the authors to the GMC if they are registered because there are legitimate doubts about the ethical procedures for this study.
A copy of the referring letter should be sent to the head of the institution.
A letter was sent to an editor, claiming that scientific misconduct had taken place in Russia. The editor did not want to ignore the issue, which was not related to submitted papers and could not be published as a letter. But s/he was unsure what action to take.
This would be best pursued as an investigative news story.
A new Editor was appointed to a society journal in a minority medical specialty. An officer of the society immediately handed him an anonymous letter from a reader of the journal complaining that an article recently published was unethical. The Editor is a personal friend both of the previous editor who accepted the paper, and the author of the paper. The paper is by a single author who gives no affiliation to an academic organisation. The report describes a cohort study of patients to whom he had given treatment X over previous years. In the world literature, treatment X has been reported to cause endocarditis in a small number of patients, the majority of whom had risk factors. The author invited his patients back for a clinical examination together with blood and urine tests for markers of endocarditis, and echocardiogram. He did not seek permission for the study from an ethics committee, and did not obtain informed consent formally from the patients, though the study’s purpose was discussed with them all. The report is of considerable scientific and clinical importance, being the first in which the presence of endocarditis after treatment X was systematically sought, and its results (no cases were found) provide some supporting evidence that the risk of endocarditis after treatment X is low. The author said that the project grew out of his initial concern for the wellbeing of his patients, and he did not realise he had passed the threshold of requiring ethics approval. The Editor’s close personal involvement at several levels makes it very difficult for him to make a decision on what action should be taken.
The committee discussed whether or not this was a retrospective cohort study without informed consent or ethics committee approval. The committee felt that this could also be an example of good clinical practice by the author in that having read about the potential for adverse effects of treatment X in patients with specific risk factors, he/she called back those patients at risk for a check up. The paper could then be said to arise from the writing up of the clinical practice. On balance the committee felt that the case as presented provided no cause for concern.
Some time after a single authored research article was published a journal received a letter pointing out that the same article had been rejected by another journal because of unresolved authorship and acknowledgement issues. At that time the paper had 12 authors. The correspondent said that the single author had a patent application related to the topic of the paper. This was declared as a competing interest in the published paper. The correspondent claims that the single author insisted that all the other researchers sign an agreement transferring all intellectual property rights to him before they could be included as authors on the second paper. The correspondent added that the author had already been investigated by his university for ethical issues related to his research and was also being investigated by a national body. The editor contacted the correspondent asking his permission to put the allegations to the single author and requesting information on the investigations. The author replied that all the other 11 authors had agreed to be “withdrawn” from the paper before it was submitted to the second journal as they had not actually produced the article. However, it was difficult to understand how substantially the same paper had such a different authorship list. Either the initial submission listed authors who did not deserve the credit or the second publication did not list those who did deserve it and should have been accountable for the data.
- If the author is currently under investigation, the national body may welcome further information from the editor. - The first journal should pursue these issues even after rejection as it was likely that they would resurface again elsewhere with another attempt at publication. - The editor should contact the institution and the investigational committee with the allegations. The editor should inform the author of his intentions.
A paper was reviewed by two referees. The associate editor dealing with it recommended rejection as both reviews were critical of the methods, results, and reproducibility of the experiment. After the authors were informed, the editor-in-chief received an email from someone in the same laboratory, expressing relief that the manuscript had been rejected. The writer went on to say that s/he had misgivings because the effect of the biological mechanism described in the paper was less than 1%, and s/he was therefore strongly opposed to the submission of the manuscript. The lead author had responded to these misgivings by removing the writer’s name from the author list. The writer explained that s/he feared the study might damage the journal’s reputation if accepted, but at the same time felt that s/he could not confess his/her concerns. - Should the editor-in-chief take further action? - Is publication the filter to prevent fraudulent science from being published or from being committed?
- The COPE guidelines specify a clear duty for an editor to actively pursue misconduct even if the article in question is not published. - This adds to the already heavy workload of journal editors but they are in a privileged position as whistleblowers. - The letter does not make clear whether the writer is alleging an academic dispute over interpretation of the data or if the interpretation had been dishonest. - If the matter was a genuine scientific disagreement about interpretation then the author is entitled to submit the manuscript for publication. - A person who has been involved in the work should also be involved in the writing process, both to ensure correct attribution and to determine accountability should a subsequent problem with the data arise. - The journal should seek clarification from the letter writer as to the nature of the disagreement and then, if felt necessary, pursue the matter further with the author of the paper.
An editorial was published on cheating at medical school. The medical school concerned had allowed a cheating student to graduate. The article attracted over 100 responses, many of them in support of the decision. But an anonymous email response from two students claimed that an exam paper had been seen in the dean’s office prior to an examination and that some 60 per cent of the students had seen this by the time they came to sit the exam. The medical school concerned was unaware of this, and a much higher proportion of students than usual received distinctions. The two students asked if they should go public. What should the editors do?
_ Inform the medical school. _ The school needs to review its procedures. _ The two students should be told before this action is taken, and every measure should be taken to preserve their anonymity.
The medical school was informed and responded very positively. The two students were informed that this had been done and were encouraged to contact the medical school directly.
An editor came across a letter from the editor-in-chief of his journal to a reviewer that asserted he had recommended the acceptance of a manuscript. He had in fact recommended the opposite, both verbally and in writing. The paper in question was a guideline on the therapeutic choices for a relatively common medical condition. The authors had claimed their conclusions and therapeutic recommendations were “evidencebased” and recommended a new, expensive medication as first-line treatment. The reviews of the manuscript were mixed. One reviewer made only a few comments and recommended publication. The second reviewer expressed concern about an apparent bias and suspected there had been pharmaceutical company involvement in the writing of the paper. When the manuscript was reviewed at the regular meeting of scientific editors, the editor recommended rejecting the manuscript and this was written down in the manuscript “log.” The editor-in-chief decided to request a third review, this time from a guidelines expert. In the meantime, the principal author had spoken at length with the editor-in-chief. Although the expert reviewer expressed concerns about the manuscript, the editor-in-chief chose to accept the manuscript for publication. In accordance with journal policy, the reviewers were notified that the manuscript had been accepted, prompting the second reviewer to again express concern about bias. The editor-in-chief replied, saying that the editor had recommended publication. Under the previous editor-in-chief, there had been a formal policy with the professional body with which the journal was associated, outlining the journal’s editorial freedom. But after he left this began to change. A memo was sent from the association stipulating that any editorial material published in the journal from the association should have an elected official as the author, even if a researcher on staff or a scientific committee had written it.The editor questioned this policy on the basis that it was at odds with the definition of authorship by the International Committee of Medical Journal Editors (ICMJE).The editor-in-chief ignored these concerns. Shortly thereafter, the association’s CEO announced that no letters should be published in the association’s journal that criticised association policy. The editor-in-chief initially stated to the journal staff that he disagreed with this and requested that any such letters be directed to him. He assured staff that if he thought these letters merited publication, he would discuss them with the CEO. Since then, no letter criticising association policy has been published. When a scientific editor submits an article to his own journal, the policy was that another scientific editor would handle the manuscript; likewise, the fate of the manuscript would be made known to the author/editor in a confidential manner. The editor had co-authored a manuscript with another researcher and had submitted it to the journal for consideration. Several months later, in a meeting of copy editors and publication staff to discuss the placement of accepted manuscripts, the editor-in-chief announced that the reviewers had recommended rejection. He had not informed the editor beforehand. In actual fact, none of the original reviewers had recommended rejecting the paper. Manuscripts that had not been accepted were not usually discussed at these meetings and such behaviour contravened the ICMJE recommendations. The editor-in-chief said he would request another opinion before he made the final decision. When the co-author of the paper wrote, asking when the final decision would be taken, the editor in chief accused the editor of breaching confidentiality but wrote to the co-author assuring him that the manuscript would be treated fairly and promptly. The editor did not send out the manuscript for another opinion for almost two weeks.When he did, he identified in the covering letter that “he would elect to reject the manuscript” but sought the reviewer’s opinion. However, two days earlier, he had sent a letter to one of the original reviewers asking him to write a “single or several papers” on the exact same topic. About two weeks later, the editor-in-chief rejected our manuscript, apologising for the delay, and noting “we had some difficulty finding a person to give an editorial opinion of the review.” In a further instance, the editor was asked to review a manuscript for the journal that purported to be an evidence-based guideline. The other reviewers included the previous editor of the journal and an outside reviewer. The editor identified several concerns and included suggestions on how the manuscript could be strengthened; the previous editor gave very similar feedback. The third reviewer had only a few superficial comments, such as a title change. However, the editor-in-chief requested an additional review from an expert in evidence-based medicine, but accepted the manuscript with minor revisions, including the title change, before receiving these comments. Later, the additional review came in, seriously questioning the evidence base of the manuscript, but it was never sent to the author. The manuscript was published with minor revisions. The editor was sacked. The staff were told only that confidentiality precluded giving an explanation; unofficially it was intimated that he had simply been too difficult to get along with. The journal is still publishing, and the relationship between the Association and the Journal is increasingly intimate. There appears to have been a Faustian bargain made between the CEO of the Association and the editor-in-chief of the Journal whereby, in exchange for compromising editorial freedom in sensitive areas for the Association, he could publish what he wanted without feeling constrained by the usual editorial standards. _ If feedback from peer review is ignored, who will know? Most journal editors work in relative isolation and there is virtually no quality control. _ Who polices the relationship between a science-based association and its journal, a relationship that has its own particular set of challenges, involving both scientific and political elements. _ What can be done to stop/prevent corruption within the editorial office of a scientific publication, an issue that has virtually escaped discussion and consideration within the scientific community? _ What will it take to create the political will to ensure the integrity of scientific editors? _ There is often no way to formally investigate and address alleged abuses of editorial power, especially if these abuses are in the interests of the publisher or parent organisation.
The editor has acted as a whistleblower and has been fired as a result. _ This raises several questions about the integrity of scientific publications. _ COPE is not in the business of disciplining editors and authors, but perhaps it could devise a code of behaviour, which editors could sign up to, and be formally disciplined by COPE if they breach it. _ COPE feels that this case is worth publishing in a major journal and on web sites to encourage discussion.
A paper was rejected after peer review. Some time later a researcher wrote to say that he had been involved at the beginning of the study, but had withdrawn his name because he felt the study was defective. He had heard that the study had been submitted for publication, and thought it better that the editors were made aware of his doubts before publication rather than afterwards. As the paper had already been rejected, these questions didn’t arise. But the editor asked the author of the letter, who had written in confidence, if he might copy his reply to the authors of the rejected study. Does COPE think that the editor has done the right thing, and what more might be done?
The author did not want the editor to forward a copy of the editor’s letter to the other authors of the rejected study. No further action was required.
A letter containing details of a case report was submitted in February 1999. The authors were from Japan. After peer review and revision, the case report was accepted and a proof was sent to the authors. Two anonymous letters were then received, one on April 29 and another on 12 May, both from Japan. Both letters claimed that the author “has prized honour above everything else” and that he had submitted “nonsense data.” Our correspondents were “absolutely astonished” that we are publishing this letter. Given these anonymous claims, what should be done next?
_ The immediate reaction is to dismiss them if they are anonymous but they might be serious. _ Editor advised to write to author and his head of department to ask if they have concerns, citing a similar experience that had been submitted to COPE before where the anonymous complaint was found to be justified.
The head of department was contacted, but no reply was received.