How should journals handle multiple allegations from the same person?

copeIt’s not uncommon for us to hear from overworked journal editors that they are faced with a deluge of allegations about a particular author’s papers. And while we think it’s the responsibility of said editors to make sure their publications are as transparent as possible, we’re also sympathetic to the demands that investigations can take.

The Committee on Publication Ethics (COPE) offers suggestions for dealing with these issues in a new discussion document. As COPE explains:

On occasion a journal may get not one, but a series of complaints from the same source. Complaints may be directed at an author, an editor, or the journal in general. If these complaints turn out to be well founded, investigations should proceed as warranted. However, there are also cases where a complainant makes repeated allegations against a journal, editor, or author that turn out to be baseless.

A few highlights:

  1. COPE believes that it is important to provide due consideration to any and all complaints received concerning alleged ethics violations. Even sources who have previously submitted unsubstantiated or nonspecific allegations may have valuable information concerning an actual instance of research or other misconduct.
  2. Notwithstanding this principle, COPE also finds that investigations of vague, superficial, or unsupported complaints can be wasteful of journal resources and harmful to the scholarly publishing community.

COPE also addresses anonymous complaints, which they’ve done before:

While anonymous complaints should be treated respectfully and accorded a fair and serious review, journals should endeavour to encourage individuals to provide a name and contact, noting the limitations that anonymity imposes on the investigation process; e.g., that anonymity may make it hard for the journal to judge the credibility of the complaint and may hamper the journal’s ability to make further investigation (if the journal is unable to contact the complainant with follow-up inquiries).

You can read the whole document here.

COPE has also offered guidance on whether editors can share information about investigations with one another.

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11 thoughts on “How should journals handle multiple allegations from the same person?”

  1. How about the other side of the coin? In the past few weeks I have documented duplicate publication, near-duplicate publication, outright plagiarism and data theft in the same journal that leads me to think that it is a predatory publisher. At least the editor occasionally writes back to say that they are looking into the situations. How long should a whistleblower have to wait for answers? I have 10 plagiarized conference papers that Springer was informed about 2 years ago. One paper was retracted, then the retraction was retracted and a corrigendum was issued on just one table. Nothing has happened with the other 9, no answer from Springer, no communication. My complaints are always supported with documentation, but I get the feeling that they are rather unwelcome.

    1. Debora, an alternative pathway is to contact the journal and Publisher of your plagiarized papers (if not Springer itself). It is one thing for an author to contact an Editor and complain, it is another thing if an Editor contacts and Editor, and even more when a Publisher contacts another Publisher.

      1. Hi Marco,
        An editor at Springer (not the editor of the various conference proceedings) was contacted on May 30, 2012. On September 13, 2012 we inquired as to the state of the investigations. Ditto on May 07, 2013 (there is always a quick response that the investigations are continuing). On May 16, 2013 the Springer editor responded: “Apologies for the delay. As mentioned earlier the cases are being handled by three different colleagues as they all published one or more books in various series.”

        On August 16, 2013 another inquiry was sent off. As there was no answer this time, the email was again sent on September 03, 2013. The editor apologized for having a heavy work load, but since no message was forthcoming, on October 02, 2013 another reminder was sent. The editor promised that they were coming up with something.

        On January 9, 2014 another reminder went out. Yes, they are working on it and will inform us. We have waited an entire year+. There is still no word. If they are not retracting, I’d like to know why. How long should one have to wait for answers to be forthcoming without having to keep pestering the editors?

        1. Debora, it looks like you don’t have the right entrance. Again I suggest you go through the Editor(s) of the conference proceedings in which your papers were published, or in your next enquiry put them cc on your message and make that clear. Otherwise try to take it up with a higher ‘authority’ at Springer.

          1. They are not my papers. They are papers that I have discovered to be duplicate publications. And from my point of view, this is Springer’s job as the publisher. If the person we have been corresponding with is not the correct person, they need to put us in contact with the correct person. They are taking enough money selling the plagiarisms. They need to at least work to remove these from the scientific record.

          2. Ah, sorry, I thought it was about your own papers. In that case it might help if you get the authors of the plagiarized proceedings to take action. Also, and I repeat myself, you can cc the Editor of the publication with the plagiarized papers on any correspondence.

            One final question though: are you in contact with the academic Editor of the proceedings, or an Editor from Springer? You cannot necessarily blame Springer if the academic Editor does not tell Springer about this.

  2. COPE new white document: my frank concerns

    I have some strong thoughts on this document and on what I perceive as an evolution of COPE as a formal “defense” strategy by the main-stream STM publishers and their now 9000 paying members, who would surely like to see returns on their charitable annual investment.

    Who is to say what is trivial and what is not? In my experience in the plant sciences, I get the sense that complaints are not handled correctly, and in most cases not at all, even when the claimant is named. In my experience, journals and publishers only budge when the evidence is of a really serious situation, for example duplicated paper, data or figures, and even so, the “investigations” take months, the “teams” of “ethicists” in those investigative teams are never revealed, there is almost zero transparency in almost 100% of cases and when there is a final result, either an erratum or retraction, the notice itself is restricted to the bare minimum.

    My biggest concern, at least in the plant sciences, is an almost total lack of publicly accountable editorial responsibility. It’s almost as if scientists and authors are being held to higher standards than the editors. I am of this opinion that this document by COPE is considerably skewed. And even though its inherent message is true, it is being stated in such wording that defends, almost exclusively, the editors and publishers. Because it offers, quite literally, more protections to the publishers and editors than it does to the claimants, i.e., scientists.

    There is not enough in this document that says that editors must be held accountable for the literature in their journals, even if they did not personally oversee the publication of papers 5, 10 or 20 years ago. Simply because the editors are working with the publishers to make profit from the entirety of that collection. It’s as simple as that. I find it ironic, at minimum, that some STM publishers are willing to make record-breaking profits, but are unwilling to correct the errors in the literature that they are selling. The COPE document is more than just sympathetic towards editors and publishers. It is pushing the wording and posture to a new position never before seen in science. Terms like defamation, libel and slander are now starting to work themselves into the publishing fabric, slowly, just like marketing skews the message to portray something more than it really is. It’s almost as if, when an editor or publisher refuse to respond to a valid query, they will label any complaint over and above the original one as more than a complaint. In my experience, the editors and publishers are using silence (i.e., the lack of response to valid claims) as a way to skirt their responsibilities. And the greater the number of errors that are detected, the greater the responsibilities by individuals up the ladder.

    Scientists had better read this document very carefully, because now, when a publisher states that they abide by COPE’s guidelines, they mean also conformation to all these little appendices and extra documents floating around here and there. What these documents try and do, in essence, is stifle the voice of the complainant, named or anonymous, and empower the editors and publishers, who are trying to gain ground in an increasingly aggressive science publishing field. The competition by the open access publishers, especially the “predatory” ones, is increasing, and protection of financial investments and assets would be a natural defense strategy.

    Think about it, historically, 20-30 years ago, there was no competition to the still powerful STM publishers, so rules were more lax, no COPE existed and instructions for authors did not have such complex “ethical” boundaries. So, this COPE document reflects indeed an evolution of science publishing, but an extremely worrisome trend.

    My advice to scientists: keep a cool head (I should take my own advice on occasion), make sure that the evidence is solid, and post the evidence publicly when the editors and publishers fail to respond, or when you are not satisfied with their response, the transparency of the process, or the accountability by these parties. When referring specifically to problematic papers, do not be afraid to list any level of problems. What may be important to you may be trivial to an editor or publisher who are obviously trying to minimize the risks to their journals and to do the minimum possible to correct the literature.

    Think about it, this is purely an image problem. If a journal has published 100 errata, and another has only 3 errata, and both have similar metrics, then to which journal will you, as a scientist, likely submit? Finally, post any errors about papers at PubPeer and at PubMed Commons. You have been given a tool that allows open and free discussion, as if you were discussing it in a journal club at your university every week, so now express your ideas and your concerns publicly. Do NOT fear the latest outcome of the Sarkar case. Rather, remember that all commentators except for one were protected under free speech. For now.

    I am, and have always been, of the opinion, that COPE was created by publisher insiders (please see the names associated with COPE and their associations with the publishing industry), for the almost exclusive defense of the publishers. And while some “guidelines” or “flowcharts” published by COPE may be luke-warmly useful, they represent only a first line of protocol and defensive shield for editors and publishers who simply are protecting their business interests. Validly so, but still, not necessarily in the defense of scientists, even if it is in their interest. As equally as authors should have to sign guarantees when they submit a paper to a journal, so too should all editors now be forced to sign a code of editorial ethics, and there should be enforcement. Any editor who fails to sign such a code, should be removed from an editor board, even more so in a situation where they fail to address a criticism about an editor, a journal operation, or a paper in that journal. This is one example:

    We, the scientists, praise the editors and the publishers for their collective effort to process our intellectual achievements and to attempt to instill some level of quality control, although it is very evident that the traditional peer review model has failed and continues to fail. But let’s make the playing field fair. If I am to be held accountable for what I have published as a scientist, then the gate-keepers to journals, the editors, must be held accountable to the exact same near-perfect levels and standards. That is currently not happening. If the publisher cannot handle the volume of complaints, then it should redirect some of the profit it is making away from CEO bonuses towards defending the integrity of their literature that provides them with the same bonuses. There should be a designated number of full time employees to deal with manuscript, editor or publisher complaints.

    The increasing legal jargon that has started to emerge in such documents is, in my opinion, meant to stifle dissent, weaken the voice of the complainant and thus strengthen the position of the editors and the background publishers, who will now, in this day and age, go to any length, to protect their financial investments and road to profit.

    As equally as I sounded a warning to scientists about the subtle change in ICMJE “guidelines”*, I also wish to warn scientists that this new COPE document represents a dangerous new step to stifle our voices of complaint and concern.


  3. If papers of yours were plagiarized and you still hold copyright, then there are certainly
    things you can do that will get their attention promptly. Sending them a DMCA take-down
    notice should get you action on a time scale of days.

  4. So the trade association of a multi billion dollar industry writes an apologist rant, to say that dealing with complaints is awkward and wastes resources? Who would have thought it? COPE is just a lap-dog at this point.

  5. Until COPE develops some form of enforcement mechanism for their standards they cannot be taken particularly seriously. Editors are free to trumpet that they are COPE signatories will refusing to act on even the most obviously fraudulent data.

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