Journal flags paper over allegations it used competitors’ text, plasmids

MGGA journal has issued an expression of concern (EOC) for a paper on a common crop virus after the authors were accused of using competitors’ unpublished text and plasmids.

Investigations by the journal and the involved institutions — the University of the Witwatersrand in South Africa, where the paper’s authors are based, and North Carolina State University (presumably, where the accusing group is from) — were inconclusive, the notice states.

So the editor flagged “Sequences enhancing cassava mosaic disease symptoms occur in the cassava genome and are associated with South African cassava mosaic virus infection” with an EOC:

After publication of this article (Maredza et al. 2015), a reader alerted the Editors of Molecular Genetics and Genomics that there were potentially serious concerns regarding the ethical behavior of the authors and the authors’ right to use some of the information presented.

The claims are:

  • Authors describe without credit or acknowledgement an unpublished nomenclature developed by a competing group.

  • Article contains information taken from a draft manuscript of the competing group, which was about to be submitted for publication, and which was sent to the authors in Nov. 2014 for input.

  • Failure to acknowledge source of plasmids, which originated from a member of the competing group.

The Editors of Molecular Genetics and Genomics have conducted an in-depth investigation in accordance with the Committee on Publication Ethics (COPE) guidelines. Moreover, we have asked the institutions involved (North Carolina State University, US; University of the Witwatersrand, South Africa) to investigate the allegations. Unfortunately, the claims could neither be confirmed nor be refuted 100 %, which is why we have been unable to come to a definitive conclusion in this case.

Consequently, we feel it is best to post this Expression of Concern to alert our readers that concerns about this articles have been raised.

Readers are alerted that an Erratum has also been published regarding the inclusion of references to unpublished works (Maredza et al. 2016).

The 2015 article is not yet indexed, according to Thomson Reuters Web of Science.

We asked the journal editors for more information on the investigation and the competing group. A spokesperson for Springer got back to us:

After the journal’s own investigation was inconclusive, the editor-in-chief asked the universities to carry out an investigation. The universities were responsive and complied with the request to investigate further. However, following the investigation, it was impossible to confirm or refute the claims.

We suspect that the competing group is at North Carolina State University, since none of the authors on the paper are affiliated with the school. A research integrity officer at North Carolina State University declined to comment, noting that investigations are confidential.

Last author Chrissie Rey at the University of the Witwatersrand told us that she does not agree with the expression of concern, and that she plans to submit a letter to the editor with her perspective on what happened.

We reached out to the Dean of the Faculty of Science at Witwatersrand for more details on the investigation, who referred us to Rey.

The article also has an erratum, published last March, about references to unpublished material:

In the original version of this article two meeting abstracts and a thesis are cited and have also been included in the reference list. However, the inclusion of unpublished works in the reference list was against Molecular Genetics and Genomics’ policy at the time, and also misleading for readers. The authors apologize for this oversight.

We’ll update this post with anything else we learn. 

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