Researcher discovers paper published by co-author in another journal

In February 2016, Albert Jambon received some puzzling news.

Several colleagues had alerted him to a paper, published online in late December 2015 in the Journal of African Earth Sciences (JAES), reporting the discovery of a rare mineral, which Jambon had been analyzing.

When Jambon read the paper, he realized it was a modified version of a paper he had been working on for almost eight years. Impatient, one of his co-authors, Ahmad Bilal, had published his own version of the manuscript and listed himself as the sole author.

Jambon, a professor at Pierre and Marie Curie University, believes that Bilal’s paper plagiarized his manuscript, but Bilal disputes this allegation. Bilal–who works at Damascus University in Syria–says he couldn’t wait any longer to publish the manuscript, so wrote “a completely new version.” Since the authors couldn’t resolve the authorship dispute, in August 2016, the journal issued a “temporary” expression of concern, alerting readers to the authorship concerns. Now, a year and a half later, a spokesperson for the publisher says it’s going to be retracted.

Eight years is a long time to work on a paper.

When we asked Jambon why the paper took so long to write, he explained that he and the other authors were all working on other projects so the paper and revisions weren’t necessarily top priority.

Jambon told us he “was really upset” when he saw Bilal’s paper.

In March 2016, Jambon emailed the co-editor-in-chief of JAES, Damien Delvaux, explaining that the paper:

is a reworking of a former paper submitted to Contributions to Mineralogy and Petrology (CMP) on which I was a coauthor (first author actually) with 4 additional colleagues.

In August 2016, Delvaux issued a “temporary” expression of concern for “Sapphirine and fluid inclusions in Tel Thanoun mantle xenoliths, Syria,” alerting readers to authorship issues. Here’s the expression of concern for Bilal’s JAES paper:

This is a note of a temporary expression of concern related to the publication titled, “Sapphirine and fluid inclusions in Tel Thanoun mantle xenoliths, Syria” by Ahmad Bilal, which appeared in Journal of African Earth Sciences, 116 (2016) 105-113.

The concern is about a dispute of authorship of the above publication raised by Albert Jambon. The concern and this note will remain appended to the above mentioned article, unless the aforementioned author and complainant provide the Editor-in-Chief of the Journal of African Earth Sciences with a solution to the dispute.

The paper, received in March 2015 and published online December 2015, has been cited once (by the expression of concern), according to Clarivate Analytics’ Web of Science.

Jambon told us:

I thought by complaining to the editor of JAES, the matter would take a few weeks to settle, but it didn’t …

A year and a half after Jambon first complained to JAES, the paper remains in limbo.  

A spokesperson for Elsevier, which publishes JAES, told us:

We are actually working on the retraction of the mentioned article. I will provide more information as soon as I can.

The spokesperson added:

For this complicated ethical case, there have been several rounds of investigations before the Editor in Chief made the final decision. To collect evidence and information, we have communicated with various parties, including the author of the mentioned article, the complainants and the ethical experts. Both the Editor in Chief and I have been following guidelines of the Committee on Publication Ethics (COPE) as well.

A Collaboration Gone Sideways

Forwarded email correspondence provide further insights on the history of the paper.

Jambon told us that, in 2008, Bilal and another colleague, Jacques Touret, asked him to help analyze samples Bilal had uncovered in Syria. On one sample, Jambon and a colleague, Omar Boudouma, discovered a new form of a rare mineral — sapphirine. Jambon explained that the discovery was notable because sapphirine is typically found in the Earth’s crust, but “our sample appeared to be the first occurrence in the mantle.”

In October 2009, Jambon, Bilal and four others submitted a manuscript to the journal Contributions to Mineralogy and Petrology. According to Jambon, the reviewers asked the authors to provide more samples of the mineral, but because “the sample is unique, it was not possible to fulfill their request.”

Jambon and his co-authors improved upon the manuscript and, in November 2011, submitted a new version to another journal, the European Journal of Mineralogy (EJM). The revisions from the EJM reviewers, however, were “substantial,” according to Jambon, and the authors ultimately missed the journal’s revision deadline. Jambon explained:

The discussion included in this paper is a difficult one as it is the first time one had to explain the presence of sapphirine in this kind of rock.

In May 2017, Jambon sent EJM a revised version of the manuscript as a new submission. In June, Jambon received an email from the editor-in-chief of the journal, Patrick Cordier, informing him that the submission (ejm170065) “raises some serious issues.” Specifically:

… it must be very clear that the work has not been published before or that it is not under consideration elsewhere. In the present case, one author has published under its sole name a paper, which if not strictly identical, exhibits some very strong overlap with the present submission: A. Bilal / Journal of African Earth Sciences 116 (2016) 105e113

Under these circumstances, I consider that ejm170065 cannot be considered further for publication in EJM and must be withdrawn until the situation is clarified by the authors.

Bilal disputes Jambon’s allegation that he plagiarized the work.  According to Bilal, the revisions for the 2011 EJM submission were taking too long, and in 2012 or 2013, Bilal said he told Jambon that he couldn’t wait any longer to revise the paper:

… my university asked me to close my mission, so I was willing to publish my own paper in the (JAES). [[Jambon] agreed and told me to go ahead and he would work on the corrections on his own time.

We asked Jambon whether he agreed to this, and he said:

I could not have agreed on another publication while we had one going on that we were finishing with some difficulty.

Jambon added:

Bilal used our data, without notice and consequently without permission; he did not participate in the analytical work. The only part he might have published on his own is the field work.

Bilal said his paper in JAES is “completely different” from the one submitted to EJM:

My paper absolutely did not derive from the (EJM) manuscript.

Bilal also noted that he acknowledged Jambon’s contribution in the JAES paper. In the acknowledgments, Bilal wrote:

This research was completed during a sabbatical year (2008), in the laboratory of Prof. Albert JAMBON (Laboratory MAGIE, University of Pierre et Marie Curie, Paris). I would like to thank him and his team for his friendly welcome and his generosity. I would like to thank my Professor Jacques TOURET for his support and advising as student and than as professor. He merits much more than a simple thanks.

In March 2017, Olivier Pironneau, delegate for scientific integrity at Pierre and Marie Curie University, contacted the journal and the publisher to request the withdrawal of the JAES paper.

In July 2017, Delvaux contacted Bilal again, explaining that:

After examining the initial CMP manuscript, the revised EJM manuscript and the published JAES, it appears clear that the EJM manuscript is a revised version of the CMP paper and that the JAES paper is largely derived from the EJM manuscript, with large blocks of reworked text. Also it appears that the first author of both papers is the same, but the co-authors have been dropped in the JAES paper.

Delvaux added:

If these allegations are truthful, I will be obliged to initiate a retraction procedure.

Update April 2, 2018 16:00 UTC: The 2015 paper has been retracted. Here’s the notice:

This article has been retracted at the request of the Editor. Following complaints raised, it appears to be a reworking of a former manuscript submitted by a group of five authors but not published. The present author has published here alone, without acknowledging the work of the four other co-authors of the initial submission. This poses a problem of integrity as this new article contains material which was submitted for publication initially by all five authors. By retracting this article, we encourage all the authors of the initial manuscript to resubmit together a new version which respects authorship and scientific integrity.

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