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Editorial Policy and Procedures for Detecting and Handling Allegations of Scientific Misconduct 

Editorial Policy and Procedures for Detecting and Handling Allegations of Scientific Misconduct
Ethical and Legal Considerations

Annette Flanagin

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Editorial Policy and Procedures for Detecting and Handling Allegations of Scientific Misconduct

Detection of scientific misconduct in publishing is often the result of the alertness of coworkers and/or other authors of the same manuscript, and much less commonly by editors, peer reviewers, or readers.

If an allegation of scientific misconduct is made in relation to a manuscript under consideration or published, the editor has a duty to ensure confidential and timely pursuit of that allegation. According to the International Committee of Medical Journal Editors (ICMJE),22 “If substantial doubts arise about the honesty and integrity of work, either submitted or published, it is the editor’s responsibility to ensure that the question is appropriately pursued,” but the editor is not responsible for conducting the investigation. This recommendation is supported by the World Association of Medical Editors, the Council of Science Editors, and the UK Committee on Publication Ethics.23-25 A study published in 2004 that reviewed the policies of 122 leading biomedical journals (selected from those journals with the highest impact factors) found that 21 journals (18%) had a retraction policy for their journals and 76 journals reported having no policy on issuing retractions.26 Editors have a duty to develop and follow a policy on handling allegations of scientific misconduct and retractions. The recommendations in this section are intended to help editors with such policies.

An editor’s first step after receiving an allegation of falsified, fabricated, or plagiarized work published in her or his journal is to consider contacting the corresponding author, depending on the circumstances, to request an explanation while maintaining confidentiality. This initial contact can be made by telephone or brief letter marked confidential. (See also 5.7.2, Confidentiality, Confidentiality in Allegations of Scientific Misconduct.) If the explanation received from the author is satisfactory, and if guilt is admitted, the editor should request a letter of formal retraction from the author (preferably signed by the author and all coauthors); the editor should also notify the author’s institution and inform the author of this notification. If the explanation allays any concerns about misconduct, the editor may need to publish some form of correction or clarification or otherwise inform the person making the allegation that no misconduct has occurred. If the explanation received is not satisfactory or leads to additional concerns, or if no explanation is received, the editor should contact the author’s institutional authority to request a formal investigation and should notify the author of this plan.

The responsibility to conduct an investigation lies with an authority at the author’s institution where the work was done (eg, dean, president, or ethical conduct/research integrity officer), with the funding agency, or with a national agency charged to investigate such allegations, such as the US Office of Research Integrity, the UK Medical Research Council, or the Danish Committees on Scientific Dishonesty. Many countries do not have such national agencies to investigate allegations of scientific misconduct or enforce regulations. In such cases, the journal editor must pursue an author’s local institution for an appropriate response.27 Editors should expect a prompt acknowledgment of their notification of an allegation of misconduct. The acknowledgment should include a plan for the inquiry or investigation into the matter and a timeline that specifies when the editor will be informed of the outcome. The editor cannot conduct the investigation because he or she does not have the appropriate institutional access or an employment relationship with the author or other relationship such as that between the author and a governmental funding agency. If the editor does not receive a satisfactory or timely reply (eg, within 2 months) from the investigational authority, the editor should consider contacting the authority again to request follow-up information. (Note that the DHHS 2005 policy recommends that institutions complete their initial inquiry to determine whether an official investigation is warranted within 60 days of its initiation unless circumstances clearly warrant a longer period.14)

The editor should take great care to maintain confidentiality during any communication about the allegation. However, the editor needs to identify the person or persons about whom the allegation is made when contacting the relevant institutional, funding, or governmental authority to request an investigation. This is best done by a telephone call or a brief formal letter marked confidential. During such investigations, editors should avoid including details of the cases in emails that can be widely circulated and should avoid posting details, even if rendered anonymous, in email lists or blogs (see also 5.7.2, Confidentiality, Confidentiality in Allegations of Scientific Misconduct).

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