Annual Meeting Reports

Suspected Misconduct: Deciding When and How to Contact Institutions

Moderator Elizabeth Wager, former chair of the Committee on Publication Ethics (COPE), opened the session with an introduction of the speakers and a description of the format of the session, which comprised three short introductory talks and a group discussion.

Eric Mah represented the viewpoint of the university research-integrity officer. He began with the definition of research misconduct— “fabrication, falsification, or plagiarism in proposing, performing, or reviewing research or in reporting research results”—and noted that research misconduct does not include honest error or differences of opinion.

Communication between institutions and journals is not always satisfactory. Journals want institutions to alert them about any suspected serious misconduct that is likely to affect the reliability of something they have published, but institutions are wary of sharing confidential information, because they must limit disclosure of the identity of respondents and complainants to those who have to know to carry out an investigation under federal Office of Research Integrity requirements (42 CFR 93.108). Institutions must consider due process and sequestration (security of evidence).

Véronique Kiermer spoke from the journal–editorial perspective and addressed the differing perspectives of journals and institutions. Journals focus on the integrity of the scientific record. They seek to correct scientific facts when an error is suspected. Although journals cannot investigate misconduct (that is, they have no means or legal authority), they can request explanations, original data, or additional experiments from authors to clarify discrepancies. Institutions actively investigate allegations of misconduct and focus on determining responsibility and guilt, seek to take corrective actions, and access records and sequester evidence.

Kiermer identified three ways of communicating errors to readership: a correction, a retraction, or an expression of concern (used as an interim measure to alert readers that conclusions of a paper may be compromised and that an investigation is ongoing). Those tools are used not as punishment for misconduct but as a means of correcting the scientific record.

Steven Shafer presented an example of the difficulties that one may have when attempting to identify suspected misconduct. A journal was contacted by a government agency because major statistical errors had been identified in an article that had been published several years earlier. The journal’s first step was to contact the authors; however, the authors had changed institutions and were difficult to track down. When they were finally reached, they could not find their original data to identify how the errors were made. To alert the scientific community that there were errors in the article, but lacking knowledge of what led to the statistical errors, the journal published what it had: the letter from the government agency alerting the journal to the error and a statement that the authors could not find their original data to determine how the errors occurred. In this case, the editor did not contact the authors’ institutions during the clarification process.

The group discussion elicited the following points:

  • Journal editors have a duty to report suspected misconduct to institutions.
  • Contacting the authors first for an explanation is appropriate in most situations.
  • Better communication is necessary between institutions and journals regarding notification of proven misconduct and about current investigations.
  • Institutions and journals must be careful not to damage author reputations before the conclusion of an investigation, but journals do have a duty to warn readers if work may be unreliable.
  • In contacting an institution to report suspected misconduct, a journal should look for a research-integrity officer. If there isn’t one at an academic institution, the journal should start with the dean’s office.

It is important that journals establish their own policies and procedures for managing suspected misconduct. The Council of Science Editors white paper ( and COPE statement “Cooperation between research institutions and journals on research integrity cases: guidance from the Committee on Publication Ethics” ( should be used for reference.