Ask Athena is Science Editor’s advice column for your most challenging publishing and editing questions. Submit your questions to email@example.com
Our journal received a letter to the editor regarding a recently published paper. The editor in chief felt the letter contained some valid points and invited the authors of the original publication to submit a reply. In the course of preparing their reply, the authors discovered that this same letter had already been published in another journal. What should the editor do now?
Dear Seeing Double,
How lucky for you that the authors found this other letter before the duplicate was published in your journal, because that is precisely what this is, duplicate publication.
If the duplicate had already been published, that would be a clear violation of publication ethics, and I would advise you to contact the editor in chief of the other journal, as well as the authors’ institution. Because you had not yet published the letter, you may be able to handle this differently.
First, work with your editor in chief to draft a letter to the authors explaining what you discovered. Avoid accusations, and simply state the facts that the letter the authors submitted to your journal appears to have been previously published in another journal. Explain that it is against your journal policies and ask the authors to explain to you what happened. Give them a short deadline by which to respond, about a week.
Your next step will depend on the authors’ response. Sometimes mistakes like these are simply the result of ignorance on the part of the authors; they may not realize that what they did is not right. If the authors respond that they now understand their mistake and apologize, I would not recommend any further action. On the other hand, if they defend themselves and try to argue they are not at fault, it is time to contact their institution. In that case, contact their department head, or someone in the research integrity office or similar. Again, refrain from accusations, but explain the situation to the institution, and forward any correspondence between you and the authors. At that point, any further action is up to the authors’ institution.
Finally, now is the time to put safeguards in place to try to prevent this from happening again. Many journals ask authors during the submission process to confirm their paper has not been previously published and is not under consideration elsewhere. If your journal does not ask such a question, you would be wise to add it somewhere in the submission process. While this does not necessarily prevent authors from submitting a duplicate, it does put them on notice that the journal will not accept such a submission. This information should also appear on the journal website, and if your journal follows the recommendations of COPE or the International Committee of Medical Journal Editors, include a link to those policies as well.
Answers to Ask Athena questions are a group effort by members of the CSE Education Committee.