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sub-category Publication Ethics

How Journals identify and respond to allegations of Scientific Misconduct of Authors

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How Journals identify and respond to allegations of Scientific Misconduct of Authors

Scientific misconduct is a wilful violation of standard codes of scholarly conduct and ethical behaviour in the publication of professional scientific research. The U.S. Office of Research Integrity (ORI) defines research misconduct as:

Fabrication, falsification, or plagiarism in proposing, performing, or reviewing research, or in reporting research results.

Examples of scientific misconduct

Examples of scientific misconduct include:

  • Making up data or results
  • Changing or misreporting data or results
  • Using the ideas and/or words of other researchers without giving appropriate attribution (in other words, plagiarism)

Repercussions of scientific misconduct

Misconduct represents a grave attack on the values upon which science is based, and is taken very seriously by publishers, journals and academic departments. Authors who have been caught in misconduct will have been discredited, and on occasion, lose tenure and even their careers. Journals that have published plagiarised articles or papers with falsified research would lose credibility.

While misconduct can occur at any stage of the research, writing, peer review and publication processes, this post focuses on how journal editorial offices investigate and act upon allegations of scientific misconduct.

1. Identifying suspected manuscripts

Allegations of scientific misconduct can arise from numerous sources.

Automated screening tools

Over the last many years, journal editorial offices have increasingly assumed responsibility for not only managing the peer review process but also conducting the initial policing of submissions for scientific integrity. Editorial offices routinely run many, or all, submissions through multiple automated tools and article databases to check for potential plagiarism and image manipulation.

Reviewers and editors

Allegations of scientific misconduct frequently arise from manuscript reviewers. Because peer reviewers are typically well-read experts in their field, they can recognise potential discrepancies in authorship, data and attribution in submitted manuscripts. Multilingual reviewers are uniquely able to detect duplicate publications that have been published in more than one language. Additionally, reviewers are well positioned to detect data that appears too neat or results that seem too ideal.

Third parties

Co-authors, disaffected colleagues from other institutions and even other journals in the field can trigger an alert for potential scientific misconduct. On occasion, ‘competing’ journals collaborate when their respective review panels detect a paper which has been submitted to both journals simultaneously.

2. Reporting and communicating an instance of scientific misconduct

Any allegation of potential scientific misconduct should be reported immediately to the journal’s editorial office. 

Depending on the journal’s policy and the particular accusation in question, the editor may notify some or all of the following:

  • Corresponding author of the manuscript
  • Senior author or all authors on the manuscript
  • Department chair of the author(s) or their institution’s academic dean
  • Funding body or group sponsoring the study (if applicable)

In brief, the editor communicates in writing with the author that an allegation of misconduct has been lodged against the paper, providing as much detail regarding the allegation as needed to let the author understand the journal’s concern. At no point will the editor indicate the source of the allegation. Overall, ‘calm’, ‘discrete’ and ‘expeditious’ describe the initial investigative process. 

3. Responding to an allegation of scientific misconduct

The authors are given a specified period of time to respond in writing to the allegation, explaining themselves.

Author responses to allegations vary greatly. Full cooperation and honesty on the part of the authors always results in the best outcomes, even if it means the authors suffer some sort of penalty. Initial infractions or infractions made in ignorance often carry smaller, temporary penalties. However, if authors are not cooperative, if their responses are not satisfactory or if they have a history of scientific misconduct, investigations can broaden in scope and penalties become increasingly severe. Journal editors may bring department heads or academic deans into the investigation.

Investigations into scientific misconduct can be highly valuable teachable moments for authors. Early career researchers (ECRs) may simply be unaware of proper research and publication protocols. Although ignorance is not an excuse, editorial offices might provide leniency to authors who are not deemed to have acted with malicious intent, i.e., whose errors are determined as being honest mistakes. 

4. Taking action on scientific misconduct

If it is determined that misconduct has occurred, the journal editor will consult with the legal team of the journal, publisher and parent society (if applicable) before issuing a penalty and notifying all vested parties.

As the exact process involves many complexities and intricacies, here are some resources that outline the investigative process and schedules of penalties.

  • Committee on Publication Ethics (COPE)
  • Council of Science Editors (CSE)
  • International Committee of Medical Journal Editors (ICMJE)

Our advice to researchers

You would do well to acquaint yourself with standard scientific publishing policies concerning plagiarism, dual publication and scientific misconduct. Advance understanding in such policies will enable you to avoid potentially very costly mistakes that could jeopardise your career and reputation.


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