The following case study was published by the COPE (Committee on Publication Ethics):

Editor A wrote to editor B, indicating that one of the reviewers of a paper submitted to Journal A contained material that had been submitted at about the same time to Journal B. Editor A requested a copy of the paper submitted to Journal B. Editor B responded, confirming that the paper in question had been submitted to Journal B (submission date two weeks earlier than the paper submitted to Journal A), but had been rejected eight weeks later after external peer review. Editor B sent a copy of the rejected paper to editor A. Editor A examined the two papers and confirmed that there was “some degree of overlap” between the two and also felt that there was a degree of “salami slicing.” What should the editors do now?

In the HKU context, Section 2.2 (‘Publication-related conduct’) of the HKU Policy on Research Integrity states the following:

“In reviewing manuscripts submitted to journals or other publications, confidentiality must be observed.  Editors and reviewers should never make use of the writing or the data in the submitted manuscripts without the explicit permission of the author.”

Section 2.8 (‘Reporting irresponsible research practices’) adds the following:

“Members of the university should report to the authorities concerned any research misconduct or suspected misconduct (refer to the document Procedures for Dealing with Alleged Staff Misconduct in Research).  This includes plagiarism, abuse of data, improper ascription of authorship, non-compliance with regulations, and other forms of improper research practices that are deemed to be unacceptable by the academic community.”

Section 2.2 read together with Section 2.8 suggests that, where a reviewer suspects the author of misconduct (in the case in question, of overlapping publications and ‘salami-slicing’), the public interest in reporting and identifying misconduct overrides confidentiality with the author.

The COPE’s advice in the case in question was as follows (emphasis added):

  • This was a case of an intelligent reviewer catching a dual submission serendipitously.
  • Sending a copy of the manuscript under review to another editor might be considered a breach of confidentiality with the author, but in cases of suspected misconduct, such action was part of the peer review process and the information sent to the other editor would be on a ‘need to know’ basis.
  • Public interest in preventing fraudulent publication overrides confidentiality with the author.
  • Sometimes authors write up different aspects of one research study and send them to different journals, so some degree of overlap is inevitable, but as long as the authors openly declare what they have done, this is acceptable practice. They should cross reference or include a copy of the companion paper.
  • Many journals have this sort of provision in their instructions to authors. These make authors think twice about attempting inappropriate dual submission.
  • What would happen if an editor requests the author to provide the companion paper and the author refuses? The COPE guidelines on redundant publication state that at submission, authors should disclose details of related papers. In cases where a reviewer alerts an editor to the possibility of duplicate publication the duty to the author is to ask them to respond to the allegation and provide the other paper.
  • The duty of confidentiality to the author is not absolute, and where misconduct is suspected a breach could be justified.
  • The integrity of the literature is more important than maintaining author confidentiality. And dual submission is a drain on the journal’s and reviewers’ time.
  • The two journal editors should write “joint letters” to the authors about the matter, pointing out why this is an important issue and requesting a response within a specified time limit.