3.6 Handling Third-Party Inquiries About Scientific Misconduct

3.6.1 Media

When a case of scientific misconduct has achieved a certain level of notoriety, members of the media may contact an editor and seek information about the case. Most editors respond to such inquiries with a statement that they do not discuss such cases. If the inquiry concerns a published paper, editors often will indicate that they are investigating the matter and are awaiting the results of the investigation. Often, the media will attempt to determine possible outcomes by proposing various hypothetical scenarios to the journal editor. Such lines of inquiry can be deflected by truthfully stating that the editor cannot respond to hypothetical scenarios because each case has unique facts and circumstances. Regardless of how an editor chooses to respond, it is a good idea to request that the reporter forwards their questions in writing to allow time to carefully prepare a response. Remember that the response may be quoted in subsequent news articles.

3.6.2 Legal Counsel

Legal counsel typically contacts editors through a letter seeking redress, information, or action. An editor may receive a letter from counsel seeking to redress a perceived wrong inflicted on his or her client, such as a demand that a paper be retracted or a request that an author’s name be added to the paper. Further, legal counsel may allege that the journal did not follow its own guidelines regarding review or publication. However, it is the judgment of the editor that prevails. A lawyer may demand that the journal conduct an investigation of perceived misconduct by a scientist who had published in the journal. It is the editor’s prerogative to indicate that the institution employing the scientist has primary responsibility for conducting such investigations. Some editors may prefer to advise counsel of that fact rather than directly notifying the author’s institution and being labeled the whistleblower.

Other counsel seek disclosure of information, such as the identities of the peer reviewers, for a case they are working on. Despite the demands of these sternly written letters, most courts have respected the anonymity of reviewers. Accordingly, editors should resist providing such information.

Some journals consider the need to retain their own counsel a cost of doing business. When these journals receive a letter from a lawyer, the editor refers the matter directly to the journal’s own counsel without taking further action. A journal’s counsel can explain to opposing counsel the weakness of their client’s position without resorting to expensive litigation. For those journals that do not have dedicated counsel, developing a policy for responding to such inquiries often is more cost-effective than attempting to resist a motion to compel a certain action.

3.6.3 Federal Agencies

For a variety of reasons, it is rare for a federal agency to approach a journal editor for assistance in investigating allegations of misconduct. First, journals typically are not recipients of federal funds and thus agencies do not have jurisdiction over their affairs. Second, journals cannot typically impose a sanction against an author found guilty of misconduct, beyond retraction or declining to accept future submissions. Finally, as noted above, the institutions that employ and/or fund the scientists have the primary responsibility for conducting investigations into allegations of misconduct.

(Authorship: Debra Parrish and Martin Blume took the lead in writing this section of the white paper on behalf of the CSE Editorial Policy Committee. Debra Parrish and Jill Filler revised this section for the 2009 Update. Daniel Salsbury and Patricia Baskin revised this section for the 2012 Update. Members of the Editorial Policy Committee and the CSE Board of Directors reviewed and commented on it. This section was formally approved by the CSE Board of Directors on March 30, 2012.)