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General guidelines (all decision trees)

Gather information: Who is making the complaint or raising the issue and who should then become involved?

  • External editor and internal publishing contact should always coordinate

  • If complaints come into Elsevier through any source other than the publishing contact, the publishing contact should be contacted immediately

Ultimately, who is the decision-maker regarding how to resolve and handle the complaint?

  • External journal editor (or society-owner for society journal): - As to the merits of the claim (plagiarism, scientific procedures, context of dispute, prior reported research, background of parties). - Possibly in conjunction with other co-editors, members of the editorial board or society, peer reviewers, experts in the field selected by the editor. - Possibly in conjunction with the "other journal" editor or publisher (especially for multiple publication issues).

  • Elsevier may need to be involved to help document the dispute and its resolution and to provide specialist support from time to time: - Use the procedures outlined in this document. - Professional judgment of publishing contact or their manager about what "best practices" are with respect to the complaint made and its resolution. - Professional advice of one kind or another (Obtain opinion external expert? Legal adviser?)

When is an ethics complaint a "legal" matter that requires Elsevier legal review/support?

  • The “obvious” times: - Formal legal complaint or brief filed in court. - Letter from attorney representing an "aggrieved" party. - A complaint is made about the infringement of a legal right such as copyright, moral rights, or a right of privacy.

  • The less obvious times: - Plausible (from a scientific perspective) conflicting claims from several parties which cannot be resolved by the editor through the methods and procedures outlined herein (suggesting that significant factual investigation will be required). - Where comment is made in a notice, expression of concern, corrigendum, or retraction that might be considered defamatory (this is automatically reviewed in the case of retractions).

Documenting the complaint/dispute

The publishing contact should always help the editor to record and document the claim. Inter alia they should: - Prepare an incident report with all factual questions (who, what, when, where, why) dealt with. - (For plagiarism and duplicate publication issues) obtain the respective texts/articles.

Due process for our authors

When the complaint is made against our author, general rule will be that the journal editor should contact the author about whom a complaint has been made, and the author be given the opportunity to respond/comment. The editor may decide on the basis of the author response (e.g. if the author is responsive, articulates a clear and convincing position - and may draw inferences from the opposite as well).

Involve other bodies or agents?

Consider whether there are other bodies or agents that could or should be involved (if after some degree of investigation, there seems to be some merit in the complaint and the complaint seems one that would be more easily (and reasonably) investigated and solved by that other institution. Such institutions could include:

  • For plagiarism and duplicate publication, the other publisher or journal involved in publishing the other text.

  • For authorship and fraud claims, the institutions where the research was conducted.

  • For bias or unfair/inappropriate competitive acts, institutions that employ the alleged wrong-doer.

  • For conflict of interest disclosure matters and violation of research standards, funding agency or employing institutions.

  • COPEopens in new tab/window (Committee on Publication Ethics) does take on some matters, often more high-profile cases, when other avenues are documented as failed.

  • Note that we will not necessarily be bound by a finding of an institution or agency if such finding is not deemed reasonable by the editor (or does not appear to us to be reasonable).

Responsibility to our authors

Although these procedures generally assume that it is our publication and author or co-authors who are complained about, it is possible that our authors will raise a complaint with us about another publication or author: - Usually this should be a contact made by the journal editor to the editor of the other journal directly. - Procedures to be followed generally mirror the procedures outlined herein.


  • In many cases, the communication of the complaint to the author and/or the authors' institution will in and of itself be considered a significant sanction.

  • Other remedies (these are not exclusive) may include (in order of severity): - Publication of a notice, corrigendum or erratum in a future issue (which could also take the form of an "expression of concern"). - Formal retraction of the article (watermarking the article to indicate it has been retracted and publication of a notice as to the reason. - Formal removal of the article (the actual deletion from the electronic record, a remedy suggested only for material that invades a subject’s privacy or could cause serious harm). - Publication of an editorial concerning the ethical issues raised and the journal’s decision concerning the issues. - Decision by the editorial board on future submissions by the author or author group.

  • All sanctions should be considered and weighed carefully by the editor-in-chief.

Caution regarding defamation claims

In carrying out any investigation, great care should be taken to act fairly and objectively and not to defame any author (or complainant) in any way, which could give rise to legal liabilities, including damages. To avoid defamation claims by authors, the following guidelines should be taken into account in the investigation:

  • Any inquiries of an author’s institution should be made in terms of an “alleged” or “apparent” violation. The inquiries should clearly state the facts and the allegation without premature judgment of the author’s culpability.

  • Information should be gathered carefully while imparting as little information as possible about the suspicion or accusation. To assist with information gathering, PERK provides form letters to use in investigating claims of unethical behaviour.