Allegations of research errors and fraud
Where referees or readers come to the publisher or editor saying that: certain laboratories do not have the facilities to conduct the research they published; the gel images look manipulated; the data from the control experiments is too perfect etc, then the possibility of fraud needs to be considered.
Fraud is publishing data or conclusions that were not generated by experiments or observations, but by data manipulation or invention. Changing the data measurements to conveniently fit the desired end result is fraud, but excluding inconvenient results is deliberate research error, which, in effect, is the same end result – fraud.
Note that the procedures below are similar to those for research results misappropriation.
The complainant must be made aware that the matter cannot be investigated unless the journal editor informs the corresponding (or complained-about) author (due process) and the institution or company at which the research took place (especially if fraud is alleged).
In the communication to the corresponding author (see Form letter A1), the editor should indicate that the matter will likely be referred to the institution or company where the research took place or any other relevant institution or agency (for example a funding agency) unless the author provides a reasonable explanation (accepted as reasonable by the editor).
Then a note, corrigendum or retraction process may be appropriate remedies. Note that there may still be disagreement concerning the appropriate description of the error or wrong-doing.
- It may be appropriate for such a note to simply indicate that the research work reported in the article contained errors (if only some parts of the research was invalid) and if the editor concludes the mistake was unintentional.
- If the errors are more critical or the fraud more pervasive, a more critical statement may be appropriate (with legal review for defamation).
- Ultimately the editor may need to make a judgment as to the appropriate language for the statement, if there is no consensus, and should do so in consultation with Elsevier staff.
Then the editor will have to consider whether the author’s explanation is reasonable. Normally the editor would also inform the complainant of the author’s explanation and seek comment (see Form letter B).
Then the editor should refer the matter to the institution or company employing the author/co-authors noting the allegation of fraud (see Form letter C).
What if the institution or company responds and indicates either that they agree there was research fraud or that they will investigate and mediate the result?
Then the editor should inform the corresponding author and complainant that the editor will seriously consider the judgment of the institution (through a corrigendum or Elsevier's retraction and removal procedures).
To determine this, review disclosure statements or acknowledgments in the article. If so, the editor should consider contacting the agency (using Form letter E).
What if the authors and complainant, employing institutions and funding agencies fail to reach consensus or to act in a reasonable manner and time?
Then the editor will be expected to make a determination, in his or her reasonable judgment, as to the underlying facts and to make a recommendation to Elsevier (and possibly the society for a society journal), which Elsevier staff will implement normally through the retraction and removal process.
It may be advisable for the editor in this fact-finding process to request the views and comments of third parties who may be expected to have knowledge of the facts alleged by the complainant.