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Questions and answers

This section provides a large resource of useful information on "grey areas" structured in the form of questions and answers. The answers given below are based on common and accepted best practices within the STM community and a broad consensus within Elsevier.

If you are dealing with a more complex case of misconduct to which you do not seem to find a solution and you have entered a difficult "grey-area", please refer to your publishing contact.


What's the first step to be taken in an investigation of misconduct and who should take the first step?

The first step is always to evaluate the allegation that is being made and attempt to understand clearly the type of ethics issue that is being alleged (fraud, authorship misidentification, plagiarism, etc). The next steps to be taken will depend on the circumstances and type of allegation, although there are always things in common (documentation, communication with the "allegedly wrong-doing" author, etc).

Our view is that in most cases most aspects of the "investigation" are the responsibility of the Editor-in-Chief. Editors have the in-depth knowledge of the field, are aware generally of the kinds of research being conducted at which institutions, are often aware of the individual researchers and their reputation, and thus are in the best position (as compared to an Elsevier staff person) to evaluate claims. It is not unusual for these investigations and communications to have frustrating aspects, but it is generally accepted that it is part of the responsibility of being an editor.

When dealing with other publishers regarding cases of plagiarism or dual submission, the copyright form is the proof legally used to determine the official article of record. However, it can be argued that the submission stage (which clearly indicates the author's intention) as well as the acceptance date are also valid criteria. In practice it's often the case that publishers agree on a submission date or acceptance date. What's Elsevier's position?

Elsevier supports the efforts made by the STM trade association to establish common guidelines and agreements among publishers for retractions and removals (see STM Guidelines on Preserving the Record of Scienceopens in new tab/window). Those guidelines note that the date of the publishing or copyright agreement should govern, meaning whichever journal has the earliest formal agreement should be considered the journal where the "article of record" was published, and other duplicate publications should be retracted. Elsevier believes however that there may be more useful and practical ways of identifying which publication is the article of record (for example, perhaps it should be related to which journal published the article first in time). There is nothing wrong with negotiating with the other publisher/journal concerning these matters, with the understanding that if the other publisher/journal rejects this we can always fall back on the copyright agreement date.

What is considered a serious or what a less serious case of misconduct? What are the different sanctions applicable?

From a scientific perspective, fraud is the most serious, as it has the potential to mislead other researchers into fruitless areas of research, confuse readers, and possibly to cause harm (especially with respect to medical research and drug treatments).

Elsevier has a range of sanctions in our policies (see below), ranked in order of severity, which notes that the most serious sanction is some form of "banning" decision by the editor. We believe however that the seriousness of the publication of a corrective notice is often under-appreciated. The publication and dissemination of the corrective notice, in whatever form, that identifies that misconduct has taken place and generally identifies who the acting party was in the misconduct, is a very significant act. Researchers exist and work in a community, and the community's awareness of an ethical problem committed by a particular researcher is a very serious matter.

Elsevier and other organizations such as COPEopens in new tab/window (Committee on Publication Ethics) have elucidated a series of other possible "sanctions", in order of severity, including:

  • Publication of a notice, corrigendum or erratum.

  • Formal retraction for most matters (the publication of a corrective notice with a direct link to the original article).

  • Formal removal (in very rare cases) (keeping in mind the importance of maintaining the scientific record, removal should only be for issues such as invasion of privacy).

  • Publication of an editorial discussing the matter.

  • 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.

Is there any institution at Elsevier checking the decision/recommendation of the editor? What about if the authors object? Is there an independent committee for this?

There is a formal checking process for the retraction/removal procedure (see Elsevier Policy on Article Withdrawal). It is not unusual for an author or other party to raise an objection to a decision made by the editor, but the Elsevier policy is to rely on the editor's decision and to actively support it. We expect the editor to make an informed and considered view and decision about what is more likely to be true, and we will then do whatever is required to implement the editor's recommended sanction or other recommendation. If there are legalistic dimensions (lawyers involved or threats to bring in lawyers, etc), we will involve the Elsevier Legal Department. There may be instances as well where legal review will be useful (e.g. complex competing factual narratives), and our lawyers are prepared to assist.

Many editors talk about banning authors who have been determined to have committed plagiarism from publishing in their journals. There are often requests to create a "black" list of authors. Is this a possibility?

Elsevier does not have a "corporate" view on this matter. On the one hand, we recognize that an important tradition in publishing and science is freedom of expression and opposition to censorship. Thus the notion of banning authors is clearly contrary to this tradition. On the other hand, we recognize that, after giving a particular author (or group of authors) a number of chances (certainly more than one) to learn the rules of proper publication, it would be reasonable for an editor to conclude that consideration of further papers from such an author (for some period of time) would be likely a waste of their time and resources (and those of the peer review community). Again, we support editors in making such determinations, and expect and hope that they will make such determinations reasonably and with deliberate consideration to the relevant facts.

When an author is banned from publishing in the journal for a given period of time, should we automatically ban the entire research group involved? It's often hard to assess individual responsibilities…

Again, these editorial decisions should be done with care and with consideration of the relevant facts. It may well be that the entire research group was not aware of the acts of one or a small number of their co-researchers.

Why can't an online article just be removed? In what exceptional cases can an article be removed?

Once an article has been officially published, it is part, for good or ill, of the "minutes of science". Librarians and researchers have a right to know what was published at a particular time and will castigate publishers who attempt to remove an article from the literature. The exceptional cases we have identified are for example when a data research subject's privacy rights have been compromised or where significant harm could occur by improperly following directions or instructions given in an article.

Elsevier's view, however is that papers made available in our "Articles in Press" (AiP) service do not have the same status as a formally published article, and we do remove offending papers from AiP (through editorial procedures which the relevant publishing contact or ScienceDirect staff can assist with).

Should an editor investigate based on anonymous publishing ethics complaints?

In principle, all substantial publishing ethics complaints that reach an editor should be looked into, as there could be legitimate reasons why a complainant might wish to preserve their confidentiality.  However in our experience many recent anonymous complaints lack clarity about the specific misconduct being alleged, which makes it difficult for an editor to consider the complaint in a serious fashion.


Is there an official definition of plagiarism? Extent is important, thus is a whole copied paragraph plagiarism? Or is it to be considered simply a case of missing a reference to the original paper?

Plagiarism is generally understood to be the "passing off" of another's research or work as your own. In scholarly publishing, it is understood that one must do original work and prepare your papers yourself (or in rare cases if you do work with someone else who helps with the writing, this should be done with appropriate disclosure).

Plagiarism is understood to be an intentional act. It is possible that an author could quote or copy parts of another article without attribution, unintentionally (perhaps the author intended to add the reference later but forgot), but generally this would not occur with whole articles or substantial portions of another article (as it would be difficult for this to be a "mistake").

Can plagiarism be unintentional?

As noted above, plagiarism is always considered to be intentional. Some accidental copying of small portions of another's paper or illustrations without proper attribution/crediting might be considered unintentional copying, but if believed to be an accident, then would not be considered plagiarism.

What's the procedure when an article published by another publisher is plagiarising a paper already appearing in one of Elsevier journals? Should the publishing contact contact the publisher of the offending publication? What if the Elsevier editor is not satisfied with the response or lack of action taken by the other publisher?

The respective editors should take the primary role in resolving the issue through direct communication, but failing that or if the problem is not resolved, it may be appropriate to contact the publisher directly. Elsevier publishing staff will contact the other publisher in such cases.

What do we do when the publisher won't respond to a clear example of plagiarism? Who do we contact about this within Elsevier if we do not get a response from the author or the author's institution or if the other publisher ignores us?

As noted above, we act on the basis of the Elsevier editor's views, and we do not have to wait to act (with respect to publication of notices, etc) on the other publisher/journal. The Elsevier Legal Department is prepared to help with respect to the other publisher.

Duplicate publications

What is defined as a redundant publication?

The Elsevier policies do not use the term "redundant publication", but note that there are many forms of "duplicate" publication. This can range from publication of the same article at virtually the same time by the same author, generally resulting from simultaneous submission, to "self-plagiarism" (submitting the same article to a different journal some time after the original publication), to describing the same research in a slightly different way and seeking to publish the two articles. The latter point in particular is a matter of editorial policy and the application of that policy by the editor-in-chief and editorial board.

How should the editor or Elsevier react in cases of duplicate publication from the same author, whereas the primary outcome has already been published elsewhere? How much overlap is too much?

This is an editorial decision. The editor-in-chief must decide whether the second article adds anything at all to knowledge in the particular field. If it does not, then by definition it is duplicate publication and the corrective procedures we note in our policies should be followed (generally retraction of some form).

How should an editor or Elsevier handle duplicate publication in other languages? Should both journals publish a notice about dual publication?

If both journals are aimed at the same community of researchers and users, it should be considered duplicate publication and treated as such. However there are instances where an article might be published in local language in a local publication, which might then be considered for re-publication in an international journal. This of course can only happen with agreement between the two journals, and with a notice re the prior local publication, and if the editor-in-chief believes the article is significant and will reach a new or different community of readers.

If an author/group of authors is a serial offender (reiterated misconducts), how do you share the information amongst the different journals?

If there is a group of journals where the duplicate publication is occurring, it would be useful if the respective editors discuss these matters with each other (or even raising the matter directly with the other publisher). There will be many different outcomes from this. Sometimes authors "guilty" of some type of misconduct in some areas do write other papers that are completely legitimate. These matters should not be pre-judged. Every paper should be considered on its own merits.

Can results already presented at meetings as abstracts or posters, be reproduced as original data in a published article?

This is ultimately an editorial question, and not necessarily an ethical matter. Our copyright policy notes that authors may post pre-prints (except for some journals such as the Lancet and Cell) and that this will not disqualify the paper from being considered for publication. It could be that presenting original data at a meeting is somewhat like posting a pre-print. The editor however must decide whether, for each journal, such a pre-publication of data would somehow compromise the publication of the article (in which event we should ensure that this is also reflected in the journal's "instructions to authors").

If a discovery is made that a paper is published of a study based upon a dataset that is simply re-run or slightly amended, and thus, lacking in originality, how should a retraction be justified and communicated to the authors?

On the basis that it is redundant publication, see comment above.

A Chinese author submitted a paper that one of his supervisors already had published in a Chinese journal with very little circulation. How do you react to such a case?

See comment above re duplicate publication in another language.

Often results of a university's niche meetings are published in booklets (with ISSN number) that are circulated amongst a very limited number of university members. Can an article representing the same data be published in a main international journal without representing a case of dual submission?

This is principally an editorial policy matter and not an ethics issue. As noted above, our copyright policy for most journals permits pre-print postings, an editor might believe that this is something equivalent to a pre-print posting.

Are there special rules regarding the conference papers and poster papers being published? Often, conference papers are put out on CD and/or usb stick at the conference. Authors may later submit these to journals (often, they are revised). Should they be required to get permission to publish these papers again from the conference organizers?

This is an editorial policy matter and not necessarily an ethics issue (see discussion above). If the editor does decide to publish the article in any event, it is recommended to enquire whether the author has previously signed an agreement with the conference organiser.

Authorship complaints

Does the responsibility lie with an editor or with publishing staff to solve cases where authors cannot agree about their authorship roles (e.g. corresponding author versus co-authors) and the order of appearance in the paper? Or is this an issue for their institution?

It is unlikely that anyone other than their institution(s) would be able to make this determination. However we may publish a notice if for example the allegedly wrong-doing author has not responded to a claim (meaning it would be fair to make a presumption in such case that the allegation is likely true).

In a case of false claim of authorship, how can we protect the author's reputation? The article will be retracted, but will still be accessible and thus might badly reflect on the author's name. Is a detailed retraction note the only way to go?

In any corrective notices or communications on an ethics matter, the editor (and Elsevier) should always ensure that we are careful in our investigation, consideration and communication. However, it is not the obligation of the journal to protect anyone's reputation. The obligation and objective should be to respond to allegations and discover and publish truthful information concerning such matters. Corrective notices should always be tactfully drafted if possible, of course, and it may often be the case that the "less said the better".

Is it justified to withdraw or retract a paper based on scientific misconduct if only one author of the paper is the allegedly wrongdoing-author whilst the co-author(s) were not and could not have been aware of these practices?

By jointly submitting the manuscript and permitting the corresponding author to sign the publishing agreement with Elsevier on their behalf, all authors bear joint responsibility for the scientific content and compliance with publishing ethics in the process leading to submission. Therefore, all authors must bear the consequences of their co-author('s) malpractices in case a withdrawal or retraction decision is made. Furthermore, it is often impossible for publishers to accurately verify which author was responsible in the research or drafting process for acts such as introducing plagiarized text or adding fraudulent data.

Do "scientific writers" qualify for authorship of an article?

Authorship of a scientific article implies that a substantial contribution was made to the scientific research and process leading to the article. Therefore a scientific writer who only assists authors with language editing or the professional writing of the article will not qualify for authorship. These persons may be recognized in the article as contributors, just like for example translator or persons who have provided research facilities.

Editor's and publishing contact's tasks

According to Elsevier's policies and editor contracts our editors have a duty to pursue suspected misconduct. What if an editor refuses to follow up a blatant case of plagiarism?

Any such neglect should be taken into account when evaluating an editor's performance.

What should you do when an investigation cannot be carried on, in the majority of cases because of lack of response from authors or institutions? Or when the response from the institution is not adequate? Should the case be abandoned or can the editor still express/publish concerns?

As noted, we believe that it is fair for an editor to draw an inference from a lack of response from the allegedly wrong-doing author or author community. The editor should also consider and evaluate responses and judge based on their knowledge and experience in the field whether a response is more or less likely to be true. These matters should not be abandoned.

If a fairly clear-cut case of plagiarism or self-plagiarism is discovered several years after the fact, to what degree does the editor or publishing contact need to go to contact the authors for explanation, if the authors have retired, are deceased, or have moved on to whereabouts unknown?

We must collectively do the best job we can. Fraud and other ethical issues are often discovered years after the fact.

Is it the responsibility of each individual publishing contact to ensure that journal instructions clearly indicate what is considered plagiarism, redundancy and dual submission and how these cases are pursued?

The publishing contact should review current instructions with the editor, and work with the legal department to identify areas that should be clarified.

Can publishing contacts send out letters on behalf of the editors communicating to the authors the final decision to retract the paper?

The communication with the corresponding author is an editor's task. Publishing contacts should support the editors by supplying the relevant templates for these letters. However, it is accepted that the publishing contact might help further if expressly requested by the editor.

If an institutional disciplinary procedure has been started by a university against a certain author of an Elsevier paper in relation to alleged scientific misconduct, should the editor infer  consequences from the outcome of such procedure in his concurrent internal ethics procedure regarding said paper?

The editor should conduct his own independent investigation in accordance with the Elsevier publishing ethics policy. However the editor may infer conclusions or confirmations based on the outcome of such institutional procedures.

Is an editor obligated to disclose internal information regarding alleged scientific misconduct to an author's institution as part of such institution's internal disciplinary procedures or investigations?

No, the editor has no such obligation, only under legal procedures if required by applicable law. In specific cases, it may be appropriate and beneficial to the publisher's internal truth finding process to share with the alleged fraudulent author's institution specific information, subject to confidentiality.