Liz Wager: Should editors punish misbehaving authors?

Liz WagerI’ve been wondering about the role of journals in punishing miscreant authors.

A senior publisher told me he was uneasy about COPE’s retraction guidelines because although they suggest that redundant publications should be retracted, they recommend that the first publication should remain. The publisher felt that this was condoning and rewarding multiple publication and that journals should punish the authors by retracting all the articles. He clearly views the purpose of retraction not just as cleaning up the literature but as a penalty for misbehaving authors. I disagree, as I wrote in the COPE retraction guidelines: “The main purpose of retractions is to correct the literature and ensure its integrity rather than to punish authors who misbehave”. One reason I don’t like the idea of retracting all versions of a paper which has been repeatedly published is that it deprives readers of potentially useful information. Surely, it makes sense to leave the primary version in print and to reprimand the authors by having the redundant subsequent versions retracted?

Then I got a call from an editor handling a tricky case of research misconduct and seeking COPE’s advice. A researcher had admitted to appropriating a figure from another researcher and including this in his paper without permission or acknowledgement. The institution had responded promptly and investigated the case. As the figure formed only a small part of an otherwise reliable paper, the editor was minded to issue a correction. However, she was perturbed to be informed by the institution that they were waiting for the journal’s decision before deciding how to discipline the researcher. I advised her that it should be the other way around. The institution should take responsibility for punishing the errant researcher and the journal should take the steps necessary to correct the literature and inform readers.

I believe editors and publishers should stick to publishing and taking responsibility for what they publish and they should leave researcher discipline to institutions and employers who not only have more effective sanctions but, more importantly, should understand the context and background of the behaviour. What do you think?

Liz Wager is a freelance medical writer, editor, and trainer. She is the current chair of the Committee on Publication Ethics (COPE).