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good practices

Anonymous accusations and weak excuses

WALTER REGOCancer journal Oncogene, part of the Springer Nature group, published an editorial in October 2017 condemning two behaviors that repeatedly hinder investigations of fraud or forgery in scientific articles. One is the custom of reporting suspected misconduct anonymously, usually through letters or emails signed with pseudonyms. “There are legitimate reasons for protecting the anonymity of whistleblowers, and details are not revealed to the concerned parties during investigations. However, it is important that the accuser identifies himself to the publisher when the accusation is made,” wrote Justin Stebbing, editor in chief of the magazine and researcher at Imperial College London, and David Avram Sanders, from Purdue University, USA. “This does not mean that anonymous assertions should be ignored. They should be evaluated on their own merits. However, the culture of anonymity is completely inconsistent with the values of both scientific and clinical endeavor and should be discouraged.”

The publishers also harshly and ironically criticized the evasive responses given by many authors when asked for clarification regarding errors or inconsistencies found in published articles. Stebbing and Sanders compiled a list of the most frequent excuses, the most common of which is denial that the problem exists, even when evidence of image duplication or plagiarism is in many cases overwhelming. This response has its nuances: some authors do not totally refute the complaint, but try to convince the publishers that clearly duplicated images are not identical and that there are small differences between them, like a game of spot the difference.

Another frequent response, which the authors called “my dog ​​ate the data,” involves claiming there is no longer any way to resolve the issue because the original data has been lost. That excuse, the editorial says, could be valid. “But sometimes the image manipulation/plagiarism is so evident, that the lack of the original data cannot be an exonerating circumstance.” People also commonly blame the inexperience of junior researchers, claim that foreign researchers are not familiar with quality standards in the country, or argue that data duplication does not compromise the conclusion of the article. None of these excuses, however, reduce the impact of the error or exempt the author from their responsibility.

Finally, there are those who say they are victims of anonymous persecution. “Perhaps true, but irrelevant,” the editorial said. After all, being the target of conflict does not make any verified instance of fraud or falsification acceptable.