Case: An author’s paper was rejected on the grounds of plagiarism of data. While two of the three reviewers gave positive and constructive feedback, the third reviewer accused the author of plagiarizing part of the data from an existing study. The author was shocked at the allegation as she had conducted all the experiments herself and the data were entirely her own. Moreover, the author had used a reagent in her experiments which was available in the market only after the year 2000, while the study which the reviewer had mentioned was conducted in 1990. However, the reviewer stated that he had never heard of this reagent and concluded that the data was copied from the previous study. Eventually, the journal conveyed its decision to the author that the paper was rejected on grounds of plagiarism.
The author sought our advice on how she could defend herself against this allegation. Although the author was no longer keen on submitting the manuscript to the same journal, she felt it was important to clear herself of the charges of misconduct before submitting the paper elsewhere.
Advice: We agreed that she should write to the editor with evidence that would prove the allegation was unwarranted. However, before writing to the editor, it was important to ensure that her arguments were perfect and all the evidence was intact.
We therefore recommended that she should first check all her data, paying extra attention to the numbers to ensure that there are no minor errors, and all the data are absolutely correct. She should then deposit all her data in an open repository like Figshare or Dryad. Additionally, she should go through the study that the reviewer had claimed to be the source of her data. She should compare it with her study and find out the points of difference between the two.
Having done this, she should write to the editor providing him access to all her data on the repository. The email should explain that the reagent she has used in her experiments was not available at the time when the previous study had been conducted. She should also refute the reviewer’s dismissal of the reagent by providing the link to the website of the supplier and proof of its purchase.
Additionally, we suggested that the email should explain the points of difference between the methods and results of her experiment, and the experiment reported in the other paper. She should also provide lab notes if possible to prove that she had conducted the experiment.
We also asked her to inform her supervisor about the reviewer’s suspicions and seek his support and interference if required. She followed our advice and wrote an e-mail with all the details to the editor.
The editor investigated into the matter and was eventually convinced that the data was original. Finally, the author was cleared of the allegation and the journal invited her to revise and resubmit the paper as a new submission.
Summary: It is unfortunate that sometimes innocent authors have to face allegations of misconduct. However, since instances of academic misconduct have been increasing over the past few years, reviewers and editors have become over-zealous in reporting suspected cases of plagiarism and other forms of misconduct. This can sometimes create problems for innocent researchers who are falsely accused. Therefore, it is important that when reviewers/editors spot a suspected case of plagiarism, data manipulation, or any other form of academic dishonesty, they should conduct a detailed investigation before accusing an author of misconduct.
If faced with such allegations, it is extremely important that authors clear themselves of the charges as soon as possible as this might tarnish their reputation in the long run. Authors should always keep copies of all documents, lab notes, and data related to a study. This serves a dual purpose: it acts as a backup in case of data loss and also helps authors defend themselves in case of allegations or suspicions of misconduct. If required, authors should be ready to provide any kind of supplementary data or information associated with the study. It is also a good practice to store all supplementary information on a public repository and share the link with the editor if the journal requests.