Correcting errors versus privileged information
The editor-in-chief received an email from author A regarding a recently published corrigendum by authors BCD, one of whom (author C) is a member of the journal’s editorial board. In this email, author A claimed that the corrigendum, which corrected some errors in an earlier article by BCD, was based on illicit use of privileged information, obtained by two of the authors (B and D) who were reviewers on two different versions of a critique submitted by author A, which pointed out these errors. In the email, author A requested that the corrigendum be retracted and that the journal “publish an editorial note that sets the record straight”.
The sequence of events was as follows. Author A’s critique was rejected by the handling editor, based in part on negative reviews and in part on the grounds that it was far too long and contained redundant and unnecessary material. One reviewer (B) invited a revised version. A second round of review led to the suggestion by reviewer D, that BCD publish an erratum acknowledging the errors uncovered by the submission, together with a further comment from author A. The handling editor in turn proposed that author A and authors BCD submit a joint manuscript acknowledging the errors and other points. Author A refused, on the basis that the information that authors BCD obtained was privileged, and therefore could not be appropriated. Author A informed the editor that the critique had now been submitted to another journal.
Authors BCD then proposed submitting a corrigendum, but the handling editor informed authors BCD of author A’s objection along with the admonition that authors BCD’s “only option is to wait for the critique to appear in print and publish a response to that”.
About 1 year later, authors BCD submitted the corrigendum, suggesting that sufficient time had elapsed to allow author A to publish the critique, and that “This seemed to us to balance the interests of author A against the ethical requirement to promptly correct errors that we are aware of in our published paper”. The original handling editor had since left the journal but recommended publication, and the recommendation was accepted by the editor-in-chief.
Authors BCD’s corrigendum acknowledged that the errors were “called to our attention” by author A. When notified of author A’s email complaint, authors BCD proposed to submit a second corrigendum to supersede the first one, and would cite author A’s critique, which had now appeared in another journal. This proposal was rejected by author A on the grounds that authors BCD had appropriated author A’s ideas.
There are several complications.
1. Author A’s manuscript was a direct critique of authors BCD’s earlier article, but author A did not consult with authors BCD before submitting it. However, author A nominated author B as a potential referee.
2. Authors BCD did not inform author A that, despite authors A’s objection, they later submitted the corrigendum, nor did the handling editor at the time inform author A that the corrigendum had been submitted and later that it had been accepted.
3. Although author A informed the handling editor that the critique had been submitted elsewhere, author A did not apprise the editor of its progress.
4. Authors BCD did consult with the editors of the journal at each step.
- What is the appropriate balance between two conflicting ethical principles: the need for authors BCD to correct an error in their work versus the need to maintain the confidentiality of privileged information?
- Is retraction of the corrigendum warranted?
- Is authors BCD’s proposal of a second corrigendum a reasonable solution?
- Are there other actions that should be taken?
The Forum suggested that an addition could be made to the correction, citing author A's published work. The journal should take some of the blame for not finding an acceptable solution for the publication of author A's original critique and perhaps issue an apology to that effect
The Editors are grateful for COPE's advice, which they followed. An addendum was published which (1) cited author A's published work and (2) expressed regret that the editors were unable to agree with author A on an acceptable solution for the publication of A's original critique in the journal.