In early 2012, author A submitted a paper reporting on the gene mutated in a rare syndrome seen in a specific population. The paper was citing an earlier (2006) report by author B that had mapped the disease locus to a narrow chromosomal location but had stopped short of actually identifying the gene (which would have been laborious by the technology available at the time).
Author A’s submission independently replicated the mapping data of the earlier paper and proceeded to identify the gene by exome sequencing, a technology that had become widely available since the publication of the mapping paper in 2006. Since the mapping was independently replicated, the methodology used would have been sufficient to identify the gene whether any prior knowledge was available or not.
Author A requested that the editor exclude author B as well as author C (another researcher from a different institution) as reviewers. Because the earlier paper made it clear that author B was a competitor, and external referee expertise was readily available elsewhere, the request was granted. After some minor revisions, the paper was accepted for publication in the journal. On the day of acceptance (the timing being pure coincidence), two papers by authors B and C were published online in a different journal, reporting the same gene discovery, plus some functional data about the gene.
Author A’s paper appeared a month later and, shortly thereafter, the editor received an email from author B, requesting that author A’s paper be retracted. It was alleged that the work reported by author A had inappropriately used information, given to him confidentially by author B, in 2009. The information consisted of disclosing the identity of the mutated gene that author B had already discovered at the time but was not publishing, waiting for the functional studies to be completed. Author B alleges that the information had been confidentially given to author A at a closed meeting, to help in the clinical management and genetic counselling of the patients. No non-disclosure agreement or similar document was signed. It was also alleged that author A’s group included in their study three of the patients that they knew were already studied by author B.
The confidential nature of the meeting, attended by several physicians and researchers, is in dispute. Author A, in response to a request by the editor, said that the meeting was open to all but could not provide any copy of a public announcement. Author A learned about the meeting from a private email (from one of the attendees, not directly from author B). The email, a copy of which was provided to the editor, does not mention confidentiality but may be interpreted as an invitation to collaborate. Author B and his collaborators say that the meeting was by invitation only and the confidential nature of its content was made obvious. The clinician collaborators of author B did not respond to repeated requests by the editor to identify the three overlapping patients by their pedigree IDs in each of the two papers.
In his response to a query by the editor, author A stated that in 2006 (and, therefore, prior to the 2009 meeting), he had obtained funding to identify the gene. One fact is clear: in 2011, knowledge of the mutated gene was not necessary to perform the work reported by author A. The work reported by author A addresses the question “from scratch” using hypothesis-free methodologies and requires no prior knowledge.
The editor believes that, although the behaviour of author A may not have been the most collaborative and collegial, no misconduct justifying retraction of the paper has been committed.
The opinion of COPE would be highly valued in resolving this matter.
The Forum agreed that as the paper is scientifically sound, there are no grounds for retraction. It is important not to retract a paper where the data are not in question. Although author A may not have behaved well, there has been no misconduct. If the paper could have been written without the information gained from attending the meeting, then the complainant has no grounds for complaint.
The Forum suggested that the editor should invite author B to write a letter to the editor for publication in the journal. The readers will then be alerted to the issue and author A will have the opportunity to respond. The editor may wish to tell the authors that he has sought the advice of COPE.
The editor communicated the advice from the Forum to both authors. Author B and his co-authors decided not to write a letter on the matter.