A paper was accepted, pending a revised version, which made use of official government information on reported health reactions in a particular age group over a 20 year period. Two of the authors were academics and two worked for the government’s health department. When the revision arrived, the names of the latter two authors were missing. One of them explained that they could not reach agreement with the first two authors on the revision, which seemed odd as they had presumably agreed the original version and the subsequent changes were minor. The lead author said that publication of the revision could lead to a major public health scare as the wording of the conclusions was very likely to mislead the media into ascribing causation to what was actually association. The dissidents were invited to write a commentary detailing their objections. The lead author agreed, but subsequently, a high ranking official telephoned the editor, pointing out the health department’s concerns. The official assured the editor that s/he had no intention of suppressing research, but asked the editor to consider the possible implications for the public interest. The official did not want the juniors to write the commentary. The academics’ head of department button holed the editor at a scientific meeting and explained that s/he was also concerned over the risks of misinterpretation but could not intervene because s/he had a conflict of interest, being a member of the government’s regulatory body controlling the database used in the study. Consequently the head of department had asked the vice chancellor, who luckily had a relevant qualification in the area, to intervene instead. The editor was informed that the senior author might have contacted a politician, requesting a parliamentary question be raised, if the data were suppressed, although this has not been confirmed. The chairman of the regulatory body then contacted the editor, also expressing support for academic freedom, but urging great caution. The editor believed the real message was that the database concerned was an inadequate method of determining safety in the area it purported to cover, rather than the stated message, which was that certain adverse reactions had caused deaths. Concerned that the pressure exerted had tainted his judgement, the editor sought the advice of an independent reviewer, who largely agreed with him. The editor then discussed the whole issue with the authors and suggested ways to rewrite the paper, such that the data were protected, but also that the public interest was best served. Not surprisingly, the authors had been put under pressure, but agreed to consider the editor’s suggestions in a further revision. The editor wrote a commentary to accompany the article, which was directed at the media. Despite the anxieties of the authors’ superiors, the paper attracted little media attention. The editor felt largely untouchable, because he is not a health service employee, but other editors who are might find similar pressure difficult to deal with.
_ If junior authors could not publish without the consent of their superiors, this raises the matter of authorship, whereby some of the authors are not acknowledged for their work, whether for credit or accountability to the readers. _ The work itself might be regarded differently because the source of the information would not be clear. In some ways this was analogous to pharmaceutical trials being withdrawn if the results were unfavourable. _ “Disappearing authors” are a frequent occurrence and the work of those who contributed significantly, for example, statisticians, is often left out. _ Ultimately, the editor can refuse to publish a piece where authorship issues arise.
No further action taken.