Approximately 1 year after publication of an article, we received a letter from one of the authors saying that they had not seen the reviews of the paper, the revisions of the paper or approved the final manuscript for publication. This was subsequently confirmed by the other authors who said that contact with the complainant had “broken down” and that the corresponding author had indicated that all named authors had given their approval for publication (then current journal practice) but in truth had not explicitly sought the approval of the complainant. An additional relevant fact is that one of the authors was editor-in-chief of the journal at the time the paper was processed. The complainant did not wish the paper to be withdrawn but wanted the opportunity to publish a correction or addendum following sight of the reviewers’ comments.
We understand that this matter has also been taken up by the employing institution of the co-authors (at which the complainant was previously an employee but has since left) but do not yet know of any outcome.
At the time, journal policy was for the corresponding author to sign an exclusive license form that stated “You hereby warrant that in the case of a multi-authored article you have obtained, in writing, authorisation to enter into this agreement on their behalf and that all co-authors have read and agreed the terms of this agreement”.
Following correspondence between the various parties the journal took the following actions:
1. Changed journal policy so that all authors sign an authorship declaration form, asserting that they meet the criteria for authorship (as outlined in the first half of the form) and that they have read and approved the final version of the manuscript for publication to avoid this situation arising in future.
We are now proposing to do the following:
2. Offer the complainant sight of the reviewers’ comments and the opportunity to publish an addendum or comment if they have points additional to those made in the paper.
3. Publish an apology by the authors for knowingly proceeding with publication without approval of the complainant. This apology explicitly acknowledges the role of the former editor-in-chief, as follows:
“The co-authors accept that these mechanisms were not adhered to in this case. The authors apologise to the complainant for not following journal procedures and publication best practice in the way that they submitted and subsequently handled this manuscript as it underwent the journal review process and upon its eventual acceptance. Furthermore, when this paper was processed one of the co-authors was editor-in-chief of the journal and apologises for knowingly departing from the journal procedures for which he was at the time responsible.”
The journal would like advice on whether our proposed response to this situation has been satisfactory. We assume that matters relating to professional conduct will be within the remit of the investigation by the employing institution of the co-authors.
The Forum were reassured that the paper had been dealt with blindly, and so there was no issue of misconduct on the part of the editor-in-chief. The Forum suggested that for online submissions, the editor should ensure that the email addresses of all authors are recorded. Some journals, including the BMJ, copy in all authors when contacting the corresponding author. Other suggestions were to ask all of the authors to sign the copyright form. This is usually done by the publishers and can be another assurance that all authors have seen the final version of the paper. As the institute is already aware of the situation, there is no point in contacting them. The Forum agreed that publication of the apology would be a sufficient reproach for the editor-in-chief.
After taking legal advice from the publisher’s and the association’s solicitors it was felt that the word “knowingly” might be interpreted as meaning “malicious” and that the following (see below) was more acceptable. This latter version has been agreed with the authors and Prof YYY. The solicitors noted that since it was an apology from the authors and Prof YYY it was important for them to be comfortable with the wording (initially suggested/drafted by me as current EiC). The apology is a personal one from the authors and Prof YYY and not the journal.
“At the time the journal had mechanisms, in particular the Exclusive License Form (ELF) signed by the corresponding author on behalf of all named authors on manuscript acceptance, that were intended to ensure both that scientific integrity is upheld as a manuscript undergoes the peer review process and to protect authors’ intellectual property rights. Dr XXX’s co-authors (AAA, BBB, CCC and DDD) accept that these mechanisms were not adhered to in this case. The authors apologise to Dr XXX for not following journal procedures and publication best practice in the way that they submitted and subsequently handled this manuscript as it underwent the journal review process and upon its eventual acceptance. Furthermore, when this paper was processed, Prof YYY was Editor-in-Chief of the journal. S/he apologises for departing from the journal procedures for which s/he was responsible at that time.”