A paper was submitted to a medical journal reporting original research on human subjects. Two corresponding authors, author A (first in authors’ list) and author B (last in the list) were listed. The paper was sent to external referees but while it was under review, the editor received an email from author A stating that s/he had not read the paper, was not aware of the submission and did not agree with the submission. Author A did not provide any specifics of the disagreement.
The editor immediately contacted author B, who admitted that s/he had submitted the paper after many failed attempts to contact author A. The authors performed the work in the same institution but author A had left the institution prior to the submission and his/her current address/institution was unknown to author B.
The editor immediately contacted the external referees asking them to halt the reviewing process, pending resolution of the conflict. On the editor’s request, author B asked the leadership of the institution to contact author A in order to get input that would allow the submission to proceed but author B informed the editor that no response had been received after 2 months. The editor was also informed that author A had taken legal action against the institution over an unrelated matter, and author B suspected that the refusal to authorize the submission was being used as a weapon in that dispute.
The editor further suggested contacting the leadership of author A’s new institution. However, neither author B nor the institution leadership are aware of author A’s current employment. A web search by the editor found several entries on author A, none of which was indicative of a current academic position. Author A’s email to the editor was from a non-institutional provider (gmail).
The paper reports important work, in which human subjects volunteered to participate. It would, therefore, be very unfortunate for it not to be published.
Question(s) for the COPE Forum
• Is there anything more than the editor can do?
• Should the editor contact author A directly?
• Would it be possible to publish the paper against author A’s objections if author A refuses to provide a scientific basis for his/her objection after a reasonable attempt has been made to obtain it?
The Forum advised contacting the institution directly, rather than relying on author B to liaise between the journal and the institution. COPE advice would normally be that author disputes should be resolved by the institution. In addition, the Forum advised that the editor should consider contacting author A directly, and asking for his explanation of the events. The Forum advised against publishing the paper in the absence of author A’s agreement, unless the authorship issue is resolved by the institution. There may also be legal issues to consider if the editor were to go ahead and publish, as author A may have issues related to their intellectual property.
Papers are sometimes held hostage by authors and COPE’s advice would always be to ask the institution to resolve the issue. However, sometimes the editor has to make a judgement call. One way forward, if the editor really wants to publish the paper, is to have a clear statement on the published paper, explaining the circumstances around the paper, acknowledging there was a problem and explaining the issues.
Following the advice from the Forum, the editor contacted the disputing author and convinced her to participate in the publication. She promptly provided her feedback on the manuscript, which was submitted. It is now in revision for the journal.