The editorial office was contacted by someone who indicated that s/he has been working with a medical communications company on several manuscripts and has become concerned about the minimal extent of the authors’ contributions to manuscripts handled by the company. The work requested by the company goes beyond language editing, and involves developing parts of manuscripts into narrative on the basis of an outline, and also the addition of references. Based on responses from authors, our contact was also concerned about authors’ level of understanding of the work and study design being reported in the manuscript. Our contact has been asked to respond to reviewers’ comments on behalf of authors.
We asked for details of the manuscripts this person worked on; one is currently under consideration by the journal. On submission, the authors declared language editing assistance by this company, but not developmental editing. The cover letter included several inaccuracies about the work reported in the manuscript. After being queried about these errors, the authors acknowledged that they followed a template for the cover letter provided by the company and that it was their first time writing a paper of this type.
Our contact has been willing to work with us on the basis that we will maintain anonymity. We feel that there are sufficient concerns about the contributions to the manuscript that we should confront the authors about this point—however, this will reveal that we have had interactions with the person involved in the editing.
Question(s) for the COPE Forum
- Should we proceed to contact the authors regarding the contributions to the manuscript?
- What is our duty towards the person who raised the concerns to our attention?
- Are there any steps that we can take to identify this type of situation in the future?
The Forum suggested there were two separate issues here—dealing with the author and dealing with the medical writer. Is the medical writer a member of any professional organization, such as the American Medical Writers Association (AMWA), the European equivalent (EMWA) or the International Society for Medical Publication Professionals (ISMPP). If so, these organizations usually have a code of conduct that should be followed, so this is an area that the editor could look into.
The Forum suggested that the editor needs more clarification from the author. As there is some discrepancy in the author knowledge of the paper, this could be a way in for the editor to approach the author for more information while preserving the anonymity of the whistleblower. The editor needs to obtain evidence without disclosing the whistleblower.
One suggestion put forward was for the editor to check the properties of the original paper and see who authored it. This can sometimes reveal any discrepancies, although the Forum advised that in-depth investigations are beyond the remit of the editor.
As this is a clear case of ghost writing, the Forum suggested that the editor has an obligation beyond rejecting the manuscript, and that the editor should report the case to the institution and ask them to investigate.
On a show of hands, the Forum were unanimous in COPE discussing the role of the medical writer further, perhaps as a topic for a Forum discussion in the future. We need more clarity on the role of the medical writer in relation to authorship, and their relation to the author.
The journal followed-up with the authors and stated that the editors had reasons to believe that there had been substantial input into the editing and preparation of the manuscript beyond that declared in the authors’ contributions. The editor requested comments on this and a copy of the original rough document the authors had submitted to the medical communications company. The authors indicated that they only requested input from the company after completing the rough draft, but they submitted a file that did not list as author any of the authors on the manuscript—in fact, the name listed as author on the file was that of the freelancer.
The editors decided to reject the manuscript, indicating to the authors that concerns remained as to whether the work was designed and written by the authors to an acceptable extent. The journal plans to raise the case to the attention of the authors’ institution.
UPDATE (March 2015)
The journal reported the concerns to the authors’ institution, as previously outlined. They have so far not received a response from the institution. The journal is looking into ways to identify this type of issue in a more systematic manner, but in terms of this specific manuscript, the editor considers the case closed.