A paper submitted to an international medical journal was reviewed externally and the authors were subsequently invited to submit a revised version. The initial submission included authors from two different research institutions and one author from a corporate sponsor. The initial submission was accompanied by an appropriate description of the individual authors’ contributions, a negative conflict of interest statement, and an appropriate acknowledgement section. When the revised manuscript was submitted, the covering letter stated that to comply with the requested revisions and with the International Committee of Medical Journal Editors’ definition of authorship, the list of authors had been amended, but that this amendment could be renegotiated if the editorial team considered that necessary. The amendment involved the removal of all the authors from the second of the two research institutions, leaving the authors (a husband and wife) from the first research institution and the funder. The second research institution was now only mentioned in the acknowledgement section. The conflict of interest declaration had also been changed in the revision, stating that the remaining authors had filed a patent application for the technique described in the manuscript. The paper was subsequently re-reviewed internally and externally and a further revision of the manuscript was invited and submitted accordingly. The final version of the paper was accepted for publication. At proof stage, the senior author from the second research institution contacted the journal to enquire about the progress of the manuscript. During the course of this discussion it became clear that neither he nor his colleagues were aware that they were no longer authors, nor that the paper had been accepted for publication. On their instigation an investigation was initiated by the appropriate authority at the first research institution, and subsequently by the federal government, because the second research institution had received government funding for the project. On discovering the authorship dispute, the journal cancelled the planned publication and informed the corresponding author that the authorship dispute would have to be resolved before publication could be considered. The remaining authors at the time of acceptance initially refused to cooperate with the investigation and formally withdrew the manuscript. They also requested that the journal should not communicate with the authors who had been removed and should not provide a copy of the revised manuscript to any external party. The journal cooperated with the investigations and released information on the paper despite this request.
- The journal had been correct to cooperate with the institutional investigations despite the authors’ objections. This was an example of the public interest overriding the duty of confidentiality between editor and author. - Usually institutions have significant rights over work done internally. - Some journals write to “removed” authors to double check that they have agreed to this. - Major changes in authorship, including priority of authorship, should prompt journals to question authors further.