Authorship dispute

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Case text (Anonymised)

A manuscript was published in journal X, submitted by several co-authors, including one of the editors in chief of journal X, Dr A (the article was handled by another editor in chief at the journal). Another researcher, Dr B, has claimed that this article should be withdrawn because it contains unauthorized data from him (Dr B).

A few years previously, Drs A and B worked and published jointly, but at some point there appeared to be a divergence in points of view on the interpretation of results (obtained in a large part by Dr B and his team) in a manuscript co-written by both Drs A and B (and the teams of both Drs A and B). Dr A decided that Dr B and his team must agree to the publication of the manuscript or they would be removed from the co-author list. The paper was then submitted as an appendix in an internal report for their funding agency.

Later, a similar paper was published by Dr A and his team (only) with similar content to the previous disputed paper in journal X. Dr B and his team are acknowledged in the text but have not been asked or listed as co-authors. The paper contains the results from Dr B’s team, very important results, that people now refer to as from Dr A’s team.

Dr B thinks this is a violation of the rules of good scientific practice and has asked advice from a third independent party. The third party recognized the violation of the rules of good scientific practice and suggested publishing an erratum. Dr B refuses to agree to an erratum because his team do not necessarily wish to be co-authors, as they disagree with the interpretation. Dr B wishes to have this published article withdrawn.

What should the editor of journal X do?


The Forum agreed that the current paper cannot stand in its present form—some form of correction of the literature needs to be done. It is clear that the data are the intellectual property of Dr B, but this is essentially an authorship dispute, and it is up to the authors to resolve it. Although the results of the paper are not in dispute, the editor could decide to retract the paper and tell the authors that they must resolve their dispute themselves. So the editor could present the issues to both authors and tell them that some form of drastic action might happen if they cannot resolve the issue and ask them to find an independent arbitrator whose decision they agree to abide by. As a third party is already involved, would both authors agree to abide by the decision of this third party, given that it was author B who asked for advice from this third party? A better solution might be for the authors to agree on another independent party who could arbitrate on the case.

But if the authors cannot come to any agreement, the editor could suggest that author B is allowed to write a letter or article explaining his interpretation of the results.

One other suggestion was to have a revised paper, with all of the authors listed, and with two separate discussions. The readers could then make up their mind which interpretation they preferred. However, the original paper would have to be retracted.

The majority agreed that the best way forward was to present the issues to both parties and tell them the journal is prepared to retract the article unless the authors can resolve the case.

Follow up: 

The editor had further communications with Dr B. The editor again explained that it was not the journal’s decision to make but was up to Dr B, his employer and the authors to sort out. The editor has now stopped corresponding with Dr B.

Case Closed


  • Posted by Anonymous, 18/3/2014 6.32pm

Very strange outcome in this story ...
If the manuscript was co-written then both the authors have equal rights to publish it independent form each other. Or am i'm missing something??

  • Posted by Anonymous, 13/3/2015 5.53pm

I also fund the outcome surprising... why the editor stopped corresponding with Dr. B if "the current paper cannot stand in its present form—some form of correction of the literature needs to be done"?

  • Posted by comment , 17/3/2015 4.16pm

I am surprised the editor would consider going forward with this as a serious publication. All authors must be in agreement, and we can't start claiming data that does not belong to us. It is a huge effort to design strategies for data collection, get funding, find participants/specimens, and collect and manage data. That must be respected and considered part of the dessimination effort. I agree with editorial decision as I interpreted it.

  • Posted by NN, 18/3/2015 6.19am

Very strange outcome in this story ...
The Editors published a manuscript. One Editor being a coauthor! Subsequently the Editors were informed about the wrongdoing.
Instead of retracting the paper, the Editors pose innocent and do nothing. Except tell the “whistleblower” to sort out the matter elsewhere. “The editor has now stopped corresponding with Dr B.”.
The paper should have been withdrawn immediately.
And the Editor print an apology to Dr. B & team.

  • Posted by Snowedunder, 18/3/2015 2.06pm

Very scary story. Dr. A stole the results from Dr. B and published the data as coming from his/her lab. Dr. A should be put in jail. This is simple theft of intellectual property.