Case text (Anonymised)
In April 2014, our journal received a case report from author A with co-authors B, C, D and E. After undergoing a first round of revisions pertaining only to the paper’s format, author A excluded co-authors C, D, and E from the revised version and retained co-author B, without notifying the journal of this change. After this change, the manuscript underwent the complete evaluation process, comprising peer review and revisions by the authors. It was accepted for publication in July 2014.
During the evaluation process, author A included two new co-authors (authors F and G). The paper was published in November 2014 with author A and co-authors B, F and G. From the time of manuscript submission until publication, the excluded co-authors C, D and E did not contact the journal or send any requests or comments regarding their authorship.
In May 2015, 7 months after the case report was published, our journal received an email from a legal advocate acting on behalf of the excluded co-authors C, D and E, complaining about the attested authorship of the case report. Co-authors C, D and E claim that author A is not, in fact, the first author and assert that the correct authorship and co-authorship should include the excluded authors C, D and E as the principal authors.
We sent the complaint made by the excluded co-authors C, D, and E to author A (the corresponding author of the published version) allowing him the chance to answer all of the allegations made by the excluded co-authors. In his reply, he assured us that he was the principal author of the case report, as originally submitted, and that it has no element of plagiarism. He further assured our journal that he and the co-authors listed in the published version had written the manuscript and made all the corrections proposed by the reviewers. He stated, “We have never indulged or indulge in such silly misdoings and in order to keep the personal relationship amicable, we would like to withdraw the case report despite it being the product of hours of hard work on our part”.
Question(s) for the COPE Forum
- Although this case does not represent a clear reason for retraction (eg, redundant publication, plagiarism or clear evidence that the findings are unreliable), should we issue an expression of concern?
- Is it possible for our journal to retract the case report in order to avoid serious legal problems in the near future?
There may be a case for retraction of the paper based on plagiarism, if co-authors C, D, and E claim it was their work, and then the other authors have taken that work and published it as their own. So it could be seen as plagiarism of ideas. But the authorship issue would need to be resolved before taking this action.
However, given that the study seems to be sound, some argued that the paper should not be retracted. An expression of concern may be warranted, but again, as there are no issues with the content of the paper, it may not be necessary.
Has the journal gone back to the authors and asked them why this has happened? The editor could suggest that the authors look at the journal's authorship guidelines and determine who should be listed as an author. However, the Forum agreed that it is impossible for the editor to know exactly what is going on here, and so the journal needs to contact the institution and ask them to resolve this situation. It is not the editor’s role to sort out authorship disputes. Hence the Forum recommended contacting the authors' institutions in the first instance, before taking any action.
There seemed to a failure of the journal processes here and the Forum recommended that the journal should tighten their processes and make sure that their system for checking authorship at submission is more robust. This situation could have been avoided if the journal had been in contact with all of the authors, not just the corresponding author. The journal could request email addresses from all of the authors on submission of a paper, and copy all authors on all correspondence relating to the paper.
Although the journal checks for plagiarism and authorship at the submission step, they have made their processes more robust to avoid future problems. The editor-in-chief sent several messages to the corresponding author and co-authors asking them to find agreement regarding authorship, based on the journal´s authorship guidelines. Unfortunately, no response has been received. The editorial board of the journal decided to give the authors another 2 months to respond. If no response is received, and considering the corresponding author already asked for retraction, the case report will be retracted.
Follow up November 2015
The authors did not answer questions from the journal regarding authorship of their case report. The editor has not retracted the paper and considers the case now closed.