Authorship dispute

Case number:
10-27

Case text (Anonymised)

Professor X claims that he should have been a coauthor on one of two peer reviewed publications and the senior author on the other. The situation is unusual in that Professor X is now retired and his name was omitted from coauthorship of both papers. Professor X argues that he should have been the senior author of the first manuscript since the funds to initiate the project were directly derived from a grant awarded to him.

Professor Y does not dispute this assertion but argues that the direction of the project and the data generated for the paper do not reflect the work proposed in the original grant and that Professor X made no contribution to the final product. Professor X claims that the second publication arose from his initial contact with Professor Z, the eventual senior author on the second publication, and from his proposal for a collaboration. Again, Professor Y argues that Professor X had made no contribution to the final manuscript. There appears to be personal animus between Professor X and Y which complicated resolution.

In telephone conversations with Professor Z, I learned that Professor X had been included as a coauthor until the final version, at which time he was excluded from authorship. Professor Z did know this action had been taken, apparently by Professor Y, but did not question it.

The final resolution involved compromise on both sides, and neither party was happy with my final decision. The resolution involved a corrigendum stating:

“This corrigendum is to note that Dr X should have been acknowledged as an author on the paper entitled, ‘XXXX’ for having contributed to the initiation of the program. Dr X should also be acknowledged as an author on the paper entitled, ‘YYYY’ for his participation and contributions in the early stages of this project.”

Although this issue has been resolved, it took an inordinate amount of my time as editor, requiring multiple emails, telephone calls and involvement of the provost of the institution in which the two investigators worked. The question is whether, for future reference, there is an alternative approach that is equally equitable and effectively more time efficient.

Advice: 

Although this case has been resolved, the editor told the Forum that he would like to know what to do in the future if a similar case arose. In the case of authorship disputes, it is almost impossible for the editor to adjudicate and this matter should be investigated by the author’s institution. Alternatively, the editor could ask the authors to choose an independent arbiter who they both accept and whose decision they agree to abide by: this could be the head of the institution. The Forum warned that if a journal publishes a paper with a known authorship dispute, it can put the journal at risk of litigation

The Forum also suggested that the editor put processes in place that would prevent this from happening in the future. The journal could publish contributorship statements so that there is no confusion as to the contributions of each author. The instructions to authors should make clear that the journal expects authors to follow the ICJME criteria for authorship. In addition, the journal could also require that authors state that they have contacted any person who has been acknowledged on their paper and that those acknowledged have given their permission for inclusion.

Year: