A paper was published in a journal. After publication, an associate editor of the journal said that they and other colleagues should have been authors on the paper. They cited a patent they helped write that overlapped with the article as proof that they should be authors on the paper. The authors of the paper refuse to add the associate editor and colleagues as authors.
Unfortunately, the main institution where the research took place is a commercial laboratory, and the last author of the manuscript is the chief executive officer of this business. The last author has been clear that they do not agree to adding the complainants as authors. In fact, they have stated that they are going to sue the complainants for their allegations.
The journal has reached out to some of the other institutions listed on the manuscript to see if they would be willing to investigate, but there has been no reply after repeated attempts.
The journal does not have unequivocal evidence that the complainants should be coauthors. There is little direct overlap between the patent and the article in the text or figures. The authors of the article have denied that the patent co-inventors participated in the specific research presented in the article and stated that they were involved at a much earlier stage. Both sides are accusing the other side of providing false information, and the journal has no way of verifying this (eg, who conducted which experiments or provided blood samples).
The complainants continue to insist that the journal should handle this inhouse and that the patent they co-wrote and that overlaps with the article should be enough to determine authorship.
For the moment, no action has been taken. Given that the complainant is an associate editor, the journal would like to ensure that all actions have been considered.
Question for the Forum
- What further actions can the journal take to help resolve the situation?
The Forum asked if the patent holders were involved in the research. If the research involved the patented tool, and this was acknowledged in the paper, it seems unlikely that the patent holders should be listed as authors, unless they directly contributed to the paper.
It is up to the associate editor to demonstrate the overlap between the patent and the article, and therefore the journal should ask the associate editor for evidence of the overlap that would suggest contribution. The journal confirmed that they have contributorship and authorship policies and that authors write contributor statements. Solely being a patent holder would not usually meet the criteria for authorship of the journal. The Forum advised that the journal needs to adequately confirm the contributions of each author.
A suggestion was to allow the courts to decide on the issue of overlap and the patent—the editor is not in a position to make that judgement. Editors or editorial boards cannot adjudicate in these situations. COPE guidance would normally recommend contacting the institution and asking them to investigate, but as there is no institution involved here, the journal should escalate to a higher authority, such as the funding agency. Because the case involves an associate editor of the journal, asking a third party to investigate is important to avoid any perception of a conflict of interest within the journal.
The journal might consider publishing an expression of concern while a third party or outside body investigates the case. If the journal decides on this course of action, they should tell the authors that they plan to publish an expression of concern.