A paper was accepted in 2012 but there was a lengthy disagreement between the four authors regarding the order of authorship. The authors were advised that the paper would not be published unless all authors could sign a written agreement on the order of authorship and copyright form.
An agreement was received in 2015 that specified the order of authorship and named one of the authors as “the final corresponding author to see the paper through the rest of the process for the paper’s publication”. At the end of the agreement it was stated, “Please address any correspondence to all authors."
Subsequently, the corresponding author attempted to make ‘minor’ changes and another author, author B, rescinded his acceptance of the agreement. The corresponding author later agreed not to make changes at that time and author B stated the terms of the agreement could stand.
During the production process, the proofs were sent to the corresponding author. Changes were made during the proofing stage which author B has subsequently disputed. The corresponding author stated that all authors (including author B) were given multiple opportunities to provide specific changes and comments on the changes that other co-authors suggested.
The paper was published on early view later in the year. In 2016, author B requested retraction of the paper immediately, alleging that the agreement was voided by the changes made during proofing. The paper is still on early view and has not been included in a print issue.
The journal has corresponded with all four authors and advised them that they need to agree on the final version of the article or the journal will be forced to retract the paper because of irreconcilable differences among the authors. The correspondence has not produced any agreement so date and the authors have individually raised the prospect of litigation.
Question(s) for the COPE Forum
• On balance, would the Forum agree that an ethical choice in this difficult situation would be a decision to retract with an option to resubmit with a new author byline?
• What other options or advice would the Forum suggest?
The Forum advised referring this to the institution, and asking the institution to verify who should be authors on the paper and what the authorship order should be. It is not up to the editor or journal to investigate this issue. As three of the authors are based at one institution, it would be reasonable to ask the institution to mediate in this situation.
There may be copyright issues, if the dissenting author no longer agrees with the content of the article, as all authors have joint copyright. Again, the institution needs to resolve this—this cannot be decided by the editor.
One view was to tell the authors that unless they sort out their differences their manuscript will be retracted. However, another view was that if there are no scientific concerns with the paper, it would be difficult to make a case for retraction. If the journal is confident that the data are valid, then there are no grounds for retraction, but an Expression of Concern could be published stating the concerns of all of the authors. Another suggestion was to issue a correction notice stating which authors support and which authors do not support the current version of the paper, thereby avoiding having to retract the paper in what is essentially an authorship dispute.
Does the journal ask for contributorship statements from the authors? This may clarify the issues around authorship.
Authorship order is a common problem and the issue of who should be listed in what order differs by discipline. There can also be cultural differences as well as different practices in different countries. Hence it can be difficult for authors to navigate.
The journal has reached agreement in principle with the authors on a revised author order and statement regarding the research, but to date, only one author has returned the sign off sheet. The journal is hopeful to receive the rest shortly.