Authorship issue

Case number:

Case text (Anonymised)

The editors of a scientific journal were sent a letter of complaint from Drs A and B who noticed that a paper had been published online ahead of the print edition authored by Dr C.

Their primary complaint was that they were not included in the authorship and should have been. Other points made in their (rather confusing letters) were that: they had contributed to the paper in the sense that Dr C had used a clinical database which Drs A and B had created and which was at the heart of the research; they had previously asked Dr C to wait before publishing the paper until they had published another paper on a related issue (the “mother paper” on methodology, but this had been delayed by a number of years due to sickness); and Dr A had been the line manager of Dr C (although Dr A has now left the institution). Dr A held the IRB. Dr A had instructed Dr C not to publish until the mother paper was completed.

Dr C was asked by the editors to comment on these points, and he responded by saying that: the intellectual contribution from Drs A and B was minimal; he (Dr C) had added the relevant addendum to the IRB myself; Drs A and B had threatened to ruin his career if he did publish; Drs A and B were preventing publication of the paper by insisting that the mother paper be published first, and yet showed no signs of completing this mother paper; and Drs A and B had now left the institute and the database belongs to the institute. The institute research director (Dr D) knew about the issue and sympathised with Dr C. Dr C was still working at the institute.

The editors felt that it was clear that relationships between Drs A and B and Dr C were poor, and a number of subsidiary points had been made in the letters. However, the journal considered that the issue revolved essentially around whether or not Drs A and B met the criteria for authorship.

The journal website clearly states that the journal follows the guidelines of the International Committee of Medical Journal Editors regarding criteria for authorship.

The journal took the following course of action

(a) The editors wrote to Drs A, B and C and asked first that all three liaise with each other to see if they could come to a consensual agreement about authorship.  No agreement was reached.

(b) The editors then wrote to Dr D, the new research director of the institute, and ascertained that the database did indeed belong to the institute. Dr D was asked, as research director, whether he would be prepared to adjudicate on the issue if necessary and he agreed in principle to do so.

(c)   The editors then wrote to Drs A, B and C explaining the dispute as they saw it. They stated that they understood that Drs A, B and C believe that they should have been included as co-authors on this paper. That is, they believe that they made substantive intellectual contributions to Dr C’s research study.  As authors, they would need to approve the submission of the manuscript to the journal. The editors emphasised their journal’s adherence to the guidelines of the International Committee of Medical Journal Editors regarding criteria for authorship, which are contained in the Instructions for Authors. The guidelines state that the author list should include those individuals who have made substantial intellectual/conceptual contributions to the work. Such contributions involve participation in: (a) experimental design, data acquisition, and analysis and interpretation of data; (b) drafting and/or critically revising the article with respect to intellectual content; and (c) final approval of the manuscript version to be published.  

The editors of the journal told the authors that they would adopt the following procedures in resolving this issue:

(1) Given the guidelines above, the editors hoped that the authors might reach an agreement among themselves as to the appropriateness of co-authorship for Drs A and B.  Such an agreement would be the best option for resolution. The authors were given a deadline of two weeks to resolve their disagreement on their own, and to inform the journal of the agreement reached.

(2) The editors informed that authors that if an agreement could not be reached on their own, the journal would like to seek mediation from a third party. The editors proposed asking Dr D to make a decision about authorship on the paper in question but noted that  all three authors would need to agree to this process, and to abide by Dr D’s  determination.  Again, the authors were asked to inform the editors of their decision within two weeks (assuming option 1 was not possible).

(3) The authors were told that if they could not reach agreement among themselves, and did not accept the alternative proposal, the journal reserves the right to make the determination itself, from the input provided in the authors’ letters and after discussion with Dr D. The authors were told that the journal would proceed with this third option if any one of the authors informs the journal that neither option 1 nor option 2 is acceptable, or if a response was not received within two weeks.

The issue is ongoing. The editors would be interested in COPE’s view on this dispute and the suggested remedial actions. The editors would be interested to know COPE’s advice in relation to this dispute and how COPE would have attempted to resolve the issue.


Members of the Forum congratulated the editors on their excellent handling of this case. The steps taken by the editors were applauded by the Forum, although the deadline of 2 weeks was thought to be a little strict and perhaps 4 weeks might have been more reasonable. Also, it was felt that the editors should not make the final decision themselves as it is not the job of editors to adjudicate in such matters. In the event that the case cannot be resolved, the advice was to publish the letters from both parties with a statement from the editors.

At the meeting, the following update was provided by the editors. The case has now been resolved. Dr C has agreed to add Drs A and B to the paper. The editors removed the original paper (with 1 author) from the website. An abstract had been published previously on the website with the names of the 3 authors. The editors are planning on publishing the new paper which will have the names of all 3 authors.

Members of the Forum were a little dismayed that the original paper had been removed from the website, especially as the abstract had already been published. When the new paper is published, the advice was to add a note from the editors, as the paper will have two DOI numbers. The editors were also advised to contact PubMed in relation to the fact that there are two DOI numbers for the same paper. The Forum also cautioned that the editors should ensure that Drs A and B sign the author forms before the new paper is published.