Authorship issues from disbanded consortium
Case text (Anonymised)
A manuscript was submitted to one of our journals in a special issue. The initial submission included 15 authors with 9 affiliations. The authors were part of a consortium which has now been disbanded. The manuscript was provisionally accepted for publication.
At this point, three of the authors requested to be removed from the author list, citing irreconcilable differences with the corresponding author. When queried, the authors agreed that they qualified for authorship (as per the ICMJE criteria). One of them informed the publisher that three junior members of his research group also qualified for authorship but had never been included in the author list. When contacted, these junior three researchers requested to be included as authors.
The manuscript's publication was put on hold during these checks. The corresponding author was unhappy at the delay in publication. They denigrated and questioned the integrity of the institution where these researchers were based and claimed that one of three authors was involved in perverting peer review in another, named, journal (not related to the publisher). The corresponding author made it clear that they would refuse to accept any recommendations from the three junior researchers' institution if they were to become involved. The corresponding author also insisted that the three removed authors be included in the acknowledgements. The three removed authors explicitly stated that they did not want their names included anywhere on the paper.
The publisher notified the corresponding author that the ICMJE guidelines recommend receiving explicit written consent from anyone included on acknowledgements. The publisher also continued to clarify the situation with the three junior researchers, informing them that such cases should be taken to their institution. As the publication was still on hold, the corresponding author threatened legal action and full media coverage for alleged censorship and unethical behaviour. A journalist for an international newspaper was copied into these threats.
The publisher took the following actions:
- Removed the three authors from author list, as per their request.
- Asked all 12 remaining authors to sign an authorship form re-attesting to the authorship (the publisher's online submission system notifies all authors of manuscript submission).
- Included the three removed authors' names in the body of the article where a summary of the consortium's meeting and attendees was noted.
- Informed the three junior researchers that the publisher would consider a corrigendum changing authorship if they could prove qualification for authorship, according to ICMJE guidelines.
- Proceeded with publication.
Question(s) for the COPE Forum
• Should the publisher have held publication of the article until the findings of the junior researchers provided a report?
• If this issue did become a media concern, how much of the above summary should the publisher publicly divulge, if anything?
The general advice from COPE is that journals should always hold off publication of a paper until an authorship issue is resolved. That is what COPE recommends and this advice is outlined in the COPE flowcharts. It is not up to the journal to decide who qualifies for authorship. The Forum agreed that the only option for the journal was to stall publication while the authorship issue was resolved and hence the criticism of the journal for this is unfair.
The Forum noted the importance of the institution and that the editor might still consider contacting them, even if the authors say they will not abide by the findings. The institution can also play their part in terms of educating the three junior researchers. It would be best if the institution, rather than the journal, made the decision to publish a corrigendum in relation to the junior researchers if it is proved that they qualify for authorship, according to ICMJE guidelines. The Forum advised waiting for the institution to provide this proof.
The key issue is to provide transparency. The editor might like to consider publishing an editorial on this issue, laying out all the facts.
A similar case was brought to the Forum previously, involving an author attempting to prevent co-authors from getting their work published (see Author disagreement blocks submission https://publicationethics.org/case/author-disagreement-blocks-submission)