We recently published article A by author group X on our website ahead of print publication and subsequently received a formal complaint from author group Y alleging that the paper constitutes a breach of their intellectual property rights.
Group Y state that the described work is based on a jointly developed concept, initially resulting in a joint report (published 2004). In their view, article A therefore contains their intellectual property, which is documented by frequent email exchanges, delivery of all relevant reagents and two visits by the senior author in group X to group Y's laboratory.
Group Y further state that there has been a previous unauthorised publication of a report that also contained their unacknowledged input (intellectual input and reagents), resulting in group Y prohibiting any further publication on the same topic by group X without their authorisation (!?).
In article A, the authors state that they used commercial reagents, although group Y allege that their reagents were available to group X at this time. Group Y are seeking what they perceive to be correct acknowledgement for their contribution, and there is an ongoing legal dispute, which they are threatening to expand to include article A unless a suitable solution is found.
We approached group Y to clarify if they thought they should be acknowledged on the paper, or even included as authors, but they did not answer, as they believe that group X should be asked to clarify their position.
We approached group X for their response to these allegations. Group X maintain that their collaboration with group Y was their idea, as an obvious extension to their previous clinical publications. Group Y are chemists and had not published on any clinical topic prior to the collaboration with group X. Group X state that the collaboration came to an end in 2006 when the senior collaborator in group Y demanded that either s/he should be named as the last author or one of the junior members of group Y named as first author on any manuscript resulting from the collaboration. Group X considered this to be unreasonable and continued their studies using commercial reagents.
The editors of the journal in question believe group X's response to be appropriate and complete, and find no grounds for taking group Y's complaint any further. The editors would like to proceed with print publication of article A.
Is proceeding with publication at this stage appropriate? The editors are concerned about the threat of legal proceedings, so should they therefore be more cautious in accepting one version of events above another—do they need to request “proof” and, if so, what would this proof consist of? The Forum’s advice on the next steps that they should take would be appreciated.
The Forum agreed that the paper should be considered published. It is irrelevant whether this is online or in print. Although one suggestion was to let group Y have their say, perhaps in a letter to the editor, others cautioned against this approach in the light of unresolved legal issues. If legal proceedings are threatened, the editor should withdraw from the dispute and not investigate the matter further. The response from group X could be shared with group Y only after explicit consent from group X. The advice of the Forum was to go ahead with the print publication of the paper but the editor should not get involved in correspondence between the two groups and should seek legal advice.
The Editor took COPE’s advice and no further action resulted. The editor considers the case now closed.