Dr R submitted a paper to our journal and has since expressed unhappiness about the way in which our journal has dealt with the issue.
The manuscript was submitted to our journal according to the usual accepted procedures. Our journal requires that only a single author (the corresponding author) sign the copyright assignment form (on behalf of all the authors). We require that the author also affirms that all authors have seen and agreed to the submitted manuscript. Dr R was the corresponding author for this paper and she provided the requested assurances.
The paper was reviewed, revised and accepted without any unusual comment. It was published online and was scheduled for print publication. We received a protest letter from Dr M in July (several months after online publication) claiming that he was not consulted about the paper and did not want to be a coauthor. We then removed the article from our website and from the upcoming print issue, pending resolution of the protest.
We wrote to the corresponding author (Dr R) asking for an explanation, which she provided. The gist of the explanation was that Dr M objected to publication as a means of retribution, for her spurning his romantic advances. According to the appendix provided by Dr R, there was no communication between her and Dr M at the time of manuscript submission (because of the split caused by this personal issue). Dr R therefore relied entirely on Dr V (who was her Head of Department) for her determining that Dr M was happy with the submission (assurance that was apparently provided by Dr V).
We have requested a confirmatory letter from Dr V (Dr R’s advisor—the senior member of the authorship team). Dr V has responded with a letter indicating the scientific excellence of Dr R’s work but not clearly addressing the issue of whether Dr M did indeed see and approve the submitted manuscript. Dr M has written to reiterate his objection, and to clarify that he opposes publication per se. Dr R wrote again indicating her unhappiness with the way this issue was being handled by our journal.
What does COPE advise?
The advice from the Forum was that the editor should act as if the paper has been published, as it was published online. Hence the first thing the editor must do is reinstate the paper on the website, as taking it down amounts to retraction, and there are no grounds for retraction of this paper. The editor needs to decide if there is anything wrong with the data of the study. What are the objections of Dr M? Are they justified? The editor could suggest to the authors that he publish a correction with the correct list of authors. If all of the authors do not agree, then the editor should contact the institution and ask them to investigate the case and decide whether there are grounds for retraction.
Another suggestion was to contact Dr M and ask him if he wished to submit a letter to the journal for publication stating his objections to the paper. This would give him an opportunity to have his comments aired.
The Forum suggested that in the future, and to avoid similar cases, the journal should request that all authors, and not just the corresponding author, sign the copyright forms, and the journal should communicate with all of the authors at some stage.
The Forum does not recommend imposing sanctions on authors because of the risk of litigation.
After hearing the opinions of the COPE Forum, we determined to proceed with publication of the paper in question. We first wrote to the one unhappy author, telling him that we were going ahead with publication but asking him if he wanted to have his name removed from the paper. We did not hear back from him and have proceeded with publication of the initial manuscript.