Prior to publication, our journal requires coauthors to respond to an email to confirm their authorship status and the author list. A coauthor did not respond to these emails, and when we contacted the corresponding author for help, s/he told us that his/her attempts to reach the coauthor have failed, and that s/he believed the coauthor was attempting to hold the paper hostage.
According to the corresponding author, the coauthor was fired from their institution (which is in a different country than the journal) for ethical lapses, and was now extremely upset and was suing the institution. The corresponding author believed that the coauthor was deliberately ignoring the confirmation requests in order to punish the corresponding author.
Although in general we believe that authors have to resolve their own authorship disputes (involving the institution if need be), we felt this case was different because it did not appear to be a case of disputing who should/should not be an author, or a situation in which a coauthor objected to some aspect of the paper. Instead, if the corresponding author is to be believed, it is simply a disruptive manoeuvre that twists the journal's ethics safeguards (intended to prevent ghost/honorary authorship) into a weapon.
We decided that it was reasonable for the journal to expect a coauthor to perform the straightforward task of confirming coauthorship, and that if that individual did not do so (for reasons of malice or not), they would forfeit coauthorship. We sent an email to the recalcitrant coauthor (we did not have a postal address because the institution had requested this individual be deported), copying in the other authors, detailing the many attempts to reach him/her, and explaining that if we did not hear back from him/her within 6 weeks from the date of acceptance we would proceed with publication without his/her name listed as an author.
Normally of course our policies require that someone who does not meet the standard of authorship is named in the acknowledgements. However, because we also require anyone named in the acknowledgements to give their permission for this, we decided that if this person did not respond, we would ask the authors to acknowledge the person's involvement by referring to their job title—for example, “The authors acknowledge the assistance of a medical student in the early phases of this study”. (The phrasing is a little awkward but we felt it was important to include it. If it later came to light that there was evidence of misconduct in the study, we felt it needed to be clear from the outset that there was someone else involved in the work.)
Fortunately, in this case, the first author was eventually able to convince the non-responding author to confirm coauthorship, so we did not have to carry through our threat. However, we want to be prepared in case a similar situation arises again, and so we are considering updating our information for authors to include a policy of forfeiting coauthorship after a 6 week period has elapsed without response.
Question(s) for the COPE Forum
- What is COPE's view of our proposed policy of requiring coauthors to respond or forfeit their coauthorship status?
- If it is not appropriate, should we have refused to proceed with publication until the authors resolved the issue?
- If the authors' institution had stepped in and ruled on how the dispute should be resolved, should we have accepted their ruling, despite their being a party to a lawsuit?
- If the forfeiture process is considered appropriate, may we still retain our policy that an author who dies may be named as a coauthor if the corresponding author attests that to the best of his/her knowledge, the deceased individual met the definition of authorship up to the point of death, and all the authors agree?
- What about an incapacitated author (we have a manuscript working its way to acceptance where a coauthor is in a coma)?
The general feeling from the Forum was that the journal does not have the right to deny authorship. Hence the Forum would not agree with the policy of forfeiting coauthorship status imposed by a journal. Exercising the right to remove an author is not within a journal’s jurisdiction. However, others argued that if it is journal policy that coauthors must confirm their status as an author, then technically they are not an author until they have confirmed their contribution.
The case of deceased or incapacitated authors is more straightforward and the Forum would suggest a statement from the corresponding author attesting that to the best of his/her knowledge, the deceased/incapacitated individual met the definition of authorship, and all the other authors agree. In such cases, authorship is given and so the individual remains as an author.
Although it is necessary to prevent ghost/honorary authorship, the Forum suggested that if a coauthor refuses to confirm coauthorship and there is a possibility that he is attempting to hold the paper hostage, then the editor should consider contacting the institution and asking them to mediate or investigate the situation. If the institution does not or is unwilling to respond, the editor might still consider publishing a statement from the corresponding author detailing the contribution of the coauthor. Another suggestion was to explain the contribution of the coauthor in the acknowledgement section.
This situation could be avoided if at the time of submission all authors are contacted and asked to confirm their status as an author. On polling the Forum delegates, about half said they require confirmation of coauthorship either at submission or at a later stage.
The Editor-in-Chief agreed to drop the proposal to have non-responsive coauthors forfeit authorship. A statement will be included in the acknowledgements, along the lines that author X was not available to confirm coauthorship, but the corresponding author Y affirms that author X contributed to the paper and vouches for author X’s coauthorship status.