Dr R, of University 1, has written an ‘official complain’ to Editor E alleging that a paper he was invited to review employs without permission a method that is the ‘background intellectual property’ (BIP) of University 1. He believes the paper should not be published.
Dr R asserts that he created the BIP prior to its use in several research projects at University 1, and notes that Dr A, the paper’s author, worked on these projects at University 1 under Dr R’s supervision when the method was explained to him.
Dr A’s current affiliation is University 2. Dr R asserts that: University 2 was never granted any right to use the BIP and that to do so would be an infringement; Dr A was advised of the confidentiality of the method. Dr A did not cite University 1’s BIP in his paper.
Dr R did not in fact review the paper when first submitted: several reviewers were invited and the initial ‘revise’ decision was communicated to Dr A on the basis of other reviews received. Dr R’s complaint to Editor E, which incidentally is not on University 1’s letterhead, was received when a revised version of the paper was under final review, 5 months after the initial reviewer invitation.
Editor E has sent details of the complaint to Dr A, advising him also that the review process has been suspended pending a resolution. Dr A’s response to the complaint was a direct reply to Dr R (rather than to Editor E, although a copy was sent to him), expressing surprise at the complaint and refuting the allegations, asserting instead that he was already using the methods in his paper before working at University 1 and that he had not used University 1’s methods. He also comments that despite having undertaken ‘lots of work’ at University 1, he was never included as a co-author. Editor E has asked Dr R for a response to Dr A’s views but has yet to receive one.
Editor E and the journal’s publisher are both aware of the COPE flowcharts, and jointly seek the Forum’s further advice in this case:
1. Should Editor E take the lead in investigating the matter, or should this be handled by the publisher?
2. In terms of an investigation, the COPE flowcharts recommend forwarding the concerns to the author’s institution. Is this the appropriate course of action here? In a case such as this, we would be especially interested in the Forum’s view on the suggestion that the concerns be forwarded, at an appropriate level, to both institutions simultaneously.
As noted above, the review process for the paper is presently on hold.
The Forum was unanimous in their opinion that neither the editor nor the publisher should investigate the matter. Journals are not set up to carry out investigations. The advice was not to publish the paper until the author dispute is resolved. The editor should contact both institutions and ask them to conduct an investigation into this matter. The Forum also commented that this may be a case for lawyers to sort out but the journal and publisher should be kept informed. The Forum advised that it would be appropriate for the journal and/or the publisher to contact the institutions.
The matter was referred by the editor and publisher to University 2, who are conducting a formal investigation according to the university's code of practice for complaints of misconduct in research. University 1 is cooperating at the highest level. The process has been delayed at several points, but is expected to be concluded shortly, a date having been set for the examiners and expert advisors to hold a formal hearing. The review process for the article concerned is still on hold, pending a decision: a regrettable but understandable delay of more than 10 months.