The journal accepted a manuscript for publication with two authors. One of the authors died before signing the copyright. This manuscript is now ready for galley proof approval from the surviving author.
Proofs were sent to the surviving author and the author who died as normal because the production editor assigned to this manuscript did not know that one of the authors had died. After the deadline, over the course of a month, the production editor and production manager sent several reminder emails to both authors enquiring about the galley proofs. The handling editor was also copied in this email thread. The surviving author finally responded saying that the other author had died and that they would like to move forward with publication.
The surviving author did not acknowledge the email reminders regarding the galley proofs so the production manager sent more emails reminding them that, as the journal policy indicates, approval is needed before publication. It has been almost two months since the production manager or production editor has received a response from the surviving author.
Questions for the Forum
- How should the journal proceed?
- What issues are there with publishing an article when one of the authors of the accepted manuscript (who has not signed the copyright) has died?
- Can the article be published without sign off from both authors?
The Forum advised that the journal should keep the manuscript on hold until the editor hears back from the corresponding author. Perhaps the editor in chief or the handling editor of the journal could reach out to the surviving author directly. Journal practices vary about whether all authors or only the corresponding author needs to sign off the proofs. If both authors need to sign off the proofs, perhaps a surviving partner or someone affiliated with the deceased author’s estate could be involved. The head of a department or dean of the college might be able to help with these connections.
Procedures vary by journal in terms of copyright forms too. For most journals, usually only the corresponding author is asked to sign a copyright form, on behalf of the other authors. If required, the journal might reach out to the deceased authors’ estate.
The Forum was informed that the surviving author is the corresponding author who has expressed that they would like the paper to be published but that they do not want to be involved in the publication process.
The Forum suggested that the surviving author needs to be reminded of their responsibility and accountability for this publication. Also, if the paper is a report on a clinical study, then there are broader responsibilities, such as potentially benefiting patients and the public. The surviving author is still accountable and needs to take responsibility for the paper and ensure that it gets published.
The Forum advised that the journal should check that the claim that the author has died is true. If the journal publishes the paper, a note on the proof should make clear that this author has died before they were able to approve the proofs. If the surviving author is not being responsive, the journal should consider approaching their institution or their peers within a departmental or co-investigators, stating that the journal might not be able to proceed with publication if no response is received.
An alternative scenario to consider is that the author is upset and bereaved and is finding it difficult to deal with the publication proofs, although they do want the paper to be published. The journal might consider speaking to their legal department to see if it is possible to proceed with publication, taking the authors previous communications as consent to proceed with publication and that copyright will be considered to be transferred if the author does not respond. The author's institution could be copied in on the response.
The journal emailed the department head of the unresponsive author, who then responded to the journal’s inquiries about the galley proofs. The paper is now published and the journal considers the case closed.