Disclosure and transparency issue
Case text (Anonymised)
A paper was submitted to a medical journal, reporting the beneficial effects of a treatment with an expensive biological preparation. The author list included one employee of the company that produces and sells the preparation. Specific employees of the company were also thanked for medical input, epidemiological advice, programming support and copy editing; several authors declared having received speaker fees from the company for lectures related to the product. Nevertheless, the authors stated that they were responsible for all of the content and editorial decisions.
After editorial assessment, revisions were requested. The revised version of the manuscript included (per the journal policy) a copy of the revised text with changes from the original tracked. The author of all changes was identified by the word processor tracking as someone whose name appeared neither in the author list nor in the acknowledgements. The company’s website lists this individual as a ‘scientific communications manager’.
The editor felt that this created a transparency issue and contacted the authors. Their response was that the individual involved had replaced the company employee previously thanked for copy editing and “was extremely helpful in assembling the comments and suggestions from all of the co-authors after the data re-analysis, and assisted in preparing the revised version of the paper for submission”. Not thanking him in the acknowledgements was an oversight which the authors are willing to correct. They argue that this input did not fulfil the criteria for authorship.
The editor thinks that the described contribution goes much beyond copy editing.
Question(s) for the COPE Forum
• Is “assembling the comments and suggestions from all of the co-authors after the data re-analysis, and assisting in preparing the revised version of the paper for submission” simply copy editing or does it justify authorship?
• The editor believes this is quite significant intellectual contribution. Does the Forum agree?
COPE has guidelines on ‘What constitutes authorship’, which the editor may find useful to consult (http://publicationethics.org/files/u7141/Authorship_DiscussionDocument_0_0.pdf).
It is very difficult for an editor to make a definitive decision on who qualifies for authorship. The Forum advised that the editor cannot make a decision on this—it is the responsibility of the authors and their institution. The advice was to contact the institution and ask them to resolve the issue.
The editor might want to consider contacting this person directly, rather than liaising through the corresponding author, and asking this person directly about his/her contribution. Self declarations of involvement are often the best evidence that can be obtained. The editor could point to the ICMJE guidelines for authorship and ask him/her if they believe they fulfil these criteria for authorship.
From the information available, it would appear that this person was akin to a medical writer whose job it is to help authors put their paper together and they probably had no intellectual input into the paper. If that is the case, then an acknowledgement would seem to be the most appropriate option, perhaps with more detail about who paid them to do the work. But it is not the editor’s role to decide who or who is not an author—the institution needs to make that decision.
The matter was resolved by including the company employee, who organized the revisions, in the acknowledgements section of the paper. The editor received email confirmation from the company employee that he agreed to be mentioned in the acknowledgements and not be listed as a co-author. The paper was then published.