Our journal has received a paper describing a study that originated as more than one trial in more than one country, with collaboration by researchers in another country. The DSMB considered and agreed a proposal to combine the trials. It took many months to finally submit the manuscript to the journal after the end of trial.
The delay in submission was caused by a dispute with an author (X) from one of the participating sites. X informed the study writing team about scientific and ethical objections to the submission of the manuscript for publication. The writing team (along with various national institutions) tried to resolve the problem, but could not reach a consensus with X. The funder recommended that the writing team should document the opinion of all the members of the team and make a decision about submission of the data based on the majority opinion. The majority (95%) of members provided support; of those who did not, X was one. The journal sent the manuscript out for external peer review, and wrote to the corresponding author to invite a revised manuscript, adding that the journal could not proceed to publication unless the authorship dispute was resolved. The journal received the revised manuscript, and the corresponding author stated that it was the consensus of the writing team that they were unlikely ever to receive support from X, even for this revised manuscript.
Thus far, communications were between the journal and the corresponding author. However, after submission of the revised manuscript, the journal received an email message directly from X, stating that the way the data from the participating site in question are presented (even after peer review and revision) is a misrepresentation. X also stated that those data cannot be used without X’s permission, and asked that, if the journal chose to publish the manuscript, those data should be deleted. The journal wrote to the corresponding author to ask who owned the data. The reply was that the data are owned jointly by the institutions involved in the collaboration at the participating site.
The journal then wrote to the funder to ask for their response to the dispute, and received a statement saying that the funder has been kept fully informed about the problems during preparation of the submitted manuscript. The funder confirmed that the investigators in all countries were able to reach a consensus in every decision-making situation until they resorted to decision-making by majority vote. The funder stated they are confident that there has been no breach of research integrity on the part of the authors and that every effort has been made to achieve consensus on the submitted manuscript. The funder further stated that it has no concerns that would prevent their acceptance of the research findings reported in the manuscript submitted to the journal.
The journal has also written to an independent organisation (other than COPE) to ask for their opinion, and their reply is awaited.
The editor told the Forum that she is planning on publishing the paper and then allowing the dissenting author to write a letter in response. Some members of the Forum argued that the paper should not be published until the authors sort out their disagreements and it is their responsibility and not the editor’s to resolve their dispute. Others considered this was an exception to this general rule in that the dissenting author appeared to be acting unreasonably and the editor felt that every effort had been made to sort out this dispute and that it is very unlikely that the complaining author will ever agree to publication. The Forum noted that this raises the question of data ownership and also questioned why the author has not been more specific in his criticism of the data.
The editor told the Forum that she is planning on writing an editorial to accompany the paper, and the Forum agreed that the whole story should be told clearly in the journal.