Dispute between two authors
Case text (Anonymised)
A manuscript was submitted by author A to our journal. The content of the paper was controversial. We sent this manuscript for peer review by two clinical reviewers. We wrote back to author A requesting major revisions to address the concerns and issues raised by the reviewers. A revised paper was submitted and accepted for publication.
Because the article was controversial, mini-commentaries were commissioned from authors B and C to be published together with the paper. Mini-commentaries are short articles with a word limit of 500 words and by invitation only, usually written by an editor or referee, although they can also be authored by a third party at the discretion of the editors. Their aim is to provide a clinical or research perspective relating to the manuscript being referenced in order to provide a different overview of the research findings (ie, they can be personal opinions in some cases). These are then published with the referenced manuscript in the same issue of the journal.
Author A’s manuscript was published together with the mini-commentaries. The mini-commentary by author C disputed the findings in the paper by author A and stated that in their opinion.
Three years later, we received a letter of concern from author A alleging scientific misconduct by author C and demanding that we retract the mini-commentary written by author C. Following discussion among the senior editors of the journal, permission was obtained from author A to allow author C to have sight of this letter in order to allow a response to be made to the accusations made by author A, which were somewhat intemperate in tone (including accusations of falsification, fabrication, duplication and violation of scientific integrity). Author C responded that the accusations raised by author A were absurd and recommended that the journal ignore them. Author C provided some publications supporting his views.
Question(s) for the COPE Forum
• Currently, the editors do not see any scientific reason why the opinions expressed by author C should be retracted. The views expressed are personal but there is scientific evidence to support them. Author C did not suggest that author A was fraudulent, merely mistaken. The editors currently consider that they have no need to adjudicate between two opposing scientific views, for which each protagonist can cite evidence. Does COPE agree?
• In view of its intemperate language, the editors currently feel that it would not be appropriate to publish the letter from author A criticizing the mini-commentary. While the editors wish to publish all letters within reason, we feel that it is justified to decline publication if we feel the author has not made a substantive point or if they use inappropriate language. Does COPE agree?
• Should we invite author A to submit a reasoned letter without accusations of scientific misconduct to see if this is then suitable for publication?
• If author A agrees to submit such a revised letter, we would plan to invite a reply from author C but publish one or both irrespective of the response from author C (eg, they might decline to reply). Does COPE agree that this is appropriate?
The Forum noted that unless author A has new evidence he can produce that would dispute author’s C criticisms of the original paper, is there any value in publishing further commentaries? Did the letter from author A have anything of value? However, in the interests of transparency, the editor could encourage author A to submit a more reasoned letter. The editor should stress that the letter needs to be scientific and not libellous. The editor can also edit the letter if necessary; it is acceptable to remove inflammatory or derogatory comments. If author A is prepared to follow this course, then an exchange of letters in the journal on scientific differences would be appropriate.
For controversial articles in particular, the journal may wish to consider sharing letters with the authors prior to publication, allowing them to correct any factual inaccuracies, to avoid a similar issue arising in the future.
After the discussion at the Forum, the journal decided not to take any further action. The consensus was that there were no grounds to retract author C’s mini commentary. There was not enough of value in author A’s letter to pursue the idea of publishing a version of it in the journal.
The editor communicated the decision to author A and eventually informed the individual that the journal would not enter into further correspondence regarding this matter. The editor considers the case closed.