In November 2009, the Editor of Journal X received a letter complaining of a serious breach of publication ethics regarding an article already published a month earlier on the Journal’s website. The paper concerned had not yet been published in a full journal issue either online or in print. One of the authors of the letter, Professor X, was a named author on the published paper. His complaint was that he had never seen the article prior to publication and had not agreed to be an author.
Professor X stated that some years previously, a number of research groups around the world were invited to join a collaborative research effort. A late Dr Y made the suggestion to make the work a multicentre study and suggested Dr Z as one of the investigators. Professor X also stated that Dr Y asked him to manage all the multicentre groups and compile the work into one final paper. Professor X said that an agreement was made to use a research protocol developed by him across the whole multicentre study.
The published article has Dr Z as corresponding author in addition to a Dr W as first author. Drs W and Z are at the same research institution. Professor X claims that he tried to discuss the progress of work (using the agreed protocol) with Drs Z and W but without reply. Professor X feels that Dr Z has not followed the agreed research protocol and by not liaising with colleagues has made this publication appear as if it is his original work and taken credit for work which was not his original idea. Professor X also states that as the original research protocol was not followed, the findings in the paper are of poor credibility.
When asked about the situation, Drs Z and W stated that they thought each other had been in contact with Professor X to obtain his consent before submitting the manuscript to the Journal. They both apologised for the mis-communication and suggested that Professor X could be removed from the author list before the paper is published in a journal issue. Professor X replied saying that only a full retraction of the paper would be a satisfactory outcome for him because his reputation was damaged by the publication of work that had not followed the originally agreed research protocols that he had developed.
On gathering both sides of the story, the Publisher decided that the two parties (Professor X and Drs Z and W) should communicate with one another in order to find a resolution to the problem and agree how, or if, this paper should be published in a journal issue or whether it should be retracted outright. Dr Z has since written to Professor X saying that there was no agreed usage of the protocol or publication plan and that he was kept informed of the ongoing project. Dr Z reiterated an offer to change the list of authors including the removal of Professor X from the paper.
The Forum was told by the editor that the case has since been resolved. The paper has been published with the amended author list—Professor X’s name was removed. The Forum suggested tightening up the journal’s authorship and contributorship criteria and also copying all authors on all correspondence rather than just the corresponding author to avoid the occurrence of a similar case in the future. The Forum also stressed that it is essential to publish a correction to the published article and to ensure that there are not two versions of the article in circulation.
Following the advice from the Forum, we have tightened up the author and contributor criteria for our journal to try and prevent this happening again. We have also recommended that the editorial office copy in all authors on correspondence. Although the paper had been published online, it had not reached a full issue of the journal so we have been able to correct the paper prior to its formal publication in a journal issue.