An article was submitted to our journal (journal A) in March. According to the journal’s working policy, the article was initially reviewed inhouse and comments were sent to the author. The authors replied to the comments but did not agree to the suggestion to convert the article to a short report. A rather impolite letter was sent by the author criticising the policies of the journal. We sent a reply that if the authors were not happy with the journal’s decision, they could withdraw the article according to the guidelines which are clearly given on our website.
The authors did not follow the journal procedures for withdrawing the article—they did not submit the withdrawal form signed by all authors. According to journal policy, the copyright of any manuscript remains with the journal, unless it is withdrawn in the proper manner.
The authors submitted the article to another local journal (journal B) where it was immediately published.
As the file was not closed at journal A, multiple reminders were sent to the authors. We wanted to remove the file from our database if the authors were no longer interested in publication. The authors wrote back that the article was published in July.
We first wrote to the authors that this was unethical and amounted to dual submission. We again received a rather impolite reply. We then wrote to the editor of the journal in which the article was published. Apparently, this journal does not ask for a non-submission undertaking from the authors. The editor was quite vague in his reply. We sent him the details of dual submission to which he sent a two line reply asking as to what should be done. We suggested that the copyright of the article is still with us so he should remove the article from the journal’s website until the article is withdrawn in the correct manner. The editor has not taken any steps and the article is still displayed on the other journal’s website.
Question(s) for the COPE Forum
- Should we do nothing about the authors’ wrongdoing?
- If no action is taken, will it encourage the authors to misbehave in the future for the sake of convenience
- Should we pursue the matter with the editor of the journal who has made the mistake but is not responding.
It seems the authors did not follow the preferred journal policy, but the behaviour is not necessarily unethical. The editor told the Forum that copyright is transferred to the journal on submission. The Forum noted that although copyright does formally belong to journal A, the journal does not have the article or the revisions, and hence they are holding copyright on an article that they do not want to publish. Manuscript submission systems can be very cumbersome and inconvenient, and it seems harsh to punish the authors for a technical issue. Perhaps a production editor could help with the process if an author decides to withdraw their paper.
Although the authors’ behaviour was impolite, using copyright as a reason to have a claim on a paper is not reasonable. The behaviour was impolite, but it was not unethical. The journal may wish to modify their policies so that withdrawing an article does not involve this technical hitch.
A suggestion was for the journal to revise their policy of requiring copyright transfer on submission. It is unusual internationally, and it can in effect hold the authors hostage. Another suggestion was to email the authors explaining their error, and then letting the matter rest. The editor might also contact the editor of the other journal one last time to discuss the matter. Perhaps journal Y did have a discussion with the authors and from their perspective they may think the authors correctly withdrew their paper.
As suggested by the COPE Forum, we wrote to the editor of journal B demanding an action in the form of contacting the authors and asking them to withdraw the article from our journal. Eventually the editor did convince the authors and they submitted the withdrawal form. The case is now closed.