Inability to contact an author to obtain permission to publish
Case text (Anonymised)
Author A was an overseas PhD student who successfully completed the PhD, and then returned home to a country with considerable political and civil unrest. It had been intended to submit a paper before author A left but time ran out. Subsequently, authors B, C, D and E, who were all involved in the work in one form or another (experimental design, performing preliminary experiments, data interpretation and reanalysis, writing), have written the paper. However, authors B, C, D and E cannot track down author A.
Authors B, D and E have tried emailing author A using the email address that author A used before and during the stay in the UK. Authors B and E have tried contacting author A’s spouse (who also did a PhD under author E’s supervision) by email and Facebook, but the spouse is not responding. Author E has contacted a colleague of author A at the overseas university that author A worked in but that person does not know how to contact author A, nor does another student from that country who studied in author E’s laboratory at the same time. The university that author A worked in is not open due to hostilities, and their website gives no contact information
Authors B, C, D and E are very keen to publish this paper, because the science is good, and also it is important for some of the co-authors who are early career workers and who need publications on their CVs.
Clearly, authors B, C, D and E are unable to obtain permission to publish from author A, whom authors B, C, D and E would like to put as first author, as author A performed the experiments.
Question(s) for the COPE Forum
• As the publisher of the journal where authors B, C, D and E wish the article to be published, would it be acceptable to publish the paper with a full statement about the authors’ contributions to the article, and the fact that authors B, C, D and E have not been able to contact A? Thus there would be complete transparency.
The Forum agreed that the suggested course of action by the editor is a reasonable way to proceed. This issue often arises with deceased authors. The Forum suggested approaching a senior member of the institution to guarantee that the work was carried out as described. Also, it would be advisable to have someone vouch for any conflicts of interest that the author might have. A full statement on the article covering these issues would be sufficient.
The Forum discussed whether the author qualified for authorship as he did not contribute to the writing of the article. However, as the study was part of the author's PhD, the paper would necessarily have been based on the author's write up and so he does fulfil the criteria for authorship.
The case was submitted to the internal publications ethics committee, along with the comments from the COPE Forum. The committee were extremely supportive of publishing, and suggested that the PhD examiner of the thesis from which the paper derived should provide a letter confirming that the work was carried out as described and that there would be no conflict of interest for the author in publishing the work in this form. As suggested by the COPE Forum, a senior member of the university—the head of school—also wrote a letter confirming that the work was carried out as described. A full statement covering these issues was placed at the end of the article.