A cross-sectional, questionnaire-based study which was a final year student's project was submitted as an original article to our journal on 30 April 2011. On initial review it was obvious that it was conducted by students and written by them, but the list of authors had the supervisor as the first author, followed by 13 students.
The supervisor, who was also the corresponding author, was questioned on authorship criteria. If it was the supervisor’s project and the students had helped, then why were there so many students listed (13 in all)? If it was the students’ project, which is a requirement of their curriculum, then why was the supervisor the first author? He/she should be acknowledged only.
The authors decided to withdraw the article on the grounds that they wanted to send it to a foreign journal. We obtained the signatures of all of the authors and closed the file.
The same article was resubmitted as a new article on 29 August 2011. The declaration that it had not been previously published was sent to our journal on 5 September 2011. No change had been made in the names of the authors. The signatures of the students were a photocopy of the original ones submitted previously. Apparently the supervisor thought that the journal office would not be able to associate this article with the previous submission.
The journal believes it would be useless to explain the authorship criteria to the supervisor as apparently he/she is eager to have another article on their CV. The students are the ones who suffer.
What steps should the journal take, particularly with regard to the false authorship?
The Forum agreed that the initial response from the editor was very good, and s/he handled the case well, and it was disappointing that the message did not get through to the authors.
The Forum questioned whether the editor would be able to contact all of the students individually. The Forum emphasised once again that journals should consider having the email addresses of all authors when a paper is submitted, not just the corresponding author.
Even if the editor feels it is pointless contacting the corresponding author following this second submission, the Forum argued that the editor should follow due process. The editor should contact the corresponding author and ask for an explanation. If the explanation is unsatisfactory, the editor should contact the author’s superior at the institution informing them that this person is not following the accepted guidelines on authorship. The editor could also contact someone at the institution (e.g. the Dean) and ask them if they have an institutional policy on authorship.
For the future, the editor should consider publishing a list of the contributions of all authors in every paper.
The consensus from the Forum was that I should ask for the email addresses and cell phone numbers of all of the student authors and ask the university for their authorship policy. I did both of these. The university has not replied, despite a reminder. Unofficially, I was told that they have no such policy.
I spoke to one of the students who “off the record” told me that the supervisor had asked for these contact details, which the students had provided. These were never sent to the journal. I asked the student to send them to the journal office, which he did. The following statement, signed individually by all of the students and the supervisor, was mailed to the journal.
I as the undersigned author of the article titled xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxx, has contributed significantly in the various steps of the research starting from topic selection, literature review, introduction, methodology, questionnaire, analysis, discussion and final review. I am further submitting that there is no conflict among us on any matter regarding the order of authorship.”
The student also told me unofficially that they were coerced into signing this statement. The students who have done all of the work are the sufferers. They cannot raise any objections against the supervisor for fear of an impact on their career.
Can COPE suggest what I should do now?
The editor informed the Forum that the paper has now been withdrawn. The Forum advised that although the editor has to accept that the paper has been withdrawn, she should still pursue the institution for a response. The supervisor has acted inappropriately and the institution should be made aware of this. One suggestion was to send a registered letter (rather than an email) so that the editor is sure the letter has been received. Another suggestion was to contact any professional bodies that the author might be a member of, informing them of the inappropriate behaviour.
The editor could also write an editorial on authorship policies, referring to the International Committee of Medical Journal Editors (ICJME) guidelines. For the future, the editor might consider altering the journal’s instructions to authors stating that the names and contact details of all authors (not just the corresponding author) should be provided to the journal on submission of a paper. The editor could also consider publishing the list of contributors, detailing what contribution each author made to the paper.
FOLLOW UP (June 2012):
I first wrote to the corresponding author asking for the policy of the institution regarding authorship criteria. Simultaneously I wrote to the head of department of the research section and the Dean asking for the same. I received no reply. Recently the corresponding author, who is the supervisor and the first author, sent a letter stating that they wanted to withdraw both articles as they have decided to have the article published in a European journal. I have not replied to that request as I feel cornered.
Two more articles from another medical college of the same university are of a similar nature. I have followed the same procedure but again with no response.
Does the Forum think that I should write to the higher authorities, such as the Higher Education Commission and Medical Council, about the largest medical university in the country having no specific policy on authorship and the credit of the research being usurped by the faculty members, thus depriving the young students?
I am collecting all of these cases and will make a presentation at the next conference on publication ethics.
ADVICE ON FURTHER FOLLOW UP (June 2012):
The Forum agreed with the editor’s proposed course of action. In this case, the students are powerless and so it is left to the editor to pursue this case.