Inconclusive institutional investigation into authorship dispute
Case text (Anonymised)
After publication of an article, Author A contacted the journal asking to correct their surname. Author A’s name consists of two parts, but only one was included in the publication. The editor accepted this request but asked all authors to agree to publication of an erratum. Author B (the corresponding author) immediately replied, disagreeing with publication of such an erratum. Author A informed the journal that he had a similar ongoing disagreement with Author B over Author A’s name in another journal. Author A also provided proof of legal name. According to our records, Author A’s name was incorrect on submission and Author A did not ask to correct it before publication (and had confirmed that the submission details were correct). When asked for an explanation of this, Author A claims not to have noticed the mistake at that time.
The journal asked Author B to explain the reason for objecting to the erratum. Author B instead replied with an accusation that Author A did not contribute to the experiments or writing of the article and therefore should be removed from the author list. The journal contacted all authors reminding them of the ICMJE authorship criteria and asking for each of them to confirm their contributions to the article. It was also explained to them that the journal was not able to judge authorship and, if the authors are unable to come to an agreement, the case would be referred to their institution for further investigation.
Author B replied insisting they have the final say on the authorship list as senior and corresponding author. Authors A and B continued to disagree over email, including the journal in this correspondence. Author A did not provide a very detailed statement of contribution. The other authors provided some statements of varying detail. Some of the authors who are still based at Author B’s institution provided identical statements, agreeing that the corresponding author can decide who should be named an author on a publication.
As the authors were unable to agree authorship among themselves, the journal contacted the institution where the research took place (also where author B is currently affiliated). Author A, and some of the other co-authors, have since left the institution. The institution discussed the case with the authors still at this institution, but stated they were not allowed to contact authors who had left (including Author A). The institution forwarded the journal a statement signed by Author B and the other authors still at the institution with a similar statement to those received previously stating that Author A did not meet authorship criteria.
The journal is concerned that the institutional investigation was perfunctory as it did not consult with the original complainant, Author A. However, the journal is not in a position to judge who should and should not be an author. In the meantime, Author B had contacted the editor asking to stop the investigation and not make any changes to the article. This was not acceptable to the editor as Author A’s name is still incorrect. The journal therefore restated the plan to publish an erratum to correct the name of Author A, but Author B strongly disagreed again, and again claimed that Author A should not be an author.
Question(s) for the COPE Forum
• Given that the authors are unable to agree on authorship of this article, the institutional investigation did not consider the opinions of all authors and Author B strongly disagrees with the publication of an erratum, the journal is considering publishing an Expression of Concern. This would state that Author A has informed the journal that their name is incorrect and include the corrected name. It would also state that authorship is under dispute and that the results of an instructional investigation were inconclusive as it was only possible to speak to the authors still at the institution. Would the Forum agree that this is a reasonable solution?
• Are there any suggestions on further action the journal can take?
The Forum noted that there are two issues here: the name change and the erratum notice being clearly indicated. If the decision is made to remove the author, there is the issue of eligibility of authorship. Did the author qualify for authorship? Should he be included in the authorship list? Hence the Forum agreed that the editor cannot resolve this issue and it is best to refer the matter to the institution.
The editor’s immediate concern is that by changing the name, did that escalate the position of the other authors? The editor needs confirmation from the authors of who did what and the correct order of the author list. The Forum suggested that a table at the end of the appendices of the article, with clear descriptions of authorship and contributorship, would be useful. Asking each author to specify their contribution. CRediT (Contributor Roles Taxonomy) could be useful here.
Competition for last author place is increasing in some geographic areas and some disciplines. Changing authorship order or removing an author without adequate institutional investigation is not advisable, however, the correction of the one author’s name could be corrected with an erratum simply stating the correction. Because there is an ongoing dispute as to who actually participated as an author, the case needs to be further investigated by the institution and if the institution is unresponsive, the case should be escalated to a regional or national authority if available. The editor could inform the authors that the journal plans to issue an Expression of Concern about the authorship dispute, pending an investigation by the institution. This may encourage the authors to come to an agreement.