We received a claim that several authors were removed from an article published in one of our journals before the article was submitted. None of those said to have been removed were acknowledged.
The claimant requested retraction. They said the article was previously submitted to other journals, listing them as an author. They provided what they said was an earlier version of the article submitted to another publisher, which listed those additional authors, including themselves. The articles were the same, with small differences in language. They provided what they said were rejection letters from other journals, including the additional authors.
The claimant was reluctant to be named and expressed concern about repercussions; we explained the claim could not otherwise be investigated by the institution. They agreed we could contact the authors and institution. We did, and the claimant stated the authors threatened them. The submitting author said the claimant should not have been an author and the claimant agreed to this, and provided signed statements from the other removed authors agreeing to being removed. We contacted these removed authors and they each confirmed they participated in the work, but did not want to be listed as authors.
The submitting author did not show us the agreement from the claimant to not be an author. The claimant informed us that one of these other people said they were presented with a pre-written statement to sign in English, which is not their native language.
We asked the institution to investigate. After several months, the institutional committee informed us of their decision: the claimant provided an email statement agreeing not to be listed as an author; our published author list was correct; the claimant would be penalised professionally for harming the institution’s reputation.
We asked to see a copy of the claimant’s email in which they agreed not to be an author, but this was not provided despite repeated requests. The institutional contact told us they had left their post and directed us to contact the article’s senior author. The claimant informed us this earlier statement applied to a different article. The claimant said we should have investigated this claim ourselves and by not doing so we exposed them to negative consequences; they suggested they might take legal action against us. We referred them to the COPE guidelines, 'Request for addition of extra author after publication'. They said they would consider legal action against the institution.
We let the institution know, through another contact, that an option for contributors who do not meet criteria for authorship is to be acknowledged and we confirmed the investigation is confidential so will not have affected their reputation; we did not receive a reply.
Question(s) for the COPE Forum
• Could the claim involving authorship have been made anonymously?
• Could we have investigated further before involving the authors and/or institution?
• Should COPE rules be revised when dealing with uncooperative or potentially biased institutional review committees?
• Is there anything further we can or should do now?
The Forum asked if there is a national body or research integrity office that the journal could contact and ask them to investigate?
The Forum agreed that it is almost impossible to deal with an authorship dispute without revealing the names of those involved, and that there was little else the journal could have done under these circumstances. The Forum did not believe the journal could have investigated any more.
The journal could use this as an opportunity to say to the institution that they expect all institutions to cooperate and to have good processes in place for such issues, and remind them that they are ultimately publicly responsible for decisions on authorship.
One suggestion was that the journal could consider issuing an expression of concern, which may allow the author to have some form of acknowledgement and it also may induce the institution to follow-up.
Another suggestion was for the editor to write an editorial on this issue.
Dealing with uncooperative or potentially biased institutional review committees is an issue COPE could explore further with institutions.
The journal attempted to contact oversight bodies, but have not received a response. The claimant says they have taken legal action against the authors. The journal separately received a legal claim regarding the contents of the article, but could not verify the contact details of that claimant and they did not respond to our queries.