Authors A, B, and C submitted a paper about the behaviour of a group of doctors. All the authors came from one institution, where the doctors’ behaviour had been studied. Author A did the data collection under the supervision of author B, who was obviously responsible for the design of the study and acted as guarantor. Author C was an official at the institution. The journal accepted it after revision, edited it, and sent out proofs. All the correspondence had been with author B. When the proofs arrived, author B (corresponding author) was on leave, and author C raised serious concerns about the paper and said it needed to be rewritten. It seemed to the journal that this was the first time that author C, who was the most senior, had properly looked at the paper, although author C subsequently denied this. Author C submitted a revised paper a few weeks later. The general effect was to water down the negative aspects and to increase the positive aspects. In particular, author C said that the original version had misinterpreted one part of the results and that the new paper included a new interpretation. But there was no supporting evidence. A new author had also appeared. Author D was listed as the corresponding author and guarantor of the paper. Author D’s name had not appeared even in the acknowledgements of the first version. The editor of the journal wrote to author C, asking for an explanation of the change of authorship. He raised the possibility of poor authorship practices. He asked for a written assurance from all the authors that they were happy about the revision, and he asked to see a copy of the questionnaire used and evidence for the new interpretation so that the journal could judge the changes for itself. He also emphasised that, if the journal was satisfied with the changes and the answers on authorship, the journal still wanted to publish the article. The easiest thing for the authors would have been to withdraw the paper—but that would also best serve the desire of the institution to play down the findings. Author C has written two holding replies, refuting the suggestion that there has been any authorial misconduct, and asserting that s/he was involved in the research. According to C, the authors are still debating the appropriate interpretation of the results of the study.
_ The paper raises ethical issues, and it is to the credit of the institution that it studied this issue and has written it up. _ The authors should fully explain the disappearance of authors C and D’s names from the author list. _ Concern was expressed that the authorship had changed and that the results had been reinterpreted. _ The paper contains important data that should be published and as the authors had all signed the copyright agreement the journal was within its rights to publish it without any further changes. _ The authors should be given a deadline to answer the questions raised above, and be advised that the editor would be contacting the head of the institution. _ The data should be published once the authorship issue has been resolved internally, but the institution should be made aware of the matter.
The editor reported that he had spoken with the original guarantor, author B, who had withdrawn from this position on the revised version. Author B stated that s/he would withdraw as an author if the paper were to be published in the substantially revised form. The editor sent the paper to the journal’s ethics committee who had an extensive discussion about the paper. The editor sent the minutes of that discussion to the authors with an affirmation that the journal wished to publish the paper, providing the authorship issues were resolved. The editor also requested a copy of the questionnaire, the interpretation of which the authors disputed and also gave the authors a deadline to answer all the questions raised. The editor also contacted author A, who was the most junior author to ensure that s/he was not being pressured into accepting the revised paper or suffering any detriment. Author A met with the institution’s vice-chancellor, who encouraged publication of the manuscript in its original form. The vice-chancellor felt that there was no need to bring in author D. The editor is now waiting for author A to send in a final version of the paper and the questionnaire used. All the issues were resolved and the piece was published with a commentary on the ethical issues involved.