Misattributed authorship and unauthorized use of data

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The director of a research laboratory contacted our journal regarding an article published earlier this year. The director claimed that the documents and data used in the article were collected at his research laboratory and used by author A without his knowledge and permission.

At the time, author A was a visiting scholar at the director's laboratory. The director also claimed that author B and author C (both PhD students under the director's supervision) were listed as coauthors without their knowledge. Additionally, he claimed that author D (author A's supervisor at his primary affiliation) was not in any way involved in the research described in the article and should be removed from the authors list. The director stated that he wishes for the article to be withdrawn.

In his email to our journal, the director forwarded us his previous correspondence with author A to corroborate his claims. In their correspondence, author A basically admits his mistake, apologizes and assures the director that he already contacted our journal in order to withdraw the paper. The correspondence between the director and author A occurred approximately 3 months before the director contacted us. Our journal never received a request to withdraw the paper from author A.

However, even though the forwarded correspondence clearly incriminates author A, as far as we know it is not possible to determine whether the forwarded emails are authentic or edited.

After receiving the director's message, we contacted all of the authors in an attempt to resolve the case. At the time of submission, author A was affiliated with institution 1 and institution 2. Author D is affiliated with institution 1, while author B, author C and the director are affiliated with institution 2. Author A stated that he included author B and author C as coauthors due to their help with language editing, but he agreed with their request to be removed from the authors list. When asked to comment on his previous correspondence with the director, he claimed in vague terms that the misconduct allegations stem from some personal disagreement between the director and author D during their collaboration on a research project.

Author B requested his removal from the authors list as well as withdrawal of the article. Author B also claimed that some of the data in the article were not valid. He did not respond to our request to clarify in what way were the data were flawed. Author C requested his removal from the authors list as well as withdrawal of the article. Author D was contacted a week later than the others due to a faulty email address. We informed him that author B and author C expressed that they wish to be removed from the authors list and he agreed with their request.

As all of the authors have reached a consensus regarding authorship, we intend to correct the record and remove author B and author C from the author’s list.

The director was asked if he could provide some other proof of his allegations besides the forwarded email correspondence between himself and author A. He did not provide any other proof and demanded that the article be removed at once and that author A's institution (institution 1) be notified of his scientific misconduct. Additionally, he claimed that author B performed the majority of the research presented in the article as author A had insufficient experience in the field.

Author A was asked to comment on that claim, but he maintained that he wrote the article and did not use data collected in the director's research laboratory.

We do not have the means necessary to pursue further investigation of this case by ourselves, which is why we are seeking advice from the COPE Forum.

Questions for the COPE Forum
(1) Should the forwarded email correspondence between the director and author A be considered conclusive evidence of alleged scientific misconduct on author A's behalf?
(2) Should we retract the article based on the scarce information we have managed to gather?
(3) Should we first publish a correction in order to rectify the misattributed authorship and deal with the data ownership issues separately? If so, should we try to further resolve the data ownership issues ourselves or refer the case to author A's institution?
(4) Should we publish an expression of concern detailing the alleged misconduct, inform author A's institution about the allegations, request an institutional investigation and wait for the results of their investigation before making a final decision about this case?
(5) Does the COPE Forum have any other suggestions on how to proceed with this complicated case?


The Forum agreed that the editor has reached the point where he cannot investigate this further or hope to resolve this issue, and hence he should now contact the authors’ institutions and ask them to investigate the matter. The Forum suggested contacting both institution 1 and 2, providing them with as much information as possible. The editor cannot resolve the issue of who owns the data. As the editor has concerns about the article as it stands, it was suggested that he publish an expression of concern, alerting the readership that there may be problems with this paper. However, others cautioned about the timing of publishing an expression of concern—should the editor wait until after the investigation by the institutions? On polling the Forum audience, the majority agreed that they would wait for the results of the institution’s investigation. However, the Forum reiterated that this must be an editorial judgement, taking into consideration whether the editor has a reasonable expectation that the institution will investigate the matter in a timely fashion.

The Forum suggested the editor might like to consult the COPE retraction guidelines for guidance on when to issue an expression of concern.

Unauthorized use of data came up as a prime issue in a recent study of the re-classification of the COPE cases in the past 10 years. Also, the Montreal statement on research integrity in cross boundary research collaborations came out of this year’s World Conference on Research Integrity (http://www.wcri2013.org/Montreal_Statement_e.shtml), and this statement addresses these types of issues. Editors may wish to refer authors to their guidance.

Follow up: 

After efforts to investigate the alleged misconduct had failed, the journal referred the case to the institution where the misconduct reportedly occured. The editor was subsequently informed that the reported issues had been discussed internally and that it was ultimately decided that no further action or investigation would take place.

Since there is no conclusive evidence of misconduct, the journal will not be taking any action with regards to the issue of allegedly unauthorized use of data. However, action will be taken to rectify the reported and confirmed authorship issues.

Case Closed