A case series of 89 patients with a relatively rare condition was accepted for publication by the journal following due process through the peer-review system. The paper was published online within days of being accepted. A few days later the editor of the journal received an email from a professor (Professor X) from the same country from which the paper was submitted to say that one of the cases was "his case" and that he wanted the case and the clinical photograph of his patient to be withdrawn from the paper; alternatively, he requested being made a coauthor on the paper.
The editor circulated the letter from Professor X to the publisher, the editor-elect and the editorial office. It was decided that the editor should contact the corresponding author to ask them to consider this approach and to give their response. The letter to the corresponding author included the name of the professor who had written, and the exact details of the complaint and the two possible outcomes he was requesting (withdrawal of his case or his inclusion as a coauthor). The editor went on to say "If the patient is indeed Professor X's and he (Professor X) meets the authorship criteria (as per the International Committee of Medical Journal Editors (ICMJE http://www.icmje.org/)) we can still, if all coauthors agree, add him as a coauthor. If he does not meet the authorship criteria then it would be possible to offer acknowledgement."
The editor went on to highlight the ICMJE criteria as follows: (1) Substantial contributions to conception and design or acquisition of data or analysis and interpretation of data; (2) Drafting the article or revising it critically for important intellectual content; (3) Final approval of the version to be published. Authors should meet conditions 1, 2 and 3.
Additionally, the editor sent an e-mail to Professor X saying that he had contacted the authors for their comments, and in the meantime this paper had been held (as online only) until this matter had been resolved.
The editor also e-mailed the publisher to request that the paper "be pulled" until the issue was sorted. The publisher responded by saying that it was not possible to simply "pull" the paper and that it would need to remain as online only.
A few days later the first author replied to the editor of the journal as follows: "Actually, Professor X provided the picture and clinical data regarding this patient and I should have included him as coauthor. It was my mistake." This explanation was accepted by the editor and a revised version of the manuscript and authorship consent was submitted.
(Comment: The journal does not require coauthors of papers to state explicitly what they have done to merit inclusion as a coauthor.)
It is hard to believe that Professor X would satisfy the ICMJE authorship criteria on the basis of the information available to the journal. Despite this, he and all the coauthors signed the new authorship declaration forms and assignment of copyright.
Questions for the COPE Forum
(1) Were the responses and procedures for the journal appropriate for the issue?
(2) If not, how might the journal and editorial team have behaved differently?
(3) Do the COPE Forum recommend that the journal tries to gather more information relating to omitted author’s contribution to a manuscript before passing the issue over to the authors of the paper?
The Forum agreed this was a difficult case, and in such circumstances it is not always easy to know what to do. A few members of the Forum would have handled the situation differently and the majority of the Forum agreed that Professor X did not qualify for authorship.
One view was that this was a case of gift authorship. Some argued that Professor X only partially fulfilled condition (1) of the ICMJE criteria and hence should not have been listed as an author. People who contribute patients or data do not automatically qualify as authors. In this case, perhaps the person could have been put in the acknowledgement section for his contribution of the specific patient data rather than included as an author. The editor should have stood firm and refused to allow Professor X’s inclusion as an author. This also raises the question of how many of the other authors on this paper contributed substantially?
The editor noted that the journal does not require coauthors of papers to state explicitly what they have done to merit inclusion as a coauthor. The Forum suggested that the journal might like to revise this policy and in future ask authors to state their exact contributions.
The Forum noted that this case highlights the whole issue of the role of authorship and contributorship. Editors, authors and funders frequently struggle with these issues and they are being actively discussed in forums such as http://projects.iq.harvard.edu/attribution_workshop
The editor submitted the case more as a learning point about what to do to avoid this happening in the future. He is grateful for the advice of the Forum.