An author affiliated with a research institution R published two papers as a single author, one of them in a journal of publisher A.
After publication, publisher A was contacted by the research integrity officer of institution R with a letter of concern. The letter stated that the research institution has conducted a formal investigation and concluded that the author failed to acknowledge fully the likely contributions made by other staff and students in his research group, even though his work was heavily influenced by the ideas and experimental results of other members of staff in the research group. The formal investigation panel agreed unanimously that the author had behaved unprofessionally and upheld the finding that research misconduct had taken place regarding the submission and subsequent publication of the single author paper in the journal.
The research institute said that they had not been able to reach an agreement with the author about the situation and asked the publisher to publish an erratum (or some similar note of concern) with the text: “The work was carried out while the author was at [xxx] funded by [xxx]. The experimental scheme set out in figure [xxx] was influenced by discussion with the [xxx] groups at [xxx]”
The journal contacted the author, who did not agree with publishing an erratum. The author stated that: the work was not exclusively carried out while being at [xxx], but it represented the results of a continued effort since when he was at another institute (which has been acknowledged in the paper); he was not made aware of the role of the funding agencies [xxx] during his years of employment; he states that the sketch in the figure is his original idea and is not an experimental scheme, but rather may be used to derive various experimental schemes for prototyping.
The author counter-proposed publishing an erratum as follows: "The author also acknowledges the collaborative effort in the submission of experimental proposals [xxx], based on the above theoretical framework, to build the first ever [xxx], which he initiated and led as the Principal Investigator, using the [xxx] Facility at the [xxx], in discussion with the [xxx] teams (funded by [xxx]) at [xxx]. The author further acknowledges the strong merits of this collaborative effort which warrants its continuation as already initiated by the author."
The research institute found the proposed text unacceptable as it both misrepresents and seeks to undermine the findings of the research institute's investigation. Furthermore, it claimed that the author led a collaborative project in relation to the development of an experimental prototype, which is not borne out by the facts. The research institute cannot agree to the publication of such a misleading statement. They ask the publisher instead to consider publishing a statement alongside the author's paper to confirm that it has been subject to a formal finding of research misconduct for making use of the ideas of others without permission or acknowledgement. The institute argues that such a statement is necessary for transparency, and to correct the scientific record.
Questions for the Forum
- Has the Forum seen similar situations where the author and the author's research institution disagree about proper and adequate recognition of contributors to a published work?
- Is it appropriate to publish a statement of concern that the paper has been subject to a formal finding of research misconduct for making use of the ideas of others without permission or acknowledgement?
The Forum agreed that the institution needs to resolve the issue with the authors. The editor cannot adjudicate in this situation, but they can ensure the publication record is up to date and correct. Hence the Forum advised publishing an expression of concern until consensus is reached by the institution and the authors. In the expression of concern, the editor can describe the findings of the institution and the objections from the authors. Authorship and contributorship disputes cannot be resolved by editors and should be directed to the institution. As there was another institution involved, the editor may wish to contact the second institution and ask them to conduct an investigation but still publish an expression of concern while this is ongoing.
Another option is to threaten retraction of the article if no agreement is reached. The editor could give the institution and the authors a time limit, after which the journal will retract the article.
The author agreed to publish an erratum, worded so that it satisfied his former host institution.
Follow-up (May 2021)
The journal followed the recommendation from the COPE Forum and wrote to the author announcing the decision to publish an editorial expression of concern, which was presented to the author in final draft form. The author responded promptly, saying that he contacted his former institution and agreed to publish the erratum as had been worded by the institution. The erratum has now been published. The journal considers this resolution the best outcome possible.