An article was submitted by corresponding author (CA) on 19 December 2011. After several revisions the article was accepted for publication on 23 March 2012. The article was published online 8 May 2012.
At the time of submission, CA was a PhD student at a research centre (X).
On 21 November 2012, co-author A (also head of the research group) contacted the publisher and editor-in-chief of journal A with a request to retract the published article claiming the following:
• Co-author A claims that this paper was submitted to journal A by CA during her absence (maternity leave).
• Co-author A claims that she and the other 7 co-authors (authors B, C, D, E, F, G and H) were not informed about the publication in journal A by CA.
• Co-author A claims that 90% of the data presented in this paper were obtained during work performed in the laboratories at research centre X, are the property of X, and can only be published by an X staff member and cannot be distributed or published without X’s consent. According to co-author A, CA knows this as he signed a contract with centre X.
• Co-author A mentions that she recently submitted an updated version of the same paper to another journal. For this submission, co-author A is the corresponding author. All authors (including CA!) agreed to this publication. (NB: Journal B is a journal with a higher impact factor than journal A.)
On 3 December 2012, the editor-in-chief of journal A informed co-authors A and CA and all of the other co-authors (B, C, D, E, F, G and H) of the possibility of publishing an erratum.
On 6 December 2012, the Legal and Contracts Officer (LCO) of research centre X replied to the editor-in-chief that CA violated contractual obligations with X by submitting the article and transferring the copyright to the copyright owner of the journal. LCO seems to mix up ‘ownership of copyright’ and ‘ownership of results (data)’. So far, no reply from any of the other co-authors has been received although they were copied in on the correspondence.
On 14 December 2012, the publisher contacted CA directly, asking him for his point of view. CA replied on 17 December 2012. From his reply it was not clear whether he completely understood the situation. He stated that he had asked co-author A for permission to submit the article but “had no answer for one year”. He states that the research was done by him and that co-author A also contributed.
On 19 December 2012, the publisher again asked CA the following points:
— Did you get the approval of the other co-authors before you submitted the article? Are there, by chance, documents that prove this?
— Co-author A said that she was away from work for one year of maternity leave. Were you aware of this when submitting the article?
— Are there contractual obligations between you and research centre X that were not observed by submitting the article?
On 20 December 2012, the corresponding author replied that “after a long discussion with the Legal Officer (LO) of research institute Y” he remembered the document/contract that he had signed at research centre X and that he now agrees to retract the article, and he asks the publisher to do so.
However, the published article itself presents sound science. Furthermore, the legal issue between CA and research centre X needs to be separated from the case for retraction of a scientifically correct article. (A minor mistake in the published article that co-author A found in the meantime could be corrected by an erratum.)
On 20 December 2012, the publisher informed CA, co-author A and LCO that any contractual obligations between them and centre X will not be part of this issue. LCO corresponded separately with the LO of research institute Y on how to find an ‘amicable’ solution. This ‘amicable’ solution focused solely on the contractual obligations between research centre X and CA. One step in this solution would be submission of the article to the ‘correct’ journal (journal B) by co-author A.
LCO agreed to the amicable proposal of the LO of institute Y, and sent the publisher a statement on 21 December 2012 in which he disagreed that the case is merely an authorship dispute, but states that the foremost concern is the declaration that the corresponding author signed with research institute X which in his eyes is “wider than the ownership of copyright and results”. He also states that together with the LO from institute Y they came to an agreement NOT to publish. And he will launch a formal compensation claim.
On 21 December 2012, the publisher received a message from a co-author (the first time that one has replied) in which he mentions that CA published a paper without his approval, that he does not want to be linked to the ‘criminal acts’ of a PhD student, he suggests retracting the paper, as asked by co-author A and the LCO, and he will sue the journal.
In summary, the issues are:
• The corresponding author submitted an article without the knowledge of all or some of his co-authors.
• The corresponding author was under contract with research centre X at that time.
• The scientific content of the article is correct. A minor error that occurred since publication can be corrected by an erratum.
• Research centre X seems to have put pressure on CA to retract the article because of contractual obligations only. The scientific content was never a case in the correspondence between the different parties
The Forum suggested that there is a lesson to be learnt here: when a journal receives a manuscript, an acknowledgement should be sent to all of the authors, not just the corresponding author, and all authors should be copied in on all correspondence. This will prevent a similar situation arising in the future.
There could be legal issues here, as the PhD student was under contract to the institute. So the issue may be taken out of the hands of the editor. Some suggested there was a lack of mentorship and failure of supervision—what was the PhD supervisor doing?
Most agreed that there were no grounds for retraction. An author dispute is not sufficient grounds to retract an article if there is no issue with the scientific content of the article. However, as the editor does not have documentation that all authors agreed to the publication, the authors do have some grounds to feel aggrieved and to want a retraction. If the editor can obtain signed consent from all of the authors, then he could consider retraction. Others suggested that the editor should do nothing.
Regarding the issue of the recently submitted updated version of the same paper to another journal, the Forum noted that the editor has a right to ask the author for a copy of this paper. Do the authors want the paper retracted so that they can submit to the other journal (which has a higher impact factor)? If the authors do go ahead with submission of a paper to the other journal, there must be clear linkage to the original paper.
There are also copyright issues to consider.
On a show of hands, half of the Forum suggested that the editor do nothing further, a few suggested publishing a correction or some form of note on the paper regarding the authorship dispute, and only two people suggested a retraction.
The editors never received any feedback from anyone involved. They count this as silent agreement to the way they handled this case—involving COPE and publishing the article. The editor considers this case as closed.