I am the editor of an international clinical journal and am facing a very unusual problem that does not fit readily into COPE flowcharts.
Through a reviewer, I was informed that an author had submitted a paper without the approval of at least one of the other authors. This appeared to be confirmed by two other authors. In response to my bringing this possibility to the first author’s attention, he asserted that all coauthors had given informed consent to publish the work as it is. I have requested that he provides written corroboration of this. If this is not forthcoming I will send the paper to the other authors and seek permission to identify their views to him.
Another reviewer raised concerns about the ethics of a component of the submitted investigation. The author has responded that the work was investigated by the university to which at that time he was affiliated and received ethics approval. I have requested written confirmation of this. The author is no longer at the institution at which the work is reputed to have been conducted: he quotes as his current affiliation an institution that does not exist and gives only an email contact.
Additional criticisms of the work from a scientific perspective made it clear it was not acceptable for publication and I have informed the author of this. The author has two other manuscripts in submission and I have requested documented confirmation that the listed coauthors of these approve of their content. Furthermore, my attention has been drawn to items in four other journals raising issues about coauthors’ approval of other papers from the same first author and additional concerns about misappropriation of material from the publications of others.
In his response to my request for clarification of the issues raised with regard to the paper I rejected, the author stated his intention to “formally let open further legal steps against you”. Nevertheless, it seems clear that I have a responsibility to continue investigating the foregoing issues.
The journal has no established regular mechanism for this circumstance. A way of proceeding could be, after as much possible information has been assembled, to draw together a small panel, including appropriate experts and representatives from the sponsoring international society whose task would be to review the information (in anonymised form) and advise on any further action, both from the point of view of my journal and the wider issues. In the absence of an identified current employer, it may be that the institution at which the work was performed is the most appropriate to charge with responsibility for any further investigation and action.
Is the presumption correct that, in the event of the author translating his statement about legal steps into action, the editorial team and others involved on behalf of the journal would be indemnified by the publisher?
The Forum noted that this is a case that perhaps can never be satisfactorily resolved. It is very difficult for editors to intervene in authorship disputes. The advice was for the editor to contact the author’s institution and ask them to investigate the authorship dispute. As the editor suspects unethical research, that is another reason to approach the institution, report the matter and request an investigation. The Forum noted that this is as much as the editor can do with regard to the submitted papers. On the wider issue, the editor could publish an expression of concern for the papers already published and alert the other journals where the previous papers have been published. In the UK, a physician could be reported to the GMC for his conduct – there may be a similar body in other countries to whom the author’s behaviour could be reported.
In brief, I took advice, based on an anonymised set of information, from the three chairmen of the relevant committees of the European Society of which the journal is the official journal. Their view was clear that the various concerns amounted to a serious departure from appropriate standards. They concurred with the recommendation that responsibility for action should include the employing institution. This was communicated to the main and co-authors. However, at this stage, communication was received from a lawyer on behalf of the main author and the matter has been taken up by the publisher’s lawyers.