A paper was submitted to a journal by authors A and B. The paper was accepted and then published in the journal. Several months after final publication, author A contacted the journal asking for their name and their biography to be removed from the article. Author A stated that they wished to distance themselves from the research.
Author B also contacted the journal separately to inform them of this request. Author B confirmed that they are in agreement with this request and that removal of author A’s name is necessary because of political pressure related to the research presented in the manuscript. The research presented in the article could be seen as politically inflammatory in nature in author A’s country, causing both authors to fear for author A’s career and personal safety. Author B also requested that, should removal of author A’s name not be possible, author A’s name could be replaced with a pseudonym or with ‘anonymous’.
Several options are being considered by the journal:
- Remove author A from the published article, but do not retract the published article. The journal would publish a correction notice explaining author A’s removal from the author list. The correction notice would state that author A no longer fulfils the journal’s authorship criteria in that they no longer support the research.
- Retract the published article, but do not remove author B from the published article. The journal would retract the article on the grounds that author A no longer stands by the findings. Author A’s name would not be removed from the published version. Instead, the article would be watermarked with ‘RETRACTED’, and the journal would publish a retraction notice stating the reason.
- To be decided, but could involve publishing an expression of concern. The journal could consider publishing an expression of concern regarding this request, to express concern that the author feels they must distance themselves from their work because of political/societal pressure. The journal would not remove author B from the published article. The journal could include commentary from either or both authors explaining their request.
- Replace author A’s name with a pseudonym, following procedures established for author name changes. Author A’s name would be replaced with a pseudonym. Given we already allow such changes to author names without proof, and in this case already have the confirmation of the co-author that this would not be a fraudulent request, the mechanism for this update would follow the process for author name changes (a “last updated” footnote added to the article, but would otherwise be “silent”).
- Do nothing. There are no grounds for retraction, and there is no question that the author agreed to be accountable for the research when it was published.
Questions for the Forum
- If the journal removes author A from the author list, the journal would be in effect creating a ghost author as author A’s intellectual property will remain within the article. Given the circumstances, is this ethically advisable? Would changing author A’s name to a pseudonym be more appropriate here?
- Is retraction advisable if the journal editors do not have clear evidence that the findings are unreliable (as per COPE retraction guidelines)? Note that retraction would not remove author A’s name from the article.
- Does it make a difference whether the threat to author A’s safety is real or perceived? Author A could have contacted us to request a name change (without giving a reason) and we would have made the change as requested. Is this another “use case” for author name change policies (option 4)?
The editor provided an update to the Forum. Author A had contacted the journal and asked if they could replace their biography and email address, rather than be removed from the paper. The editor also explained that the rationale for the request to be removed from the article was that author A wanted to publicly distance themselves from the research findings of the article. The Forum discussed this latest development as well as the original questions.
The Forum agreed that retraction did not seem to be appropriate because the validity of the data was not in question. Also, retraction of the article would not remove the information about author A.
The Forum suggested that under special circumstances, anonymising the author or use of a pseudonym is permissible. This solution is preferable to creating a ghost author, because there is at least some acknowledgement of the contribution of the author and transparency around the issue.
To remove an individual from an article could lead to an inaccurate representation of the contributions to the work, may not align with the journal’s authorship policy, and could create issues in the future regarding accountability for the work.
It is impossible to eliminate all traces of the original author details because the article is already published. Replacing author A’s biography and email address on the paper is probably an appropriate solution in this case. Regarding the question, does it make a difference whether the threat to author A’s safety is real or perceived, the Forum noted it is beyond the remit of editors to decide whether potential threats are real or perceived. The reasons for the feeling of threat or risk may be very personal, for example. A journal should not try to adjudicate these matters.