Our journal was contacted by an individual, Dr H, who had recently seen a published article and was surprised that he was not listed as an author because it utilised samples from a database that he established. (The article was published online in November 2014 and in print in February 2015.) He stated that the cohort has spawned many projects, but he was not involved in the “specialist area” in this article. However, he believes he should have been listed as an author because the article would not have been possible without his database.
We told him that the journal conforms strictly to ICMJE's policy on authorship and asked him for more information on his contributions. Although it appears that he fulfils the first criteria because of his involvement in the original cohort/database, he did not fulfil the other three criteria.
At this point we contacted the corresponding author of the article for more information. The corresponding author said that Dr H contributed substantially to the development of the cohort, but was not involved in the design, evaluation or preparation of the data, and recommended publishing a correction with Dr H listed in a simple acknowledgment (not as an author).
Dr H was not satisfied with this solution, continuing to believe that he should be listed as an author. At this point we went back to the corresponding author, who replied that he had discussed the situation further with his co-authors and Dr H, and they thought that even though Dr H does not fulfil the ICMJE criteria, they support his addition as an author because their own publication policy indicated that all PIs involved in the development of the cohort should be listed as authors for subsequent publications. The corresponding author acknowledged that this “puts [the journal] in a difficult position, and exposes problems with [their] publication policy, which need to be resolved, but if it were possible to add [Dr H] to the authorship we should be grateful for your help.”
We replied to the corresponding author letting him know that he continues to state that Dr H does not fulfil ICMJE criteria; in order to comply with journal policy, Dr H should be listed in the acknowledgments. We even offered for them to write the acknowledgment so that Dr H's contributions would be better described. The corresponding author has yet to respond.
However, we received an email from Dr H stating that he still does not believe that an acknowledgment is appropriate. (Per Dr H, “This paper is no different to the way we approached all our other publications and [corresponding author] would certainly know that. I remain perplexed and quite upset as to why and how such a fundamental error was made on his part on this occasion.”) The corresponding author initially believed that an acknowledgment was appropriate, but then recommended the addition of Dr H as an author. We maintain that an acknowledgment is appropriate, and that adding him as an author without fulfilling ICMJE criteria (journal policy) would be the equivalent of gift authorship.
Question(s) for the COPE Forum
• Based on ICMJE criteria and journal policy, does the Forum believe that a formal erratum denoting an acknowledgment OR authorship is appropriate? If the latter, an explanation as to why would be very helpful.
The case raises the issue of the role of contributorship. One solution in such cases is for journals to list the contributions of each author. When contributions are clearly listed on a paper, it sometimes becomes clear that some of the contributors do not in fact qualify for authorship, so this practice should be encouraged by journals.
COPE has produced a discussion document on ‘What constitutes authorship?’ which sets out criteria for authorship across different disciplines, and the editor may wish to bring this to the attention of the institution.
The Forum agreed that institutions need to take responsibility for these types of decisions and should have robust mechanisms in place. It is almost impossible for journals and editors to sort out these issues on their own. Unfortunately many institutions fail to arbitrate in these situations. The Forum advised going back to the institution and asking them to address the issue.
The editor may like to look up CRediT (contributor roles taxonomy) which is a CASRAI activity that brings together a diverse set of stakeholders with a common interest in better understanding and communicating different types of contributor roles in research. The CRediT taxonomy may also be a solution in this new era of data sharing where a paper may wish to acknowledge the contribution of the data collectors who would not qualify for authorship.
The Forum also noted that the ICMJE guidelines state that acknowledgements require written permission from the person who is being acknowledged.
In summary, the Forum agreed that contacting the institution is the best way forward and asking them to suggest what should be done in this situation and to explain their policies and procedures in such instances.
To support a recommendation to publish a correction listing Dr H in an acknowledgment (not as an author), the editors sent the institution the following post from Retraction Watch, which describes a similar situation. The institution agreed with this course of action. Although the institution included an apology in their draft correction, the journal opted not to include it in the final correction. The correction will appear in an upcoming volume (in print and online). Prior to publication, the final correction was emailed to Dr H, Dr D and the institution. The editor pointed out that it is the responsibility of the corresponding author, Dr D, to share the final correction, as well as explain the situation as a whole, with all of the coauthors (if he had not already done so). The editor also encouraged the authors to use this experience as a learning opportunity to begin discussions of authorship and acknowledgments at the stage of study conception.