A paper was submitted to our journal. The associate editor assigned to the paper immediately assigned a reviewer who he knew was well qualified to give a good review, as they had worked with the authors before. The editor did think it odd that the reviewer was not an author on this particular paper, given the close collaboration. However, when invited, the reviewer (R1), did not flag up any conflict of interest or request that they should be an author on the paper.
The reviewer returned a very good review and along with another two reviews (R2/R3), and after revision (where the revision once again was sent to R1) the paper was accepted and published.
A few months later, the journal was approached by another researcher (E1 who is from the same laboratory as R1) who said that this paper had been published with an incomplete author list and that they wanted the paper retracted as they had not been included. After discussions with the editors of the journal, a corrigendum was agreed as the best way forward to amend the author list, as there was nothing scientifically wrong with the paper.
In the course of the conversations with E1, it became clear that R1 was involved in the publication from the beginning (specifically designing the experiment discussed in the paper). In the meantime, the corresponding author supplied the editors with the corrigendum text where a new expanded author list was outlined, which included E1 and R1, and the acknowledgements were also updated to include several other researchers’ contributions. Along with the corrigendum text, the corresponding author also included pdfs of emails they had received from all of the authors (including E1 and R1) in which they agreed to be named as an author.
The editor in chief has written to the corresponding author saying that it is not possible for R1 to be included in the author list as they had been a reviewer on the paper, and did not flag up at any time that they thought that they were an author. The editor in chief suggested that R1 be withdrawn from the author list proposed in the corrigendum. The corresponding author replied that there had been a meeting between the two laboratories affected, the content of the paper was evaluated and those people who should be listed as authors were identified. R1 was identified as an author during this meeting (as well as E1). The corresponding author acknowledged that there was a clear conflict with R1 having reviewed the paper, when they should have been a co-author. The corresponding author suggested that R1’s review be stricken from the record and the other two reviews used as the reason for accepting the paper.
The corresponding author wants to have R1’s contribution to the paper reflected in the author list and has requested that we publish the original corrigendum. The journal editors have discussed this and have come to the conclusion that although there is nothing scientifically wrong with the paper, it will need to be retracted as the peer review process for this paper has been compromised. They are willing to give the authors the chance to resubmit the paper with the full author list and have it re-reviewed (new handling editors and reviewers).
Question(s) for the COPE Forum
• Should the editors offer the option of a revise and resubmit following a retraction?
• If the authors do revise and resubmit, it is likely the paper will be accepted (as there is nothing scientifically incorrect with it) so there is a possibility that the journal will have a retracted paper and a published paper which look very similar by the same (if expanded) author list. In this happens, would a cross linked editorial be needed to explain the situation?
• Is a retraction merited given there is nothing scientifically wrong with the paper? A suggestion has been made to publish the corrigendum with just E1 as author (not include R1).
The Forum agreed that the peer-review process had been compromised and therefore the paper should be retracted. A correction would not be sufficient, even though there is nothing scientifically wrong with the paper, as the peer process has been corrupted. The Forum agreed it was would be acceptable for the editor to offer the author the option of revising and resubmiting the paper following the retraction. The new paper would have to be considered as a new submission and should be reviewed by a new set of reviewers. It was noted that a recent issue of The Lancet (31 January 2015) contained a re-published article that had originally been retracted. There was also a linked commentary explaining what had happened. It was suggested that the editor may wish to use this as a model if he wished.
The Forum questioned the behaviour of the reviewer. Has the editor asked the reviewer why he did not recuse himself from reviewing the paper? The reviewer does not seem to have conducted himself in an ethical manner.
An alternative suggestion was for the editor to consider whether or not he would have published the paper based on the two reviews of the original paper (excluding the review by R1). If it is the normal policy for the journal to have two reviewers and there were three in this case, but only one was compromised, perhaps the paper could stand? The editor would still need to publish a corrigendum explaining the revised authorship but he could justify publication based on the other reviews. In a similar vein, a suggestion was for the editor to consider post-publication peer review of the article, especially as he believes it to be scientifically sound.
The editor decided to follow the alternative suggestion put forward during the COPE Forum, and publish a corrigendum, where researcher E1 has been included as an author of the article and the reviewer R1 has been mentioned in the acknowledgements section. From the journal’s perspective, the case is now closed.