The case concerns a paper we published, ahead of print, on the journal’s website on 5 October 2009. A week later we received a letter from Dr A who claimed that the authors had a major conflict of interest and implied that she should have been listed as an author. The paper we published is based on an idea which was tested in 2002 in Country P, and in 2004 in Countries Q and R. The authors of the resultant paper, published in another journal in 2009, were author C, a PhD student of author B, and author B, with Dr A as the last author. Dr A and Dr B collaborated further in Country S in three investigations
In June 2006, November 2006 and June 2007, Dr A was invited to participate as a representative of an international centre for medical research in Country R. When in the field, Dr A examined and screened patients . Dr A used data gathered in July 2007 within the framework of a study headed by Dr B. Dr A is listed as “another scientist involved” in the report from the funder and in a grant application. This application was to be on behalf of both Dr A and Dr B, and some others, but made no mention of Dr B’s study, although Dr B’s study had provided the funding for gathering the data at its basis.
Dr A’s grant application excluded any input by Dr B’s group, contrary to what had been agreed at an earlier meeting . Dr A did not participate in the November–December 2007, June–July 2008, November–December 2008 or June–July 2009 investigations.
The paper which we accepted, by Dr B and colleagues, includes data on patients recruited in June 2007, 2008 and 2009. It makes no mention of Dr A, who would have examined and screened some of the patients in July 2007. Dr B asserts that Dr A’s input was purely technical and that Dr A had no input into the conduct of the study. Dr A claims that the technique was based on her research (because she was senior author of the previous publication), which Dr B counters by saying it’s a free country and anybody can use the concept once it’s out there.
So we have a group of people who used to collaborate quite amicably but seem to have fallen out over some undisclosed conflict in the summer of 2007, at which point they drifted apart and pursued grants from separate donors. The patent animosity displayed by both parties precludes asking them to sort it out among themselves.
All agreed that this is fundamentally an author dispute. The advice from the Forum was to ask both parties to set out clearly their complaints. The Forum was unanimous in its opinion that the journal cannot get involved in an author dispute, and the editor cannot act as adjudicator. The advice was to contact the authors’ institution or funder. The authors should be informed of the editor’s intention. The editor should ask the institution to investigate the case. If the institution does not respond, the editor has a duty to alert readers to the situation and so he should publish an expression of concern or notice of disputed authorship. Other advice was to ensure that the journal’s instructions to authors make clear the criteria for authorship and contributorship. Another suggestion was to ensure that in the future, all correspondence is sent to all of the authors and not just the corresponding author.
We followed COPE’s advice and wrote to the rector of the university, copying the authors, asking him to resolve the authorship conflict, and mentioning that unless they managed to do this quickly we would have to take unspecified measures to inform our readers. They did. The author who had started the whole complaint by claiming that her idea had been stolen was removed from the acknowledgement section in a revised online version and of course in print. This permitted her not to be associated with the research. This was a rather surprising outcome but it kept everyone happy and we did not have to retract the paper, with all the unpleasant ensuing consequences.