The journal received a submission which proceeded through peer review and was recommended for publication. The authors responded to the revision letter, providing a detailed itemised list of changes and revised their manuscript accordingly. The revised manuscript was subsequently accepted for publication.
The normal process for articles in this journal is that when papers are accepted and the files are transferred to the production department, the author accepted manuscript is published online as an advance article and simultaneously published in PubMed. This version of the manuscript is still live on the journal website, listed as an advance article, and on PubMed.
Proofs were sent to the corresponding author as normal, and all authors were chased repeatedly by email for several months, and also by telephoning the contact numbers provided by the authors and other phone numbers for their institutions. No answer, busy, or recorded messages and no voicemail options were encountered, even when calling during working hours in the authors' country.
Final reminder type emails with firm deadlines were sent, emailed from different email addresses in case the emails were getting stuck in their spam filters. Journal policy is that authors must sign off the proof version of their manuscript before final publication of the version of record. The paper is in limbo because the advance article has been published on the journal website and in PubMed but the final version cannot be published or put into an issue. The advance article has been cited eight times in leading journals within the field. It does not appear that this article has been published in another journal simultaneously.
Questions for the Forum
● How should the journal proceed?
● Can the final version be published without sign off from the authors?
● Should the advance article be withdrawn?
The Forum noted that when an article is posted online “early”, it is possible to withdraw it. A withdrawal notice could state that the article has been withdrawn by agreement between the editors and publisher, for example, because the authors are not responding to the editor’s requests to approve the final version of the manuscript.
Journal policy is important. Every journal should have a policy with timelines for accepting a manuscript, and posting it, as well as posting a corrected proof. An accepted manuscript may not be the final version of record. If the authors do not agree to follow the journal's policy, an accepted manuscript can be withdrawn. If the journal has a policy covering this issue, this might help with the decision making.
The Forum suggested the editor might consider a final attempt to contact the authors, threatening to withdraw the manuscript from the online site of the journal if approval is not received by a specified deadline. The editor should include the journal’s policy on final approval of manuscripts with the request.
The journal may wish to post an editor’s note on the paper because it is part of the public record and it has been cited, especially if there are no grounds for retraction. The note could state that the authors have been unresponsive. The note would also serve as a warning for other readers who wished to cite the article.
The Forum agreed the journal had done due diligence in attempting to contact the authors. There could be a dispute around the paper or the authors that the journal is not aware of. A suggestion was to contact the research dean or research integrity office at the institution and explain the problem. If no satisfactory response is received and the final approved version of the articles is not available, then withdrawal should be considered.
Following the advice from the COPE forum, the journal retracted the article on the grounds that “after exhaustive efforts, it has not been possible to contact the authors for them to approve the final version of the article and take responsibility for its content”. The paper will remain online for anyone who has a link to its URL (eg, from a citation) but it is clearly marked as retracted, and will not appear in any issues.