Withdrawing from authorship
Case text (Anonymised)
A journal published a paper that is now under investigation by the host institution for misconduct. All authors signed that they agreed authorship and took responsibility for the content of the paper. After the investigations started, an author asked to be removed from authorship.
Questions for the COPE Forum
• What should the journal do in this situation?
• Should the journal permit the author to withdraw, or does agreement to authorship have irrevocable responsibilities?
The Forum agreed that the best course of action is to postpone any decision until after the investigation. In the meantime, the journal could consider publishing an expression of concern stating that an investigation on the paper is being conducted but avoiding stating that there is an authorship dispute. The journal should await the outcome of the investigation before making any changes to the paper.
The Forum suggested this could be thought of in terms of an authorship dispute and so the journal should handle it as it would for changes in authorship. Hence the journal may need to go back to the institution, as for an authorship dispute.
Are all the authors from the same institution? The author may have a legitimate reason for wanting to be removed if he is from a different institution. A suggestion for the editor was to ask the author why he wishes to be removed from the article.
The presenter of the case confirmed that the author signed the agreement in good faith and that the signature was genuine. Hence the author signed and consented to publication. According to the International Committee of Medical Journal Editors (ICMJE) guidelines (4th criteria), (http://www.icmje.org/recommendations/browse/roles-and-responsibilities/defining-the-role-of-authors-and-contributors.html) all authors have responsibility for the data and agree to help in any investigation: “Agreement to be accountable for all aspects of the work in ensuring that questions related to the accuracy or integrity of any part of the work are appropriately investigated and resolved.”
Most of the Forum agreed with a robust “no” to the request and with contacting the institution.
If the editor decides not to allow removal of the author following the investigation, he could give the dissenting author the option of publishing a comment on the published paper.
The journal found the advice from the Forum very useful and intends to follow the advice. The journal considers their concerns resolved.