Our case relates to a paper (by author’s A and B) that was retracted because of lack of acknowledgement of the contribution of another author (C). The retraction statement noted: “While the A/B paper is largely the work of A and B, it includes some sentences and ideas that previously appeared in an unpublished paper and/or Power Point presentation only with A and C listed as authors. We regret that the paper was published without any acknowledgement of the earlier collaborative work.” Author A has contacted the journal expressing concern that this retraction is damaging his reputation.
The basis for the retraction was evidence from C that parts of the A/B paper were the same as parts of a paper started by A and C but never finalized or published. C provided six specific cases involving about 23 lines of duplication. While this represents a small percentage (about 4%) of the total number of lines in the paper, because they duplicated lines from some version of the A/C paper, the editor believes there was a moral obligation on A and the new author (B) to acknowledge the earlier paper and/or the collaborative efforts of C.
However, A claims that (1) s/he wrote all of the A/C paper, (2) asked C to identify his/her own material, (3) offered to delete any such material from the final paper with B , (4) received no instructions regarding what to delete and (5) proceeded to use whatever he liked and drop whatever he did not like. There is no way for anyone now to know exactly what A and/or C wrote in the various versions of the A/C paper or what exactly each contributed to the ideas that were presented in the PowerPoint presentation.
The editor felt that there was a clear obligation on the part of A to acknowledge the earlier collaborative work with C, and that there was an equally clear obligation on the part of the journal to inform its readers that this acknowledgement was neglected in the A/B paper. A’s obligation resulted from (1) all the collaborative efforts between himself and C, (2) the fact that both A and C were listed as authors of the PowerPoint presentation and the various versions of the unpublished paper, and (3) the fact that A’s signature on the Statement of Authorship claiming originality of the entire work was not true.
Author A is contesting the retraction and states that the posting has damaged his personal reputation and career. The case was referred to the publisher’s Plagiarism and Piracy Task Force, but this committee could not agree, since some felt the editor had acted correctly, but others felt some sympathy with author A.
The Forum was unanimous in their opinion that they would not recommend retraction for misattribution of authorship or a missing acknowledgement (which could be resolved by a correction) or as a form of punishment for the authors (as stated in the COPE guidelines). A correction, rather than a retraction, would appear to be more appropriate in this case. An article should be retracted only if the findings are unreliable or in cases of serious misconduct such as plagiarism. Also, COPE does not advocate banning offending authors from publication for any period of time as it may have legal implications. The advice from the Forum was to retract the retraction using carefully agreed wording and publish a correction that acknowledges the original co-authorship of the original complainant. The Forum advised the editor to check the journal’s guidelines on retraction and consult COPE’s guidelines on retraction.
We have implemented COPE’s recommendations. We consider the case now closed.