A paper was submitted to a journal with authors A, B, C, D and E. The paper was peer reviewed. Before acceptance, the corresponding author asked for a new author, author F, to be added, and an existing author, author C, to be removed.
The editorial office asked all of the authors (authors A, B, C, D, E and F) to complete a change of authorship request form and for the corresponding authors to justify the reason for change of authorship.
All of the authors complied with the requirement except author C (the author to be removed). The corresponding author explained that author C did not participate in the paper (ie, they should not have been left on the paper in the first place). The explanations on who did what in the paper confirm this statement, but author C is not contactable to confirm or negate the statement as they are on long term sick leave (author C is not responding to the HR department of their institution).
If author C did not contribute to the paper, their name should not have been left on the submission. However, as the article was submitted with their name on it, it seems wrong to remove their name during the peer review process.
Question(s) for the COPE Forum
What course of action would the Forum advise?
If author C is removed without their permission, could they ask for the article to be retracted?
If author C remains on the article but they have been ill and not signed off on the final accepted version, could they ask for retraction of the article because they did not agree to the final article being published with their name on it?
A suggestion was to move the missing author to the acknowledgements section with an explanation of what has happened. A note could also be added that the journal was unable to contact this author.
There may be reasons why the university is not forthcoming or helpful, but the editor might try and contact someone else at the university who may be willing to provide a little more information that might be helpful in terms of the decision making for the journal.
Did the author see the final version of the paper that was submitted? It would seem so, as the submission had the author’s name included. Perhaps getting a timeline from the corresponding author would be helpful, detailing when author C become ill and stopped working on the paper and if the author saw and approved the final version. If the author did not approve the final version, they should not remain on the author list and should be added as an acknowledgement—author C worked on this paper and is thanked for their contribution.
Could efforts to contact author C be directed via the publishers to take independent steps that to try and contact author C (eg, via social media). The editor may wish to consider verifying the corresponding author’s version of events in case there are other reasons why the corresponding author may not be contacting author C. The editor may wish to contact the research department or institution and ask if they can confirm the details of what has happened.
An institutional review recommended retraction of certain works by a highly prolific and influential author who has since died. The institutional review focused on a relatively small portion of this author’s work. The institution recommended retraction based on deeming the articles unsafe and identifying several concerns, including that the articles' conclusions were implausible.
As a publisher, we are moving forward with reviewing potential retraction of the articles identified by the institutional report. We are questioning whether we should also review the other articles written by the author in the journals' backfile, based on the following:
1. The institutional report cited serious systemic concerns with the research and findings.
2. The author was highly influential.
3. Many of the articles were published in the 1970s/1980s or earlier.
4. Other areas of the author's work/findings seem contrary to current scientific standards (and potentially harmful).
Question(s) for the COPE Forum
When responding to an institutional report recommending retraction of certain articles, should editors review the other works of an author as part of their response (and depending on the reasons the retraction was recommended and the potential relevance to the author's other articles, issuing an editor's note or expression of concern to reference the concerns identified in the report findings for the separate retractions).
With respect to articles in the journal's historic backfile that reference findings that have since been overturned by later works and do not meet current scientific standards (and are potentially harmful or are supportive of a practice that has since been prohibited), is it appropriate for journal editors to initiate their own review of these articles? Should these articles be retracted, or would these cases be more appropriately handled with a “statement of concern” alerting readers to the concerns with the article's findings
Is retraction an appropriate action so long (decades) after publication?
The Forum agreed this is a difficult case and one that increasingly arises in historic papers with questionable data practices. This is a reflection of a wider problem of how far back to go if there are problems with the data. Data maintenance practices in the past may not always have been very good. It is up to editors to have a look at the papers and see if there's anything very obviously wrong that could be investigated but if it is a general suspicion that the data might not be correct but there is no way to validate this, then an expression of concern might be appropriate.
There is a presumption that the institution must have had specific reasons why the 10 papers should be retracted and not the other ones. If the data are not available and it cannot be proved that there was any manipulation or whether the findings are correct for the other papers, then retraction would be inappropriate, and a statement of concern should be considered, given that the author cannot reply. If an author has committed misconduct, does that mean their whole body of work is invalid? The Forum suggested applying retraction to the 10 articles. For the other articles, a statement of concern for the other papers is appropriate if there is clear evidence of misconduct. Retraction for these articles is not appropriate unless the institution provides sound evidence that the data sets were manipulated or fraudulent.
For the 10 publications that the institution has suggested retracting, are there any living co-authors that could provide more information? The editor might consider contacting any co-authors for more information.
Regarding the fact that the findings of the previous articles may be unsafe, from the institutional perspective, this may not mean a danger to public health. Sometimes institutions use the term unsafe with regard to relying on the data that back the study. Perhaps unsafe means that there is little to support the actual findings and they should be disregarded or looked at it from an historical perspective. The advice was for the editor to apply common sense. There are many practices and treatments (eg, cancer treatments) that have changed dramatically over time and would be considered completely unsafe today, but we would not consider retracting those papers.
During the review process for a manuscript submitted to our journal, one of the reviewers alerted us that the manuscript appeared to be the work of a collaborator (Dr X) who was not listed as an author on the paper. It became clear that the manuscript’s corresponding author (Dr Y, affiliation A) was a postdoctoral researcher supervised by Dr X (previously at affiliation A, recently moved to affiliation B). A third researcher, Dr Z, was an author on the manuscript and at an institution in a different country.
We asked Dr X whether they were aware of the manuscript from their postdoctoral researcher, Dr Y. Dr X was not aware and stated that Dr Y was funded solely by Dr X’s grant, and that they were working on a similar manuscript for submission elsewhere. Dr X requested that we withdraw the paper.
We asked Dr Y to confirm whether the author list on the paper was complete and to provide us with funding details. Dr Y replied that there were no other authors, and that the work was completely self-funded.
Question(s) for the COPE Forum
Should the journal contact the author's institution (and/or the supervisor's institution) to investigate?
Should the journal withdraw the manuscript from consideration at this stage, or wait for the results of an investigation?
The editor updated the Forum that the journal had contacted the author's institution. It seems that the supervisor, Dr X, is in the process of moving to a new institution but is still at the same institution as the first author. The department chair said that they will look into the matter. The journal told Dr Y that they had contacted the institution and Dr Y asked to withdraw the paper. The journal withdrew the paper as requested but let the institution and author's postdoctoral advisor know that the paper had been withdrawn. The institution is continuing their investigation.
Author Y is stating that this work is under their own funding even though they put their affiliation as the institution where they are employed and supervised by Dr X. How should institutional affiliations be reported correctly or what constitutes a misrepresentation of an institutional affiliation? Perhaps there is some form of misrepresentation here. Editors should be able to validate whether affiliations that are reported by authors are real. They should be publicly verifiable. According to the American Psychological Association (APA), institutional affiliations should be included to the extent that the institutions have contributed substantially to the research being done or to the paper that is being produced from that research.
As Dr X stated they were working on a similar manuscript for submission elsewhere, withdrawal of the article seems a reasonable response by the journal.
A whistle blower contacted journal A regarding two published articles. The articles focus on the effect of energy healing on an in-vitromodel of disease. The whistle blower raised concerns about the appropriateness and reproducibility of the energy healing methodology used.
The authors were contacted to provide an explanation of the methodology as there was a lack of clarity in the articles. The corresponding author responded with a clear explanation of how they implemented the study but concerns about how this would be reproduced by others persisted.
Consequently, a post-publication peer review was conducted. Unfortunately, the post-publication peer review provided no comment on the energy healing methodology that was implemented. The reviewer focused only on the methodological elements that gave no cause for concern, and summarised that the methods are suitable and valid.
Given this review, the editor who handled the manuscript feels that no editorial action is required. However, concerns surrounding the energy healing methodology and its reproducibility remain. It has been suggested that the reviewer is contacted again for an assessment of the specific energy healing techniques used in these studies.
Question(s) for the COPE Forum
If the reviewer or the handling editor determine that the methodology is sound but not reproducible, how should the journal proceed?
A suggestion from the Forum was perhaps to ask at least one other post-publication peer reviewer to specifically comment on this particular issue.
This is an ongoing problem in this field. Some techniques that people use for healing touch and many other types of hands-on healing are difficult to standardise. People who work in this field and use this technology most likely understand this and so the problem is probably more for people who are uninitiated. A suggestion was that there needs to be commentary in the article by the author about the difficulties of reproducing the techniques if that was not sufficiently addressed in the discussion.
A discussion of the limitations of the study could be addressed in the journal, through the usual post publication discussion process or letters to the editor.
Another view was that in a scientific publication, if the method is not reproducible, then it is not considered science. Reproducibility is the foundation to science and so if it is not reproducible, should it be published? However, the post publication review suggested the methodology is sound.
After a manuscript was accepted, an author passed away before they could complete the conflict of interest statement and copyright transfer documents. The publishing company requires that all authors complete these documents prior to publishing.
The other authors do not want to remove the deceased author from the manuscript.
Question(s) for the COPE Forum
Who has the authority to complete these documents for the deceased author?
Are there any special notations that should be made in the manuscript?
The Forum asked for clarification from the editor regarding when in the publication cycle the author died and did the author see the final version of the submitted and accepted article? The editor told the Forum that the author had seen the final accepted version. Hence the Forum agreed that it seems reasonable that the author should remain on the byline. It would be possible to ask his next of kin or executor to verify the conflict of interest (COI) statement to obtain a notarized statement, if that is required, if the editor is not comfortable taking an informal statement from the co-authors.
For the journal, there are three components: clarifying the COI statement, fulfilling the authorship criteria and signing the copyright agreement. There is still a non-financial aspect to potential COIs, which seems to be difficult to ascertain with certainty.
For the purposes of transparency, it would be useful for the editor to add a statement or footnote on the paper, including the date of death in relation to participation in authorship and a statement to the effect that to the best of their ability, the journal has determined there was no COI. It is questionable that the deceased author would benefit from any COI. Further, the Forum agreed that COIs, leading to bias in the work, would have been uncovered at the time of grant funding or peer review of the manuscript.
The Forum applauded the editor’s due diligence in handling this matter.
The corresponding author contacted the deceased author’s widower, who was also a medical journal editor. As he understood the issues, and knew of the decedent’s work, he was able to meaningfully sign the copyright agreement and declaration of conflicts of interest.
The journal did not publish a note in the paper indicating that the author was deceased as the authors decided not to include such a statement. The journal could have posted such a notice with the article had it been felt there was a need to explain about copyright or conflicts, but in this case, it was felt this was not necessary.
Our journal received a manuscript which was a report of an evaluation and enhancement of an online clinical decision support system (CDS) for a specific population at risk of a disease. The online CDS had been developed by a national agency with a mission to support health promotion and disease prevention activities. Evaluation of the CDS was supported through contracts and sub-contracts. The first author was an employee of a university that was a sub-contractor on the project; the second and third authors were employees of a business that describes itself as providers of innovative scientific and technical solutions for national agencies through a consortium of more than 100 universities. The first author’s university was part of this consortium.
The manuscript was submitted to our journal 3 months after the project was finished. Project reports were also submitted to the national agency through the sub-contractors. The second author was the primary conduit of communication between the sub-contractors and the national funding agency.
As a result of the project report and evaluation, the national agency made changes to the online CDS, which included taking down the online version that was reported in the manuscript. When the manuscript was revised, the first author decided to include screenshots from the national agency which described the CDS even though it was no longer available online.
The revised manuscript was submitted, re-reviewed, and after a few small changes, accepted for publication. Shortly thereafter, the editorial associate for the journal contacted the first author to inquire about whether permission was needed to print the screenshots. The first author asked the second author to verify that the national agency was happy about the inclusion of the screenshots. She replied that the agency approved. During the proofing stage, when the second author did not respond to emails, the editorial assistant contacted the agency directly and was told that the programme officer was totally unaware of the existence of the manuscript. Questions surrounding the actions of the second author then emerged pertaining to the details of his communication with the national agency prior to the manuscript being submitted to our journal.
The first author contacted the journal and said the proofs had to be reviewed and approved by the primary funder. As editor, I replied that at the page proof stage, all edits/changes must be very minor. Substantial changes would require that the manuscript be taken out of the production process and depending on the nature of the changes, the entire submission and review process might have to begin anew.
During a telephone call with the first author she stated that she believed the second author had lied regarding eliciting input and obtaining permission from the national agency to submit and publish the manuscript in our journal. Further, the second author had been fired from his job for “ethical transgressions,” and was now doing work completely unrelated to his previous job for the sub-contractor. She believed he had contributed little to the original paper. The first author has been dealing with the fallout from this and the funding agency. She asked if she should withdraw the manuscript? Or if not, should the second author be listed as an author?
As editor, I am reluctant to have the second author remain on the manuscript, especially given the fact that he may have done less on the manuscript than he originally said and may not even qualify for authorship according to the ICMJE guidelines. The first author agrees with this, but she is concerned that he may take litigious action against her, the university where she works, or the journal.
Question(s) for the COPE Forum
Should the journal reject the manuscript? Is it unsalvageable at this point?
If the journal does not reject the manuscript, should the second author be removed? How could that be handled?
The editor provided an update to the Forum. Although the authors were originally working at the same agency, there was a change in employment and only the first author was now employed there. Through conversations with the third author, it became apparent that the second author had delegated manuscript writing to the third author, who was an intern at the time for the consulting agency. Subsequently, the second author had been fired from the consulting agency for unclear reasons.
The Forum agreed that it would be unwise for this paper to go forward given the authorship conflicts, the questionable timeliness or veracity of the data, the status of the permissions from the federal funding agency, and the lack of response from the second author (presumably because he had left the agency). The first and third authors could be encouraged to write a different paper in light of the problems. While the Forum recognized the editor’s wish to try and help the author get their paper published, the process should stop at the point of consent or lack thereof and when the authorship issues became questionable. Further changes by the programme officer would likely change the paper significantly such that it would need to be re-reviewed.
The majority of the Forum believed the paper should be rejected even though it is currently at the page proof stage. The editor asked if rejection should occur earlier in the process and suggested asking the author to withdraw the paper. Another suggestion was to check with the publisher if there is a technical term for suspending the paper at this point.
The editor raised the issue that this paper, because it is interesting, a timely topic, and has undergone peer review and revisions, and copyediting, might be published in a predatory journal so it was fortuitous that the issue was caught prior to publication.
The author withdrew the article from consideration. The author then revised the article, working with the funding agency. She is planning to submit it as a new manuscript (not a revised version of the previous paper).
An original paper was submitted to our journal. After peer review, the authors were requested to revise the paper, and the revision was submitted back to the journal. Our manuscript editor accepted the paper.
The paper was scheduled for publication 3 months later after copyediting was completed. We informed the corresponding author about acceptance of the paper and sent them the typeset article for proof reading.
The corresponding author contacted us stating that they wished to withdraw their submission, two weeks after we sent their paper for proof reading. As the chief editor, I immediately sent a message to the corresponding author and requested an explanation. The articles have been edited by one format editor, three peer reviewers, one manuscript editor, one copy editor, and finally typeset by our printer. We do not charge any article processing fees.
Question(s) for the COPE Forum
Significant resources have been provided to modify and improve the paper. Should we accept the withdrawal?
Is there anything else we should do if the authors do not respond to our request for an explanation?
The Forum noted that editors have no control over whether authors withdraw a paper even if significant work towards publication has already been done. The Forum questioned why the authors did not receive notification that their paper had been accepted before copyediting began. Were all the authors notified of this decision? Did they assign copyright, or did they agree to publication?
The Forum recommended that journal processes should be in place to preclude these situations. The editor should re-evaluate the journal’s internal editorial processes. Is there a possibility that the authors discovered a critical error and decided they could not publish the paper? The editor could consider communicating with the authors to determine if something in their process caused them to withdraw their paper. The editor would not want to publish an article if the author wants to withdraw it.
The editor has no choice but to accept the author’s decision. The Forum recommended that the journal should review their internal processes to make sure expectations are clear in their communications with authors and revise where needed. COPE’s journal auditing tool (https://publicationethics.org/news/new-cope-audit) might be helpful to the editor in that process.
Journal A is dedicated to communication about practical treatments related directly to patient and personal experiences. These ongoing discussions have been part of this specific medical profession for the past 50 years and journal A is a platform for these discussions.
Regarding new treatments and new developments, permission from the local medical ethical commission is mandatory as well as patient written permission for publication. For all other cases concerning standard practise reports about practical treatment issues, only written informed consent from the patient is needed before publication. As expected, only successful practical treatment cases are submitted for publication to journal A.
The society related to the journal organizes a biannual complication meeting which is attended by a small audience of around 120 doctors at which participants present their complication cases. At this meeting, many basic complications are discussed, which can be related to lack of education, lack of knowledge of materials, lack of knowledge about patient disease, or insufficient training, some of which have devastating outcomes. Many of these complications are avoidable.
As an editor and a doctor, I would like to publish some of these cases to improve patient safety and healthcare in general. However, the authors are often afraid of legal repercussions and patients are often not willing to provide consent after bad experiences. My solution would be to publish a series of these case reports as one publication with all authors in alphabetic order. I would leave out specific patient demographics, such as age and gender, and I would do so without written patient informed consent.
Question(s) for the COPE Forum
Would this publication violate COPE guidelines? If yes, how could this be resolved?
Is there any other way to resolve these issues?
The Forum agreed that the idea of presenting cases which do not result in improved patient safety or actual patient harm for learning opportunities is an interesting one and worthy of exploration. If any of the cases in this series have pending legal issues within an institution, this would be a significant consideration to protect the legal process. The editor must consider the legal environment in the country of origin, including regulations on informed consent.
As there are 120 cases, are there also 120 authors? If there are many authors, it may be easy to anonymise the cases, especially if the authors could be added in alphabetical order to help disguise identities. Otherwise, it is difficult to anonymise the data and retain essential elements for learning purposes. A suggestion was to publish one case per issue, deidentifying the data and to make all 120 presenters (or however many there are) the author(s). Another suggestion was to have a recurring column in a journal that has an ethics committee, who would review the cases and make necessary changes for protecting subjects’ identities. The journal could also seek institutional review of the cases to ensure that blinding was sufficient.
The Forum noted that changing the data is not acceptable unless that is clearly indicated in the text; if the case is a composite, this must also be stated. The reason being that researchers might be interested in doing composites of these cases, which would be based on false data unless the original cases are clearly labelled as composite or fictional scenarios.
If the editor wants to develop this project, he needs to have a strategic plan to publish these cases that considers the larger picture, and involves a sound, rational approach, which might be very valuable to readers. The Forum encouraged a careful review of the potential legal and privacy issues that must be addressed.
An article was submitted to our journal (journal A) in March. According to the journal’s working policy, the article was initially reviewed inhouse and comments were sent to the author. The authors replied to the comments but did not agree to the suggestion to convert the article to a short report. A rather impolite letter was sent by the author criticising the policies of the journal. We sent a reply that if the authors were not happy with the journal’s decision, they could withdraw the article according to the guidelines which are clearly given on our website.
The authors did not follow the journal procedures for withdrawing the article—they did not submit the withdrawal form signed by all authors. According to journal policy, the copyright of any manuscript remains with the journal, unless it is withdrawn in the proper manner.
The authors submitted the article to another local journal (journal B) where it was immediately published.
As the file was not closed at journal A, multiple reminders were sent to the authors. We wanted to remove the file from our database if the authors were no longer interested in publication. The authors wrote back that the article was published in July.
We first wrote to the authors that this was unethical and amounted to dual submission. We again received a rather impolite reply. We then wrote to the editor of the journal in which the article was published. Apparently, this journal does not ask for a non-submission undertaking from the authors. The editor was quite vague in his reply. We sent him the details of dual submission to which he sent a two line reply asking as to what should be done. We suggested that the copyright of the article is still with us so he should remove the article from the journal’s website until the article is withdrawn in the correct manner. The editor has not taken any steps and the article is still displayed on the other journal’s website.
Question(s) for the COPE Forum
Should we do nothing about the authors’ wrongdoing?
If no action is taken, will it encourage the authors to misbehave in the future for the sake of convenience
Should we pursue the matter with the editor of the journal who has made the mistake but is not responding.
It seems the authors did not follow the preferred journal policy, but the behaviour is not necessarily unethical. The editor told the Forum that copyright is transferred to the journal on submission. The Forum noted that although copyright does formally belong to journal A, the journal does not have the article or the revisions, and hence they are holding copyright on an article that they do not want to publish. Manuscript submission systems can be very cumbersome and inconvenient, and it seems harsh to punish the authors for a technical issue. Perhaps a production editor could help with the process if an author decides to withdraw their paper.
Although the authors’ behaviour was impolite, using copyright as a reason to have a claim on a paper is not reasonable. The behaviour was impolite, but it was not unethical. The journal may wish to modify their policies so that withdrawing an article does not involve this technical hitch.
A suggestion was for the journal to revise their policy of requiring copyright transfer on submission. It is unusual internationally, and it can in effect hold the authors hostage. Another suggestion was to email the authors explaining their error, and then letting the matter rest. The editor might also contact the editor of the other journal one last time to discuss the matter. Perhaps journal Y did have a discussion with the authors and from their perspective they may think the authors correctly withdrew their paper.
Advice on follow up:
As suggested by the COPE Forum, we wrote to the editor of journal B demanding an action in the form of contacting the authors and asking them to withdraw the article from our journal. Eventually the editor did convince the authors and they submitted the withdrawal form. The case is now closed.
A manuscript was published in our journal in 2015, and at the time of publishing (as now), the author was a faculty member of a university. The author's affiliation was not declared in the article, just the author's qualifications. Now the author wishes us to correct the paper and list her affiliation in the article.
Question(s) for the COPE Forum
What is the Forum's advice?
Should the journal correct the affiliation of the author in the paper after publication?
Correcting the paper is important for maintaining the accuracy of the published record and to maintain consistency and clarity. Authors make mistakes all the time. There is nothing unethical in a missed affiliation. A formal correction/erratum is appropriate here. It is considered good practice that author affiliations should be published for all articles. This information is important for identifying conflicts of interest.
Downloaded versions of the paper may be available, and therefore a formal erratum, linked directly to the online article, should be done. The correction should state the facts, that the affiliation was not included in the original paper, but it was the affiliation at the time and remains the affiliation now. Issued corrections are good for a journal as they provide proof that the journal is doing what it must do to keep the public record straight, accurate and transparent.
The journal might like to consider requiring all authors to use ORCID IDs. This way, affiliations can be updated, but the ORCID ID stays the same.
Following the advice from the Forum, the journal complied with the author’s request. The journal changed the affiliation in the online version and re-uploaded the article on the journal’s website.