I'm seeking advice on how my journal should publish an update to an author requested retraction. In a past issue, our editorial team accepted an author requested retraction; the authors cited errors in data reported in various figures. We have since learned of other errors in the paper and its figures, and we would like to now publish an update that provides more detailed and specific information than that provided in the original retraction.
Questions (1) What form should this update take to ensure that it is properly indexed and recognized? (2) Should it be published as an ‘update’, as a ‘corrigendum’ or as a new version of the retraction?
One view from the Forum was that as the article has already been retracted, is there any point in further updating the information. Is it worth the effort? However, others noted that it is important that the scientific record is correct, so the notice of retraction needs to be updated. It is very important that retraction is accompanied by a detailed explanation of why the article is being retracted. Retraction does not remove the paper from the literature, so it is important to be explicit about the problems with the paper, as parts of the paper may still be valid. To not update the retraction notice could be misleading for readers.
The Forum also suggested the editor might like to write an editorial on why papers are retracted.
The publication of a retraction statement resulted in the discovery of other problems with not only the original paper (which was retracted at the authors' request), but also with several additional articles published in our journal and other publications by the same laboratory. In short, the journal will soon publish detailed retraction statements of those articles, as well as an “update” of the original retraction statement that provides more detailed information related to the problems in the original paper (and is properly indexed and versioned with the original retraction statement). The editor is not aware of any other publications that have published updates of retractions, but given the extenuating circumstances involving the additional problems and articles, the Subcommittee on Ethical Scientific Publications of the journal feels that they owe it to the readers of the journal to clarify all of the problems with the data reported in the original paper (as well as in the other papers).
A sixth year medical student, with expected year of graduation of 2013 (Mr X), submitted 29 original articles and 17 letters to the editor in the period February 2012 to October 2012 to our journal. This amounted to an average of five submissions per month. Mr X is an author and corresponding author in every article. Of these, he is the first author of eight original research articles and 12 letters. In the remaining one he is a co-author. The articles are on very diverse subjects.
This set us thinking that, apart from his clinical work and studies, how he had time to conduct research, analyse the results and write the articles.
The journal first wrote to Mr X for the necessary justification. He responded promptly, “I am one of the best researchers of my country and have multiple publications in every field of medicine and have won multiple prizes”. He provided a list of 72 publications to his credit. He also provided the name and email of the chief of the research committee of the university.
We wrote to the concerned parties asking them to endorse the submissions as being ethical and valid for the purpose of publication. The chief replied that Mr X was a member of the student research committee with some research background in medicine which led to multiple awards and publications. He confirmed the research background in a vague manner and there were no more comments or endorsements of the submitted articles.
We then wrote to the vice chancellor of the university asking for verification and endorsement of the articles according to the ICMJE guidelines. The director of research affairs was also approached, who asked for details of all the articles submitted. These were duly sent.
In the meantime, Mr X contacted us stating that his e-mail had been hacked and someone else had sent letters and articles with his name. This was incorrect, as all mails had the same e-mail address. We also sent an email to the Publication Commission in our country on 6 March 2013. There has been no response.
We face a dilemma. The articles are lying unprocessed. It is a mystery as to why the higher authorities are not taking any action or replying to our emails.
Question What would the COPE Forum suggest we do?
The Forum suggested that it may be useful in this case to help rather than punish the author. As an initial approach, the Forum asked if there was any pastoral care available to the student, or whether the medical school has anyone who could talk to the student in a confidential manner. This may be more of a problem with the student, rather than research integrity concerns. The institution has a responsibility to its students and they need to ensure that students are sufficiently supported. So the editor should consider contacting someone in this role at the author’s university.
However, that still leaves the dilemma of the unprocessed articles and what to do with them. The Forum advised that the editor needs to be certain that the articles are all from the author and that he takes responsibility for them. If there is any doubt, then the articles should not be processed. However, if the articles are genuine and have scientific merit, then they should be processed in the normal way, as there are no grounds for rejection.
The Forum also suggested contacting any co-authors on the papers for an explanation and to confirm that the papers have all been written by the author. The editor should make it clear to the author that the papers are on hold while the issue is satisfactorily resolved.
Another suggestion was for the editor to consider contacting some higher authority or regulatory body, or ministry of research, and asking them to investigate the case.
As suggested by the Forum members, we did some investigations ourselves as the higher authorities, including the Vice Chancellor of the University to which the author belonged, were unresponsive.
As a sample, an Internet search was made for three of the articles. One was found to be copied in full from a similar article in another online journal.
A search was made for the correct names and email addresses of the coauthors, as those stated in the articles submitted to us were wrong. We spoke to two coauthors by telephone— one knew nothing about the concerned author or about his name being included as a coauthor. He also knew nothing about the article. Another senior coauthor spoke in favour of the author. He said, “ Mr X is a very intelligent and knowledgeable researcher and writes very well”. He could not justify how Mr X could write on such diverse topics.
We received only one email reply from a senior professor. He wrote : “I was really shocked to see the paper published without my knowledge. I do not know Mr X (author). I have never met him. He has never worked with me. He has stolen my published data. I am going to forward this message to the ethics department and make a complaint on the concerned person at the university”.
We have had no comment or reply to our queries from the officials of the university. From the Internet searches made by us, we can conclude that Mr X, the medical student (author) is: • Not only good at writing in English but is also excellent in fabricating and stealing data. • He has the support of one or two senior faculty members of his university. • He has been committing these unethical acts for quite a few years as there are a number of articles with his name. • The articles submitted to our journal had fake email addresses and names, even with incorrect spellings, making contact difficult. • The signatures of all authors were forged.
Questions for the COPE Forum (1) Should we just close all the files and bury the case? (2) If not, what steps should be taken?
Advice on follow up:
One view from the Forum was that, as suggested before, the editor should contact a higher authority, regulatory body, or ministry of research, and ask them to investigate the case, given the institution’s unwillingness or inability to engage with the editor on this issue.
However, others argued that it is the responsibility of the institution to deal with this student. Institutions not responding to editors’ requests is a common problem, and the advice was to contact the institution every 3 months, requesting a reply and including copies of the information on the case. The editor should say that he/she does not consider the matter closed and request that the institution investigate the case. If the institution does agree to an investigation, the editor should publish the findings of the investigation in the journal, using the text from the institution’s report.
The Forum advised the editor not to accept any more papers from this author. The editor should write to all of the authors of the submitted manuscripts to say that no further papers will be considered from this student.
Regarding the published papers, the editor should consider contacting the editors of the other journals that published papers by this author.
Update (December 2013): The Secretary National Ethics Committee updated the editor that the university was conducting an investigation. The Committee have confirmed that more misconducts had been detected against this author and the concerned authorities were still looking into the case. The Committee suggested that the journal should take an independent decision on the unprocessed articles in the journal’s office. The journal plans to make a final decision on the pending articles very soon.
Update (February 2014):
The Secretary National Ethics Committee told the editor that more misconduct cases had been detected against this author and the concerned authorities were still looking into the case. He suggested that the journal should take an independent decision on the unprocessed articles. We will make a final decision on the pending articles shortly.
Update (June 2014):
The decision of the editorial board of our journal was to close all 27 pending files on the grounds of fraud. The decision was also taken to debar the author. The Secretary National Research Ethics Committee of the author’s university was informed.
In October 2011, our journal received a submission from author A with co-authors B, C and D. After review and revision it was published in mid-2012. In April 2013 we received a complaint from author X, saying that the work published in this paper was his work, and that although author A had been his research supervisor at the time the work was done, authors B, C and D had either little or no input to the work. Author X said that the correct authorship should be X and A in that order.
Author X provided as evidence an internal document submitted to and accepted by the university authorities in May 2010 in fulfilment of a requirement to demonstrate capability for research. His academic record confirms that this submission was successful. He then changed supervisor (and department) within the same university due to a breakdown of relations with his previous supervisor, and proceeded to complete his PhD in January 2013. The internal document is not in English, but it is apparent that close to 75% of the content of the journal paper has effectively been taken from the internal document. [This has been checked roughly through the use of online translation. The majority of figures and diagrams are clearly the same. The authors (A–D) of the published journal paper do not appear to be contesting that this document was the source of the text although they claim ownership of the data and ideas.]
When challenged, author A says that author X was a poor researcher and was away from the country for considerable periods of time when he should have been doing the work. He also suggests that others in his research team gave author X considerable help with the internal document. He claims that author X has fraudulently used the work of author A and his co-workers, both in the internal document and in his PhD thesis.
The editor’s suggestion was that author X’s name should be added to the authors of the published paper, as second author (compromising on the initial request of author X that he should be first author, given that author A was the team leader, had a strong interest in the work and that this complaint had come nearly 3 years after author X had departed the group, amid some acrimony). This would be achieved through the publication of a corrigendum. Author
A disagreed strongly, and said that he did not wish his name to be on the same paper as author X’s. Author A also encouraged the other co-authors to respond, and they supported him. The original authors said they would rather withdraw the paper than have author X’s name added.
The editor indicated that withdrawal (retraction) of the paper was not an option at this stage, as no one had questioned the science in the paper, and the concern was solely over the authorship. The editor also pointed out that the guidelines on authorship, available through the journal’s web page, made clear that anyone who has made a significant contribution to the article should be included in the list of authors. The prior existence and acceptance by the university of the internal document as proof of the research competence of author X would appear to be sufficient proof of a significant contribution. This would not apply if there had been some formal challenge within the university, but no challenge appears to have been made.
The current head of department of author A has largely confirmed the picture painted. He says that when author X first came to the department he was announced by author A to be a ‘brilliant student’, but that relations started to break down early on, as author X had expected to do research in a somewhat different area. He confirms that after the internal document had been submitted and accepted, author X moved to complete his PhD in a different department, although in the same general area as before. He agrees with the proposed action and says he will attempt to convince author A, but with no feedback as yet.
Questions (1) Can the journal make a decision to add author X’s name without the agreement of the other authors? Given the opinions that authors A, etc, have so forcefully stated, this seems inappropriate. (2) Could a corrigendum be used to demonstrate the full order of suggestions—that author X be added, that authors A, B, C and D said that if that were decided they would withdraw their names, and therefore the paper would now be acknowledged as the work of author X alone? (3) Should the request of author A and others that the paper be retracted be accepted? This appears entirely inappropriate as no one is objecting to the science or claiming that the work should not be published on scientific grounds?
The Forum agreed that it is not up to the editor to decide who is an author on a paper. The editor is not in a position to know the details of the dispute. This is the responsibility of the authors and their institutions and needs to be resolved by them or by an independent party. However, the paper is unacceptable as it stands, and the editor should put a note on the paper saying that the authorship is in dispute. The editor might even suggest that the institution has been unable to resolve this dispute. This may prompt the authors or institution to resolve the issue. The editor could suggest to the authors that they find an independent arbitrator to review the case and whose decision they agree to abide by. Another suggestion was for the editor to suggest including author X on the paper, and then giving the other authors the option of withdrawing their names.
The editor told the Forum that, subsequently, the head of department has suggested that author X should be listed as the second author on the paper and author A seems to accept this. If this is the case, the Forum advised the editor to emphasise on the correction notice that the paper is being corrected on the recommendation of the institution.
Since the case was discussed, the editor has focused on getting the institution to take full responsibility for taking a decision. This has been effective to the point of getting all parties to indicate they would accept the decision, although on circulating the proposed corrigendum, the first author (A) reverted to saying that author X was not acceptable. The institution stuck with the decision, and the corrigendum will appear shortly.
An associate editor handling a paper for this journal reported to the editor-in-chief that he had not yet been able to recruit a single reviewer—all those who have been contacted had declined or not responded. The paper is in scope for the journal, it seems of reasonably quality from a brief read and the associate editor is appropriate; but this is a small and specialised field, and finding expert and unconflicted reviewers is proving challenging (not helped by the paper length and the sophistication of the paper).
We are persevering but if we cannot recruit reviewers soon we intend to write to the authors telling them of the situation and asking whether they want to withdraw the paper.
Questions (1) If they do not want to withdraw the paper, are we ethically obliged to keep trying to find reviewers? (2) Or do our editorial responsibilities only extend to making ‘reasonable attempts’ to find reviewers?
The Forum agreed this is a very common problem. If the editor believes the paper has merit, he should try his best to find a suitable reviewer. Some members of the Forum said that in cases where this is difficult, they often ask their editorial board members or call in favours from other colleagues. But it is up to the editor to decide in which instances he should pursue the quest for reviewer—for some papers this will be warranted, but for others it may not. If a lot of reviewers have refused the paper for example, does this imply the paper has little merit?
The Forum agreed that it is very important to keep the author updated—it is fine for the editor to communicate to the author that he is having problems finding a reviewer, and that although he will try his best, he may not be able to succeed. One suggestion for a solution was to consider asking several reviewers to review different parts of the paper, especially for those papers that are highly technical or complicated.
The editor agreed with the advice of the Forum. Although it does not solve any particular case he was grateful for the feedback from others. In this particular case, part of the problem was that the paper was from a specialist subarea of the field, with only a few people working in it, so there was only a limited pool of possible reviewers. In the end, the editor was able to obtain two reviews, both of which said "reject" so that was the decision in the end, as confirmed by the associate editor. The editor tries to get three reviewers for each paper, but routinely rejects on two high confidence ones.
A subject editor, who oversaw a manuscript, was invited by the authors to become a co-author after the first review round. After inviting the subject editor to become an author (and adding his name to the author list), the revised version of the paper was submitted to the journal. The authors expected that a different subject editor would handle the paper in the next review round.
However, when the revised version was submitted, no one (including the subject editor himself) noticed the addition of the subject editor’s name to the revised paper, and the subject editor took "automatic" care of the revised manuscript when it was assigned to him by the editor-in-chief, who also had not noticed the addition of the subject editor’s name to the paper.
The second revision was directly accepted by the editor-in-chief. During proof corrections, no one noticed that the subject editor was listed as an author and also as the communicating editor (it is standard practice on the journal to name the subject editor on the published paper—ie, "Communicated by ...").
Thus the article was published online before the authors became aware of the problem and contacted the editor. The editor-in-chief believes the subject editor was acting in good faith, but is very concerned about the situation and the breakdown of the journal process. The manuscript managed to slip through two rounds of the journal’s editorial process.
The authors are also very concerned about this awkward situation, which looks like preferential treatment, and have asked the journal what can be done to avoid this impression.
Question What can the journal do?
The Forum agreed this was a failure of journal processes and the editor in chief must take responsibility for this. The change was not detected but there should be processes in place when any change in the authorship of a paper is noted. Authors should be required to clearly state when any changes in authorship are made after the initial submission, and the journal needs to ensure it tightens its processes to detect this. So the journal should reinforce the processes it has in place and make any necessary changes.
The editor confirmed that a conflict of interest statement was signed by the corresponding author on behalf of all of the authors. The Forum suggested that, in future, the journal may like to consider asking each author to sign an individual conflict of interest form. If this had been done in this case, for example, the addition of another author would have been spotted.
The advice from the Forum was to publish an erratum, with the editor in chief as the “Communicated by” editor, and also explaining clearly what happened in this case. The journal may also have to publish a correction to its conflict of interest statement on the paper.
The Forum also advised that the journal should have a written process in place for what to do when an editor becomes an author and wants to publish in his journal.
The journal added a note to the paper from the editor in chief, stating that due to an unfortunate technical mistake when handling the article, one of the authors was also a subject editor at the same time. The editor in chief also stated that he guaranteed that the scientific standards and honesty had not been violated in any way.
In 2008, our journal published a phase 2 randomised controlled trial of a new medicine. In 2011, the regulatory authority in the country where the study was performed decided to undertake routine monitoring of completed studies and this trial was selected for random inspection. The author informed the journal of the inspection and provided a translation of the report (independently verified as accurate by our journal).
The following concerns were raised by the regulatory authorities: (1) There was no medical involvement in the process for informed consent, which was delegated to a non-medical practitioner. The country’s regulations require that a medical practitioner informs a participant and confirms this. The local ethics committee has been informed by the regulator about this lapse. (2) The integrity of blinding was questioned in an earlier inspection in 2007 and because of comments about the treatment’s efficacy and side effects by one of the investigators while the trial was underway. (3) The recording and assessment of adverse events was incomplete and the inspectors felt that the table of adverse events published in our journal did not reflect the clinical records for product safety.
The manuscript had two rounds of peer-review (seven reviews by four clinicians and a statistician). The only point of relevance to the above concerns was the comment that “the main weakness of the study is inadequate data on safety and adverse effects (in part unsurprising as this was a proof of efficacy study) and a rather overly positive presentation of the data”. The manuscript was revised and re-reviewed by this reviewer and a statistician; both were satisfied that the points had been addressed in the revision. After publication of the research article, our journal published two letters as correspondence. In one, the possibility of certain adverse events was raised, to which the authors replied that these had not been observed.
The authors have submitted a correction that states incorrect instructions by the contract research organisation resulted in under-reporting of adverse events for headache, migraine, stress and depression in people who had experienced these conditions before enrolling in the trial. They also state that comments about the medicine made to local media were based on another study. The editors are concerned that taken in their totality, the issues raised by the regulator question the soundness of our publication. As we gather more information and await the ethics committee’s decision about the process for informed consent, the editors would be interested in learning what actions COPE would recommend.
The Forum advised that if the editor cannot decide what to do, a statement of concern could be published in the interim. If the editor thinks the methodology was insufficient (to detect side effects), then he should consider retracting the paper. Clearly a correction needs to be done. The expression of concern should mention the fact that the table of side effects may not be correct, in addition to the issue relating to consent. The editor told the Forum that he does not believe there has been any misconduct and the authors wrote the paper in good faith. On a show of hands, nine people suggested that the editor should do an expression of concern detailing the chain of events. Only two people thought the paper should be retracted. Hence the consensus was that it would be appropriate to put a statement of concern on the paper.
The journal has received a letter from the author that responds to the expression of concern and the inspection report. At present, the precise wording is being negotiated with the author.
Update (September 2013):
The journal published an expression of concern and a letter from the authors that responded to the expression of concern and the inspection report. Although there was insufficient evidence to retract the publication, the editors felt that uncertainties about the study persisted and therefore decided that the expression of concern should remain part of the published record.
We became concerned that not all of the co-authors were aware of a research paper submitted to our journal due to the difficulty receiving responses from the email addresses that had been supplied and their nature, given that the authors all worked in a hospital/academic institution. Despite repeated requests and attempts we remained dissatisfied with the responses and did not feel certain that all of the authors were aware of the paper. We therefore requested further documentation signed by all of the authors, but all of the signatures appeared to be signed by the same person, and hand writing analysis suggested this was highly likely. In addition, the statement from the ethics committee also had a similar signature. The letter from the ‘head’ of the ethics committee was on blank paper, not letterhead, and was not received as an original hard copy.
We therefore contacted the head of the ethics review committee who was different to the head on the document we had received and about which we had some concerns. The current head eventually confirmed after a second request that the doctor who had signed the previously supplied document was not on the committee. Ethics committee clearance has since been granted retrospectively after the paper was submitted.
As a result we have significant concerns about this paper, its ethical clearance and some of the documentation that has been supplied. We have advised the authors that we have suspended processing of their paper and that we would seek further advice from COPE. Our intention is to report our concerns to the hospital director and formally reject this paper.
We would appreciate guidance on any further action we should take.
The Forum agreed with the proposed course of action of the editor. It would not be appropriate in this case to simply reject the paper. It is very clear that something serious has happened in relation to the governance of this paper, and if the editor were to simply reject it, it is quite likely that the authors will simply submit elsewhere. In these situations, COPE recommends that if an editor has a concern about a paper, even if they end up rejecting it, they must tell the authors that they will take it further and that it is highly likely that it will be referred to their institution for further investigation.
(COPE Council also discussed this case outside of the Forum). Council members agreed with the proposed course of action. This appears to be a very serious breach of ethics and the author may repeat this type of misconduct with another journal.
First you should inform all the authors of what you are going to do in a factual, non-accusatory way. As there may be legal implications, you should also ensure that the letter to the hospital director has to be purely factual, with dates and copies of letters between the journal and the ethics service and the authors. Claims about forged signatures need to be backed up by a report of handwriting analysis (or if you can't supply that you should not make the accusation directly). The journal should consider taking legal advice. You may want to pursue this issue further to a higher institutional level. Hence, in addition to the hospital director, if there is another head of the academic institution or some kind of oversight office then you might consider contacting them also. If the authors are working in an academy (university) and the hospital is affiliated to that university, then there may be a research regulatory body of that university that could be informed.
The journal followed the advice given by COPE and sought legal advice from their publishers before writing to the hospital director raising their concerns. The editor also rejected the paper and gave the authors the reasons for doing this. The editor has had no response and so he plans to write again and also write directly to the head of the ethics committee.
Update (September 2013):
The editor has still not had a response from the hospital director despite following up the original communication and copying in the ethical review chairman. It was agreed that the next step should be to contact the research integrity office.
Update (February 2014):
The editor has now had a response from the ethics committee, recognising the nature of their concern. The ethics committee is going to inform the university rector.
An original work was published in our journal in September 2010. The article had five authors. Now, in February 2013, the third author is requesting an alteration in his/her name. The original name published was SFHS. The request is to change the name to SFH, both on the journal's website and Medline.
No valid reason could be provided by the author for this change in name. The last name is the cast and now he/she wants to write in future without the cast being evident.
Would this deletion be ethical?
Can there be any legal implications?
The COPE Forum was divided on whether or not the editor should allow the author to change their name. One view was that there are many reasons why an author might want to change their name (marriage, divorce, for example) so the editor should publish a corrigendum, provided the editor receives proof of the identity of the author. An author should be allowed to have charge of their name, and if they wish to change it, then the editor should accommodate this request by publishing a simple erratum or corrigendum. This would be linked electronically to the publication and would be picked up by Medline automatically. The online version of the paper could also be changed, depending on the policy of the journal. It is not unethical to request a change in your name but the editor must be certain that the author requesting the change is in fact the author of the paper, and the editor should insist on proof of identification.
However, another view was that the name was correct in 2010 when the paper was published, so is an erratum really appropriate? The spelling of the name, for example, is correct. If the author’s request is a vanity issue, then the majority of the Forum suggested not changing the name. Hence it is then up to the journal and publisher whether they feel they want to spend the time and effort correcting the name. Unless the author has very valid reasons (which he has not provided to date), then the majority view was that the editor should do nothing.
The Forum noted that this case highlights the importance of schemes like ORCID (Open Researcher and Contributor ID, https://orcid.org/), which provides a code to uniquely identify academic authors and which authors can sign up to. Then an author’s history and online activity can be traced, regardless of what name they use, as all publications are traced back to this unique identifier.
On a show of hands, the majority (15) of the Forum said they would not change the name and 10 said they would.
As no valid or convincing reason could be provided by the author for a change in name, we wrote back stating that the case had been discussed at the COPE Forum and the majority of the Forum were of the opinion that, due to lack of a convincing reason, the name should not be changed. The case is now considered closed.
An article was submitted by corresponding author (CA) on 19 December 2011. After several revisions the article was accepted for publication on 23 March 2012. The article was published online 8 May 2012. At the time of submission, CA was a PhD student at a research centre (X). On 21 November 2012, co-author A (also head of the research group) contacted the publisher and editor-in-chief of journal A with a request to retract the published article claiming the following: • Co-author A claims that this paper was submitted to journal A by CA during her absence (maternity leave). • Co-author A claims that she and the other 7 co-authors (authors B, C, D, E, F, G and H) were not informed about the publication in journal A by CA. • Co-author A claims that 90% of the data presented in this paper were obtained during work performed in the laboratories at research centre X, are the property of X, and can only be published by an X staff member and cannot be distributed or published without X’s consent. According to co-author A, CA knows this as he signed a contract with centre X. • Co-author A mentions that she recently submitted an updated version of the same paper to another journal. For this submission, co-author A is the corresponding author. All authors (including CA!) agreed to this publication. (NB: Journal B is a journal with a higher impact factor than journal A.)
On 3 December 2012, the editor-in-chief of journal A informed co-authors A and CA and all of the other co-authors (B, C, D, E, F, G and H) of the possibility of publishing an erratum.
On 6 December 2012, the Legal and Contracts Officer (LCO) of research centre X replied to the editor-in-chief that CA violated contractual obligations with X by submitting the article and transferring the copyright to the copyright owner of the journal. LCO seems to mix up ‘ownership of copyright’ and ‘ownership of results (data)’. So far, no reply from any of the other co-authors has been received although they were copied in on the correspondence.
On 14 December 2012, the publisher contacted CA directly, asking him for his point of view. CA replied on 17 December 2012. From his reply it was not clear whether he completely understood the situation. He stated that he had asked co-author A for permission to submit the article but “had no answer for one year”. He states that the research was done by him and that co-author A also contributed.
On 19 December 2012, the publisher again asked CA the following points: — Did you get the approval of the other co-authors before you submitted the article? Are there, by chance, documents that prove this? — Co-author A said that she was away from work for one year of maternity leave. Were you aware of this when submitting the article? — Are there contractual obligations between you and research centre X that were not observed by submitting the article?
On 20 December 2012, the corresponding author replied that “after a long discussion with the Legal Officer (LO) of research institute Y” he remembered the document/contract that he had signed at research centre X and that he now agrees to retract the article, and he asks the publisher to do so.
However, the published article itself presents sound science. Furthermore, the legal issue between CA and research centre X needs to be separated from the case for retraction of a scientifically correct article. (A minor mistake in the published article that co-author A found in the meantime could be corrected by an erratum.)
On 20 December 2012, the publisher informed CA, co-author A and LCO that any contractual obligations between them and centre X will not be part of this issue. LCO corresponded separately with the LO of research institute Y on how to find an ‘amicable’ solution. This ‘amicable’ solution focused solely on the contractual obligations between research centre X and CA. One step in this solution would be submission of the article to the ‘correct’ journal (journal B) by co-author A.
LCO agreed to the amicable proposal of the LO of institute Y, and sent the publisher a statement on 21 December 2012 in which he disagreed that the case is merely an authorship dispute, but states that the foremost concern is the declaration that the corresponding author signed with research institute X which in his eyes is “wider than the ownership of copyright and results”. He also states that together with the LO from institute Y they came to an agreement NOT to publish. And he will launch a formal compensation claim.
On 21 December 2012, the publisher received a message from a co-author (the first time that one has replied) in which he mentions that CA published a paper without his approval, that he does not want to be linked to the ‘criminal acts’ of a PhD student, he suggests retracting the paper, as asked by co-author A and the LCO, and he will sue the journal.
In summary, the issues are: • The corresponding author submitted an article without the knowledge of all or some of his co-authors. • The corresponding author was under contract with research centre X at that time. • The scientific content of the article is correct. A minor error that occurred since publication can be corrected by an erratum. • Research centre X seems to have put pressure on CA to retract the article because of contractual obligations only. The scientific content was never a case in the correspondence between the different parties
The Forum suggested that there is a lesson to be learnt here: when a journal receives a manuscript, an acknowledgement should be sent to all of the authors, not just the corresponding author, and all authors should be copied in on all correspondence. This will prevent a similar situation arising in the future.
There could be legal issues here, as the PhD student was under contract to the institute. So the issue may be taken out of the hands of the editor. Some suggested there was a lack of mentorship and failure of supervision—what was the PhD supervisor doing?
Most agreed that there were no grounds for retraction. An author dispute is not sufficient grounds to retract an article if there is no issue with the scientific content of the article. However, as the editor does not have documentation that all authors agreed to the publication, the authors do have some grounds to feel aggrieved and to want a retraction. If the editor can obtain signed consent from all of the authors, then he could consider retraction. Others suggested that the editor should do nothing.
Regarding the issue of the recently submitted updated version of the same paper to another journal, the Forum noted that the editor has a right to ask the author for a copy of this paper. Do the authors want the paper retracted so that they can submit to the other journal (which has a higher impact factor)? If the authors do go ahead with submission of a paper to the other journal, there must be clear linkage to the original paper.
There are also copyright issues to consider.
On a show of hands, half of the Forum suggested that the editor do nothing further, a few suggested publishing a correction or some form of note on the paper regarding the authorship dispute, and only two people suggested a retraction.
The editors never received any feedback from anyone involved. They count this as silent agreement to the way they handled this case—involving COPE and publishing the article. The editor considers this case as closed.