An author submitted a manuscript and stated that he was the sole author. The manuscript received a favourable peer review and eventually was accepted. Some time after the article was published, a co-author told the author to contact the journal to correct the author list. The author of record (AOR) did this and supplied co-author names to the journal.
The editor worked with the author group to determine the source of the error and to resolve the list and order of authors. The AOR acknowledged that he should have credited additional authors. All authors agreed with the corrected list of authors, but the AOR insisted on being the first author and the other authors did not agree.
Pursuant to COPE guidelines, the editor contacted the university of the AOR for assistance and found that the author had left and was now a resident of another country. The university was unable to assist in resolving the authorship issue. The AOR then contacted the journal and stated that due to disagreement on the order of authorship, he was requesting a retraction of the article.
One more attempt was made by the editor and a co-author to resolve the dispute, but the AOR refused to acknowledge any other lead author. However, the AOR agreed that, following retraction, the manuscript could be resubmitted with another lead author. Attempts to negotiate another solution and education about the consequences of retraction have been unsuccessful in resolving the problem.
Question(s) for the COPE Forum
Are there any remaining options other than retraction?
What is the recommendation should the authors wish to resubmit to the same journal, as has been expressed?
Aside from the existing extensive author guidelines required by the journal, is there another way to prevent this in the future?
What other steps should be taken to address the authors in the case?
The Forum agreed that the editor followed the correct route in terms of handling this case. If the article itself is sound and there is nothing wrong with the research or the integrity of the data in the article, it is usually not appropriate for an article to be retracted for an authorship dispute. The purpose of retraction is to rectify the scientific record not to resolve an authorship dispute.
Also, it is not the role of publishers or editors to resolve authorship disputes. These issues need to be investigated and resolved by the authors’ institutions. The editor may wish to push this request back to the institution and indicate that the journal will not retract the article unless specific reasons for retraction are given.
The COPE retraction guidelines (https://publicationethics.org/files/retraction-guidelines.pdf) include a section on “Should retraction be applied in cases of disputed authorship?” The guidelines state that “If there is no reason to doubt the validity of the findings or the reliability of the data, it is not appropriate to retract a publication solely on the grounds of an authorship dispute.” The ideal situation would be for the authors to agree on a course of action. Failing that, the institution should be asked to investigate. If the institution fails to investigate, or does not respond, the journal should consider publishing an expression of concern or a corrigendum, which transparently states that the journal has become aware that there is an ongoing authorship dispute.
Another view was to consider if there are grounds for retraction based on copyright infringement or some other legal issue (eg, libel, privacy). If the publisher finds there is infringement on the other authors' rights to have been included as authors on this list, retraction might be justified. The Forum would advise the publisher in consultation with their legal department to determine if there is a serious legal issue that necessitates that the article be retracted. Whether the article is republished with another author list is another issue that would need to be resolved but it would mean that the research is not lost but the authorship is corrected.
For future submissions, the journal may wish to update their instructions to authors to state that a signed statement by all of the authors is required on submission, recognising the order of authorship, that there is no one else that should be included as an author in the manuscript and that manuscripts will not be retracted on the sole basis of an authorship dispute.
A handling editor rejected a paper without review, after consulting with a senior editor. The corresponding author sent an appeal about 2 weeks later where he requested that the paper be given a second chance and be sent for peer review. He added that, in case of a new decision to reject without review, the editor should provide a detailed response to a number of questions and comments raised in the appeal letter. He also mentioned that, in order to illustrate the importance of the study, he had done a social media poll asking whether the paper in question was more relevant to the journal’s readership than another paper whose link he provided in the poll and that had recently been published in the journal. The appeal was also read by another senior editor and it was agreed to reject the paper again without providing any detailed explanations as the behaviour was considered borderline bullying.
Three weeks after the second rejection, the corresponding author contacted the journal expressing his disappointment with the decision and threatened a freedom of information request to access the correspondence between the editors that led to the editorial decision. Moreover, he suggested he would be writing about his negative experience with the journal.
The handling editor perceived this as aggressive and litigious behaviour and shared the correspondence with the head of the research section of the journal, who responded to the author and copied the senior author in the correspondence. The senior author responded by acknowledging the inappropriate behaviour of the author and promising to take action internally.
Question(s) for the COPE Forum
Did the journal handle the case appropriately?
Could something else or something different have been done?
How can this type of situation be prevented?
The Forum agreed that the journal behaved appropriately and handled the case correctly.
In terms of what the journal could do for future situations, the COPE Audit stresses the need for an appeals process, and that the process is clearly described in the author guidelines or on the journal's website. The journal might wish to look again at their instructions to authors and include a statement about the editorial decision making process in the appeals process, stating that the associate editors make recommendations to the editor, if appropriate, and that the final decision rests with the editor. The journal might also wish to add prominently to the author guidelines that the deliberations and decisions are, in general, confidential, and that any specific enquiries would have to requested formally by a lawyer.
The Forum suggested that in retrospect, perhaps the journal should have involved the other co-authors, given that it was the corresponding author who made the threats. It is possible the co-authors may not have been aware of the corresponding author’s threats.
Also, with the benefit of hindsight, it is possible that after the author had done the social media poll, and was asking for more detail, it might have been possible to de-escalate the situation by giving more detail on why the appeal was declined.
Another suggested approach was to look at this from the point of view of a difficult personality with misdirected enthusiasm, someone who does not understand the process well, but is engaged and enthusiastic, who might respond to direction and education from the journal.
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.
The journal was eventually able to reach out (directly) to the author whose name had been removed from the list of authors. The institution responded to the issue, understanding that the journal was trying to follow its guidelines on publication ethics. Direct contact with the author resolved any ambiguity over why their name had been removed from the original article, confirming the messaged received from the other parties. The editor considers the case closed.
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.
The paper was withdrawn. The editor contacted the institution and they said that they are conducting their own investigation.
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).