Clear policies (that allow for transparency around who contributed to the work and in what capacity) should be in place for requirements for authorship and contributorship as well as processes for managing potential disputes.
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Author A contacted us claiming that an article published in the journal recently by author B was stolen from an article author A had earlier submitted to two different publishers, publisher A in 2016 and publisher B in 2017. Author A provided the PDFs of the manuscripts they had submitted to those other publishers. The version submitted to us 2018 by author B was very similar to that submitted to publisher B.
We contacted publisher B who confirmed the details of the submission to them by author A in 2017. Author B is listed publicly as a reviewer for publisher B's journal, but publisher B could not confirm that they had direct access to this particular submission. Author B said their PhD advisor, now apparently deceased, had given them the article but they recently had doubts that this had been their advisor's work. They agreed to retraction.
Author A has asked whether instead of retracting we might publish a correction to replace author B with the rightful author, Author A, because the article has already been peer reviewed and accepted.
Question(s) for the COPE Forum
• Is correcting a stolen article to list the correct authors a potential solution? If so, should we correct the article metadata too?
• Is there any precedent for such a total correction of authorship?
• How might we detect and prevent the publication of stolen articles? They do not show up on Crossref Similarity Check because they are unpublished.
Copyright is with the assigned author and it is not appropriate to simply transfer it to another author. The Forum advised that there are clear authorship guidelines from COPE and other organisations. There are real duties and responsibilities that come with authorship and hence it is not appropriate to just change the authorship list. The new author(s) have not been involved in the preparation of the article for publication (submitting, revising, etc) and the author(s) who stole the paper may have made changes to the paper. The editor may wish to direct the author to their authorship criteria and peer review process to explain why transferring authorship is not appropriate.
To prevent theft of a paper, one idea put forward was for the DOI to be reserved in advance, with the title and names of the authors, and then part of the CrossRef similarity check would extend to looking up the titles and authors in the DOI database to see if anything similar is already on file.
In a single blind peer review process, a reviewer gave an author detailed suggestions about improvements in the statistical analysis. The author was asked to revise and resubmit the paper to address these and other reviewers' suggestions. The author, unaware of the reviewer’s identity, subsequently approached the reviewer as a respected colleague at a professional meeting to discuss the manuscript revision. During this conversation, to avoid having to pretend to go over their own suggestions as if they were from someone else, the reviewer disclosed that they were one of the reviewers. The author and reviewer discussed how to improve the manuscript, and at this point, the reviewer offered to assist with new statistical analyses they had recommended and become a co-author, which was agreeable to the author.
Before proceeding, the reviewer disclosed this interaction and her intention to the journal editors and the associate editor handling the paper. We determined to reject the manuscript because of the breach of confidentiality and the conflict of interest between the reviewer’s role as reviewer and proposed role as co-author. They will presumably submit the co-authored paper to another journal.
Although the proposed transition from peer reviewer to co-author is clearly inappropriate, some of the early steps leading up to this are less clear. COPE guidance for peer reviewers (https://publicationethics.org/files/Peer%20review%20guidelines.pdf) recommends that reviewers not contact the authors directly without the permission of the journal but provides no guidance about how to handle a situation in which an author, in good faith, approaches the reviewer. This may be particularly common in smaller scientific communities.
Question(s) for the COPE Forum • Does the reviewer have an obligation to conceal their status when asked by the author? • Alternately, would it be better to acknowledge their status as a reviewer but decline to comment further? • How should a reviewer handle having an author unknowingly approach them to discuss a manuscript?
Does the journal have instructions for their reviewers regarding revealing their identity? Should this be up to reviewers to decide? The Forum felt this was an unusual case and there does not appear to be any guidance available on this issue. The Forum questioned whether it was fair on the part of the reviewer to have to conceal their identity and go along with the pretence and is perhaps unrealistic in an academic environment.
What we want to encourage is transparency in the peer review process. Ideally the reviewer should have contacted the journal to discuss the situation. However, it seems a harsh decision to reject the article because of an inadvertent scientific interaction between researchers and colleagues. If the reviewer had contacted the journal, he/she could have recused themselves from the review process and an independent reviewer been invited to review the paper. Any subsequent revision that included the reviewer as a new author could have been properly scrutinised and put through the peer review process.
The editors wrote back to the authors to offer the opportunity to resubmit the manuscript with the involved reviewer now as a co-author, after which it would receive new independent review. However, the authors had already sent it elsewhere.
Author A contacted our journal following publication of a manuscript claiming that he was the rightful author. We asked the author for proof and he said that he had all of the data concerning the patient because he received the operative specimen and made the diagnosis. Author A said he also collaborated in writing the article with author B and hence was surprised that neither his name nor his contribution appeared in the published article.
Author A alleged he gave authorisation to present the case in a conference to author B who later published the article in our journal without his consent.
Question(s) for the COPE Forum
• Who is the owner of this article?
• Is this a case of plagiarism?
• What action can we take regarding authors A and B?
The Forum advised referring the matter to the institution. Journal editors and publishers cannot be involved in adjudicating authorship disputes. Only the institution(s) can determine who is the rightful author. Hence the advice was to contact the institution and request an investigation. If the institution agrees to investigate, the editor may wish to issue an Expression of Concern until the results of the investigation are available.
As this was a case study, was permission granted from the patient to publish the paper? The editor could seek out the patient consent form, and determine if that came from author A or author B. Case reports must not be published without informed patient consent.
Spanish translations of COPE resources: flowcharts, ethical guidelines for peer reviewers, How to Spot Manipulation of the Peer Review Process, What to Consider when asked to Peer Review a Manuscript, What Constitutes Authorship? discussion document and our Principles of Transparency and Best Practice in Scholarly Publishing.
After publication of an article, Author A contacted the journal asking to correct their surname. Author A’s name consists of two parts, but only one was included in the publication. The editor accepted this request but asked all authors to agree to publication of an erratum. Author B (the corresponding author) immediately replied, disagreeing with publication of such an erratum. Author A informed the journal that he had a similar ongoing disagreement with Author B over Author A’s name in another journal. Author A also provided proof of legal name. According to our records, Author A’s name was incorrect on submission and Author A did not ask to correct it before publication (and had confirmed that the submission details were correct). When asked for an explanation of this, Author A claims not to have noticed the mistake at that time.
The journal asked Author B to explain the reason for objecting to the erratum. Author B instead replied with an accusation that Author A did not contribute to the experiments or writing of the article and therefore should be removed from the author list. The journal contacted all authors reminding them of the ICMJE authorship criteria and asking for each of them to confirm their contributions to the article. It was also explained to them that the journal was not able to judge authorship and, if the authors are unable to come to an agreement, the case would be referred to their institution for further investigation.
Author B replied insisting they have the final say on the authorship list as senior and corresponding author. Authors A and B continued to disagree over email, including the journal in this correspondence. Author A did not provide a very detailed statement of contribution. The other authors provided some statements of varying detail. Some of the authors who are still based at Author B’s institution provided identical statements, agreeing that the corresponding author can decide who should be named an author on a publication.
As the authors were unable to agree authorship among themselves, the journal contacted the institution where the research took place (also where author B is currently affiliated). Author A, and some of the other co-authors, have since left the institution. The institution discussed the case with the authors still at this institution, but stated they were not allowed to contact authors who had left (including Author A). The institution forwarded the journal a statement signed by Author B and the other authors still at the institution with a similar statement to those received previously stating that Author A did not meet authorship criteria.
The journal is concerned that the institutional investigation was perfunctory as it did not consult with the original complainant, Author A. However, the journal is not in a position to judge who should and should not be an author. In the meantime, Author B had contacted the editor asking to stop the investigation and not make any changes to the article. This was not acceptable to the editor as Author A’s name is still incorrect. The journal therefore restated the plan to publish an erratum to correct the name of Author A, but Author B strongly disagreed again, and again claimed that Author A should not be an author.
Question(s) for the COPE Forum
• Given that the authors are unable to agree on authorship of this article, the institutional investigation did not consider the opinions of all authors and Author B strongly disagrees with the publication of an erratum, the journal is considering publishing an Expression of Concern. This would state that Author A has informed the journal that their name is incorrect and include the corrected name. It would also state that authorship is under dispute and that the results of an instructional investigation were inconclusive as it was only possible to speak to the authors still at the institution. Would the Forum agree that this is a reasonable solution?
• Are there any suggestions on further action the journal can take?
The Forum noted that there are two issues here: the name change and the erratum notice being clearly indicated. If the decision is made to remove the author, there is the issue of eligibility of authorship. Did the author qualify for authorship? Should he be included in the authorship list? Hence the Forum agreed that the editor cannot resolve this issue and it is best to refer the matter to the institution.
The editor’s immediate concern is that by changing the name, did that escalate the position of the other authors? The editor needs confirmation from the authors of who did what and the correct order of the author list. The Forum suggested that a table at the end of the appendices of the article, with clear descriptions of authorship and contributorship, would be useful. Asking each author to specify their contribution. CRediT (Contributor Roles Taxonomy) could be useful here.
Competition for last author place is increasing in some geographic areas and some disciplines. Changing authorship order or removing an author without adequate institutional investigation is not advisable, however, the correction of the one author’s name could be corrected with an erratum simply stating the correction. Because there is an ongoing dispute as to who actually participated as an author, the case needs to be further investigated by the institution and if the institution is unresponsive, the case should be escalated to a regional or national authority if available. The editor could inform the authors that the journal plans to issue an Expression of Concern about the authorship dispute, pending an investigation by the institution. This may encourage the authors to come to an agreement.
The journal is going ahead with the publication of: (1) an erratum to correct the surname of Author A; and (2) an Expression of Concern stating that there is a dispute among the authors over whether Author A qualifies for authorship and that the institution has been unable to contact all the authors to resolve the dispute.
A manuscript was submitted by author A to our journal. The content of the paper was controversial. We sent this manuscript for peer review by two clinical reviewers. We wrote back to author A requesting major revisions to address the concerns and issues raised by the reviewers. A revised paper was submitted and accepted for publication.
Because the article was controversial, mini-commentaries were commissioned from authors B and C to be published together with the paper. Mini-commentaries are short articles with a word limit of 500 words and by invitation only, usually written by an editor or referee, although they can also be authored by a third party at the discretion of the editors. Their aim is to provide a clinical or research perspective relating to the manuscript being referenced in order to provide a different overview of the research findings (ie, they can be personal opinions in some cases). These are then published with the referenced manuscript in the same issue of the journal.
Author A’s manuscript was published together with the mini-commentaries. The mini-commentary by author C disputed the findings in the paper by author A and stated that in their opinion.
Three years later, we received a letter of concern from author A alleging scientific misconduct by author C and demanding that we retract the mini-commentary written by author C. Following discussion among the senior editors of the journal, permission was obtained from author A to allow author C to have sight of this letter in order to allow a response to be made to the accusations made by author A, which were somewhat intemperate in tone (including accusations of falsification, fabrication, duplication and violation of scientific integrity). Author C responded that the accusations raised by author A were absurd and recommended that the journal ignore them. Author C provided some publications supporting his views.
Question(s) for the COPE Forum
• Currently, the editors do not see any scientific reason why the opinions expressed by author C should be retracted. The views expressed are personal but there is scientific evidence to support them. Author C did not suggest that author A was fraudulent, merely mistaken. The editors currently consider that they have no need to adjudicate between two opposing scientific views, for which each protagonist can cite evidence. Does COPE agree?
• In view of its intemperate language, the editors currently feel that it would not be appropriate to publish the letter from author A criticizing the mini-commentary. While the editors wish to publish all letters within reason, we feel that it is justified to decline publication if we feel the author has not made a substantive point or if they use inappropriate language. Does COPE agree?
• Should we invite author A to submit a reasoned letter without accusations of scientific misconduct to see if this is then suitable for publication?
• If author A agrees to submit such a revised letter, we would plan to invite a reply from author C but publish one or both irrespective of the response from author C (eg, they might decline to reply). Does COPE agree that this is appropriate?
The Forum noted that unless author A has new evidence he can produce that would dispute author’s C criticisms of the original paper, is there any value in publishing further commentaries? Did the letter from author A have anything of value? However, in the interests of transparency, the editor could encourage author A to submit a more reasoned letter. The editor should stress that the letter needs to be scientific and not libellous. The editor can also edit the letter if necessary; it is acceptable to remove inflammatory or derogatory comments. If author A is prepared to follow this course, then an exchange of letters in the journal on scientific differences would be appropriate.
For controversial articles in particular, the journal may wish to consider sharing letters with the authors prior to publication, allowing them to correct any factual inaccuracies, to avoid a similar issue arising in the future.
After the discussion at the Forum, the journal decided not to take any further action. The consensus was that there were no grounds to retract author C’s mini commentary. There was not enough of value in author A’s letter to pursue the idea of publishing a version of it in the journal.
The editor communicated the decision to author A and eventually informed the individual that the journal would not enter into further correspondence regarding this matter. The editor considers the case closed.