In 1995 a group of nine authors published a paper in a leading general medical journal. Copyright was granted by all authors to the journal. In 1998 the senior author received a complimentary copy of a recently published book. One of the chapters was essentially a reprint of the original paper. It was attributed to the sixth, first and second authors. Neither the first nor second author (the guarantor) had ever heard of this chapter or the book. They had not consented to the publication or the authorship of the chapter. The remaining six original authors were acknowledged for their help with the study, but were not listed as authors of the chapter. The chapter acknowledged that the data it contained had been published before. Enquiries to the publisher of the textbook revealed that the sixth author had applied for and, for £60, had been granted permission to use the original article by the medical journal in which it was first published. What are the professional, ethical and legal issues? What should be done?
The editor was advised to write a conciliatory letter to the publishers and a letter of complaint to the author who had reproduced the article without permission.
The author admitted he had made a mistake and apologised profusely.
An author submitted part of his PhD thesis as a paper. The section editor of the journal asked the PhD supervisor to review the paper. This induced a very heated response from the reviewer who made various claims regarding the paper:
The author does not credit one of the tests he uses in his work
There is no proper acknowledgement of co-workers who perhaps should have been co-authors (including the reviewer himself).
The manuscript is similar to others—one published with the reviewer’s name but without his consent
The author is taking credit for work done by others—most notably the reviewer
The author has refuted many, if not all, of the allegations
What should the editor do now? He has invited advice from the university who awarded the PhD, but is not sure what standpoint the university will take, particularly if there is any allegation of misconduct at a scientific level which can be supported by hard evidence. At the moment, the editor is inclined to go ahead with publication and call the reviewer’s bluff. However, this might be expensive in litigation.
COPE advises the editor to back off this one and let the university sort it out. The editor should certainly not publish the paper or do anything further until the university reaches a judgement.
The editor informed COPE that the reviewer who had complained about the author plagiarising his work had backed down. The paper was re-reviewed in the normal way.
Last year, a paper was published with four named authors. The journal concerned then received a letter from another person claiming that they should also have been credited with authorship. That person (Dr M) had been the second author on an abstract with a similar title presented at a conference, on which the authors of the published paper were also named authors. The journal wrote to the first author of the paper (Dr L). She responded as follows: “The abstract was one of three submitted by our research group, describing early findings from two separate studies that investigated the epidemiology of gonorrhoea. All of the abstracts were written by Dr L several months before the meeting. Dr M was not involved in the published study, but as part of the research group, and could potentially have contributed at a later stage. With the benefit of hindsight Dr M’s name should have been included only on abstracts from the study in which she was participating.” According to the first author of the paper, Dr M’s involvement in the research had been to conduct interviews with patients and enter data from those interviews. Dr L goes on to say in her letter: “Dr M did not participate in conception or design of the published study which started before her contract began. She did not contribute to data collection, data entry or editing, statistical analysis, interpretation of results, drafting or revision of the manuscript.” Dr L then goes on to describe the contribution of the other three named authors of the paper, all of whom seem to have contributed to conception, data collection and revising of the manuscript. The point of issue here seems to be that Dr M was part of the research group, although not directly involved in the study which was published in the journal, despite the fact that her name was included on the abstract when it was presented at the conference. According to Dr L, the project on which Dr M worked directly has not yet been written up. According to Dr M, as second author on the abstract, she was not told that her name would be omitted from the list of authors when the paper was submitted for publication.
· She sounded like a contributor, not an author.
It is common practice to put people on abstracts even when they had only had a small part.
It is dangerous practice to involve someone at one level (in this case the abstract) but not at another (the paper), without making the arrangements explicit at the outset.
Doubts that this is the business of editors.
There was an extensive literature on authorship that people could be referred to.
This is an institutional problem. Conclusion The editor should ask whether Dr M had even discussed the matter with Dr L; Dr M and Dr L should be asked to get together and agree what their contribution was in the light of the Vancouver guidelines (irrespective of what happened with the abstract). If they failed to agree then the matter should be referred to their institution.
A journal published a letter from a student only to discover that it was not written by him. The editor has written to him and his dean apologising, and the journal is publishing a piece saying that the letter was not written by the student. It seems most likely that the piece was written by one of his fellow students. Should we encourage the dean to hold a full investigation?
Letters to the editor are difficult to authenticate. The journal should publish a retraction and highlight this with an editorial. The dean should be notified and advised to write to every student pointing out this breach of ethics.
The journal published a letter of retraction and an editorial discussing the offence. The journal also made an official complaint to the dean. The culprit was not investigated.
Two authors wrote to me to ask if they could publish a scientific paper anonymously. The authors work in a general practice that had switched its cervical cytology contract from one laboratory to another. Some time after the switch they noticed that the rate of abnormal smears had almost doubled. This has profound implications for the practice and particularly for the women whose smears were positive. The authors said that they wanted to publish their findings anonymously because: “We have no wish to blame or criticise anyone, even though some of our patients have been harmed by unnecessary distress and anxiety. We simply want to highlight the limitations of the test.” What does the committee think I should do?
The assumption is that everything should be signed and there is no adequate reason for anonymisation. Writing a paper is like signing a cheque and the authors must be prepared to take the responsibility. The laboratories concerned could be anonymised. The distinction is that this is a scientific paper and the authors have to be prepared to stand by what they report and therefore they must sign as authors (cf, a personal view). This case is not so different from the cases of results which did not agree with established dogma. The case epitomises a lack of confidence and must not be anonymised. All the case does is make the variability between laboratories explicit; it is not saying one laboratory is better than the other. Conclusion To refuse the authors their request of anonymity: the study is not novel anyway.