One of the main tasks of COPE’s education committee is to reduce unethical behaviour. This involves the rather bold step of defining when people have been behaving unethically, and then providing suggestions on how they can avoid doing so in the future. To this end we have written, and tested on a group of authors, a guide for young researchers on the area of authorship, which many people agree is one of the more confused areas. But writing a document is one thing; disseminating it is another.
Authors Tim Albert, trainer in medical writing, Elizabeth Wager, freelance writer and trainer, on behalf of COPE Council Version 1 2003 How to cite this Albert T, and Wager E, on behalf of COPE Council. How to handle authorship disputes: a guide for new researchers. Version 1. September 2003. https://doi.org/10.24318/cope.2018.1.1
Our COPE materials are available to use under the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs license https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc-nd/3.0/ Attribution — You must attribute the work in the manner specified by the author or licensor (but not in any way that suggests that they endorse you or your use of the work). Non-commercial — You may not use this work for commercial purposes. No Derivative Works — You may not alter, transform, or build upon this work. We ask that you give full accreditation to COPE with a link to our website: publicationethics.org
In April 2014, our journal received a case report from author A with co-authors B, C, D and E. After undergoing a first round of revisions pertaining only to the paper’s format, author A excluded co-authors C, D, and E from the revised version and retained co-author B, without notifying the journal of this change. After this change, the manuscript underwent the complete evaluation process, comprising peer review and revisions by the authors. It was accepted for publication in July 2014.
During the evaluation process, author A included two new co-authors (authors F and G). The paper was published in November 2014 with author A and co-authors B, F and G. From the time of manuscript submission until publication, the excluded co-authors C, D and E did not contact the journal or send any requests or comments regarding their authorship.
In May 2015, 7 months after the case report was published, our journal received an email from a legal advocate acting on behalf of the excluded co-authors C, D and E, complaining about the attested authorship of the case report. Co-authors C, D and E claim that author A is not, in fact, the first author and assert that the correct authorship and co-authorship should include the excluded authors C, D and E as the principal authors.
We sent the complaint made by the excluded co-authors C, D, and E to author A (the corresponding author of the published version) allowing him the chance to answer all of the allegations made by the excluded co-authors. In his reply, he assured us that he was the principal author of the case report, as originally submitted, and that it has no element of plagiarism. He further assured our journal that he and the co-authors listed in the published version had written the manuscript and made all the corrections proposed by the reviewers. He stated, “We have never indulged or indulge in such silly misdoings and in order to keep the personal relationship amicable, we would like to withdraw the case report despite it being the product of hours of hard work on our part”.
Question(s) for the COPE Forum
Although this case does not represent a clear reason for retraction (eg, redundant publication, plagiarism or clear evidence that the findings are unreliable), should we issue an expression of concern?
Is it possible for our journal to retract the case report in order to avoid serious legal problems in the near future?
There may be a case for retraction of the paper based on plagiarism, if co-authors C, D, and E claim it was their work, and then the other authors have taken that work and published it as their own. So it could be seen as plagiarism of ideas. But the authorship issue would need to be resolved before taking this action.
However, given that the study seems to be sound, some argued that the paper should not be retracted. An expression of concern may be warranted, but again, as there are no issues with the content of the paper, it may not be necessary.
Has the journal gone back to the authors and asked them why this has happened? The editor could suggest that the authors look at the journal's authorship guidelines and determine who should be listed as an author. However, the Forum agreed that it is impossible for the editor to know exactly what is going on here, and so the journal needs to contact the institution and ask them to resolve this situation. It is not the editor’s role to sort out authorship disputes. Hence the Forum recommended contacting the authors' institutions in the first instance, before taking any action.
There seemed to a failure of the journal processes here and the Forum recommended that the journal should tighten their processes and make sure that their system for checking authorship at submission is more robust. This situation could have been avoided if the journal had been in contact with all of the authors, not just the corresponding author. The journal could request email addresses from all of the authors on submission of a paper, and copy all authors on all correspondence relating to the paper.
Although the journal checks for plagiarism and authorship at the submission step, they have made their processes more robust to avoid future problems. The editor-in-chief sent several messages to the corresponding author and co-authors asking them to find agreement regarding authorship, based on the journal´s authorship guidelines. Unfortunately, no response has been received. The editorial board of the journal decided to give the authors another 2 months to respond. If no response is received, and considering the corresponding author already asked for retraction, the case report will be retracted.
Follow up November 2015 The authors did not answer questions from the journal regarding authorship of their case report. The editor has not retracted the paper and considers the case now closed.
A paper was submitted to a medical journal reporting original research on human subjects. Two corresponding authors, author A (first in authors’ list) and author B (last in the list) were listed. The paper was sent to external referees but while it was under review, the editor received an email from author A stating that s/he had not read the paper, was not aware of the submission and did not agree with the submission. Author A did not provide any specifics of the disagreement.
The editor immediately contacted author B, who admitted that s/he had submitted the paper after many failed attempts to contact author A. The authors performed the work in the same institution but author A had left the institution prior to the submission and his/her current address/institution was unknown to author B.
The editor immediately contacted the external referees asking them to halt the reviewing process, pending resolution of the conflict. On the editor’s request, author B asked the leadership of the institution to contact author A in order to get input that would allow the submission to proceed but author B informed the editor that no response had been received after 2 months. The editor was also informed that author A had taken legal action against the institution over an unrelated matter, and author B suspected that the refusal to authorize the submission was being used as a weapon in that dispute.
The editor further suggested contacting the leadership of author A’s new institution. However, neither author B nor the institution leadership are aware of author A’s current employment. A web search by the editor found several entries on author A, none of which was indicative of a current academic position. Author A’s email to the editor was from a non-institutional provider (gmail).
The paper reports important work, in which human subjects volunteered to participate. It would, therefore, be very unfortunate for it not to be published.
Question(s) for the COPE Forum • Is there anything more than the editor can do? • Should the editor contact author A directly? • Would it be possible to publish the paper against author A’s objections if author A refuses to provide a scientific basis for his/her objection after a reasonable attempt has been made to obtain it?
The Forum advised contacting the institution directly, rather than relying on author B to liaise between the journal and the institution. COPE advice would normally be that author disputes should be resolved by the institution. In addition, the Forum advised that the editor should consider contacting author A directly, and asking for his explanation of the events. The Forum advised against publishing the paper in the absence of author A’s agreement, unless the authorship issue is resolved by the institution. There may also be legal issues to consider if the editor were to go ahead and publish, as author A may have issues related to their intellectual property.
Papers are sometimes held hostage by authors and COPE’s advice would always be to ask the institution to resolve the issue. However, sometimes the editor has to make a judgement call. One way forward, if the editor really wants to publish the paper, is to have a clear statement on the published paper, explaining the circumstances around the paper, acknowledging there was a problem and explaining the issues.
Following the advice from the Forum, the editor contacted the disputing author and convinced her to participate in the publication. She promptly provided her feedback on the manuscript, which was submitted. It is now in revision for the journal.
We were contacted by a lawyer acting on behalf of the last author (author A) of two research articles published in our journals. Both articles are co-authored by one other author (author B), who was the corresponding author. Author A claims not to have been aware of the submission and also raises concerns that the timelines and dates of the before and after photos reported in the articles are incorrect. He also claims that informed consent was not received from the patient described in one of the articles for publication of their case.
On submission and publication of both articles, both authors were based at author A’s own private institution. Author B has since left the institution. All authors submitting to our journals receive an automated email when a manuscript is submitted, alerting them to the submission. As far as we can tell, author A received this email in response to both submissions. However, we have had no correspondence directly from author A regarding either article.
We have contacted author B for an explanation of the concerns raised by author A, which we have been told we will receive shortly. The concerns raised by author A are serious enough to warrant an institutional investigation. However, in the absence of an independent institution that we could ask to investigate, we are seeking advice from the forum on how to proceed once we receive author B's explanation.
Question(s) for the COPE Forum
(1) In the absence of an independent institution, how do the Forum suggest we proceed once we receive author B's explanation?
The Forum agreed there are clearly issues with the paper and sufficient doubts for the editor to raise concerns and to contact the institution. Normally the Forum would advise that this issue was beyond the remit of the editor, and that the editor should look for an independent arbitrator, which is usually the institution. But in this situation, it is a private institution.
The Forum asked the editor if the institution had any associated regulatory or professional body which oversees it who could be approached? There is guidance on the COPE website in the form of a flowchart on what to do if you have ethical concerns about a published paper and there is no institution. The advice is to go to a higher regulatory body or, if not, to a medical regulatory body. In the UK, the medical regulatory body would be the General Medical Council (GMC). The GMC note that publication ethics is within their remit, so it is possible to raise this issue with a similar body if the authors are medical professionals, especially if there is no higher authority.
Although it is not the job of the editor to carry out investigations or police the research, the editor does have a responsibility to the readers of the journal, and so he should consider publishing an expression of concern.
The editor may have been able to avoid this situation if the journal had dealt with the ethical issues on submission. While the editor told the Forum that journal policy is to send email confirmation to all of the authors on submission of a paper, they do not ask for confirmation of authorship. This may have helped in this situation. The recently published fourth criteria of the International Committee of Medical Journal Editors (ICMJE http://www.icmje.org/) states that if you are an author of a paper, you have a requirement to help investigate any issues with the paper. Hence author A cannot recuse himself from any association with this paper.
Prior to publication, our journal requires coauthors to respond to an email to confirm their authorship status and the author list. A coauthor did not respond to these emails, and when we contacted the corresponding author for help, s/he told us that his/her attempts to reach the coauthor have failed, and that s/he believed the coauthor was attempting to hold the paper hostage.
According to the corresponding author, the coauthor was fired from their institution (which is in a different country than the journal) for ethical lapses, and was now extremely upset and was suing the institution. The corresponding author believed that the coauthor was deliberately ignoring the confirmation requests in order to punish the corresponding author.
Although in general we believe that authors have to resolve their own authorship disputes (involving the institution if need be), we felt this case was different because it did not appear to be a case of disputing who should/should not be an author, or a situation in which a coauthor objected to some aspect of the paper. Instead, if the corresponding author is to be believed, it is simply a disruptive manoeuvre that twists the journal's ethics safeguards (intended to prevent ghost/honorary authorship) into a weapon.
We decided that it was reasonable for the journal to expect a coauthor to perform the straightforward task of confirming coauthorship, and that if that individual did not do so (for reasons of malice or not), they would forfeit coauthorship. We sent an email to the recalcitrant coauthor (we did not have a postal address because the institution had requested this individual be deported), copying in the other authors, detailing the many attempts to reach him/her, and explaining that if we did not hear back from him/her within 6 weeks from the date of acceptance we would proceed with publication without his/her name listed as an author.
Normally of course our policies require that someone who does not meet the standard of authorship is named in the acknowledgements. However, because we also require anyone named in the acknowledgements to give their permission for this, we decided that if this person did not respond, we would ask the authors to acknowledge the person's involvement by referring to their job title—for example, “The authors acknowledge the assistance of a medical student in the early phases of this study”. (The phrasing is a little awkward but we felt it was important to include it. If it later came to light that there was evidence of misconduct in the study, we felt it needed to be clear from the outset that there was someone else involved in the work.)
Fortunately, in this case, the first author was eventually able to convince the non-responding author to confirm coauthorship, so we did not have to carry through our threat. However, we want to be prepared in case a similar situation arises again, and so we are considering updating our information for authors to include a policy of forfeiting coauthorship after a 6 week period has elapsed without response.
Question(s) for the COPE Forum
What is COPE's view of our proposed policy of requiring coauthors to respond or forfeit their coauthorship status?
If it is not appropriate, should we have refused to proceed with publication until the authors resolved the issue?
If the authors' institution had stepped in and ruled on how the dispute should be resolved, should we have accepted their ruling, despite their being a party to a lawsuit?
If the forfeiture process is considered appropriate, may we still retain our policy that an author who dies may be named as a coauthor if the corresponding author attests that to the best of his/her knowledge, the deceased individual met the definition of authorship up to the point of death, and all the authors agree?
What about an incapacitated author (we have a manuscript working its way to acceptance where a coauthor is in a coma)?
The general feeling from the Forum was that the journal does not have the right to deny authorship. Hence the Forum would not agree with the policy of forfeiting coauthorship status imposed by a journal. Exercising the right to remove an author is not within a journal’s jurisdiction. However, others argued that if it is journal policy that coauthors must confirm their status as an author, then technically they are not an author until they have confirmed their contribution.
The case of deceased or incapacitated authors is more straightforward and the Forum would suggest a statement from the corresponding author attesting that to the best of his/her knowledge, the deceased/incapacitated individual met the definition of authorship, and all the other authors agree. In such cases, authorship is given and so the individual remains as an author.
Although it is necessary to prevent ghost/honorary authorship, the Forum suggested that if a coauthor refuses to confirm coauthorship and there is a possibility that he is attempting to hold the paper hostage, then the editor should consider contacting the institution and asking them to mediate or investigate the situation. If the institution does not or is unwilling to respond, the editor might still consider publishing a statement from the corresponding author detailing the contribution of the coauthor. Another suggestion was to explain the contribution of the coauthor in the acknowledgement section.
This situation could be avoided if at the time of submission all authors are contacted and asked to confirm their status as an author. On polling the Forum delegates, about half said they require confirmation of coauthorship either at submission or at a later stage.
The Editor-in-Chief agreed to drop the proposal to have non-responsive coauthors forfeit authorship. A statement will be included in the acknowledgements, along the lines that author X was not available to confirm coauthorship, but the corresponding author Y affirms that author X contributed to the paper and vouches for author X’s coauthorship status.
A case series of 89 patients with a relatively rare condition was accepted for publication by the journal following due process through the peer-review system. The paper was published online within days of being accepted. A few days later the editor of the journal received an email from a professor (Professor X) from the same country from which the paper was submitted to say that one of the cases was "his case" and that he wanted the case and the clinical photograph of his patient to be withdrawn from the paper; alternatively, he requested being made a coauthor on the paper. The editor circulated the letter from Professor X to the publisher, the editor-elect and the editorial office. It was decided that the editor should contact the corresponding author to ask them to consider this approach and to give their response. The letter to the corresponding author included the name of the professor who had written, and the exact details of the complaint and the two possible outcomes he was requesting (withdrawal of his case or his inclusion as a coauthor). The editor went on to say "If the patient is indeed Professor X's and he (Professor X) meets the authorship criteria (as per the International Committee of Medical Journal Editors (ICMJE http://www.icmje.org/)) we can still, if all coauthors agree, add him as a coauthor. If he does not meet the authorship criteria then it would be possible to offer acknowledgement."
The editor went on to highlight the ICMJE criteria as follows: (1) Substantial contributions to conception and design or acquisition of data or analysis and interpretation of data; (2) Drafting the article or revising it critically for important intellectual content; (3) Final approval of the version to be published. Authors should meet conditions 1, 2 and 3.
Additionally, the editor sent an e-mail to Professor X saying that he had contacted the authors for their comments, and in the meantime this paper had been held (as online only) until this matter had been resolved.
The editor also e-mailed the publisher to request that the paper "be pulled" until the issue was sorted. The publisher responded by saying that it was not possible to simply "pull" the paper and that it would need to remain as online only.
A few days later the first author replied to the editor of the journal as follows: "Actually, Professor X provided the picture and clinical data regarding this patient and I should have included him as coauthor. It was my mistake." This explanation was accepted by the editor and a revised version of the manuscript and authorship consent was submitted. (Comment: The journal does not require coauthors of papers to state explicitly what they have done to merit inclusion as a coauthor.) It is hard to believe that Professor X would satisfy the ICMJE authorship criteria on the basis of the information available to the journal. Despite this, he and all the coauthors signed the new authorship declaration forms and assignment of copyright. Questions for the COPE Forum (1) Were the responses and procedures for the journal appropriate for the issue? (2) If not, how might the journal and editorial team have behaved differently? (3) Do the COPE Forum recommend that the journal tries to gather more information relating to omitted author’s contribution to a manuscript before passing the issue over to the authors of the paper?
The Forum agreed this was a difficult case, and in such circumstances it is not always easy to know what to do. A few members of the Forum would have handled the situation differently and the majority of the Forum agreed that Professor X did not qualify for authorship.
One view was that this was a case of gift authorship. Some argued that Professor X only partially fulfilled condition (1) of the ICMJE criteria and hence should not have been listed as an author. People who contribute patients or data do not automatically qualify as authors. In this case, perhaps the person could have been put in the acknowledgement section for his contribution of the specific patient data rather than included as an author. The editor should have stood firm and refused to allow Professor X’s inclusion as an author. This also raises the question of how many of the other authors on this paper contributed substantially?
The editor noted that the journal does not require coauthors of papers to state explicitly what they have done to merit inclusion as a coauthor. The Forum suggested that the journal might like to revise this policy and in future ask authors to state their exact contributions. The Forum noted that this case highlights the whole issue of the role of authorship and contributorship. Editors, authors and funders frequently struggle with these issues and they are being actively discussed in forums such as http://projects.iq.harvard.edu/attribution_workshop
The editor submitted the case more as a learning point about what to do to avoid this happening in the future. He is grateful for the advice of the Forum.
A manuscript was published in journal X, submitted by several co-authors, including one of the editors in chief of journal X, Dr A (the article was handled by another editor in chief at the journal). Another researcher, Dr B, has claimed that this article should be withdrawn because it contains unauthorized data from him (Dr B).
A few years previously, Drs A and B worked and published jointly, but at some point there appeared to be a divergence in points of view on the interpretation of results (obtained in a large part by Dr B and his team) in a manuscript co-written by both Drs A and B (and the teams of both Drs A and B). Dr A decided that Dr B and his team must agree to the publication of the manuscript or they would be removed from the co-author list. The paper was then submitted as an appendix in an internal report for their funding agency.
Later, a similar paper was published by Dr A and his team (only) with similar content to the previous disputed paper in journal X. Dr B and his team are acknowledged in the text but have not been asked or listed as co-authors. The paper contains the results from Dr B’s team, very important results, that people now refer to as from Dr A’s team.
Dr B thinks this is a violation of the rules of good scientific practice and has asked advice from a third independent party. The third party recognized the violation of the rules of good scientific practice and suggested publishing an erratum. Dr B refuses to agree to an erratum because his team do not necessarily wish to be co-authors, as they disagree with the interpretation. Dr B wishes to have this published article withdrawn.
Question What should the editor of journal X do?
The Forum agreed that the current paper cannot stand in its present form—some form of correction of the literature needs to be done. It is clear that the data are the intellectual property of Dr B, but this is essentially an authorship dispute, and it is up to the authors to resolve it. Although the results of the paper are not in dispute, the editor could decide to retract the paper and tell the authors that they must resolve their dispute themselves. So the editor could present the issues to both authors and tell them that some form of drastic action might happen if they cannot resolve the issue and ask them to find an independent arbitrator whose decision they agree to abide by. As a third party is already involved, would both authors agree to abide by the decision of this third party, given that it was author B who asked for advice from this third party? A better solution might be for the authors to agree on another independent party who could arbitrate on the case.
But if the authors cannot come to any agreement, the editor could suggest that author B is allowed to write a letter or article explaining his interpretation of the results.
One other suggestion was to have a revised paper, with all of the authors listed, and with two separate discussions. The readers could then make up their mind which interpretation they preferred. However, the original paper would have to be retracted.
The majority agreed that the best way forward was to present the issues to both parties and tell them the journal is prepared to retract the article unless the authors can resolve the case.
The editor had further communications with Dr B. The editor again explained that it was not the journal’s decision to make but was up to Dr B, his employer and the authors to sort out. The editor has now stopped corresponding with Dr B.
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.
A meta-analysis was conducted of about 1000 patients included in a number of small trials of a drug for emergency management administered by route X compared with route Y. The report concluded that administration by route X improves short term survival.
The paper was submitted to our journal in September 2011 and after peer review was returned to the authors for revision in November 2011.
In the letter sent to the authors, the editor stated: “Before coming to a final decision on your paper we will need to see your responses to our referees' comments. We will also need you to discuss the preliminary results of the large randomised controlled trial (RCT) recently presented at a national meeting which conflict with and may negate the conclusions of your meta-analysis.”
The revised version was sent back to us in January 2012. It contained only one mention of the large RCT without quoting any of its findings. The covering correspondence discussed the RCT findings that had been recently presented and speculated as to why they appeared different from the findings of the meta-analysis.
We accepted the meta-analysis in January 2012. We considered that the differences described by the authors were irrelevant, because the large RCT had not, at that time, been published in a peer-review journal and the only information available was from data presented at a meeting.
We now know that the authors of the meta-analysis were fully aware of the findings of the large RCT at the time they submitted the revision because the RCT paper had already been accepted by a high profile journal and the lead author was co-author on the meta-analysis submitted to our journal. None of this was revealed to the journal prior to accepting the meta-analysis
In March 2012, the high profile journal published the large RCT which randomized more than 2000 patients to drug treatment by the two different routes. The main conclusion was of no difference in survival for route X versus route Y. This finding rendered meaningless the finding of the meta-analysis accepted by our journal 6 weeks previously.
The authors of the meta-analysis were then emailed asking if they would now update their meta-analysis with inclusion of the RCT data.
The response was negative but an email from another co-author (who wrote the editorial accompanying the RCT in the high profile journal) agreed “it makes no sense to report a meta-analysis claiming death reduction considering available data”. He then copied us in an email he had sent to the lead author of the meta-analysis in January 2012, before it was sent back to our journal: “just to let you know that I am finishing an editorial on (the RCT) which will likely come out very soon with the main Ms....I would suggest that you try to include (the data from the RCT) into your meta-analysis ASAP”
The authors chose not to include the data from the RCT in the revised version of the meta-analysis they submitted to our journal, even though they had available those data. Since then the authors of the meta-analysis have steadfastly refused to update their paper. Meanwhile the editorialist for the high profile journal has asked that his name be removed from the meta-analysis in our journal.
The authors of the meta-analysis, one of whom was the lead author of the high profile journal report, had full access to the RCT data at the time they were preparing their revised paper for our journal. They knew that the main finding of the RCT contradicted the conclusion of their meta-analysis and ignored the suggestion of a co-author (the editorialist) to include the RCT data in their revised paper to our journal.
COPE states that journal editors should consider retracting a publication if they have clear evidence that the findings are unreliable. The authors of the meta-analysis knew their findings were unreliable at the time they submitted their revised paper and we now wish to have the paper retracted
The Forum agreed there were grounds for retraction of the paper. Clinical decisions are often based on meta-analyses and the editor cannot rely on all readers being aware of the newly published meta-analysis in the other journal. However, the ideal situation would be for the author to correct the published paper. Although the author has refused to do this, the Forum suggested that the editor should contact the author again, asking him to correct the paper. The editor should tell the author that if he refuses to correct the paper, then the editor will be left with no option but to retract the paper.
The Forum suggested that the fact that the editor did not ask the authors to wait until the results of the RCT were available before submitting their final paper has contributed to the confusion surrounding the case. Going forward, the editor should consider revising journal policy to request authors to send any related papers under submission to them when they submit an article.
Following the Forum’s advice, the editor emailed the corresponding author of the paper, copying in the co-authors, stating that he hoped the authors would agree to update the meta-analysis whereupon the matter would be concluded. He told the authors that if they did not agree to provide an update, he would retract the paper. The editor received no reply and therefore retracted the paper. The retraction notice stated that the findings of the paper were unreliable because they failed to address data from the large RCT, to which the authors had access prior to submission and which contraindicated the paper's conclusion. The notice said that authors were asked to update the paper to include the RCT findings but, with the exception of one of the authors, they declined. Owing to this difference of opinion, this author asked to be removed from the list of authors, a request to which the journal acceded. The notice stated that under these circumstances, the matter was considered by COPE who recommended retraction and this paper has now been withdrawn.