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 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).
A case report was submitted to our journal (journal X) in February and accepted for publication in September that same year. In late September, the first author on the manuscript contacted us to inform us that this exact case report had just been published in another journal (journal Y) by some of his colleagues, including some of the authors of our manuscript. In the initial submission to our journal, there were 10 authors.
During the review process, two authors were removed from the article at their request. This happened in May, between manuscript resubmission. These two authors then submitted the case report to journal Y, with a new set of co-authors.
We have confirmed with the Editor-in-Chief (EiC) of journal Y that they received their initial submission in May. As noted, the authors on journal Y’s publication include the two authors removed from our journal version, plus one additional co-author who is present on both author lists. This third co-author has since requested to be removed from journal Y’s publication. He was included as a co-author without his consent or knowledge.
We contacted the Research Integrity Office of the author’s institution to request an internal investigation. This investigation confirmed our author’s version of events. We informed the EiC of journal Y of the outcome of the institutional investigation and asked them to take the appropriate action in retracting the article. The EiC assured us that the journal was investigating also but the enquiry was not yet complete. We followed up several times, including attempting an international call with them, but to no avail. We also requested the journal to act in compliance with COPE guidelines on author misconduct.
Journal Y is not a member of COPE but is published by a reputable medical organisation. Finally, in September a year later, the EiC of journal Y responded to our many follow-ups to indicate that they are satisfied with the actions of the authors of the publication in their journal and will not be retracting the article. We asked the EiC for a rationale so that we have all the available information to determine our next steps. We have not received a response despite repeated requests. As we had confirmation from the authors’ institution and journal Y that ours was the original version of the paper, we did not feel justified in holding the paper any longer in production. It was published after several months’ delay. In the meantime, we have asked our authors to approach the other journal directly for further information.
Question(s) for the COPE Forum
Does the author’s institution have any responsibility to contact the EiC to request further action?
What further action can we take to elicit a response from the EiC regarding their rationale for their decision?
The Forum questioned why the editor had decided to go ahead with publication of the paper, knowing that journal Y had already published it in their journal. The editor said that as the paper had already been accepted, that there was a provisional version online and that the institution had confirmed the authors version of events, it seemed unfair to penalise the authors. The Forum asked if the journal had cited the other journal when they published the case report, as there are now two versions of the same case report with different authors. Perhaps the journal might consider putting a note on the paper or an expression of concern to highlight to readers that there is an authorship dispute in relation to this paper and that there are two online versions available.
The editor could ask for the authors to list their contributions to the original paper, and ask journal Y to do the same. This may shed some light on the authorship dispute. The Research Integrity Office were part of the original investigation, so they should be in a position to know the contributions of the authors. Hence the advice from the Forum was to pursue the institution. This is clearly an author conflict and so concerns should be raised to the institution. As the authors are from the same institution, and indeed the same department, this authorship dispute should be handled by their employer.
If the second journal is not open access, then the second group of authors may have signed over copyright, so they may be copyright issues. This is impossible for the editor to adjudicate and so again, the institution needs to be involved.
The journal may wish to consider always requiring author contribution statements to be submitted with any paper, thus preventing a similar situation in the future. The Forum stressed that it is very important to communicate with all authors, not just the corresponding author, regarding any aspects of a paper.
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.
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.
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.