In 2012, Dr X started her post-doctoral training under a fellowship. She worked on the project until 2014, when the fellowship ended. She did all the work herself, and gave two seminars showing her results and progress, with positive feedback. When needed, she consulted with the supervisor or with a senior scientist in the laboratory (who has since resigned). By the time she finished, she had written a manuscript solely on her work, and it had gone through several editing rounds of revisions with the senior scientist. There were five co-authors on the paper: Dr X, the supervisor, two senior scientists and a graduate student.
In 2015, the manuscript was sent to the supervisor, who said "I find the text very thoughtful and balanced, with good interpretations", and had a few remarks. Again, they went through two editing rounds. The supervisor received the final version in October 2015, with the understanding that he would submit it; Dr X never received any reply.
Dr X repeatedly emailed her supervisor every 2 months or so, but at some point, the supervisor stopped responding to emails, or replied very briefly, only saying that the senior scientist had resigned. Dr X has been hired in a permanent research position. To be tenured, Dr X needs to publish and show that her post-doctoral work was accepted for publication.
Question(s) for the COPE Forum
• Can Dr X go ahead and publish this manuscript with the authors as originally written? If not, is there any recourse for her? • Can I, as an editor-in-chief, and knowing the background, receive, review and publish this manuscript?
The Forum questioned why is it up to the supervisor to submit the paper and not Dr X? Dr X should be entitled to go ahead and submit the work.
The Forum also questioned if the supervisor qualifies as an author? Should he be listed as a contributor instead?
The institution needs to take a role in resolving this issue. If permission from the university is needed, Dr X could consider going above the supervisor, to his supervisor—diplomatically escalating the issue, but in a non-aggressive way.
The Forum concluded that Dr X should submit the paper for publication. When Dr X submits the paper to a journal for publication, she should be transparent about the provenance of the paper, explaining the history. The supervisor’s contribution and conflicts of interest should be documented on the paper. If published, the editor could consider having a statement concerning these on the paper.
Follow-up (January 2017): The researcher tried to determine the correct person to contact above the supervisor and met with frustration. Although unresolved, the editor considers the case closed.
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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
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 cross-sectional, questionnaire-based study which was a final year student's project was submitted as an original article to our journal on 30 April 2011. On initial review it was obvious that it was conducted by students and written by them, but the list of authors had the supervisor as the first author, followed by 13 students.
The supervisor, who was also the corresponding author, was questioned on authorship criteria. If it was the supervisor’s project and the students had helped, then why were there so many students listed (13 in all)? If it was the students’ project, which is a requirement of their curriculum, then why was the supervisor the first author? He/she should be acknowledged only.
The authors decided to withdraw the article on the grounds that they wanted to send it to a foreign journal. We obtained the signatures of all of the authors and closed the file.
The same article was resubmitted as a new article on 29 August 2011. The declaration that it had not been previously published was sent to our journal on 5 September 2011. No change had been made in the names of the authors. The signatures of the students were a photocopy of the original ones submitted previously. Apparently the supervisor thought that the journal office would not be able to associate this article with the previous submission.
The journal believes it would be useless to explain the authorship criteria to the supervisor as apparently he/she is eager to have another article on their CV. The students are the ones who suffer.
What steps should the journal take, particularly with regard to the false authorship?
The Forum agreed that the initial response from the editor was very good, and s/he handled the case well, and it was disappointing that the message did not get through to the authors. The Forum questioned whether the editor would be able to contact all of the students individually. The Forum emphasised once again that journals should consider having the email addresses of all authors when a paper is submitted, not just the corresponding author.
Even if the editor feels it is pointless contacting the corresponding author following this second submission, the Forum argued that the editor should follow due process. The editor should contact the corresponding author and ask for an explanation. If the explanation is unsatisfactory, the editor should contact the author’s superior at the institution informing them that this person is not following the accepted guidelines on authorship. The editor could also contact someone at the institution (e.g. the Dean) and ask them if they have an institutional policy on authorship.
For the future, the editor should consider publishing a list of the contributions of all authors in every paper.
The consensus from the Forum was that I should ask for the email addresses and cell phone numbers of all of the student authors and ask the university for their authorship policy. I did both of these. The university has not replied, despite a reminder. Unofficially, I was told that they have no such policy.
I spoke to one of the students who “off the record” told me that the supervisor had asked for these contact details, which the students had provided. These were never sent to the journal. I asked the student to send them to the journal office, which he did. The following statement, signed individually by all of the students and the supervisor, was mailed to the journal.
“Contribution: I as the undersigned author of the article titled xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxx, has contributed significantly in the various steps of the research starting from topic selection, literature review, introduction, methodology, questionnaire, analysis, discussion and final review. I am further submitting that there is no conflict among us on any matter regarding the order of authorship.”
The student also told me unofficially that they were coerced into signing this statement. The students who have done all of the work are the sufferers. They cannot raise any objections against the supervisor for fear of an impact on their career.
Can COPE suggest what I should do now?
Advice on follow up:
The editor informed the Forum that the paper has now been withdrawn. The Forum advised that although the editor has to accept that the paper has been withdrawn, she should still pursue the institution for a response. The supervisor has acted inappropriately and the institution should be made aware of this. One suggestion was to send a registered letter (rather than an email) so that the editor is sure the letter has been received. Another suggestion was to contact any professional bodies that the author might be a member of, informing them of the inappropriate behaviour.
The editor could also write an editorial on authorship policies, referring to the International Committee of Medical Journal Editors (ICJME) guidelines. For the future, the editor might consider altering the journal’s instructions to authors stating that the names and contact details of all authors (not just the corresponding author) should be provided to the journal on submission of a paper. The editor could also consider publishing the list of contributors, detailing what contribution each author made to the paper.
FOLLOW UP (June 2012):
I first wrote to the corresponding author asking for the policy of the institution regarding authorship criteria. Simultaneously I wrote to the head of department of the research section and the Dean asking for the same. I received no reply. Recently the corresponding author, who is the supervisor and the first author, sent a letter stating that they wanted to withdraw both articles as they have decided to have the article published in a European journal. I have not replied to that request as I feel cornered. Two more articles from another medical college of the same university are of a similar nature. I have followed the same procedure but again with no response.
Does the Forum think that I should write to the higher authorities, such as the Higher Education Commission and Medical Council, about the largest medical university in the country having no specific policy on authorship and the credit of the research being usurped by the faculty members, thus depriving the young students?
I am collecting all of these cases and will make a presentation at the next conference on publication ethics.
ADVICE ON FURTHER FOLLOW UP (June 2012):
The Forum agreed with the editor’s proposed course of action. In this case, the students are powerless and so it is left to the editor to pursue this case.
We have noticed some authors who are publishing at a rate that is exceptionally high.
(1) An author of a recent submission has published over 100 articles since January 2005; he had published fewer than 50 in the preceding 5 years. This is quite a sudden increase. On average, he published 1 article every 8 days in 2005, and in 2006 this increased to 1 every 4 days. The author is on the board of his institute, and is a department head.
(2) Another recent author published nearly 100 articles in PubMed in 2006, and more than 50 in both 2004 and 2005. This is 1 article every 4 days in 2006, every 6 days in 2005 and every 7 days in 2004. The author is a laboratory director.
Publication rates that are this high have raised our suspicions that the authors may not truly qualify for authorship under the ICMJE guidelines for each article.
It has been shown that some infamous cases of fraud were by prolific authors ("High annual publication rates had characterised many of the international research misconduct cases, which had begun to come to light in the mid-1970s" http://www.bmj.com/
cgi/reprint/331/7511/281.pdf; Lock S, Wells F: Fraud and misconduct in biomedical research. BMJ Books, 1993), for example, Robert Slutsky published 1 paper every 10 days.
Questions for COPE:
Is our suspicion of these authors reasonable, and at what levels do other editors become concerned about whether or not an author is truly deserving of authorship?
When should we, as journal editors, raise concerns about overly prolific authors to institutions?
Is there any way to identify the most prolific authors on a systematic basis (databases, search engines, software)?
The committee lamented that this practice, although unethical, is extremely common and is an area that is very hard to police. Some heads of departments/professors regard it as their right to have their name on every publication, even if they have no direct involvement in the research. It might be worth finding out if the author became a department head/professor in the past two years. The advice was to ask the authors whether they meet the criteria for authorship or contributorship. Another suggestion was to write an editorial, highlighting this practice. The committee also warned that, although unlikely, it is always possible that data may be fabricated, and this should be considered. Ultimately however, the consensus was that although this practice is not condoned by COPE, it is a frequent occurrence and a very difficult area for editors to control.
We had no concerns about the data being presented, and the author had indeed become department chair and a boardmember of the institute. We did not reject the manuscript, but did mention to our prolific author that we were surprised to see so many submissions and publications, given the work involved in the research and write-up of each article to actually qualify as author (as specified by our instructions for authors).
We have received no response from the author in this regard, but the number of submissions to our journals have decreased. This is not, as yet, reflected in the author's Pubmed record, which on last glance had over 20 publications in 2008 already.
I became involved in this issue after reports from doctors in a developing country that three papers in a systematic review published by my company may have been fabricated.
The papers in question had co-authors in two other countries and so I contacted them.
One co-author replied that he had concerns, but as none of the studies was conducted in his country, he had no data. He said he was unaware of the papers until Dr X told him they had been accepted in the journals.
Another co-author was unaware of when or where the studies took place. He said that Dr X had been suffering from depression for several years and had committed suicide. He had been included as a co-author on his last three articles more out of friendship than any active scientific cooperation.
A third co-author explained that his role was “philosophical” rather than clinical. To his knowledge the study was conducted personally by Dr X, probably in his own country, and he only helped him with discussions and text revisions.
Because several of Dr X’s papers were published by Journal A, I wrote to the editor of Journal A to see if he had any concerns. He replied that he had doubts about the validity of the data, which were raised in an editorial by Dr Z. I am waiting to hear if the editor of Journal A is willing to help investigate the papers. I also contacted Dr Z and raised the possibility of fraud with him. He said that he had “serious concerns about the work” but declined to help me investigate.
We have withdrawn the review until we can find out if the data are real. I have written to the National Committee on Ethics in Research in the author’s country but have had no reply. An international expert on the statistical detection of fraud is currently looking at the papers. He has some concerns but his investigation is ongoing.
Dr X was a prolific researcher with about 16 of his own first authored papers cited in his clinical trial reports. It appears that many doctors suspect misconduct but none has been prepared to voice their concerns or to take any action.
I would greatly appreciate COPE’s advice.
This complicated case provoked much discussion. The advice was to reinstate the review but without the three disputed papers, adding a note to say that there is a potential problem with these three papers. It was felt that if the data are fabricated, there was a responsibility on the part of the editor not to publish the data as there might be a significant risk to patients if the trial was repeated.
As there has been no useful response from the other journal editors who published other papers by this author, it seems there is no point in pursuing this line of enquiry. However, the editorial procedures in these journals must be criticised as the editors strongly suspected that the data were fabricated but still went ahead and published the papers. COPE could take some action if they were members, but they are not.
The committee agreed that the best approach for the editor would be to seek a retraction of the papers from the co-authors on the basis of gift authorship. The advice was to write to the co-authors, ask for the data, and if not provided, ask them to withdraw the papers. In this way, it is not necessary to say that the data are fraudulent, with all its legal implications. It was felt that the co-authors must take responsibility for the data as their names are on the paper. It is not acceptable to say that their contribution was merely “philosophical”. Gift authorship is not acceptable. Also, the co-authors’ institutions should be contacted and informed of the situation. In this instance, the editor should write to the co-authors informing them that he has contacted their institutions.
Following COPE’s advice, the living co-authors were contacted to see if they would retracted the reports in question on the basis that they were gift authors and could not take responsibility for the results. However, when this was raised with them they did not agree that they were gift authors and declined to seek retraction, arguing that the papers were published in an international peer reviewed journal, that the first author had taken responsibility for their content and that they knew the first author well and believed that “he would never have been able to do something false.” They persist in this view despite the fact that the stated deceased lead author’s affiliation has been contacted and they confirmed that the lead author was never employed by the university. It seems that the co-authors want it all ways—they claim that they are not gift authors but yet they refuse to take any responsibility for the content, even in the presence of evidence that the lead author gave incorrect information about his affiliation. The matter is ongoing.
Further update This case has been the subject of an article and an editorial in the BMJ. The articles outline the details of the case and consider the wider implications of the case, a summary of which is given here:
We are left with serious doubt about important studies but with no way of determining with confidence whether the results are fabricated or real. The main author is dead. There is no institution to investigate. The implications for patients are serious. They are being treated on the basis of potentially unreliable evidence. It is plausible that this drug in high doses may worsen rather than alleviate the condition. Shortly after the withdrawal of the review, the journal was contacted by US researchers preparing guidelines for the management of this condition and by a UK group asking about the outcome of our investigation because the authors’ results were about to be incorporated into guidelines.
If it wants to retain the confidence of the public and politicians, the scientific community needs to do better. Only a minority of countries have an effective national system for responding to scientific misconduct. However, research is a global enterprise and a strong case exists for an international body to respond to the problem of research misconduct.