A reader emailed a society, which forwarded the message to the journal office, noting that he can read the name of a patient in a figure in a published letter to the editor. The letter was published online 3 months earlier and had just appeared in print; it was the print version the reader saw. The reader asked if the patient's name could be removed.
The journal’s author instructions already stated that no identifying patient information should be included. At all stages following submission (journal office review of initial submission, publisher production of processed manuscript, copyeditor review, and author review of proof), the patient’s name was not noticed.
Within 2 days of the reader’s email, the publisher had replaced the figure with a version that did not include the patient’s name. It was agreed that an erratum would not be issued so as not to draw attention to the matter.
Both the journal office and publisher have since instituted new procedures in reviewing figures to detect any patient information. Additionally, new text has been added to the author instructions: “Patient’s identity must be removed in all figures (ie, x-rays, MRIs, charts, photographs, etc). Informed written consent is required from any potentially identifiable patient or legal representative, and should be presented in either the methods section or the acknowledgements”.
The publisher and its legal counsel also created a patient consent form (the rural clinic in another country where the patient was treated did not have one) and we able to contact the author who asked her patient to sign the form, post-publication. The patient agreed and signed the form, and the matter is now closed.
Questions for the COPE Forum (1) Were we right in deciding not to issue an erratum? Is there any other text that you would recommend adding to the author instructions?
The Forum agreed that the editor should not issue an erratum. Correcting the literature is very important, but patient confidentiality is overriding in this case. No useful purpose would be served by issuing an erratum, particularly as written patient consent has now been obtained, and in fact it would draw attention to the name of the patient. A poll of the Forum audience indicated that only a few people would issue a correction—the majority would not. But some argued that in the interests of transparency, perhaps there should be some acknowledgement that a change was made, even if the change is not specifically mentioned.
The Forum discussed having a universal consent form, which has been discussed by COPE in the past. Hence if a patient consented to publication for one journal, if the article was then rejected and submitted to another journal, another consent form would not have to completed. From a poll of the Forum, there was some support for a universal consent form. About a third of the audience currently use a specific consent form for publication that requires the authors to have gained written consent from the patient before any identifying material can be published.
The Forum suggested an editorial note on the importance of preserving patient confidentiality might be useful, as a reminder to authors. The editor might also like to check that their instructions to authors are clear and up to date on this issue.
The editorial team updated their instructions to authors.
An article was submitted by corresponding author (CA) on 19 December 2011. After several revisions the article was accepted for publication on 23 March 2012. The article was published online 8 May 2012. At the time of submission, CA was a PhD student at a research centre (X). On 21 November 2012, co-author A (also head of the research group) contacted the publisher and editor-in-chief of journal A with a request to retract the published article claiming the following: • Co-author A claims that this paper was submitted to journal A by CA during her absence (maternity leave). • Co-author A claims that she and the other 7 co-authors (authors B, C, D, E, F, G and H) were not informed about the publication in journal A by CA. • Co-author A claims that 90% of the data presented in this paper were obtained during work performed in the laboratories at research centre X, are the property of X, and can only be published by an X staff member and cannot be distributed or published without X’s consent. According to co-author A, CA knows this as he signed a contract with centre X. • Co-author A mentions that she recently submitted an updated version of the same paper to another journal. For this submission, co-author A is the corresponding author. All authors (including CA!) agreed to this publication. (NB: Journal B is a journal with a higher impact factor than journal A.)
On 3 December 2012, the editor-in-chief of journal A informed co-authors A and CA and all of the other co-authors (B, C, D, E, F, G and H) of the possibility of publishing an erratum.
On 6 December 2012, the Legal and Contracts Officer (LCO) of research centre X replied to the editor-in-chief that CA violated contractual obligations with X by submitting the article and transferring the copyright to the copyright owner of the journal. LCO seems to mix up ‘ownership of copyright’ and ‘ownership of results (data)’. So far, no reply from any of the other co-authors has been received although they were copied in on the correspondence.
On 14 December 2012, the publisher contacted CA directly, asking him for his point of view. CA replied on 17 December 2012. From his reply it was not clear whether he completely understood the situation. He stated that he had asked co-author A for permission to submit the article but “had no answer for one year”. He states that the research was done by him and that co-author A also contributed.
On 19 December 2012, the publisher again asked CA the following points: — Did you get the approval of the other co-authors before you submitted the article? Are there, by chance, documents that prove this? — Co-author A said that she was away from work for one year of maternity leave. Were you aware of this when submitting the article? — Are there contractual obligations between you and research centre X that were not observed by submitting the article?
On 20 December 2012, the corresponding author replied that “after a long discussion with the Legal Officer (LO) of research institute Y” he remembered the document/contract that he had signed at research centre X and that he now agrees to retract the article, and he asks the publisher to do so.
However, the published article itself presents sound science. Furthermore, the legal issue between CA and research centre X needs to be separated from the case for retraction of a scientifically correct article. (A minor mistake in the published article that co-author A found in the meantime could be corrected by an erratum.)
On 20 December 2012, the publisher informed CA, co-author A and LCO that any contractual obligations between them and centre X will not be part of this issue. LCO corresponded separately with the LO of research institute Y on how to find an ‘amicable’ solution. This ‘amicable’ solution focused solely on the contractual obligations between research centre X and CA. One step in this solution would be submission of the article to the ‘correct’ journal (journal B) by co-author A.
LCO agreed to the amicable proposal of the LO of institute Y, and sent the publisher a statement on 21 December 2012 in which he disagreed that the case is merely an authorship dispute, but states that the foremost concern is the declaration that the corresponding author signed with research institute X which in his eyes is “wider than the ownership of copyright and results”. He also states that together with the LO from institute Y they came to an agreement NOT to publish. And he will launch a formal compensation claim.
On 21 December 2012, the publisher received a message from a co-author (the first time that one has replied) in which he mentions that CA published a paper without his approval, that he does not want to be linked to the ‘criminal acts’ of a PhD student, he suggests retracting the paper, as asked by co-author A and the LCO, and he will sue the journal.
In summary, the issues are: • The corresponding author submitted an article without the knowledge of all or some of his co-authors. • The corresponding author was under contract with research centre X at that time. • The scientific content of the article is correct. A minor error that occurred since publication can be corrected by an erratum. • Research centre X seems to have put pressure on CA to retract the article because of contractual obligations only. The scientific content was never a case in the correspondence between the different parties
The Forum suggested that there is a lesson to be learnt here: when a journal receives a manuscript, an acknowledgement should be sent to all of the authors, not just the corresponding author, and all authors should be copied in on all correspondence. This will prevent a similar situation arising in the future.
There could be legal issues here, as the PhD student was under contract to the institute. So the issue may be taken out of the hands of the editor. Some suggested there was a lack of mentorship and failure of supervision—what was the PhD supervisor doing?
Most agreed that there were no grounds for retraction. An author dispute is not sufficient grounds to retract an article if there is no issue with the scientific content of the article. However, as the editor does not have documentation that all authors agreed to the publication, the authors do have some grounds to feel aggrieved and to want a retraction. If the editor can obtain signed consent from all of the authors, then he could consider retraction. Others suggested that the editor should do nothing.
Regarding the issue of the recently submitted updated version of the same paper to another journal, the Forum noted that the editor has a right to ask the author for a copy of this paper. Do the authors want the paper retracted so that they can submit to the other journal (which has a higher impact factor)? If the authors do go ahead with submission of a paper to the other journal, there must be clear linkage to the original paper.
There are also copyright issues to consider.
On a show of hands, half of the Forum suggested that the editor do nothing further, a few suggested publishing a correction or some form of note on the paper regarding the authorship dispute, and only two people suggested a retraction.
The editors never received any feedback from anyone involved. They count this as silent agreement to the way they handled this case—involving COPE and publishing the article. The editor considers this case as closed.
A director of an institute in France has expressed concern about a paper published in our journal. One of the authors (not the corresponding author) of the paper, person A, visited his laboratory in France for 5 months in 2009 to carry out some work. The director says that some methods used and results obtained in his laboratory have now been included in the paper without his knowledge or permission. Researchers from another institute in a different country are co-authors of the paper, and the corresponding author is someone from that institute. The director in France acknowledges that the experiments could have been repeated in conjunction with this other group, but says that it is not very ethical to work in this way.
I would be grateful for any advice on how to proceed in this matter. We have replied saying that we would contact COPE for advice. In 2010, the editor-in-chief of another journal contacted the French group about a paper submitted by person A which included several members of the French laboratory as co-authors without their knowledge and permission. That editor-in-chief was concerned about apparent falsification of data by manipulation of a gel photo, which the French group were able to confirm. They contacted person A and the departmental head but have had no response.
The editor provided additional information that there was no formal contract between person A and the laboratory in France, and the director of the laboratory has replied that none of the data have been published previously.
The advice from the Forum was to contact person A, relaying the concerns expressed by the French institute, and ask for an explanation. If there is no response or an unsatisfactory response from person A, then the editor may consider contacting person A’s institution and asking them to investigate the matter. In the meantime, the editor may like to publish an expression of concern if an investigation is ongoing. However, as the director acknowledges that the experiments could have been repeated elsewhere and if he cannot prove that the published results were actually produced in his laboratory, it may be difficult for the journal to pursue this further. Further advice was for the editor to encourage the French institute to take up the matter with person A and her current institute. Or the French institute could contact the corresponding author of the paper, and then he/she should then be responsible for putting together a response on behalf of all authors. If it turns out to be a simple matter of ‘scientific discourteousness’, a letter exchange would be a good way to publicly apologise. Regarding the second paper, involving the other journal and possible falsification of the data, this should probably be set aside for the moment, in the interests of giving person A the benefit of the doubt. It is the other journal’s responsibility to pursue this matter.
The editor contacted the director in France who brought the case to their attention, and forwarded the recommendations of the Forum COPE, asking him how he would like to proceed. He asked the editor to try to contact person A to ask for an explanation. The editor emailed and sent a letter asking person A to respond. They are still awaiting a response.
An article was submitted for publication. This was a survey of research activity in a specialist area and included, among other things, research funding amounts from each institution. This led to a sort of 'league table'. The information was provided by the responding director of the specialty area or head of school/research group of each institution. The cover letter stated this is for research purposes. No particular ethics approval was sought for the study as it was based on staff/professionals and most were known to the principal author.
The question is whether these data on amount of funding are private or public. While grant income data can be available in funders' websites/reports or the institutional/departmental websites, certainly it exists in Research Assessment Exercise (RAE) reports that are available to the public for past research, this may not be the case for all research grants (ie, industry grants or private donations).
Is research grant income classified as private data (in which case, consent is needed) or it is public data and the cover letter to the study means that returning completed questionnaires implies consent?
The Forum suggested that although the authors may have a responsibility to the individual researchers at the institutions who provided the data, this case appears to relate to institutional data. As there are no individual data, breaching any privacy laws is not an issue. There was some concern from the Forum that the individuals may face disciplinary action by their superiors for supplying the data, but all agreed that this was not really an ethical issue, and there is no ethical principle to protect the institution. Most believed that it did not appear to be a very well-designed study and perhaps the editor should talk to the authors about anonymising their data and broadening the message of the paper. The editor might also like to draw their attention to the potential obligation the authors have to the individual researchers. However, no one suggested that the paper should not be published
The authors were allowed to continue with the submission and the paper is now undergoing peer review.
Child abuse is a common but underdiagnosed problem in our country. The abuse ranges from minor injury to severe head trauma. The true incidence of intentional head injury in children remains uncertain.
We published a case of child abuse with blunt head trauma with intracranial haemorrhage presenting as loss of consciousness simulating a diabetic ketoacidosis. We received a complaint from a reader about a photograph illustrating the case which showed details of the abuse (bruises and signs of abuse around the perineum but the upper half of the body was not visible). We believe the case report warranted that the photo be published.
However, the complainant argues that he believes it was wrong to publish the photograph at all and especially in its present explicit form. The complainant believes that publishing this photograph of the child is a violation of child’s human rights. The complainant also states that before publishing the photograph, he hopes the editors had obtained appropriate consent to publish.
Some members of the Forum questioned whether it was necessary to print the photograph of the child. Could the case have been described adequately without the photo? Although the photograph is already published, some suggested removing the picture from the online version of the journal. Others argued that as the editor believed overwhelmingly in the importance of this case and had published it in good faith, he should stand by his original decision. The father of the child had agreed to the photograph being published and the child had since died, so there was no issue of consent. Another suggestion was to write an editorial on the subject highlighting the issues involved.
Our editorial board decided not to delete the photo from the e-issue because it was thought that it was an important finding and it was necessary to keep it to educate our readers (doctors/paediatricians).
The authors wish to publish a case report that aims to characterise complex chromosomal abnormalities in a rare congenital syndrome. It describes, in detail, the clinical features of two newborn infants. When asked about consent to publish, the authors said they did not obtain it because the data were reported from existing clinical diagnostic test results and therefore did not constitute a systematic investigation and that no identifiable information was included in the manuscript.
The authors were told that consent was still needed and that they should attempt to obtain it from the children’s parents or next of kin. The authors said that it would not be possible to obtain consent from the parents since the mother of one child was now deceased and the other was lost to follow-up, but that they would attempt to obtain a waiver from their IRB. They provided a copy of an IRB approval letter with no specific mention of waiver of consent, but they did provide a copy of the application form which included a section where they provided a justification for not obtaining consent. The justification was that they were unable to obtain consent from the mothers and that the data they analysed was pre-existing clinical information and that no photographs or identifiable information would be published.
The authors feel that they have addressed the question of consent to publish and that their manuscript should proceed to publication. Despite the waiver from the ethics committee, one of the editors-in-chief feels that although consent would be burdensome to obtain, the study does not meet the other criteria set out by COPE to justify a waiver of consent: i.e. that the report is important to public health (or is in some other way important), and a reasonable patient would be unlikely to object to publication. Does the committee agree that an IRB waiver for consent for this study does not justify publication?
The Forum pointed out that consent to a treatment or intervention should not be confused with consent to publish. It is up to the journal to ensure that appropriate consent has been obtained and this is separate from IRB approval. If the balance of judgement is in favour of public interest, then the editor could consider publishing the cases, but only if the cases are completely anonymised with no identifying features. The Forum noted that this is a particular problem in paediatrics, which has often been discussed at the Forum. The Forum questioned whether it would be possible to write a comment on the general condition, without publishing the actual cases. Can a useful message be conveyed without giving specific details on the cases? In the end, it is a judgement call for the editor. He should try and obtain consent from anyone who is eligible or seek a balance of opinion from experts in the field and then decide whether or not to publish.
During review of a manuscript submitted to our journal, a dispute arose over some of the data used in the database that was described in the submitted paper.
The authors listed several preferred reviewers and also one non-preferred reviewer (without giving reasons). The journal’s submission site states that the editors will consider the authors’ preferred suggestions but are under no obligation to use any or all of them and that the editors reserve the right to approach non-preferred referees. Authors are asked to outline in their comments to the editor any particular reasons for requesting exclusion.
The paper was initially positively reviewed by two referees, one of them a preferred referee, and minor revision was requested. Neither of the initial referees responded to the invitation to review the revision (they neither declined, nor agreed, just did not respond) and as the senior author had already published with virtually all important scientists in this small field, the associate editor decided to invite the non-preferred reviewer. The non-preferred reviewer and one new reviewer agreed to review.
Shortly after accepting, the non-preferred reviewer emailed the editorial office asking whether it was journal policy to publish a reference to a database without any scientific study based on these data (the journal answered yes, citing a previously published database description) and stating “I discovered by examining this database that the senior author has used my data without permission. This applies to hundreds of measurements in country 1 and in the mountains, but also to data from country 2”.
The authors state on the database website that the database contains published data and in the manuscript that the “measurements in the database have been collected over the last 20 years from various sites around the world (references given) and are included with permission from the collectors”. The journal informed the non-preferred reviewer that, from what the authors were stating, all data seemed to be in the public domain, but advised him to put his concerns into his review or contact the authors directly, if the reviewer preferred.
By the time the reviewer received this reply he had already submitted his review and informed the journal that he also sent his full review to the senior author. The reviewer also pointed out in an email to the editorial office that the measurements published in one of the cited studies (of which the referee was the senior author) were not published in the form as they appear now in the database, and then accused the senior author of having used information which he collected as a member of the reviewer’s research group a long time ago, and publishing it without the reviewer’s permission. The reviewer thought that the reference to the paper was not sufficient and also stated that the conditions with the mountain data were more serious.
In the review, the referee pointed out three problems: (1) unethical behaviour on the part of the senior author. The reviewer stated that he could not remember having given permission to use the data, but had specifically asked the senior author not to use the mountain data for anything until the reviewer had finished his analysis. He included the original email in the review. (2) potential dual publication. The reviewer stated that because no analysis of the data was presented in the paper, a simple report on the existence of the database was not suitable for publication in a journal and went on to point out that a first version of this database was already published (as cited on the database website, but not in the paper) as a preprint article. As a comparison of the two manuscripts did not reveal any obvious differences in content, the reviewer questioned whether this constituted dual publication. (3) questions over the use of a particular method. The reviewer called the use of this method “scientifically unacceptable”, stating that the problems with this method have been published and concluding that it was unacceptable for the senior author to ignore these arguments (this was not mentioned by any of the other reviewers).
Checking the date of the above mentioned email and the publication date of the preprint article, the journal realised that the reviewer emailed the senior author shortly after the document was posted online. The dispute had thus been going on for over a year by the time the referee was invited to review, but the reviewer had not declared a conflict of interest.
The associate editor, having read both reviews (the second being positive), recommended rejecting the manuscript and inviting a resubmission once the authors either were able to present the permit obtained from the non-preferred reviewer or removed all unpublished data for which no data were available.
In the meantime (and before any action was taken), the senior author, prompted by the reviewer’s email to him, emailed the managing editor and the associate editor, informing them that the non-preferred reviewer used to be the senior author’s PhD supervisor. The senior author rejected as incorrect any claims over the inappropriateness of the method and the statement that the reviewer had not given permission to use what the referee claimed were his data. As the review implies several forms of unethical behaviour on the senior author’s part, he felt the need to clarify.
(1) the criticised method has been used in top tier journals such as Science, Nature and PNAS and has therefore been through rigorous quality control. Since the reviewer’s evaluation of the method did not contain any concrete arguments, the senior author assumed that the reviewer was referring to a polemic about the method by another author, published in the same journal in which the senior author countered these arguments. The method continues to be the most widely used, cited over 90 times (the associate editor points out that it was cited mainly by the senior author’s main group, but that none of the other reviewers have criticised the method). The senior author further points out that this method is not the only one used in the database.
(2) re the inappropriate use of data from country 1, the senior author assures the journal that the referee had been asked and had given permission (an email was attached), but that if the referee wanted to retract the permission, the authors would remove the data in question. Re the data from the mountains and the email sent by the reviewer, the senior author claimed that the email had been taken out of context. The senior author had indeed asked the reviewer about the possibility to perform a separate analysis on the mountain data. According to the senior author it was this request about the separate analysis that the reviewer declined and the request had not referred to making publicly available the data that had already been published in one of the references.
(3) re dual publication, the senior author stated that a beta version of the manuscript, with a completely different code and user interface and only a very reduced set of data, was posted on a preprint server, not a regular journal publication (the associate editor saw no major changes in the number of data entries and that both discuss the database in a similar way, but thought that the submitted manuscript was more detailed than the earlier (preprint) article. Figures are not identical, but basically follow the same scheme. The associate editor left it up to the editor whether he considered a full-length paper that builds upon something that has been published on a preprint server as sufficiently novel).
The senior author finally adds that because of previous similar experiences, the authors had listed the reviewer as non-preferred.
The corresponding author emailed the editorial office offering to remove from the database any data that have been collected with the reviewer’s participation but emphasised that by doing so, the authors do not acknowledge any form of wrongdoing on their part, but seek to make it easier for the journal to make a decision.
After discussions between the editors, the editorial office and the publisher, the decision was to reject the manuscript but to invite resubmission. The letter pointed out (a) the disputed use of data in the database; (b) the question of dual publication; and (c) the scientific criticisms expressed by both referees. It of course included both reviews in full.
The editor confirmed that the journal did not have a policy on whether they will accept material that has already been posted on a preprint server. Preprint servers are not peer-reviewed, so some journals will accept material that has already been posted, but all such prior presentations should be disclosed to the editor in the covering letter. All agreed that the editor should not get involved in an author dispute. The editor could suggest that the authors find an independent adjudicator, that both sides find acceptable, if the authors cannot come to an agreement among themselves. It was suggested that the editor could go to the author’s institution and ask them to adjudicate. The editor should also clarify their policy on preprint servers in the journal’s instructions to authors.
We received a paper which describes genotyping results from a large number of individuals (>50) from five unrelated families, in which family members had various blood and liver conditions. On submission we noted that the paper included specific details regarding the clinical histories of individuals in each family. Some individuals were described in substantial detail, others only briefly. For example, information about probands included age at presentation, sex, ethnicity, clinical history, occupation, clinical complications (some quite specific), clinic attended (for some individuals), history of alcohol consumption, ages of relatives, clinical details for relatives, age at death etc.
The authors responded that when initially obtaining consent to the research project, patients consented that “[t]he results from studies on the research samples may be published, but individual patients will not be identified in the publications”. They claim that details included are not identifying, and that it would be impractical now to trace all living relatives. They asked whether our consent form has been approved by an IRB, and say that before using it they will need to have it reviewed by their IRB.
We are unsure how to proceed but feel that when consenting to the research project the individuals may not have realised they would have been described to this level of detail, and that we should respect their privacy. One option might be to ensure the authors seek consent to publication from all probands, but then remove extraneous detail regarding the relatives. However, it is possible that the IRB may have useful input regarding the publication of individuals’ details from this study.
The editor was asked if the personal information was essential to the study. If it were deleted, would the paper still have value? The editor confirmed that the information was crucial to the study and could not be deleted. All agreed that the editor needs to weigh up the need to publish against any harm that might be caused by publication. Most believed that the harm involved was probably quite severe and so outweighs the need to publish. One test that can be applied is to consider whetheran investigative journalist would be able to identify the patients from the study (in this case, most Forum members felt that they could, therefore the risk of identification is high). The Forum did not believe it was that impractical for the authors to obtain consent and so they thought it was reasonable to ask the authors again to obtain consent. Did the authors make it clear to the patients how much detail and history would be published? Also, some noted that with pedigree studies, it can be very easy to identify patients. As with all such cases, the editor needs to make a judgement concerning the harm that might be caused to the patients in publishing and the benefits of publishing. Most believed that the risk of identification was high and that the editor should not publish without consent. The advice was to go back to the authors and ask them to obtain consent. COPE was asked about whether it could produce a generic consent form for all journals (to avoid problems of having to use multiple forms if a manuscript is reject by one journal and submitted to another). COPE Council agreed to consider this suggestion.
The editor informed the authors that the case had been taken to COPE, and the agreement of those who attended was that patients and family members would need to give consent to publication of the case(s) having read the paper. The authors responded after several weeks to say they had traced the patients and obtained consent to publication. They updated their paper to state this in the revised text, and also updated the text to minimise some details of family members, and to state that details were minimised to maintain anonymity but that further clinical details could be made available to other researchers on request.
I am the editor of an international clinical journal and am facing a very unusual problem that does not fit readily into COPE flowcharts.
Through a reviewer, I was informed that an author had submitted a paper without the approval of at least one of the other authors. This appeared to be confirmed by two other authors. In response to my bringing this possibility to the first author’s attention, he asserted that all coauthors had given informed consent to publish the work as it is. I have requested that he provides written corroboration of this. If this is not forthcoming I will send the paper to the other authors and seek permission to identify their views to him.
Another reviewer raised concerns about the ethics of a component of the submitted investigation. The author has responded that the work was investigated by the university to which at that time he was affiliated and received ethics approval. I have requested written confirmation of this. The author is no longer at the institution at which the work is reputed to have been conducted: he quotes as his current affiliation an institution that does not exist and gives only an email contact.
Additional criticisms of the work from a scientific perspective made it clear it was not acceptable for publication and I have informed the author of this. The author has two other manuscripts in submission and I have requested documented confirmation that the listed coauthors of these approve of their content. Furthermore, my attention has been drawn to items in four other journals raising issues about coauthors’ approval of other papers from the same first author and additional concerns about misappropriation of material from the publications of others.
In his response to my request for clarification of the issues raised with regard to the paper I rejected, the author stated his intention to “formally let open further legal steps against you”. Nevertheless, it seems clear that I have a responsibility to continue investigating the foregoing issues.
The journal has no established regular mechanism for this circumstance. A way of proceeding could be, after as much possible information has been assembled, to draw together a small panel, including appropriate experts and representatives from the sponsoring international society whose task would be to review the information (in anonymised form) and advise on any further action, both from the point of view of my journal and the wider issues. In the absence of an identified current employer, it may be that the institution at which the work was performed is the most appropriate to charge with responsibility for any further investigation and action.
Is the presumption correct that, in the event of the author translating his statement about legal steps into action, the editorial team and others involved on behalf of the journal would be indemnified by the publisher?
The Forum noted that this is a case that perhaps can never be satisfactorily resolved. It is very difficult for editors to intervene in authorship disputes. The advice was for the editor to contact the author’s institution and ask them to investigate the authorship dispute. As the editor suspects unethical research, that is another reason to approach the institution, report the matter and request an investigation. The Forum noted that this is as much as the editor can do with regard to the submitted papers. On the wider issue, the editor could publish an expression of concern for the papers already published and alert the other journals where the previous papers have been published. In the UK, a physician could be reported to the GMC for his conduct – there may be a similar body in other countries to whom the author’s behaviour could be reported.
May 2009 In brief, I took advice, based on an anonymised set of information, from the three chairmen of the relevant committees of the European Society of which the journal is the official journal. Their view was clear that the various concerns amounted to a serious departure from appropriate standards. They concurred with the recommendation that responsibility for action should include the employing institution. This was communicated to the main and co-authors. However, at this stage, communication was received from a lawyer on behalf of the main author and the matter has been taken up by the publisher’s lawyers.
We recently published article A by author group X on our website ahead of print publication and subsequently received a formal complaint from author group Y alleging that the paper constitutes a breach of their intellectual property rights.
Group Y state that the described work is based on a jointly developed concept, initially resulting in a joint report (published 2004). In their view, article A therefore contains their intellectual property, which is documented by frequent email exchanges, delivery of all relevant reagents and two visits by the senior author in group X to group Y's laboratory.
Group Y further state that there has been a previous unauthorised publication of a report that also contained their unacknowledged input (intellectual input and reagents), resulting in group Y prohibiting any further publication on the same topic by group X without their authorisation (!?).
In article A, the authors state that they used commercial reagents, although group Y allege that their reagents were available to group X at this time. Group Y are seeking what they perceive to be correct acknowledgement for their contribution, and there is an ongoing legal dispute, which they are threatening to expand to include article A unless a suitable solution is found.
We approached group Y to clarify if they thought they should be acknowledged on the paper, or even included as authors, but they did not answer, as they believe that group X should be asked to clarify their position.
We approached group X for their response to these allegations. Group X maintain that their collaboration with group Y was their idea, as an obvious extension to their previous clinical publications. Group Y are chemists and had not published on any clinical topic prior to the collaboration with group X. Group X state that the collaboration came to an end in 2006 when the senior collaborator in group Y demanded that either s/he should be named as the last author or one of the junior members of group Y named as first author on any manuscript resulting from the collaboration. Group X considered this to be unreasonable and continued their studies using commercial reagents.
The editors of the journal in question believe group X's response to be appropriate and complete, and find no grounds for taking group Y's complaint any further. The editors would like to proceed with print publication of article A.
Is proceeding with publication at this stage appropriate? The editors are concerned about the threat of legal proceedings, so should they therefore be more cautious in accepting one version of events above another—do they need to request “proof” and, if so, what would this proof consist of? The Forum’s advice on the next steps that they should take would be appreciated.
The Forum agreed that the paper should be considered published. It is irrelevant whether this is online or in print. Although one suggestion was to let group Y have their say, perhaps in a letter to the editor, others cautioned against this approach in the light of unresolved legal issues. If legal proceedings are threatened, the editor should withdraw from the dispute and not investigate the matter further. The response from group X could be shared with group Y only after explicit consent from group X. The advice of the Forum was to go ahead with the print publication of the paper but the editor should not get involved in correspondence between the two groups and should seek legal advice.
The Editor took COPE’s advice and no further action resulted. The editor considers the case now closed.