An author affiliated with a research institution R published two papers as a single author, one of them in a journal of publisher A.
After publication, publisher A was contacted by the research integrity officer of institution R with a letter of concern. The letter stated that the research institution has conducted a formal investigation and concluded that the author failed to acknowledge fully the likely contributions made by other staff and students in his research group, even though his work was heavily influenced by the ideas and experimental results of other members of staff in the research group. The formal investigation panel agreed unanimously that the author had behaved unprofessionally and upheld the finding that research misconduct had taken place regarding the submission and subsequent publication of the single author paper in the journal.
The research institute said that they had not been able to reach an agreement with the author about the situation and asked the publisher to publish an erratum (or some similar note of concern) with the text: “The work was carried out while the author was at [xxx] funded by [xxx]. The experimental scheme set out in figure [xxx] was influenced by discussion with the [xxx] groups at [xxx]”
The journal contacted the author, who did not agree with publishing an erratum. The author stated that: the work was not exclusively carried out while being at [xxx], but it represented the results of a continued effort since when he was at another institute (which has been acknowledged in the paper); he was not made aware of the role of the funding agencies [xxx] during his years of employment; he states that the sketch in the figure is his original idea and is not an experimental scheme, but rather may be used to derive various experimental schemes for prototyping.
The author counter-proposed publishing an erratum as follows: "The author also acknowledges the collaborative effort in the submission of experimental proposals [xxx], based on the above theoretical framework, to build the first ever [xxx], which he initiated and led as the Principal Investigator, using the [xxx] Facility at the [xxx], in discussion with the [xxx] teams (funded by [xxx]) at [xxx]. The author further acknowledges the strong merits of this collaborative effort which warrants its continuation as already initiated by the author."
The research institute found the proposed text unacceptable as it both misrepresents and seeks to undermine the findings of the research institute's investigation. Furthermore, it claimed that the author led a collaborative project in relation to the development of an experimental prototype, which is not borne out by the facts. The research institute cannot agree to the publication of such a misleading statement. They ask the publisher instead to consider publishing a statement alongside the author's paper to confirm that it has been subject to a formal finding of research misconduct for making use of the ideas of others without permission or acknowledgement. The institute argues that such a statement is necessary for transparency, and to correct the scientific record.
Questions for the Forum
Has the Forum seen similar situations where the author and the author's research institution disagree about proper and adequate recognition of contributors to a published work?
Is it appropriate to publish a statement of concern that the paper has been subject to a formal finding of research misconduct for making use of the ideas of others without permission or acknowledgement?
The Forum agreed that the institution needs to resolve the issue with the authors. The editor cannot adjudicate in this situation, but they can ensure the publication record is up to date and correct. Hence the Forum advised publishing an expression of concern until consensus is reached by the institution and the authors. In the expression of concern, the editor can describe the findings of the institution and the objections from the authors. Authorship and contributorship disputes cannot be resolved by editors and should be directed to the institution. As there was another institution involved, the editor may wish to contact the second institution and ask them to conduct an investigation but still publish an expression of concern while this is ongoing.
Another option is to threaten retraction of the article if no agreement is reached. The editor could give the institution and the authors a time limit, after which the journal will retract the article.
I am delighted to have this opportunity to introduce myself to the broad readership of the Digest as the new Chair-elect of COPE, a position I will hold for a year before I become Chair of COPE. COPE is entering a critical phase in its life. The organisation has expanded rapidly, so we need to focus on our strategic goals set out last year.
Early in my academic career I was sent a publication in which my name appeared as a 5th author. The research was legitimate, conducted by a senior colleague, and I had participated in a small part of the research. I had not been involved in the writing of the paper, its final approval, or in signing the copyright agreement.
Clear policies (that allow for transparency around who contributed to the work and in what capacity) should be in place for requirements for authorship and contributorship as well as processes for managing potential disputes.
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The topic for discussion at this Forum was ‘Authorship, contributorship, who’s doing what, and what do we need?’ Authorship issues are one of the most common issues that COPE members have to deal with. Leaving aside the ethically problematic issues of ghost, guest and gift authorship, seemingly simpler authorship disputes of for example, who deserves authorship, or what author order should be are very common across most disciplines
The associate editor of journal X identified author Y on a submission paper as someone who had lost their license to practice due to malpractice. As part of the settlement, author Y had agreed to refrain from providing services to patients. Author Y now resides on a different continent, and the study presented in the submission was apparently carried out in in this continent. There is no mention in the conflict of interest statement regarding the loss of license.
The role of author Y in the paper is not clear. The editor was planning to ask this after peer review was completed.
Question(s) for the COPE Forum • Should loss of a licence to practice in one country be declared as part of a conflict of interest statement? • Does loss of licence to practice in one country impact a researcher’s ability to carry out clinical research in other countries? • Should the loss of license have been declared to the ethics committee that approved the study?
The Forum questioned the role of the author in this paper—how involved was the author in this study? The Forum suggested that the editor needs to establish this first. The editor can ask for a contributorship statement from the authors, detailing the contribution of each author to the study and paper. Malpractice can be for very specific areas and if this study is in an unrelated field, it may not impact on this paper.
The Forum agreed that the author should have declared his loss of license to the ethics committee that approved the study. This issue should have been raised at this level initially. The journal could consider contacting the ethics committee to see if this happened.
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.
An author on a "perspective/consensus" type paper continues to provide new editorial as well as substantial content comments on consecutive versions of a paper, and currently disagrees with the content of the final version of the paper. The other eight authors have approved the final version of the paper prepared and circulated by the lead author. At this stage, the lead author sees no rationale for making further content changes and hence intends to resolve the situation himself by suggesting to any authors who do not agree with him that they are removed from the authorship list and acknowledged for any key contributions (as appropriate).
Question(s) for the COPE Forum
• Is the suggested handling by the lead author appropriate? Are there are other solutions available/preferable? • Is it appropriate for a lead author to address an issue with the authors individually, initially face-to-face, and then inform/involve all of the authors in a second step for them to make a consensus decision? • What is the Forum’s advice on the role and responsibilities of a lead author more generally? Is there any available guidance on this?
The Forum agreed this is an authorship issue and relates to authorship practices. The "lead" author can have different meanings in different disciplines. There is no accepted general opinion on this issue—it can vary by convention and discipline. The lead author can be the first or last author, or the most senior author.
Editors would not normally become involved with these types of cases—editors usually insist that authors resolve any authorship issues before submission.
Ideally, all authors should agree—consensus should be reached. If the direction of a paper changes, all authors need to agree to the changes in writing. One solution is to ask each author to specify their contribution. CRediT (Contributor Roles Taxonomy) could be useful here. If the authors have made valid contributions to the paper, then the lead author cannot remove them from the paper.
The presenter updated the Forum that the case was resolved by formal discussion with all of the authors on a conference call.