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.
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
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.
A paper was submitted to a medical journal, reporting the beneficial effects of a treatment with an expensive biological preparation. The author list included one employee of the company that produces and sells the preparation. Specific employees of the company were also thanked for medical input, epidemiological advice, programming support and copy editing; several authors declared having received speaker fees from the company for lectures related to the product. Nevertheless, the authors stated that they were responsible for all of the content and editorial decisions.
After editorial assessment, revisions were requested. The revised version of the manuscript included (per the journal policy) a copy of the revised text with changes from the original tracked. The author of all changes was identified by the word processor tracking as someone whose name appeared neither in the author list nor in the acknowledgements. The company’s website lists this individual as a ‘scientific communications manager’.
The editor felt that this created a transparency issue and contacted the authors. Their response was that the individual involved had replaced the company employee previously thanked for copy editing and “was extremely helpful in assembling the comments and suggestions from all of the co-authors after the data re-analysis, and assisted in preparing the revised version of the paper for submission”. Not thanking him in the acknowledgements was an oversight which the authors are willing to correct. They argue that this input did not fulfil the criteria for authorship.
The editor thinks that the described contribution goes much beyond copy editing.
Question(s) for the COPE Forum • Is “assembling the comments and suggestions from all of the co-authors after the data re-analysis, and assisting in preparing the revised version of the paper for submission” simply copy editing or does it justify authorship? • The editor believes this is quite significant intellectual contribution. Does the Forum agree?
COPE has guidelines on ‘What constitutes authorship’, which the editor may find useful to consult (http://publicationethics.org/files/u7141/Authorship_DiscussionDocument_0_0.pdf). It is very difficult for an editor to make a definitive decision on who qualifies for authorship. The Forum advised that the editor cannot make a decision on this—it is the responsibility of the authors and their institution. The advice was to contact the institution and ask them to resolve the issue.
The editor might want to consider contacting this person directly, rather than liaising through the corresponding author, and asking this person directly about his/her contribution. Self declarations of involvement are often the best evidence that can be obtained. The editor could point to the ICMJE guidelines for authorship and ask him/her if they believe they fulfil these criteria for authorship.
From the information available, it would appear that this person was akin to a medical writer whose job it is to help authors put their paper together and they probably had no intellectual input into the paper. If that is the case, then an acknowledgement would seem to be the most appropriate option, perhaps with more detail about who paid them to do the work. But it is not the editor’s role to decide who or who is not an author—the institution needs to make that decision.
The matter was resolved by including the company employee, who organized the revisions, in the acknowledgements section of the paper. The editor received email confirmation from the company employee that he agreed to be mentioned in the acknowledgements and not be listed as a co-author. The paper was then published.