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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Full page history
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.
Our journal was contacted by an individual, Dr H, who had recently seen a published article and was surprised that he was not listed as an author because it utilised samples from a database that he established. (The article was published online in November 2014 and in print in February 2015.) He stated that the cohort has spawned many projects, but he was not involved in the “specialist area” in this article. However, he believes he should have been listed as an author because the article would not have been possible without his database.
We told him that the journal conforms strictly to ICMJE's policy on authorship and asked him for more information on his contributions. Although it appears that he fulfils the first criteria because of his involvement in the original cohort/database, he did not fulfil the other three criteria.
At this point we contacted the corresponding author of the article for more information. The corresponding author said that Dr H contributed substantially to the development of the cohort, but was not involved in the design, evaluation or preparation of the data, and recommended publishing a correction with Dr H listed in a simple acknowledgment (not as an author).
Dr H was not satisfied with this solution, continuing to believe that he should be listed as an author. At this point we went back to the corresponding author, who replied that he had discussed the situation further with his co-authors and Dr H, and they thought that even though Dr H does not fulfil the ICMJE criteria, they support his addition as an author because their own publication policy indicated that all PIs involved in the development of the cohort should be listed as authors for subsequent publications. The corresponding author acknowledged that this “puts [the journal] in a difficult position, and exposes problems with [their] publication policy, which need to be resolved, but if it were possible to add [Dr H] to the authorship we should be grateful for your help.”
We replied to the corresponding author letting him know that he continues to state that Dr H does not fulfil ICMJE criteria; in order to comply with journal policy, Dr H should be listed in the acknowledgments. We even offered for them to write the acknowledgment so that Dr H's contributions would be better described. The corresponding author has yet to respond.
However, we received an email from Dr H stating that he still does not believe that an acknowledgment is appropriate. (Per Dr H, “This paper is no different to the way we approached all our other publications and [corresponding author] would certainly know that. I remain perplexed and quite upset as to why and how such a fundamental error was made on his part on this occasion.”) The corresponding author initially believed that an acknowledgment was appropriate, but then recommended the addition of Dr H as an author. We maintain that an acknowledgment is appropriate, and that adding him as an author without fulfilling ICMJE criteria (journal policy) would be the equivalent of gift authorship.
Question(s) for the COPE Forum • Based on ICMJE criteria and journal policy, does the Forum believe that a formal erratum denoting an acknowledgment OR authorship is appropriate? If the latter, an explanation as to why would be very helpful.
The case raises the issue of the role of contributorship. One solution in such cases is for journals to list the contributions of each author. When contributions are clearly listed on a paper, it sometimes becomes clear that some of the contributors do not in fact qualify for authorship, so this practice should be encouraged by journals.
COPE has produced a discussion document on ‘What constitutes authorship?’ which sets out criteria for authorship across different disciplines, and the editor may wish to bring this to the attention of the institution.
The Forum agreed that institutions need to take responsibility for these types of decisions and should have robust mechanisms in place. It is almost impossible for journals and editors to sort out these issues on their own. Unfortunately many institutions fail to arbitrate in these situations. The Forum advised going back to the institution and asking them to address the issue.
The editor may like to look up CRediT (contributor roles taxonomy) which is a CASRAI activity that brings together a diverse set of stakeholders with a common interest in better understanding and communicating different types of contributor roles in research. The CRediT taxonomy may also be a solution in this new era of data sharing where a paper may wish to acknowledge the contribution of the data collectors who would not qualify for authorship.
The Forum also noted that the ICMJE guidelines state that acknowledgements require written permission from the person who is being acknowledged.
In summary, the Forum agreed that contacting the institution is the best way forward and asking them to suggest what should be done in this situation and to explain their policies and procedures in such instances.
To support a recommendation to publish a correction listing Dr H in an acknowledgment (not as an author), the editors sent the institution the following post from Retraction Watch, which describes a similar situation. The institution agreed with this course of action. Although the institution included an apology in their draft correction, the journal opted not to include it in the final correction. The correction will appear in an upcoming volume (in print and online). Prior to publication, the final correction was emailed to Dr H, Dr D and the institution. The editor pointed out that it is the responsibility of the corresponding author, Dr D, to share the final correction, as well as explain the situation as a whole, with all of the coauthors (if he had not already done so). The editor also encouraged the authors to use this experience as a learning opportunity to begin discussions of authorship and acknowledgments at the stage of study conception.
An article was submitted to my journal and was sent for peer review. An editorial board member realised that a number of the references were incorrect: publication dates had been changed to make them more current.
The author was contacted by email and telephone who said he/she had a number of students working for him (who were not listed as authors or in the acknowledgment) and they must have changed the dates because it was well known that faculty preferred current research. He was sorry and was happy to correct the references so the peer review process could move forward.
I told him the manuscript was rejected based on the grievous errors in the reference list. This author also had an accepted manuscript in the production queue. I reviewed that manuscript again after realising the issues above and found the same problems.
Because I had already accepted that manuscript, I gave the author the opportunity to correct the references and add the student's names who worked on the paper to the acknowledgment section. The managing editor and I had to review and further correct the references following his attempt, and this manuscript will be published.
Have other editors experienced similar problems and how does COPE recommend handling them?
The Forum agreed that this is serious misconduct and almost amounts to falsification of data. The Forum questioned the motivation of the author and nobody present had seen a similar case. The author’s behaviour seems extremely odd and it seems strange that the author did not realise that the incorrect dates would be spotted, either because of well-known papers or through reference checking and automatic linking. The Forum suggested that the editor should send a firm letter to the author, explaining that this type of conduct is unacceptable and that she will be contacting the author’s institution and informing them of the situation.
The Forum also suggested that in light of the misconduct and extremely unusual behaviour regarding the references, the editor should perhaps question the scientific veracity of the studies and perhaps this too needed to be investigated, not only in terms of the current paper, but also in relation to previous papers published by this author. The editor told the Forum that other journals had published papers by this author and the Forum advised the editor to contact these editors and share her findings. It may be that all of the editors could write to the institution if similar problems are found in other papers by this author.
The publisher is working with their legal department to determine the contents of a letter that will be sent to the author’s dean and will be signed by the editor and a representative from the publisher. The editor also decided not to publish a manuscript by the same author that had previously been accepted.
Follow Up (March 2011):
The editor discovered that there were also plagiarism issues in three other journals by the same publisher and the plagiarism involved both submitted and published manuscripts. There were also coauthors for several of these papers. The editor contacted the author's dean, as did another editor. The editor received an email from the dean thanking the editor for her efforts. The research compliance officer for the university became involved, the author admitted guilt for the plagiarism and he tendered his resignation in February 2011. The publisher’s legal department is reviewing the extent of the ethical issues and will decide what further action to take. It appears that the author has been involved in ethical violations of manuscripts for a long time.