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
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.
A paper was published for which the authors’contributions were as follows: A and B had the original idea and planned the study. A was also responsible for collecting the samples and patient data. C established the database and participated in planning the clinical trial. D developed the enzyme linked immunoabsorbent assay and analysed all the samples. E and F were responsible for the statistical analyses of the data. The paper had been written jointly by B, G, D, H and A. A and B were guarantors of the study. D complained to the Danish Committee on Scientific Dishonesty, arguing that the contributor list had been altered from what had been agreed by the authors. The Committee upheld this complaint and the journal agreed to publish a correction to the contributor list, as follows: A and D took the initiative to the investigation. A collected the clinical material. F updated and validated the clinical data, which was initially registered and arranged by C. F and D analysed in cooperation the samples for PAI-1. F and E conducted in cooperation the statistical analysis. F, B, D and A interpreted the statistical results. A and B wrote the first draft of the paper and were in charge of the final manuscript. All authors actively participated in discussions regarding the conduction of the work and in preparation of the final manuscript. The findings of the Committee have subsequently been disputed.