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
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.
A case report was submitted to a journal, describing a patient with a very serious, curable infectious disease who had been given complementary medicine (plant extract) rather than the standard treatment. A search of the literature indicated that the authors were known to support complementary therapies. The alternative treatment was not evidence based. The case took place in a country were the standard treatment was easily available. The authors reported that the patient had given informed consent, but did not provide any detail. No mention was made of ethics committee approval for the experimental treatment. The editors in particular questioned the acceptability of: 1. prescribing a new therapy, without evidence of its efficacy, for an infectious treatable condition; 2. prescribing experimental treatment without ethics committee approval; 3. how well the patient was informed. A full review of the manuscript echoed these concerns. The authors were asked to confirm/explain if they had received informed consent from the patient and ethics committee approval. They were also asked to clarify the treatment plan. In a brief email, the authors stated that they had received both consent from the patient and ethics committee approval, but after several chases, have failed to send the corresponding documents. The authors also stated that the patient was started on the standard treatment course “3 weeks later. ”The manuscript was rejected. Should the editors take further action? Does the fact that the authors advise that the patient was given standard therapy make any difference?
_ Was this a doctor’s choice rather than the patient’s decision? Had the patient specifically requested the alternative treatment? There was no evidence to prove either. _ This is a grave issue and the editors should definitely pursue the authors for documentation of the patient’s consent and ethics committee approval. _ To have undertaken such a course of action without either of these calls the authors’ medical practice and judgement into question. _ The editor should write to the authors again with a short deadline, informing them that the matter would be referred to both the authors’ employers and the appropriate regulatory body. _ Even if the patient had pleaded for the alternative therapy, the fact that the disease is infectious and potential fatal means that public interest would outweigh the patient’s preference. _ The editors should write to the regulatory authorities as the course of action taken had endangered both the patient and other people. _ The police might also have the jurisdiction to investigate. _ The burden of investigation does not lie with editors; it is their duty to inform the relevant authorities.
The editors have written to all the authors explaining their editorial decision and intention to submit the case to the relevant authorities. Lawyers wrote back on behalf of the corresponding author. One author was unreachable because the email address was invalid; another expressed surprise at receiving the editors’ message, explaining that he could not remember having approved any manuscript for submission. The editors are now planning to write to the authors’ institutions and regulatory bodies.