An article was submitted to our journal (journal A) in March. According to the journal’s working policy, the article was initially reviewed inhouse and comments were sent to the author. The authors replied to the comments but did not agree to the suggestion to convert the article to a short report. A rather impolite letter was sent by the author criticising the policies of the journal. We sent a reply that if the authors were not happy with the journal’s decision, they could withdraw the article according to the guidelines which are clearly given on our website.
The authors did not follow the journal procedures for withdrawing the article—they did not submit the withdrawal form signed by all authors. According to journal policy, the copyright of any manuscript remains with the journal, unless it is withdrawn in the proper manner.
The authors submitted the article to another local journal (journal B) where it was immediately published.
As the file was not closed at journal A, multiple reminders were sent to the authors. We wanted to remove the file from our database if the authors were no longer interested in publication. The authors wrote back that the article was published in July.
We first wrote to the authors that this was unethical and amounted to dual submission. We again received a rather impolite reply. We then wrote to the editor of the journal in which the article was published. Apparently, this journal does not ask for a non-submission undertaking from the authors. The editor was quite vague in his reply. We sent him the details of dual submission to which he sent a two line reply asking as to what should be done. We suggested that the copyright of the article is still with us so he should remove the article from the journal’s website until the article is withdrawn in the correct manner. The editor has not taken any steps and the article is still displayed on the other journal’s website.
Question(s) for the COPE Forum
Should we do nothing about the authors’ wrongdoing?
If no action is taken, will it encourage the authors to misbehave in the future for the sake of convenience
Should we pursue the matter with the editor of the journal who has made the mistake but is not responding.
It seems the authors did not follow the preferred journal policy, but the behaviour is not necessarily unethical. The editor told the Forum that copyright is transferred to the journal on submission. The Forum noted that although copyright does formally belong to journal A, the journal does not have the article or the revisions, and hence they are holding copyright on an article that they do not want to publish. Manuscript submission systems can be very cumbersome and inconvenient, and it seems harsh to punish the authors for a technical issue. Perhaps a production editor could help with the process if an author decides to withdraw their paper.
Although the authors’ behaviour was impolite, using copyright as a reason to have a claim on a paper is not reasonable. The behaviour was impolite, but it was not unethical. The journal may wish to modify their policies so that withdrawing an article does not involve this technical hitch.
A suggestion was for the journal to revise their policy of requiring copyright transfer on submission. It is unusual internationally, and it can in effect hold the authors hostage. Another suggestion was to email the authors explaining their error, and then letting the matter rest. The editor might also contact the editor of the other journal one last time to discuss the matter. Perhaps journal Y did have a discussion with the authors and from their perspective they may think the authors correctly withdrew their paper.
Advice on follow up:
As suggested by the COPE Forum, we wrote to the editor of journal B demanding an action in the form of contacting the authors and asking them to withdraw the article from our journal. Eventually the editor did convince the authors and they submitted the withdrawal form. The case is now closed.
At the North American seminar 2019, Kath Burton (Associate Editorial Director of Arts & Humanities, Routledge, Taylor & Francis) presented the initial research findings and the solution put together on the back of some research conducted by COPE, supported by Routledge.
The aim of the research was to better understand the publication ethics needs of arts, humanities and social science journal editors, and to identify areas where they may need specific guidance and support.
The research aimed to answer the following questions:
An editor received a query from an author: “Your guidelines are clear that presenting data at a society meeting does not preclude publication. But what if the society records the presentation, retains copyright of that recording, and posts it online? Is asking presenters to turn over copyright of a recording of data presented at a prepublication stage and disseminating the recording as they see fit crossing the "prior publication" line?”
Question(s) for the COPE Forum • Are presentation audiotapes considered prior publication? • If tapes are copyrighted, does that preclude publication?
Copyright laws are there to protect publishers and they cover only the presentation of something and not the underlying research or data. In the case of audiotapes, the organisation only owns the audio rights not the paper rights, so the editor should check the copyright that has previously been assigned. It is also possible that the audiotapes are behind a paywall for members only, so the distribution of the material might be very limited. There is a need, however, to seek legal advice in such cases and the editor should consult the legal department of the publisher if there is any question. Additionally, when a paper is presented, it is not generally presented in the same format as a scholarly paper submitted to a journal, so there might be significant differences between the audio and the written material, with the exception of the data presented. The main concern is duplicate publication; however, audiotapes are not generally considered primary sources for the purpose of reviews of the literature.
There is a similar situation with dissertations. Do poster presentations have the same copyright rules? Generally, previous presentations in the form of papers presented at a conference are allowed although there might be some text overlap with the abstract, which is usually all that is printed. In other situations, a published abstract in English might accompany an article written in another language, but with appropriate credits, a complete translation of that article might be appropriate for publication.
The parameters of prior publication are a journal decision. For example, journals can decide to publish papers arising out of a dissertation or an audit that has been circulated internally in an institution, but they should be transparent and disclose previous publication or copyright of any portion of the material. One view from the Forum was that copyright issues support paternalistic ideas of protecting people from something that has not been peer reviewed, and this might be an issue for certain disciplines. Another question journals might consider relates to their policies of issuing press releases. Some journals employ the Ingelfinger Rule and embargoes to preclude the spread of misinformation, particularly in research related to public health and safety.
The matter was resolved in the author’s favour. The association changed its policy requiring presenters to have presentations taped and to hand over copyright.
We have received a number of manuscripts involving a published scale where the scale’s developer is known to comb the literature and ask those who used the scale for research to pay for a retroactive license, sometimes asking for very large sums of money.
We have started asking authors on all submissions where the scale is used to provide a copy of the license agreement with the scale’s developer. In most cases, the authors do not have the agreement and are not receiving prompt responses from the scale’s developer and his team when they contact him to ask about the license. We have had to withdraw these manuscripts from submission until authors can provide evidence to indicate that the scale’s developer has granted them a license.
In a more complicated case, we found an accepted (but not published) manuscript that used the scale. We asked the authors, after acceptance, to obtain the correct permissions (they had not done so initially). They subsequently acquired the correct license, but the scale’s developer came back with a number of comments on the paper that he was requiring the authors to make prior to publication. This included adding three of his own papers to the reference list (but not indicating where they should be cited in the text). He also added his name and contact information to a number of places in the paper, most notably in the acknowledgments section.
The scale’s license contract and copyright agreement include a number of ‘copyright requirements’ that the authors must agree to. One of these is that all manuscripts using the scale that are being considered for publication must be submitted to the developer first to check that all copyright requirements are included. We felt it would be editorially irresponsible to allow these changes to the manuscript after peer review and have had to withdraw the manuscript (the developer also indicated that he "will not allow" the authors to publish the version of the manuscript that was accepted). The authors were very understanding about withdrawing their paper as they had been having a difficult time dealing with the scale’s developer and his team.
We have another case where the authors are removing data from their manuscript relating to the published scale but adding a note to indicate why they have done this. As such, the reporting of results will be incomplete.
We disagree with the actions of the researcher and his enforcement of copyright on the tool. We are currently only publishing articles that have a license permitted by the scale’s developer because we do not want to be sued or have to retract the articles.
Question(s) for the COPE Forum
• How should we be handling cases where this scale is being used?
• Should we be taking any action relating to the developer’s conduct?
The Forum asked if the journal had sought legal advice. There are copyright and licensing issues here that need to be addressed. Who holds copyright on the scale? Is the right to use the scale also copyrighted? What are the legal claims and what is required by the license (for example, is it use of the scale, reporting of the scale, etc). Perhaps consulting with inhouse lawyers could determine if the demands of the developer are reasonable. The Forum agreed this is a very difficult issue, with no easy solution.
A suggestion was to write an editorial, highlighting this issue. It seems that there may be many journals who are experiencing similar problems. The editor might consider contacting other editors and producing a joint editorial or opinion piece, highlighting the issues around this type of behaviour and holding authors to ransom in this way, and emphasizing the fact that this is not good for the advancement of scientific knowledge or in the public interest.
A manuscript was submitted by author A to our journal. The content of the paper was controversial. We sent this manuscript for peer review by two clinical reviewers. We wrote back to author A requesting major revisions to address the concerns and issues raised by the reviewers. A revised paper was submitted and accepted for publication.
Because the article was controversial, mini-commentaries were commissioned from authors B and C to be published together with the paper. Mini-commentaries are short articles with a word limit of 500 words and by invitation only, usually written by an editor or referee, although they can also be authored by a third party at the discretion of the editors. Their aim is to provide a clinical or research perspective relating to the manuscript being referenced in order to provide a different overview of the research findings (ie, they can be personal opinions in some cases). These are then published with the referenced manuscript in the same issue of the journal.
Author A’s manuscript was published together with the mini-commentaries. The mini-commentary by author C disputed the findings in the paper by author A and stated that in their opinion.
Three years later, we received a letter of concern from author A alleging scientific misconduct by author C and demanding that we retract the mini-commentary written by author C. Following discussion among the senior editors of the journal, permission was obtained from author A to allow author C to have sight of this letter in order to allow a response to be made to the accusations made by author A, which were somewhat intemperate in tone (including accusations of falsification, fabrication, duplication and violation of scientific integrity). Author C responded that the accusations raised by author A were absurd and recommended that the journal ignore them. Author C provided some publications supporting his views.
Question(s) for the COPE Forum
• Currently, the editors do not see any scientific reason why the opinions expressed by author C should be retracted. The views expressed are personal but there is scientific evidence to support them. Author C did not suggest that author A was fraudulent, merely mistaken. The editors currently consider that they have no need to adjudicate between two opposing scientific views, for which each protagonist can cite evidence. Does COPE agree?
• In view of its intemperate language, the editors currently feel that it would not be appropriate to publish the letter from author A criticizing the mini-commentary. While the editors wish to publish all letters within reason, we feel that it is justified to decline publication if we feel the author has not made a substantive point or if they use inappropriate language. Does COPE agree?
• Should we invite author A to submit a reasoned letter without accusations of scientific misconduct to see if this is then suitable for publication?
• If author A agrees to submit such a revised letter, we would plan to invite a reply from author C but publish one or both irrespective of the response from author C (eg, they might decline to reply). Does COPE agree that this is appropriate?
The Forum noted that unless author A has new evidence he can produce that would dispute author’s C criticisms of the original paper, is there any value in publishing further commentaries? Did the letter from author A have anything of value? However, in the interests of transparency, the editor could encourage author A to submit a more reasoned letter. The editor should stress that the letter needs to be scientific and not libellous. The editor can also edit the letter if necessary; it is acceptable to remove inflammatory or derogatory comments. If author A is prepared to follow this course, then an exchange of letters in the journal on scientific differences would be appropriate.
For controversial articles in particular, the journal may wish to consider sharing letters with the authors prior to publication, allowing them to correct any factual inaccuracies, to avoid a similar issue arising in the future.
After the discussion at the Forum, the journal decided not to take any further action. The consensus was that there were no grounds to retract author C’s mini commentary. There was not enough of value in author A’s letter to pursue the idea of publishing a version of it in the journal.
The editor communicated the decision to author A and eventually informed the individual that the journal would not enter into further correspondence regarding this matter. The editor considers the case closed.
We received a request by an author who states not to have contributed to an article published in 2015. The author claims that his name was used without his knowledge and that the corresponding author has been retired for several years and can no longer be reached. At the time of submission, we received a copyright transfer signed with the author’s name (we request all authors to sign the form). We are not in favour of withdrawing the article as we feel we have a signed copyright form.
Questions for the COPE Forum • How should we reply to the author requesting withdrawal of the paper?
• We believe a copyright transfer form signed by all author has legal value for us: is this the case?
The presenter told the Forum that the author claims that he did not sign any copyright transfer form. The Forum asked if the journal was confident that the letter is from the author. It might be worthwhile confirming who he is, and obtaining his full affiliation and contact details in case he has been confused with a different author with the same name. The Forum noted that it is very difficult for the journal to work out exactly what has happened, so the advice was to contact the institution for help. The institution can determine the facts of the case and determine if the signed copyright form was faked, which would be fraud. The journal could consider publishing a correction when the correct authorship of the paper is verified.
This case raises the issue of how journals communicate with authors after submission of papers. COPE advises that it is good policy for journals to copy all authors, not just the corresponding author, in their written communications and emails regarding papers submitted for publication. The Forum would advise handling papers in this way in the future.
The Forum advised that if the journal decides to disregard the author’s request, they should seek legal advice first.
The editor contacted the author but received no further comments. The editor considers the case closed.
The journal was contacted with a claim to first authorship of a paper currently published online ahead of print. Print publication was put on hold pending the result of the investigation. The claim to first authorship was based on the claimant stating that they had obtained most results published in the paper during their PhD studies under the supervision of the corresponding author, and contributed to the writing of the text. The claimant provided evidence of this in the form of screenshots of a submission confirmation email and subsequent rejection email from another journal for a manuscript with a similar title, a Word document labelled as the claimant’s PhD thesis and details of overlap with the published paper, and a screenshot of an email reported to have been sent by the claimant to the corresponding author in 2013 containing images used in the published paper.
The corresponding author was contacted and declared on behalf of all authors that the claimant had not contributed to the experiments or writing, and that none of the results shown in the article were performed by the claimant. They explained that the claimant was discharged from the PhD programme before successful completion. The claimant indicated that they wished to dispute this, and the institution was asked to investigate and resolve the dispute.
The institution informed the journal that the knowledge generated during state funded projects was the property of the institution, and only the institution has the ability to agree a copyright transfer in agreement with the corresponding author, and that the corresponding author had full legal and institutional support to determine the author list of papers resulting from the project. They stated that a graduate student may or may not be included as an author on papers deriving from projects to which they have contributed, and according to institutional guidelines, in order to be included as an author, a student must successfully complete their studies within a defined timeframe. The decision to remove the claimant as a co-author was confirmed to have been made because they were dismissed from the graduate programme before successful completion.
The institution did not comment on the extent of the contribution of the claimant to the research results and discussion presented in the published paper. The journal considers that ICMJE/COPE guidelines do not hold non-completion of studies as a valid reason for disqualification from authorship.
Question for the COPE Forum
• Should the journal operate according to ICMJE/COPE guidelines for determining authorship in the face of contradictory institutional authorship criteria and against the wishes of the corresponding author and institution? • If so, how can the right to authorship of the claimant according to ICMJE/COPE guidelines be now confirmed independently of the institution? • If a copyright transfer has already been agreed between the publisher and the institution/corresponding author, is this agreement affected if a separate correction article is published detailing an authorship change?
The Forum noted its seems punitive on the part of the university regarding their decision to exclude the student from being an author because they did not complete their studies within a defined timeframe. If the student was in the middle of their training and had submitted a paper, would the institution have handled the case differently? Was the claimant's role acknowledged in the published article? If not, might the claimant and authors agree to a correction to publish an acknowledgment?
Otherwise, a suggestion was to contact a higher authority at the institution—perhaps a committee on research integrity at the institution— or an oversight body and ask them to investigate and try to resolve the authorship issue. The Forum noted that it is up to the journal to set their own guidelines for authorship, and to clearly state that they follow the ICMJE and COPE guidelines, for example. The journal guidelines should take precedence.
Following advice from the COPE Forum, the journal approached the highest authority within the university to specifically confirm that the authorship of the paper was determined according to the criteria set by ICMJE/COPE, which they did. No further action was taken. The editor considers the case closed.
Our journal recently approved a commentary article for publication, after the manuscript had been substantially revised during the editorial process. In the course of preparing the text for the article proof, the copy editor discovered that the authors had published the revised manuscript on an external public website, just prior to receiving notification from our system of our formal acceptance for publication. Although formally accepted, the article has not yet be been published (neither online nor in print).
In our journal, authors are required, at the time of submission of a manuscript, to confirm that the manuscript has not previously been published in other media, that they consent to giving our journal exclusive rights to represent, duplicate and publish the manuscript, and that written consent for subsequent use of the manuscript must be obtained from the Journal.
Immediately after submission of a manuscript, all authors receive a confirmation email in which we repeat that the content/manuscript must not be discussed in any form of media until the manuscript is published by the journal, without a specific exception from us. This message is repeated in several subsequent communications, including at the time of acceptance for publication.
The timing of the publication of this manuscript on an external website falls at an unusual intersection between submission of a revised manuscript, acceptance of a final version of the manuscript and publication of the final manuscript. We judge the situation as somewhat different from the COPE flowcharts for redundant publication. We have informed the authors that we have postponed publication until we receive the COPE Forum's recommendation. In the meantime, we have asked the authors to remove the content of the manuscript from the external website.
Question(s) for the COPE Forum • Is it acceptable to permanently withhold publication of this otherwise accepted manuscript?
The editor updated the Forum that the author has now removed the manuscript from the external public website, stating that it was a technical error.
The Forum suggested that this case highlights the lack of knowledge of some authors with regard to the consequences of posting on blogs, websites, etc, and that education is needed around these issues to reinforce the message that this constitutes publishing.
The Forum noted that this was not redundant publication but could have been a breach of copyright, if the paper had not been taken down from the website. With so many publishing models available, is it conceivable that the authors were confused? Editors should ensure their journal policies on permissible duplicate publication are up to date. For some journals, publication of manuscripts on preprint servers, for example, is permissible, but this should be clearly indicated on the journal website. In the present case, the journal does not have an open access policy and at the time of submission the journal assumes copyright of the article.
The Forum agreed that the authors were in the wrong here, but the right thing to do now is for the journal to publish the paper. If the editor feels she would like to do more, she could consider contacting the authors’ institution as a way of educating the authors and providing a gentle reminder of the appropriate behaviour in such instances, and the contract and copyright issues involved when authors submit a paper for publication.
The authors were understanding of the journal's concerns and removed the content from the external website. The journal proceeded to publish the manuscript.