A paper was submitted to a journal with authors A, B, C, D and E. The paper was peer reviewed. Before acceptance, the corresponding author asked for a new author, author F, to be added, and an existing author, author C, to be removed.
The editorial office asked all of the authors (authors A, B, C, D, E and F) to complete a change of authorship request form and for the corresponding authors to justify the reason for change of authorship.
All of the authors complied with the requirement except author C (the author to be removed). The corresponding author explained that author C did not participate in the paper (ie, they should not have been left on the paper in the first place). The explanations on who did what in the paper confirm this statement, but author C is not contactable to confirm or negate the statement as they are on long term sick leave (author C is not responding to the HR department of their institution).
If author C did not contribute to the paper, their name should not have been left on the submission. However, as the article was submitted with their name on it, it seems wrong to remove their name during the peer review process.
Question(s) for the COPE Forum
What course of action would the Forum advise?
If author C is removed without their permission, could they ask for the article to be retracted?
If author C remains on the article but they have been ill and not signed off on the final accepted version, could they ask for retraction of the article because they did not agree to the final article being published with their name on it?
A suggestion was to move the missing author to the acknowledgements section with an explanation of what has happened. A note could also be added that the journal was unable to contact this author.
There may be reasons why the university is not forthcoming or helpful, but the editor might try and contact someone else at the university who may be willing to provide a little more information that might be helpful in terms of the decision making for the journal.
Did the author see the final version of the paper that was submitted? It would seem so, as the submission had the author’s name included. Perhaps getting a timeline from the corresponding author would be helpful, detailing when author C become ill and stopped working on the paper and if the author saw and approved the final version. If the author did not approve the final version, they should not remain on the author list and should be added as an acknowledgement—author C worked on this paper and is thanked for their contribution.
Could efforts to contact author C be directed via the publishers to take independent steps that to try and contact author C (eg, via social media). The editor may wish to consider verifying the corresponding author’s version of events in case there are other reasons why the corresponding author may not be contacting author C. The editor may wish to contact the research department or institution and ask if they can confirm the details of what has happened.
An institutional review recommended retraction of certain works by a highly prolific and influential author who has since died. The institutional review focused on a relatively small portion of this author’s work. The institution recommended retraction based on deeming the articles unsafe and identifying several concerns, including that the articles' conclusions were implausible.
As a publisher, we are moving forward with reviewing potential retraction of the articles identified by the institutional report. We are questioning whether we should also review the other articles written by the author in the journals' backfile, based on the following:
1. The institutional report cited serious systemic concerns with the research and findings.
2. The author was highly influential.
3. Many of the articles were published in the 1970s/1980s or earlier.
4. Other areas of the author's work/findings seem contrary to current scientific standards (and potentially harmful).
Question(s) for the COPE Forum
When responding to an institutional report recommending retraction of certain articles, should editors review the other works of an author as part of their response (and depending on the reasons the retraction was recommended and the potential relevance to the author's other articles, issuing an editor's note or expression of concern to reference the concerns identified in the report findings for the separate retractions).
With respect to articles in the journal's historic backfile that reference findings that have since been overturned by later works and do not meet current scientific standards (and are potentially harmful or are supportive of a practice that has since been prohibited), is it appropriate for journal editors to initiate their own review of these articles? Should these articles be retracted, or would these cases be more appropriately handled with a “statement of concern” alerting readers to the concerns with the article's findings
Is retraction an appropriate action so long (decades) after publication?
The Forum agreed this is a difficult case and one that increasingly arises in historic papers with questionable data practices. This is a reflection of a wider problem of how far back to go if there are problems with the data. Data maintenance practices in the past may not always have been very good. It is up to editors to have a look at the papers and see if there's anything very obviously wrong that could be investigated but if it is a general suspicion that the data might not be correct but there is no way to validate this, then an expression of concern might be appropriate.
There is a presumption that the institution must have had specific reasons why the 10 papers should be retracted and not the other ones. If the data are not available and it cannot be proved that there was any manipulation or whether the findings are correct for the other papers, then retraction would be inappropriate, and a statement of concern should be considered, given that the author cannot reply. If an author has committed misconduct, does that mean their whole body of work is invalid? The Forum suggested applying retraction to the 10 articles. For the other articles, a statement of concern for the other papers is appropriate if there is clear evidence of misconduct. Retraction for these articles is not appropriate unless the institution provides sound evidence that the data sets were manipulated or fraudulent.
For the 10 publications that the institution has suggested retracting, are there any living co-authors that could provide more information? The editor might consider contacting any co-authors for more information.
Regarding the fact that the findings of the previous articles may be unsafe, from the institutional perspective, this may not mean a danger to public health. Sometimes institutions use the term unsafe with regard to relying on the data that back the study. Perhaps unsafe means that there is little to support the actual findings and they should be disregarded or looked at it from an historical perspective. The advice was for the editor to apply common sense. There are many practices and treatments (eg, cancer treatments) that have changed dramatically over time and would be considered completely unsafe today, but we would not consider retracting those papers.
Session on retractions at the European Seminar 2019, chaired by Heather Tierney, COPE Council, presents the results of a study of all retracted papers published in journals processed for the Web of Science (WoS). Thed describes the reasons for retractions, motivation for retraction and who retracts. During the session we also heard from Howard Browman and Catriona Fennell. Links to their presentations are below:
Session on retractions at the European Seminar 2019, chaired by Heather Tierney, COPE Council, with a review of the updated Retraction Guidelines from COPE. During the session we also heard from Thed Van Leeuwen and Catriona Fennell. Links to their presentations are below:
Session on retractions at the European Seminar 2019, chaired by Heather Tierney, COPE Council, with a publisher's perspectives from Catriona Fennell, Director of Publishing Services, Elsevier. During the session we also heard from Howard Browman and Thed Van Leeuwen. Links to their presentations are below:
My initial introduction to COPE many years ago occurred when, as an editor of a peer reviewed journal, a reviewer called to my attention, a blatant example of fabrication in a manuscript in which years and volumes of references had been altered to make them more current. I contacted COPE, presented the case at a Forum, and received excellent advice and consultation. This ultimately resulted in numerous retractions of manuscripts published by this researcher, across three journals.