We received a letter from a third party, accusing author A of putting his/her name against an article, published in our journal, when the research itself belongs to author A's student.
Our journal is a fully English language publication and the accusing third party and author A are from a non-English speaking country, as is the student (assumedly). The accusing third party forwarded the student's research paper to the editor which is entirely written in another language but contained an English abstract.
The Editor contacted author A and the response received included an attached confirmation letter supposedly from his/her student stating that they had no involvement in the published work by author A and that their research is completely separate to the published paper by author A.
We have several concerns: 1. It is difficult for the editor to examine the abstract the third party sent to us against the published article by author A. 2. We do not know if the response letter emailed from author A, confirming no involvement in author A's paper, is genuinely from the student. 3. The accuser's identity or relation to the matter is unknown to us. Ideally the editor needs to contact the student directly but we need bona fide contact details of the student and we are not sure we would get it from the accuser or the accused author A. Google is also of little help as there are so many people with the name.
Question(s) for the COPE Forum • How should we go about contacting the student? • What should be our next steps?
COPE’s advice in these types of cases would be to contact the student directly. Contacting the institution in confidence through the Office of Graduate Studies would be the most normal route but some universities in some countries might not respect the confidentiality of the student. The Forum acknowledged how frustrating it must be for the journal, and that there is probably little else that can be done.
The journal could ask the third party for the contact details of the student. The only other suggestion was to see if there is a licensing board in the country that could be contacted. Any licensed professional is usually governed by a licensing board.
The editor contacted the accuser asking for the student’s details but no response has yet been received.
Follow-up (January 2017): The journal considers the case closed.
The topic for discussion at the next Forum (12 February 2016, 3.00pm GMT - more details to follow shortly) is ‘Data sharing’. Data sharing is increasingly viewed as an essential step in improving research transparency and reproducibility. There has been a lot of discussion on the imperative for data sharing in the biomedical arena, particularly of publicly funded research. As a result, there are many disciplines where proposals for data sharing are being discussed.
In October 2011, our journal received a submission from author A with co-authors B, C and D. After review and revision it was published in mid-2012. In April 2013 we received a complaint from author X, saying that the work published in this paper was his work, and that although author A had been his research supervisor at the time the work was done, authors B, C and D had either little or no input to the work. Author X said that the correct authorship should be X and A in that order.
Author X provided as evidence an internal document submitted to and accepted by the university authorities in May 2010 in fulfilment of a requirement to demonstrate capability for research. His academic record confirms that this submission was successful. He then changed supervisor (and department) within the same university due to a breakdown of relations with his previous supervisor, and proceeded to complete his PhD in January 2013. The internal document is not in English, but it is apparent that close to 75% of the content of the journal paper has effectively been taken from the internal document. [This has been checked roughly through the use of online translation. The majority of figures and diagrams are clearly the same. The authors (A–D) of the published journal paper do not appear to be contesting that this document was the source of the text although they claim ownership of the data and ideas.]
When challenged, author A says that author X was a poor researcher and was away from the country for considerable periods of time when he should have been doing the work. He also suggests that others in his research team gave author X considerable help with the internal document. He claims that author X has fraudulently used the work of author A and his co-workers, both in the internal document and in his PhD thesis.
The editor’s suggestion was that author X’s name should be added to the authors of the published paper, as second author (compromising on the initial request of author X that he should be first author, given that author A was the team leader, had a strong interest in the work and that this complaint had come nearly 3 years after author X had departed the group, amid some acrimony). This would be achieved through the publication of a corrigendum. Author
A disagreed strongly, and said that he did not wish his name to be on the same paper as author X’s. Author A also encouraged the other co-authors to respond, and they supported him. The original authors said they would rather withdraw the paper than have author X’s name added.
The editor indicated that withdrawal (retraction) of the paper was not an option at this stage, as no one had questioned the science in the paper, and the concern was solely over the authorship. The editor also pointed out that the guidelines on authorship, available through the journal’s web page, made clear that anyone who has made a significant contribution to the article should be included in the list of authors. The prior existence and acceptance by the university of the internal document as proof of the research competence of author X would appear to be sufficient proof of a significant contribution. This would not apply if there had been some formal challenge within the university, but no challenge appears to have been made.
The current head of department of author A has largely confirmed the picture painted. He says that when author X first came to the department he was announced by author A to be a ‘brilliant student’, but that relations started to break down early on, as author X had expected to do research in a somewhat different area. He confirms that after the internal document had been submitted and accepted, author X moved to complete his PhD in a different department, although in the same general area as before. He agrees with the proposed action and says he will attempt to convince author A, but with no feedback as yet.
Questions (1) Can the journal make a decision to add author X’s name without the agreement of the other authors? Given the opinions that authors A, etc, have so forcefully stated, this seems inappropriate. (2) Could a corrigendum be used to demonstrate the full order of suggestions—that author X be added, that authors A, B, C and D said that if that were decided they would withdraw their names, and therefore the paper would now be acknowledged as the work of author X alone? (3) Should the request of author A and others that the paper be retracted be accepted? This appears entirely inappropriate as no one is objecting to the science or claiming that the work should not be published on scientific grounds?
The Forum agreed that it is not up to the editor to decide who is an author on a paper. The editor is not in a position to know the details of the dispute. This is the responsibility of the authors and their institutions and needs to be resolved by them or by an independent party. However, the paper is unacceptable as it stands, and the editor should put a note on the paper saying that the authorship is in dispute. The editor might even suggest that the institution has been unable to resolve this dispute. This may prompt the authors or institution to resolve the issue. The editor could suggest to the authors that they find an independent arbitrator to review the case and whose decision they agree to abide by. Another suggestion was for the editor to suggest including author X on the paper, and then giving the other authors the option of withdrawing their names.
The editor told the Forum that, subsequently, the head of department has suggested that author X should be listed as the second author on the paper and author A seems to accept this. If this is the case, the Forum advised the editor to emphasise on the correction notice that the paper is being corrected on the recommendation of the institution.
Since the case was discussed, the editor has focused on getting the institution to take full responsibility for taking a decision. This has been effective to the point of getting all parties to indicate they would accept the decision, although on circulating the proposed corrigendum, the first author (A) reverted to saying that author X was not acceptable. The institution stuck with the decision, and the corrigendum will appear shortly.
An article was submitted by corresponding author (CA) on 19 December 2011. After several revisions the article was accepted for publication on 23 March 2012. The article was published online 8 May 2012. At the time of submission, CA was a PhD student at a research centre (X). On 21 November 2012, co-author A (also head of the research group) contacted the publisher and editor-in-chief of journal A with a request to retract the published article claiming the following: • Co-author A claims that this paper was submitted to journal A by CA during her absence (maternity leave). • Co-author A claims that she and the other 7 co-authors (authors B, C, D, E, F, G and H) were not informed about the publication in journal A by CA. • Co-author A claims that 90% of the data presented in this paper were obtained during work performed in the laboratories at research centre X, are the property of X, and can only be published by an X staff member and cannot be distributed or published without X’s consent. According to co-author A, CA knows this as he signed a contract with centre X. • Co-author A mentions that she recently submitted an updated version of the same paper to another journal. For this submission, co-author A is the corresponding author. All authors (including CA!) agreed to this publication. (NB: Journal B is a journal with a higher impact factor than journal A.)
On 3 December 2012, the editor-in-chief of journal A informed co-authors A and CA and all of the other co-authors (B, C, D, E, F, G and H) of the possibility of publishing an erratum.
On 6 December 2012, the Legal and Contracts Officer (LCO) of research centre X replied to the editor-in-chief that CA violated contractual obligations with X by submitting the article and transferring the copyright to the copyright owner of the journal. LCO seems to mix up ‘ownership of copyright’ and ‘ownership of results (data)’. So far, no reply from any of the other co-authors has been received although they were copied in on the correspondence.
On 14 December 2012, the publisher contacted CA directly, asking him for his point of view. CA replied on 17 December 2012. From his reply it was not clear whether he completely understood the situation. He stated that he had asked co-author A for permission to submit the article but “had no answer for one year”. He states that the research was done by him and that co-author A also contributed.
On 19 December 2012, the publisher again asked CA the following points: — Did you get the approval of the other co-authors before you submitted the article? Are there, by chance, documents that prove this? — Co-author A said that she was away from work for one year of maternity leave. Were you aware of this when submitting the article? — Are there contractual obligations between you and research centre X that were not observed by submitting the article?
On 20 December 2012, the corresponding author replied that “after a long discussion with the Legal Officer (LO) of research institute Y” he remembered the document/contract that he had signed at research centre X and that he now agrees to retract the article, and he asks the publisher to do so.
However, the published article itself presents sound science. Furthermore, the legal issue between CA and research centre X needs to be separated from the case for retraction of a scientifically correct article. (A minor mistake in the published article that co-author A found in the meantime could be corrected by an erratum.)
On 20 December 2012, the publisher informed CA, co-author A and LCO that any contractual obligations between them and centre X will not be part of this issue. LCO corresponded separately with the LO of research institute Y on how to find an ‘amicable’ solution. This ‘amicable’ solution focused solely on the contractual obligations between research centre X and CA. One step in this solution would be submission of the article to the ‘correct’ journal (journal B) by co-author A.
LCO agreed to the amicable proposal of the LO of institute Y, and sent the publisher a statement on 21 December 2012 in which he disagreed that the case is merely an authorship dispute, but states that the foremost concern is the declaration that the corresponding author signed with research institute X which in his eyes is “wider than the ownership of copyright and results”. He also states that together with the LO from institute Y they came to an agreement NOT to publish. And he will launch a formal compensation claim.
On 21 December 2012, the publisher received a message from a co-author (the first time that one has replied) in which he mentions that CA published a paper without his approval, that he does not want to be linked to the ‘criminal acts’ of a PhD student, he suggests retracting the paper, as asked by co-author A and the LCO, and he will sue the journal.
In summary, the issues are: • The corresponding author submitted an article without the knowledge of all or some of his co-authors. • The corresponding author was under contract with research centre X at that time. • The scientific content of the article is correct. A minor error that occurred since publication can be corrected by an erratum. • Research centre X seems to have put pressure on CA to retract the article because of contractual obligations only. The scientific content was never a case in the correspondence between the different parties
The Forum suggested that there is a lesson to be learnt here: when a journal receives a manuscript, an acknowledgement should be sent to all of the authors, not just the corresponding author, and all authors should be copied in on all correspondence. This will prevent a similar situation arising in the future.
There could be legal issues here, as the PhD student was under contract to the institute. So the issue may be taken out of the hands of the editor. Some suggested there was a lack of mentorship and failure of supervision—what was the PhD supervisor doing?
Most agreed that there were no grounds for retraction. An author dispute is not sufficient grounds to retract an article if there is no issue with the scientific content of the article. However, as the editor does not have documentation that all authors agreed to the publication, the authors do have some grounds to feel aggrieved and to want a retraction. If the editor can obtain signed consent from all of the authors, then he could consider retraction. Others suggested that the editor should do nothing.
Regarding the issue of the recently submitted updated version of the same paper to another journal, the Forum noted that the editor has a right to ask the author for a copy of this paper. Do the authors want the paper retracted so that they can submit to the other journal (which has a higher impact factor)? If the authors do go ahead with submission of a paper to the other journal, there must be clear linkage to the original paper.
There are also copyright issues to consider.
On a show of hands, half of the Forum suggested that the editor do nothing further, a few suggested publishing a correction or some form of note on the paper regarding the authorship dispute, and only two people suggested a retraction.
The editors never received any feedback from anyone involved. They count this as silent agreement to the way they handled this case—involving COPE and publishing the article. The editor considers this case as closed.
The publishers received an email from author B about a recently published paper, which passed peer review and had been available online for about a month. In this email, author B claimed that he and another colleague C had determined the peptide sequence in question and had not published it yet, nor given permission for it to be published. He claimed that author A had access to his unpublished results as a subcontractor on one of his grants. Furthermore, author B demanded the article be retracted. Author A alerted author B to their intention to publish in 2009, to which no response was received. Author A says that the data were obtained in his laboratory in joint work with authors B and C. Author C says that the data were obtained by him and author B, and only disclosed to author A afterwards in some collaborative work.
A further complication is that both authors B and C (and notably not author A) have a patent pending on the peptide sequence in question. However, author A could not have known about this. There is clearly some communication breakdown between authors A and B, but does author B have the right to demand that author A’s paper be retracted?
The Forum agreed that this was a case of disputed authorship and it cannot be resolved by the editor. It is one person’s word against another. The advice from the Forum was to contact the authors’ institutions, and in a formal letter ask them to investigate the case. The editor should let the authors know that he is contacting their institutions and that he will abide by the decision of the institution. The editor should then publish a correction or retract the article, depending on the outcome of the institution’s investigation.
A paper was published with four authors from two universities and the contact author provided an exclusive license form on behalf of all of the authors. After publication, one of the authors contacted the editor claiming a case of plagiarism. The claim is that the published paper was a direct copy of an MSc thesis which this person had supervised 7 years previously. Complications arise in that the first author of the paper was the MSc student, now working at the other university, and the complainant was an author of the published paper. Thus apparently the authors included the person whose work was being plagiarised and the supervisor of that work, who is also complaining about the publication of the paper. The claim was that the other authors had plagiarised the MSc thesis and had no right to publish the material.
As editor, I was asked to take action but my only route was to contact the authors by e-mail. I received an email from the corresponding author assuring me that all procedures had been correctly followed and also an email from the first author, the MSc student on whose thesis the paper was based and now a PhD student with the corresponding author's university, stating that he was happy with the publication. However, I have had another co-author request the paper they have been included on be delayed as they had not known of its submission until we contacted them. The author making the complaint states that the work belongs to him, not his student, but I understand that an MSc is written by the student and is the student's own work hence the student would have copyright and the right to subsequently publish papers from the MSc data. Additionally, the system we use automatically informs all authors and co-authors on submission of a paper that the paper has been submitted so the delay is also a problem.
What actions are possible?
The advice from the Forum, in the editor’s absence, was to contact the author’s institution, informing them of the situation, and request that they conduct an investigation. It is not for the editor to resolve the situation.
Dr R, of University 1, has written an ‘official complain’ to Editor E alleging that a paper he was invited to review employs without permission a method that is the ‘background intellectual property’ (BIP) of University 1. He believes the paper should not be published.
Dr R asserts that he created the BIP prior to its use in several research projects at University 1, and notes that Dr A, the paper’s author, worked on these projects at University 1 under Dr R’s supervision when the method was explained to him.
Dr A’s current affiliation is University 2. Dr R asserts that: University 2 was never granted any right to use the BIP and that to do so would be an infringement; Dr A was advised of the confidentiality of the method. Dr A did not cite University 1’s BIP in his paper.
Dr R did not in fact review the paper when first submitted: several reviewers were invited and the initial ‘revise’ decision was communicated to Dr A on the basis of other reviews received. Dr R’s complaint to Editor E, which incidentally is not on University 1’s letterhead, was received when a revised version of the paper was under final review, 5 months after the initial reviewer invitation.
Editor E has sent details of the complaint to Dr A, advising him also that the review process has been suspended pending a resolution. Dr A’s response to the complaint was a direct reply to Dr R (rather than to Editor E, although a copy was sent to him), expressing surprise at the complaint and refuting the allegations, asserting instead that he was already using the methods in his paper before working at University 1 and that he had not used University 1’s methods. He also comments that despite having undertaken ‘lots of work’ at University 1, he was never included as a co-author. Editor E has asked Dr R for a response to Dr A’s views but has yet to receive one.
Editor E and the journal’s publisher are both aware of the COPE flowcharts, and jointly seek the Forum’s further advice in this case:
1. Should Editor E take the lead in investigating the matter, or should this be handled by the publisher? 2. In terms of an investigation, the COPE flowcharts recommend forwarding the concerns to the author’s institution. Is this the appropriate course of action here? In a case such as this, we would be especially interested in the Forum’s view on the suggestion that the concerns be forwarded, at an appropriate level, to both institutions simultaneously.
As noted above, the review process for the paper is presently on hold.
The Forum was unanimous in their opinion that neither the editor nor the publisher should investigate the matter. Journals are not set up to carry out investigations. The advice was not to publish the paper until the author dispute is resolved. The editor should contact both institutions and ask them to conduct an investigation into this matter. The Forum also commented that this may be a case for lawyers to sort out but the journal and publisher should be kept informed. The Forum advised that it would be appropriate for the journal and/or the publisher to contact the institutions.
The matter was referred by the editor and publisher to University 2, who are conducting a formal investigation according to the university's code of practice for complaints of misconduct in research. University 1 is cooperating at the highest level. The process has been delayed at several points, but is expected to be concluded shortly, a date having been set for the examiners and expert advisors to hold a formal hearing. The review process for the article concerned is still on hold, pending a decision: a regrettable but understandable delay of more than 10 months.