Our journal has received a paper describing a study that originated as more than one trial in more than one country, with collaboration by researchers in another country. The DSMB considered and agreed a proposal to combine the trials. It took many months to finally submit the manuscript to the journal after the end of trial.
The delay in submission was caused by a dispute with an author (X) from one of the participating sites. X informed the study writing team about scientific and ethical objections to the submission of the manuscript for publication. The writing team (along with various national institutions) tried to resolve the problem, but could not reach a consensus with X. The funder recommended that the writing team should document the opinion of all the members of the team and make a decision about submission of the data based on the majority opinion. The majority (95%) of members provided support; of those who did not, X was one. The journal sent the manuscript out for external peer review, and wrote to the corresponding author to invite a revised manuscript, adding that the journal could not proceed to publication unless the authorship dispute was resolved. The journal received the revised manuscript, and the corresponding author stated that it was the consensus of the writing team that they were unlikely ever to receive support from X, even for this revised manuscript.
Thus far, communications were between the journal and the corresponding author. However, after submission of the revised manuscript, the journal received an email message directly from X, stating that the way the data from the participating site in question are presented (even after peer review and revision) is a misrepresentation. X also stated that those data cannot be used without X’s permission, and asked that, if the journal chose to publish the manuscript, those data should be deleted. The journal wrote to the corresponding author to ask who owned the data. The reply was that the data are owned jointly by the institutions involved in the collaboration at the participating site.
The journal then wrote to the funder to ask for their response to the dispute, and received a statement saying that the funder has been kept fully informed about the problems during preparation of the submitted manuscript. The funder confirmed that the investigators in all countries were able to reach a consensus in every decision-making situation until they resorted to decision-making by majority vote. The funder stated they are confident that there has been no breach of research integrity on the part of the authors and that every effort has been made to achieve consensus on the submitted manuscript. The funder further stated that it has no concerns that would prevent their acceptance of the research findings reported in the manuscript submitted to the journal.
The journal has also written to an independent organisation (other than COPE) to ask for their opinion, and their reply is awaited.
The editor told the Forum that she is planning on publishing the paper and then allowing the dissenting author to write a letter in response. Some members of the Forum argued that the paper should not be published until the authors sort out their disagreements and it is their responsibility and not the editor’s to resolve their dispute. Others considered this was an exception to this general rule in that the dissenting author appeared to be acting unreasonably and the editor felt that every effort had been made to sort out this dispute and that it is very unlikely that the complaining author will ever agree to publication. The Forum noted that this raises the question of data ownership and also questioned why the author has not been more specific in his criticism of the data.
The editor told the Forum that she is planning on writing an editorial to accompany the paper, and the Forum agreed that the whole story should be told clearly in the journal.
Author X recently published a paper in Journal Y and has asked for the paper to be retracted. The reason given is that part of the data presented in the paper was published without the permission of a colleague, who is not listed as an author of the paper (and probably does not qualify for full authorship). This colleague is now seeking to publish the data in another journal and it is implied that Author X is also a co-author on the second paper (which has been submitted, not yet accepted). During correspondence with Journal Y, Author X has confirmed that the data presented in the published paper are 'accurate and reproducible in all respects' and the conclusions of the paper are not affected. Author X acknowledges that this is a dispute regarding the use of data without permission, and understands that retraction is a serious matter. However rather than publish a correction, Author X prefers to retract the published paper in order to maintain a good relationship with colleagues. The decision to retract was reached through discussion with the researchers involved, and has not been requested by the authors' institution. As far as Journal Y knows, the institution has not been involved. Can and should Journal X refuse to publish a retraction on these grounds?
As the author has clearly stated that the data are correct, and the only dispute is a small section of the paper that was published without permission, the committee felt that a retraction is not necessary. As the degree of overlap is so small, this is unlikely to constitute duplicate submission. The second paper could cite the first paper and make a note that the data were published previously in error. The journal could publish a correction or an acknowledgement but the committee felt that the editor should hold firm and not agree to a retraction. The committee felt that contacting the author’s institution was not necessary in this instance.
The editor wrote to Author X and explained that COPE committee members had agreed that there were insufficient grounds to retract the paper published by Journal Y. Instead the editor recommended that Journal Y publish a correction to the paper acknowledging the input of the colleague who generated the data in question. The editor also noted that it should be made very clear to the editors of the other journal that the data had been previously published in Journal Y. Author X passed this recommendation onto his colleagues who then agreed to publication of a correction rather than retraction of the paper. Author X expressed appreciation to us and to COPE for helping to resolve this matter.
In March 2000 author A submitted a research letter to journal X, on behalf of a national screening programme. He also submitted a commissioned editorial to journal Y, relating to the same subject. At the same time, author A sent copies of both articles to B, a recognised authority on the subject. He made it clear that they were confidential and in press and asked for some information on a test used by B which he could include in the editorial. He also suggested to B that he might wish to respond to the research letter if it were accepted. B did not reply, however, but at the end of March he submitted a paper to journal Z. This paper compared the screening programme run by B, with the suggested screening programmed detailed in the unpublished research letter by author A, and concluded that the former was greatly superior. The editor of journal Z in all innocence sent B’s paper to author A for review. Author A wasn’t too impressed by the paper. He was much less impressed by B taking an opportunity to write a paper specifically involving confidential material that he, A, had shown him. He was also concerned about B knowing he was the reviewer as he had only recently persuaded B to join him in a joint grant proposal and he did not want it prejudiced by bad feeling between the two of them. Perhaps it is not necessary to add that the arguments are all to do with which particular screening programme might be accepted by the NHS. Not only prestige but also possibly income from a patented testing tool may be involved. Should the editor accept A’s view that B’s paper is poor, or should he send it to another reviewer? Does it matter, since the ethical issue means that B’s paper would be unacceptable even if a new reviewer liked it? How should the editor deal with B, in pointing out the ethical issue, bearing in mind the delicacy of the situation?
_ B’s paper should be ruled out unless a satisfactory explanation was received. _ There was a problem of timing, particularly as there was a patent pending. _ Paper B had been submitted as a commentary but was written up more as a paper. A commentary would have been acceptable if paper A had been published. _ It was suggested the editor ascertain what had happened to paper A, and if published, he should find out exactly when, because this will determine the timelines.
The Journal X paper was published in December, the Journal Z paper was rejected on its lack of merit. Author A requested that the matter not be made public as he was collaborating with author B on a research grant proposal. And he thought this might be jeopardised by a disclosure from Journal Z. The request was respected.