In 2013, our journal published a paper describing an observational study comparing two drugs (A and B) for the management of a chronic disease over a period of 10 years. The conclusion in the paper was that mortality was higher in group A (97 deaths) compared with the other group B (52 deaths) (hazard ratio 1.76, 1.22 to 2.53; P=0.003). This analysis was done after adjustment for a large number of confounders, and was approved by our statistical advisor. The authors of the papers did acknowledge that this was an observational study, and did state that residual confounding might be present.
In 2014 we received a letter of concern by a researcher, employed by the company selling drug A, who felt that the authors of the 2013 paper omitted essential information that might impact on the conclusions. It appears that the routine management of this disease has changed substantially over the 10 year period, and this should have been treated as a confounder for which statistical adjustments should have been made. This change in routine management of the disease is documented in a paper published in 2014, but the researcher felt that these authors were probably aware of this much earlier and should have disclosed this information during the review process of their 2013 paper.
In our initial response in July 2014 to the letter of concern, we asked the researcher who sent us the letter of concern to send us a detailed rapid response to the 2013 paper, which we could publish. We have also asked advice of our statistical advisor who reviewed the 2013 paper, and he acknowledged that this information might impact on the statistical calculations and thus the conclusions of the paper. But with the data available to him, he is not able to make a definitive assessment of how much impact it would have. He has suggested to put these questions to the authors of the 2013 paper.
Question(s) for the COPE Forum
The researcher who raised the concern has not made his concerns public by sending us a rapid response that we could put to the authors and publish, with their response, on our website. We will certainly put the questions to the authors of the 2013 paper, but we wonder if we should publish these concerns?
Another problem is that, due to the complexity of the statistical calculations, we are entirely dependent on the authors to judge whether the routine management data would have seriously impacted the conclusions of the 2013 paper.
The Forum agreed with the course of action of the editor to date—namely, inviting the researcher to write a formal note, stating his concerns, that can be made public and the authors can then be invited to make a response. This ensures the process is transparent. But if the researcher who raised the concern does not want to make his concerns public, there may be little that the editor can do.
One suggestion was that the editor could publish the concerns anonymously and invite the authors to respond. Another suggestion was to treat this as you would a whistleblower by investigating the issue, and asking the authors to respond specifically to the questions raised by the researcher if necessary. It is clear that the editor has concerns about the paper and these should be addressed in some way.
So, the best option may be for the journal to publish the concerns, not necessarily revealing the researcher’s identity, and invite the authors to respond.
The researchers who sent a letter of concern sent a letter to the editor which was published, and which was answered by the authors of the original paper.
The journal’s statistical advisor has found the response satisfactory. The editor considers the case now closed.
In October 2014 it came to our attention via one of the reviewers of a manuscript submitted to our journal that an identical article (100% identical) had been previously published on the website of the author. The submitting author had not made us aware in their submission documentation that the article had been publicly available on their website at the point of submission. Two different but related issues arise from this.
Firstly, as it is the journal’s policy to conduct blind peer reviews of each submission received, it is impossible to uphold this policy where submissions already exist, as does the present one, in an identical form in the public domain. Secondly, there is an issue of self-plagiarism. In academic contexts, it is not permissible to re-use identical copy for multiple submissions, and would in all likelihood be regarded as a case of academic misconduct.
We have consulted the COPE website for advice but there does not appear to be a comparable case whereby the original identical article is in the public domain but not previously published in another journal. We are also aware of the various definitions and types of plagiarism and self-plagiarism which render the details of this case a grey area (COPE Discussion Document: How should editors respond to plagiarism http://publicationethics.org/files/Discussion%20document.pdf), and that copyright and rights of author issues may apply.
In summary, both co-editors of the journal consider that this case constitutes self-plagiarism and possibly redundant/duplicate publication according to the COPE Case Taxonomy (http://publicationethics.org/cope-case-taxonomy). The two COPE case taxonomy areas we refer to in this case are: o ‘Self-plagiarism’ (submitted article)—reusing one’s own previous writing without being transparent about this or appropriately referencing/quoting from the original” and o ‘Prior Publication’—The publication, or attempted publication, of whole or substantial parts of the work/data/analysis that have already been published, or have been submitted elsewhere, without transparency or appropriate declaration/referencing.
We have contacted the author, forwarding the two peer reviewers’ comments which both contained major revisions to the manuscript, also pointing out that we are aware of the existence of the article on the author’s website.
Question(s) for the COPE Forum We would be grateful for the Forum’s advice on:
Whether to pursue this as we would a case of self-plagiarism of a previously published journal article (ie, reject the paper) or whether it would suggest an alternative course of action(s).
The other related issue is the publication of ‘green copies’. While many journals, including our own, now encourage authors to make their own author copy available on public forums (eg, researchgate, institutional fora), such publication would normally take place after the publication of an article in a journal and not before. It is our concern that better policies need to be developed around prior publication.
The Forum advised that it is up to the editor and the journal to decide what they regard as prior publication. Journals should provide guidance on their website, detailing what they do and do not consider prior publication. Many journals provide lists of what they consider prior publication, and these lists vary greatly from journal to journal, and between different disciplines.
It is crucial that every journal discusses this at the editorial level and decide what they consider to be prior publication and then puts this information on their website and on the online submission system. There is no general guidance on what is considered prior publication—it has to be an individual journal decision. In some areas prepublication posting is encouraged, and may be required eg for clinical trials. This is a rapidly changing area and journals should be prepared to modify their policies over time, with the increasing number of prior publication options becoming available (eg, blogs, preprint servers). This does raise issues in relation to blind peer review.
Regarding the present case, if the journal has not been explicit about what it considers prior publication, it may be difficult to accuse the author of self-plagiarism or duplicate publication. The author may reasonably state that he was unaware of the journal policy. Some members of the Forum noted that they would normally allow this form of prior publication but there should be a link to the previous version, and the author should have made the journal aware of the previous publication.
Other members of the Forum stated that they would definitely consider this prior publication, and would reject the paper.
So the editors needs to decide for themselves what they consider to be appropriate for their journal and their discipline.
There is an initiative called CrossMark, available for publishers, which provides a “version of record”, making it very clear which is the published version with linking to any other versions.
The editorial decision was to reject the manuscript in its current form, but offering the author the option of resubmitting the article following a substantial and complete reworking of the manuscript to include all of the feedback from the reviewers. The editors confirmed that they would require every one of the reviewers’ suggestions to be addressed in any resubmission, and that they did not guarantee acceptance of the resubmitted manuscript, which would be subject to further review by the same reviewers as previously. To date the journal has not received a reworked new version of the manuscript.
We have a query regarding institutional review board (IRB) approval for a paper in production.
The paper reports on a 2 year follow-up and cost-effectiveness evaluation for a treatment programme. A previously published paper reports on the original evaluation of the treatment programme. The authors have not obtained IRB approval for either body of research.
The initial research was described as a report of outcomes from 5 years of clinical experience with the programme, rather than as a clinical trial, and as such IRB approval was not sought. For the paper currently under consideration, the authors’ original statement in the paper was that “Institutional review board approval was not required as patients were treated with approved diagnostic and therapeutic procedures according to generally accepted standards of care”. We were unable to verify this as a valid reason for exemption from the requirement for IRB approval.
Having found no clear grounds for the exemption on the basis offered, we asked the author to provide a reference or further information regarding this basis for exemption. The author responded that the research was exempt under the following US federal regulation: “Research involving the collection or study of existing data, documents, records, pathological specimens, or diagnostic specimens, if these sources are publicly available or if the information is recorded by the investigator in such a manner that subjects cannot be identified, directly or through identifiers linked to the subjects”.
Our concerns with this justification are that the data are not publicly available, and that the data include follow-up telephone interviews, which seem in conflict with the requirement that the data should be de-identified, and that indeed the follow-up interview information are new data, not existing data or records.
Question(s) for the COPE Forum
Is this research publishable in the absence of IRB approval?
The majority of the Forum noted that they would err on the side of caution—if the editor is unable to verify that the study received IRB approval, then they suggest that he should not publish. The Forum advised contacting the authors and informing them of the journal’s decision. The Forum noted that this is a good opportunity to look at the journal’s instructions to authors. The instructions to authors should be very clear about the journal’s policy on IRB approval, and what type of ethical review is required by the journal.
If however, the editor did decide to publish, the Forum would advise publishing an explicit statement within the paper, outlining the ethics approval process and detailing the facts of the case and what the actions of the editor were.
The authors elected to ask a private institutional review board (IRB) to review the study, and the private IRB verified that the study was exempt (retrospective, de-identified data). We obtained a copy of the IRB’s decision and published the paper with an explanation of the exemption.
A graduate student submitted a paper to a journal and noted that in her country, unless the research is directly medical, institutional review board (IRB) approval is not required or completed. The journal has a policy of requiring IRB approval on any human subjects’ research. This study was looking at practitioners and their work with students having a particular diagnosis.
The editor received a note from the author with the information that in the country of origin, no ethical approval was required on a master’s thesis. The study was conducted in accordance with ethical principles of the Helsinki declaration. The author noted that the results of the master’s thesis might be of importance and could make a contribution to the literature. It was supported by the university that sponsored the thesis but had not gone through an IRB.
Question(s) for the COPE Forum
1. Is there ever a time when IRB approval should not be required before review and publication of research?
2. How strictly should the editor adhere to these requirements? With this submission, it would be an automatic reject without IRB approval.
The Forum advised common sense in approaching this case. Is the study of value? Does the editor have any concerns regarding the research or any other ethical concerns? If not, and the editor wishes to publish the paper, she should obtain proof from the authors that the study does not require ethics approval. This could be in the form of guidelines from the country in question, or a letter from an institutional review board (IRB) stating that the study does not require ethics approval. Hence the editor should ask the author to provide a written report on why the study did not require ethical approval.
The Forum agreed that it would be harsh to penalise the authors if they have done an ethical study within the framework of their local laws, which can vary greatly from country to country.
Of course, there is no guarantee that a study is ethical even if it does have approval from an IRB, so the editor should always be wary.
The Forum noted that transparency is important, and if the study is published, the editor may want to publish a notice explaining why it was published in the absence of IRB approval.
Another suggestion was for the editor to ask her editorial board members to review the paper and seek their opinion, and to help establish guidelines for future cases.
After receiving the Forum’s advice, the editor established an ethics committee of members of the editorial advisory board. The editor presented the question to them and also forwarded the submitted manuscript. The sample was small, and the editorial advisory board agreed that individuals could be identified in the community of origin which would negate the assurance of anonymity. The editor rejected the article.
The editorial office was contacted by someone who indicated that s/he has been working with a medical communications company on several manuscripts and has become concerned about the minimal extent of the authors’ contributions to manuscripts handled by the company. The work requested by the company goes beyond language editing, and involves developing parts of manuscripts into narrative on the basis of an outline, and also the addition of references. Based on responses from authors, our contact was also concerned about authors’ level of understanding of the work and study design being reported in the manuscript. Our contact has been asked to respond to reviewers’ comments on behalf of authors.
We asked for details of the manuscripts this person worked on; one is currently under consideration by the journal. On submission, the authors declared language editing assistance by this company, but not developmental editing. The cover letter included several inaccuracies about the work reported in the manuscript. After being queried about these errors, the authors acknowledged that they followed a template for the cover letter provided by the company and that it was their first time writing a paper of this type.
Our contact has been willing to work with us on the basis that we will maintain anonymity. We feel that there are sufficient concerns about the contributions to the manuscript that we should confront the authors about this point—however, this will reveal that we have had interactions with the person involved in the editing.
Question(s) for the COPE Forum
Should we proceed to contact the authors regarding the contributions to the manuscript?
What is our duty towards the person who raised the concerns to our attention?
Are there any steps that we can take to identify this type of situation in the future?
The Forum suggested there were two separate issues here—dealing with the author and dealing with the medical writer. Is the medical writer a member of any professional organization, such as the American Medical Writers Association (AMWA), the European equivalent (EMWA) or the International Society for Medical Publication Professionals (ISMPP). If so, these organizations usually have a code of conduct that should be followed, so this is an area that the editor could look into.
The Forum suggested that the editor needs more clarification from the author. As there is some discrepancy in the author knowledge of the paper, this could be a way in for the editor to approach the author for more information while preserving the anonymity of the whistleblower. The editor needs to obtain evidence without disclosing the whistleblower.
One suggestion put forward was for the editor to check the properties of the original paper and see who authored it. This can sometimes reveal any discrepancies, although the Forum advised that in-depth investigations are beyond the remit of the editor.
As this is a clear case of ghost writing, the Forum suggested that the editor has an obligation beyond rejecting the manuscript, and that the editor should report the case to the institution and ask them to investigate.
On a show of hands, the Forum were unanimous in COPE discussing the role of the medical writer further, perhaps as a topic for a Forum discussion in the future. We need more clarity on the role of the medical writer in relation to authorship, and their relation to the author.
The journal followed-up with the authors and stated that the editors had reasons to believe that there had been substantial input into the editing and preparation of the manuscript beyond that declared in the authors’ contributions. The editor requested comments on this and a copy of the original rough document the authors had submitted to the medical communications company. The authors indicated that they only requested input from the company after completing the rough draft, but they submitted a file that did not list as author any of the authors on the manuscript—in fact, the name listed as author on the file was that of the freelancer.
The editors decided to reject the manuscript, indicating to the authors that concerns remained as to whether the work was designed and written by the authors to an acceptable extent. The journal plans to raise the case to the attention of the authors’ institution.
UPDATE (March 2015)
The journal reported the concerns to the authors’ institution, as previously outlined. They have so far not received a response from the institution. The journal is looking into ways to identify this type of issue in a more systematic manner, but in terms of this specific manuscript, the editor considers the case closed.
In June 2014 we received a manuscript by four authors from a well known research institution. They described a randomized trial comparing a variation in a procedure with standard care. In total, 200 patients were randomized, 100 to each arm. As measured by an interview, patients undergoing the new procedure were statistically significantly more content than those in the control arm. This manuscript was submitted 116 days after the same group of authors had sent us a first manuscript on the same topic.
The first manuscript, however, described an observational study: 50 patients had chosen the new procedure, 50 underwent conventional treatment. The patients rated the new procedure higher (statistically significantly). In their discussion, the authors mentioned as a limitation the non-randomized status of their study and called for a randomized comparison. At the time we rejected the manuscript because we were not convinced by the non-randomized design of the study. The senior author appealed our decision saying that it was very difficult and almost unethical to carry out a randomized trial. We did not change the decision but I granted the author that we would evaluate and possibly review a manuscript on a randomized study.
In the cover letter of the second manuscript, dated June 2014, the authors referred to this discussion and stated that 100 patients had been randomized to each group. [As an aside, in an online source detailing procedures carried out in the department of the authors, the procedure in question is said to have been performed more than 1200 times a year. As a consequence, it is conceivable that the authors have randomized 100 patients to each study arm during a period of 3–4 months. In his appeal to the rejection of the first manuscript, the senior author mentioned that the ethics committee had already expressed approval. And yet, common experience with randomized trials indicates that the present study would be an extremely fast trial regarding screening, consent, inclusion, examination (4 days after the procedure), and analysis.]
Here is the problem: the results are identical in manuscripts 1 and 2. In numerical form the results are only presented in tables (not in the main text and not in the abstract). In all three tables, the values are identical in both manuscripts. All three tables were submitted as one file, leaving open the possibility that the author mixed up files. The figure (a horizontal, stacked bar chart) is slightly different but the numbers indicating the results, however, are identical. This figure was submitted as a different file.
The main text of the second manuscript is identical to the first one except for minor updates in relation to the numbers of subjects and study design. All four photographs illustrating the procedure in both manuscripts are identical. The reference list is identical.
I can think of only two ways to make sense of this submission: sloppiness or fraud. Under the sloppiness assumption, the authors would have submitted a text referring to their randomised control trial and tables, referring to an earlier observational study. This is conceivable mostly because it is hard to imagine that authors believe they can get away with submitting the same data in two manuscript describing two completely different trials and separated by only 4 months. On the other hand, the tables and figures differ in layout and several details from those submitted with manuscript 1. If sloppiness is not the reason, it must be fraud, and we can only reject the paper.
I feel we should be frank with the authors about our decision to reject the paper. Confronted with this decision, however, the authors have no incentive to cooperate with us and to send us, for example, original data. Rather, they may blame the mess to an unfortunate confusion.
Question(s) for the COPE Forum (1) We have decided to reject the paper but how does the Forum think we should now proceed?
The general feeling from the Forum was that there is enough reason for suspicion to require some sort of explanation from the authors. The editor should ask the authors for an explanation and, unless the explanation by the authors is convincing (which is difficult to imagine), then the editor should forward the matter to the institution of the authors.
Another suggestion was for the editor to ask the authors for a copy of the original study protocol and documentation of ethics approval. This would provide evidence that the trial did occur. If there is no study protocol, this would raise concerns.
The editor told the Forum that the journal is planning on rejecting the paper. However, even if the paper is rejected, the Forum advised that the editor can still contact the authors and tell them that he has identified specific issues with the paper and would like an explanation.
In summary, the Forum agreed that there seems to be some issues of concern with the paper. The editor should ask the authors for an explanation of this strange sequence of events, and if he is not convinced by their response, he has every reason to involve the institution.
We were contacted by a lawyer acting on behalf of the last author (author A) of two research articles published in our journals. Both articles are co-authored by one other author (author B), who was the corresponding author. Author A claims not to have been aware of the submission and also raises concerns that the timelines and dates of the before and after photos reported in the articles are incorrect. He also claims that informed consent was not received from the patient described in one of the articles for publication of their case.
On submission and publication of both articles, both authors were based at author A’s own private institution. Author B has since left the institution. All authors submitting to our journals receive an automated email when a manuscript is submitted, alerting them to the submission. As far as we can tell, author A received this email in response to both submissions. However, we have had no correspondence directly from author A regarding either article.
We have contacted author B for an explanation of the concerns raised by author A, which we have been told we will receive shortly. The concerns raised by author A are serious enough to warrant an institutional investigation. However, in the absence of an independent institution that we could ask to investigate, we are seeking advice from the forum on how to proceed once we receive author B's explanation.
Question(s) for the COPE Forum
(1) In the absence of an independent institution, how do the Forum suggest we proceed once we receive author B's explanation?
The Forum agreed there are clearly issues with the paper and sufficient doubts for the editor to raise concerns and to contact the institution. Normally the Forum would advise that this issue was beyond the remit of the editor, and that the editor should look for an independent arbitrator, which is usually the institution. But in this situation, it is a private institution.
The Forum asked the editor if the institution had any associated regulatory or professional body which oversees it who could be approached? There is guidance on the COPE website in the form of a flowchart on what to do if you have ethical concerns about a published paper and there is no institution. The advice is to go to a higher regulatory body or, if not, to a medical regulatory body. In the UK, the medical regulatory body would be the General Medical Council (GMC). The GMC note that publication ethics is within their remit, so it is possible to raise this issue with a similar body if the authors are medical professionals, especially if there is no higher authority.
Although it is not the job of the editor to carry out investigations or police the research, the editor does have a responsibility to the readers of the journal, and so he should consider publishing an expression of concern.
The editor may have been able to avoid this situation if the journal had dealt with the ethical issues on submission. While the editor told the Forum that journal policy is to send email confirmation to all of the authors on submission of a paper, they do not ask for confirmation of authorship. This may have helped in this situation. The recently published fourth criteria of the International Committee of Medical Journal Editors (ICMJE http://www.icmje.org/) states that if you are an author of a paper, you have a requirement to help investigate any issues with the paper. Hence author A cannot recuse himself from any association with this paper.
Soon after rejecting a paper—after it underwent peer review but before discussion at the manuscript meeting—the author wrote to tell me that he was asked questions “about the manuscript” at a presentation at a national meeting. The author stated: “A member of the audience addressed questions to me from a copy of the manuscript, and not from the talk I gave. I had to ask him to say nothing further and that reading from the unpublished manuscript was not appropriate, particularly with the manufacturer [of the drug] present who continues to press us for the data. I then realised that this person had a copy of our manuscript because they were either a reviewer or a reviewer had given them a copy”.
Our journal has an open review policy so the author was aware of the identity of the reviewers and knew that the person who asked the question was not one of the reviewers. The authors are concerned that one of the reviewers may be a colleague or collaborator with the person who asked the question.
After receiving the author’s letter, I emailed the two reviewers to inform them of our concern about confidentiality and to ask if they shared the manuscript or its contents and, if so, how and why. Within a few hours, both reviewers replied that they kept the paper confidential and did not share it with anyone else. We take their assertions as valid and true, as we do with so many other statements by authors and reviewers.
I informed the authors about the outcome of my investigation. I also suggested that if they still think that a reviewer may have broken confidentiality, they might wish to contact the editors of the other two journals where the paper was reviewed before submission to us as well as the editor of the journal currently reviewing the manuscript.
Question(s) for the COPE Forum (1) Do you think that the journal handled this correctly?
There seems to have been some form of breach of confidentiality, but it is not clear where this has occurred. Sometimes reviewers do share papers with colleagues or students, but this is breaking confidentiality. As there is no strong evidence that a reviewer at this journal did in fact break confidentiality, the Forum cautioned about making allegations with the lack of evidence. Also, the editor noted that the paper has been through several journals, so if there was a breach, it could have happened at any of the journals, or it could even have occurred at a grant review for example.
The Forum agreed that the editor has done all he can to ensure there was no breach of confidentiality at his journal. Of course, the author may wish to pursue it further, but there is nothing more for the editor to do.
The editor noted that the instructions to authors in his journal do carry a clear message that reviewers should inform the journal if anyone else is involved in the review process, and that reviewers should maintain confidentiality.
The Forum noted that COPE does have a set of guidelines for reviewers "Ethical guidelines for peer reviewers" and would recommend them to all editors. They have been very well received and are a very useful resource for editors and reviewers. Editors may like to include them in their instructions for reviewers.
As managing editor, I view all manuscripts before they are assigned to an editor. Within a 4 week period, I have detected five manuscripts where photographs of either gels or plant materials were used twice or three times in the same manuscript. These manuscripts were immediately rejected.
However, we are not convinced that these are cases of deliberate misleading of the scientific community. It rather seems to us that many laboratories consider photographs as illustrations that can be manipulated, and not as original data. Thus gels are often cleaned of impurities, bands are cut out and photographs of plant material only serve to show what the authors want to demonstrate, and the material does not necessarily originate from the experiment in question.
When the editor-in-chief rejected such a manuscript, a typical response was: “I am surprised by the question and problem you pointed out in our manuscript. I checked the pictures you mentioned and I agree that they are really identical. But please be reminded that the purpose of these gel pictures was only to show the different types of banding pattern, and the gels of a few specific types were not very clear, so my PhD student repeatedly used the clearer ones. This misleading usage does not have an influence on data statistics or the final conclusion”.
Question(s) for the COPE Forum
What can be done to ensure that all gels and all photographs originate from the experiment and that they should never be tampered with?
How can the scientific community of some particular countries be taught correct scientific publishing standards?
The advice from the Forum was for journals to strengthen their guidance on this issue. Journals should provide clear guidelines in their instructions to authors on what is acceptable. Original data, such as gels, should not be used as illustrations, without an explanation. Line drawings, for example, can be used to illustrate a point, but if original data are being used just to illustrate a point, this should be accompanied by a very clear statement in the manuscript telling the reader this and explaining what is being demonstrated.
The Forum advised looking at the guidance published in other journals. Some journals have very good guidance on this issue and editors may wish to incorporate such guidance into their instructions to authors (with full attribution and after obtaining permission).
On a poll of the Forum, less than half of the delegates said that they screen for image manipulation. COPE has an eLearning module on image manipulation. Also, Mike Rosner has written extensively on this topic (Journal of Cell Biology 2004;166:11–15 http://jcb.rupress.org/content/166/1/11.full)
Prior to publication, our journal requires coauthors to respond to an email to confirm their authorship status and the author list. A coauthor did not respond to these emails, and when we contacted the corresponding author for help, s/he told us that his/her attempts to reach the coauthor have failed, and that s/he believed the coauthor was attempting to hold the paper hostage.
According to the corresponding author, the coauthor was fired from their institution (which is in a different country than the journal) for ethical lapses, and was now extremely upset and was suing the institution. The corresponding author believed that the coauthor was deliberately ignoring the confirmation requests in order to punish the corresponding author.
Although in general we believe that authors have to resolve their own authorship disputes (involving the institution if need be), we felt this case was different because it did not appear to be a case of disputing who should/should not be an author, or a situation in which a coauthor objected to some aspect of the paper. Instead, if the corresponding author is to be believed, it is simply a disruptive manoeuvre that twists the journal's ethics safeguards (intended to prevent ghost/honorary authorship) into a weapon.
We decided that it was reasonable for the journal to expect a coauthor to perform the straightforward task of confirming coauthorship, and that if that individual did not do so (for reasons of malice or not), they would forfeit coauthorship. We sent an email to the recalcitrant coauthor (we did not have a postal address because the institution had requested this individual be deported), copying in the other authors, detailing the many attempts to reach him/her, and explaining that if we did not hear back from him/her within 6 weeks from the date of acceptance we would proceed with publication without his/her name listed as an author.
Normally of course our policies require that someone who does not meet the standard of authorship is named in the acknowledgements. However, because we also require anyone named in the acknowledgements to give their permission for this, we decided that if this person did not respond, we would ask the authors to acknowledge the person's involvement by referring to their job title—for example, “The authors acknowledge the assistance of a medical student in the early phases of this study”. (The phrasing is a little awkward but we felt it was important to include it. If it later came to light that there was evidence of misconduct in the study, we felt it needed to be clear from the outset that there was someone else involved in the work.)
Fortunately, in this case, the first author was eventually able to convince the non-responding author to confirm coauthorship, so we did not have to carry through our threat. However, we want to be prepared in case a similar situation arises again, and so we are considering updating our information for authors to include a policy of forfeiting coauthorship after a 6 week period has elapsed without response.
Question(s) for the COPE Forum
What is COPE's view of our proposed policy of requiring coauthors to respond or forfeit their coauthorship status?
If it is not appropriate, should we have refused to proceed with publication until the authors resolved the issue?
If the authors' institution had stepped in and ruled on how the dispute should be resolved, should we have accepted their ruling, despite their being a party to a lawsuit?
If the forfeiture process is considered appropriate, may we still retain our policy that an author who dies may be named as a coauthor if the corresponding author attests that to the best of his/her knowledge, the deceased individual met the definition of authorship up to the point of death, and all the authors agree?
What about an incapacitated author (we have a manuscript working its way to acceptance where a coauthor is in a coma)?
The general feeling from the Forum was that the journal does not have the right to deny authorship. Hence the Forum would not agree with the policy of forfeiting coauthorship status imposed by a journal. Exercising the right to remove an author is not within a journal’s jurisdiction. However, others argued that if it is journal policy that coauthors must confirm their status as an author, then technically they are not an author until they have confirmed their contribution.
The case of deceased or incapacitated authors is more straightforward and the Forum would suggest a statement from the corresponding author attesting that to the best of his/her knowledge, the deceased/incapacitated individual met the definition of authorship, and all the other authors agree. In such cases, authorship is given and so the individual remains as an author.
Although it is necessary to prevent ghost/honorary authorship, the Forum suggested that if a coauthor refuses to confirm coauthorship and there is a possibility that he is attempting to hold the paper hostage, then the editor should consider contacting the institution and asking them to mediate or investigate the situation. If the institution does not or is unwilling to respond, the editor might still consider publishing a statement from the corresponding author detailing the contribution of the coauthor. Another suggestion was to explain the contribution of the coauthor in the acknowledgement section.
This situation could be avoided if at the time of submission all authors are contacted and asked to confirm their status as an author. On polling the Forum delegates, about half said they require confirmation of coauthorship either at submission or at a later stage.
The Editor-in-Chief agreed to drop the proposal to have non-responsive coauthors forfeit authorship. A statement will be included in the acknowledgements, along the lines that author X was not available to confirm coauthorship, but the corresponding author Y affirms that author X contributed to the paper and vouches for author X’s coauthorship status.