An authorship dispute

COPE Ethics Case

In this regular feature, we highlight an ethics dilemma from the searchable cases database operated by COPE, the Committee on Publication Ethics. In 2008, all Elsevier journals were enrolled in COPE so editors would have an alternative information resource when faced with research misconduct. The cases database contains details of, and advice given on, more than 500 cases and is just one of the many services COPE offers.

In this issue, we highlight a case in which a divergence of opinion between two researchers has consequences for a journal. Simply click on the link at the end of the article to find out what the COPE Forum advised.

Case number 13-10 (anonymized)

A manuscript was published in journal X, submitted by several co-authors, including one of the editors in chief of journal X, Dr. A (the article was handled by another editor in chief at the journal). Another researcher, Dr. B, has claimed that this article should be withdrawn because it contains unauthorized data from him (Dr. B).

A few years previously, Drs. A and B worked and published jointly, but at some point there appeared to be a divergence in points of view on the interpretation of results (obtained in a large part by Dr. B and his team) in a manuscript co-written by both Drs. A and B (and the teams of both Drs. A and B). Dr. A decided that Dr. B and his team must agree to the publication of the manuscript or they would be removed from the co-author list. The paper was then submitted as an appendix in an internal report for their funding agency.

Later, a similar paper was published by Dr. A and his team (only) with similar content to the previous disputed paper in journal X. Dr. B and his team are acknowledged in the text but have not been asked or listed as co-authors. The paper contains the results from Dr. B’s team, very important results that people now refer to as from Dr. A’s team.

Dr. B thinks this is a violation of the rules of good scientific practice and has asked advice from a third independent party. The third party recognized the violation of the rules of good scientific practice and suggested publishing an erratum. Dr. B refuses to agree to an erratum because his team does not necessarily wish to be co-authors, as they disagree with the interpretation. Dr. B wishes to have this published article withdrawn.

Question: What should the editor of journal X do?

COPE Button

Archived comments

S. Hofmann says: April 1, 2015 at 8:28 am
It is a pity that both scientists could not resolve their problems together and leave it for the editor. If A has acknowledged the contribution of B properlyand cited the previous report the scientific misconduct is of lesser quality, and a withdrawal of the paper would be too harsh. An erratum would not meet the point, since all parties agree that the data are correct. Then, B has the option to publish his data together with his different interpretation either as a “comment on” to the paper or as a new publication (or both) where he can point out his view of matters.

Michael Twidale says: April 1, 2015 at 9:14 am
From the COPE link we learn:
“Follow up:
The editor had further communications with Dr B. The editor again explained that it was not the journal’s decision to make but was up to Dr B, his employer and the authors to sort out. The editor has now stopped corresponding with Dr B.
Case Closed”

So what exactly happened? Was the paper by Dr A kept in the journal with no erratum and none of the other (rather ingenious) suggestions by the Forum? If so, it seems like Dr A won hands down. The refusal to make a decision by the journal clearly benefited the case of Dr A. It put Dr A in a very powerful bargaining position with Dr B. If Dr A refused any compromise then Dr A wins. I know what I would have done in Dr A’s position. I wonder how Dr B felt. The editor won’t know as they have stopped corresponding with them.
Well that’s a valuable lesson to learn isn’t it?

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