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Our paper was due submission for second revision at a BMC journal. The communicating author, as I understand is responsible for handling all the communications between all authors and the journal, while also making suitable arrangement to cover any open access charges.

However, the communicating author in our case, without informing any author, removed 4 out of the total 6 authors while submitting the second revision. How should we deal with this? isn't it a academic fraud by the communicating author? Can't we, as students do anything to stop this?

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Have you verified that this is something the communicating author has deliberately chosen to do, rather than an error or accidental omission at some point in the submission/production process? –  avid Jun 4 at 13:52
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Yes. This is an deliberate act, since she mentioned us all in the acknowledgement when she sent out the 2nd revision of the paper. Earlier, she had even asked us to raise money to cover open access publication charges too. –  user16074 Jun 4 at 13:54
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Yes, we all worked as much as the other author included in the authors now. We all did data curation, designed the database and help write the manuscript. 3 of us have passed out from the university. She was the project PI and also served as the supervisor/advisor for 2 of us, while still supervising the fourth masters student. The project was submitted as part of the author's(other than her) minor project during his bachelors. We had been authors in the initial submission and even after submitting the first revision. –  user16074 Jun 4 at 14:03
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She added us in the acknowledgement after removing from the author list. So, it can't be a technical error. –  user16074 Jun 4 at 15:28
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@Alexandros I think someone in this situation also needs to be prepared to demonstrate that they did deserve to be an author of this paper. The fact that they were included on the first draft points strongly in their favour, but is not necessarily conclusive. That is, whilst the email you mention is important evidence, I don't think it's necessarily the full picture. –  avid Jun 4 at 16:31

5 Answers 5

This sounds like an unpleasant situation.

If this happened to me, I think my starting point would be to ensure I had copies of anything that might be useful as evidence. Then, I would write (formally) to the person concerned, asking for an explanation of why they thought it appropriate to remove you all from the author list. I think this has to be the first step: it is always possible that there is a rational explanation (although it's difficult to imagine what it might be). You might choose to copy the letter to the head of the relevant university department, and perhaps to the editor of the journal - particularly if the paper has not yet been published, and so can be put 'on hold' pending resolution of the authorship dispute.

Of course, you will have to weigh up the benefits of asserting your rights to authorship against any potential cost arising from 'causing trouble'. You are completely within your rights to create a major fuss here, and your department should be entirely supportive. I think you should do something. However, there is a risk that some of the people involved will seek revenge, if they have any power over you (e.g. if you are still a student at the university). I am absolutely not condoning such behaviour - it is quite clearly bullying, and an abuse of power. However, it would be irresponsible to advocate taking action without encouraging you to also consider whether there are any potential adverse consequences.

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We recently had an extensive discussion of how to deal with such an issue, should it arise, in a postdoctoral seminar I attended. A number of senior faculty contributed their ideas regarding how to deal with such an incident.

I would recommend a more gradual escalation than others have suggested. For example, I would not copy the editor of the journal or the head of the department on your initial communication requesting more information. I would start with communication just within your author group: for example, an email to the corresponding author asking for an explanation of why they removed your (and others) authorship without notification, CCing all other authors of the paper. This gives you a paper trail but also allows you to first address the issue without airing everyone's dirty laundry.

If the corresponding author's response is not to the removed authors' satisfaction, you should then, together, think about escalating your complaint (for example, by contacting the editor). I agree with avid that while you would be in your rights to do so, there is a very real possibility of a negative backlash. I think as a consequence the other dropped authors should be on board with such a decision, and you should have excellent documentation of your complaint.

Finally, this type of incident is a very good example of why every paper should start with an authorship meeting where everyone sits down, agrees on authorship and order, and what constitutes the responsibilities of authorship at each level (e.g., "first author will be so-and-so, and that means her responsibilities are to do x,y,z...and if she finds herself unable to meet all of those responsibilities, then authorship decisions will need to be revisited", etc.) Concretizing expectations prior to the work tends to lead to better working relationships and can prevent some very bitter arguments.

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I see your point, but I think there is something to be gained by having an uninvolved third party cc'd as a "witness" to the initial communication. If there is malicious intent involved, which seems at least plausible, once the author who removed the other authors' names realizes they intend to assert their right to authorship, he/she may attempt to get the journal editor on his/her side preemptively, and it's good to have someone who can assert that this was done in response to e.g. an email. –  David Z Jun 4 at 22:19

I say yes, this is academic fraud. I suggest to contact the corresponding author and inform him/her that your are going to inform the editor of the journal about the issue. Depending on the answer from the corresponding author you should indeed write to the editor and explain the case.

However, I am not sure what will happen then. Presumably things will get difficult and it would be much better if you could sort this out directly. Also you should communicate your strategy with the other authors and act open for all involved people.

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Threatening as a first communication is a bad idea, makes people uncooperative. It is better to ask nicely, and pretend to be understanding, just in case it actually works. –  Davidmh Jun 4 at 21:21

The initial reaction to your problem is that it is wrong. There are, too many unknowns to say why this has happened, if you are deadling with negligence, absent mindedness, some more serious personality issue or whatever. I would suggest the following

  1. Discuss with the other authors how you all became co-authors in the first place and compare your contributions to see if they fulfil some basic critteria such as those of the Vancouver Protocol (given by for example ICMJE and reproduced at Resources for Research Ethics Education. This will help you gain leverage for your authorship/contributorship. Of course, if you had some form of agreement to start with, then that should suffice. The important thing is that it is unethical to publish someone else's intellectual property without consent so establishing such claims can be important. This is why authorship or contributorship agreements should follow the Vancouver Protocol to begin with (I know they rarely do).
  2. Approach the first author and ask him/her to explain the reduction in authors without prior discussion.
  3. If 2 fails to yield results, write to the chief editor of the journal and describe the problem and that you wish to see the paper stopped. If the paper contains materials that can be attributed to the authors who have been dropped, that should be grounds for halting the process and starting an investigation, perhaps through COPE.
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I'm assuming that by BMC you mean a BioMed journal? You should read the BioMed Editorial Policies page( http://www.biomedcentral.com/about/editorialpolicies ) which lists 4 requirements for qualifying as an author:

to qualify as an author one should have:

(1) made substantial contributions to conception and design, or acquisition of data, or analysis and interpretation of data;

(2) been involved in drafting the manuscript or revising it critically for important intellectual content;

(3) given final approval of the version to be published. Each author should have participated sufficiently in the work to take public responsibility for appropriate portions of the content; and

(4) agreed to be accountable for all aspects of the work in ensuring that questions related to the accuracy or integrity of any part of the work are appropriately investigated and resolved.

Acquisition of funding, collection of data, or general supervision of the research group, alone, does not usually justify authorship.

So if you can satisfy these criteria (especially the first two), you should be an author.

The same page also addresses authorship changes:

In line with COPE guidelines, BioMed Central requires written confirmation from all authors that they agree with any proposed changes in authorship of submitted manuscripts or published articles. This confirmation must be via direct email from each author. It is the corresponding author’s responsibility to ensure that all authors confirm that they agree with the proposed changes. If there is disagreement amongst the authors concerning authorship and a satisfactory agreement cannot be reached, the authors must contact their institution(s) for a resolution. It is not the Editor’s responsibility to resolve authorship disputes.

So you need to deal with this in your institution; pointing out that is contrary to journal policy for authorship to change without consultation is a good place to start.

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The PI din't acquire funds, neither collected any data, but provided general supervision of the group. So, can she be denied authorship? Yes, we collected the data, designed the database schema and the relational database, made the interface and provided inputs towards finalizing the manuscript. I believe we do fulfill the criteria to be authors. –  user16074 Jun 5 at 16:39

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