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Is there a problem to change (reduce) list of authors of a paper after it has been submitted to a journal? I am one of the (ten) co-authors of this paper. After the review and changes we made in the paper, one of the coauthors withdrew as a co-author of this paper.

Is this OK? What is the procedure in such cases?

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It’s definitely weird, and a clear indication that something is going on with a paper. Basically, I can see two cases were this could happen, and both are not exactly great signs for the quality of a submission:

  • The removed author was just a “courtesy author” without any real impact on the work. (S)he wanted to tag along at first, but now when people started to nag her/him to do real work, (s)he is rather out. In this case, it is ethically entirely okay to proceed without the additional author, but one wonders why the courtesy author was on the paper in the first place. While this does not say something about the quality of the paper per se, it leaves a certain sour taste in the mouth with regards to the ethics of the rest of the authors.
  • The removed author was a “real” author in the sense that (s)he actually contributed to the work, but now feels that the submission is either so bad that (s)he does not want to be associated with it, or that the results are in fact wrong or unethically generated (e.g., because the co-author assumes that all or part of the work of somebody else was fabricated or is otherwise inaccurate). I think I do not have to explain why this would be a very bad sign for the quality of a submission.

What I would suggest in terms of procedure is full disclosure. Don’t just silently remove the author — in this case, the thoughts of the editor are very likely to wander to the two cases above, and this will make him look very carefully at your submission. Explain exactly what happened, and make sure to explain how it has nothing to do with the quality of the submission. If you can’t do that (e.g., because the co-author actually withdrew because (s)he thinks your results are wrong), it is simply better for everybody to withdraw.

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    I can think of a third reason, which is better if rarer than yours: The author did real work towards a section of the paper which has been dropped at the review stage - perhaps that section was off-topic for the journal, or it had to be culled to keep the paper within a page limit, perhaps as a result of reviewers requesting an extra figure. This doesn't remove your need to explain, just makes it an easy job. – Chris H Mar 29 '15 at 16:51
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    There is a possible fourth one: the author did contribute to the paper but after the substantial changes he feels that his contribution do not warrant a co-author position on the paper anymore. The contributions were (and still are) OK, they just became peripheral to the core material. I also agree about the full disclosure which will make clear the case you are in. – WoJ Mar 30 '15 at 9:30
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    There are many possibilities. Maybe it was marginal whether there was a sufficient contribution to merit co-authorship and someone just changed their mind having thought about it some more. – dorothy Mar 30 '15 at 12:08
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    @ChrisH I would not consider the scenario you describe sufficient grounds for removing coauthorship. – JeffE Apr 26 '15 at 8:52
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    @ChrisH "JE provided many insightful comments / performed several useful experiments that steered us away from techniques that don't work." – JeffE Apr 26 '15 at 19:25
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What to do depends first on the reasons for the author withdrawing:

  • If the person performed critical work, and the others cannot stand behind the full paper without them (e.g., the person actually gathered the data on which the paper is based), then the paper must be withdrawn and modified accordingly.

  • If, on the other hand, the rest of the authors can and do stand behind the remainder of the paper, then the paper can simply go forward with that author removed.

Different journals have different procedures for removing an author, depending on their submission and manuscript management system. With some, the authors can edit the data themselves, with others, you need to do it through the editors. In either case, an explanation of the withdrawal should be sent to the editors, so that they know why the change and can decide whether it affects their judgement of the paper.

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Changes in number of authors is not uncommon. There are many reasons for it, not by far only because of problems.

If you submit a manuscript to a journal and you need to have the authorship list changed (not just re-arranged), the easiest way is to wait until the reviews have come back and you, hopefully, are in a situation to make revisions. You then change the authorship list and provide the editor with a clear explanation of why the list has been changed.

It is of course common sense to send an e-mail to the editor as soon as possible and provide the information on changes and reasons why. The editor can then act as she or he sees fit. It could involve providing the reviewers with the information or not take any action at all, but at least you have been up-front with the information.

Remember that when you submit a manuscript there is commonly agreements in place that concerns all authors so providing the journal with changes in authors can be important to the journal.

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It should be okay to change the list of co-authors as long as you inform the Editor why you are doing so. In most cases, a change in the author list would definitely be noticed by the editor and he/she would probably write to you asking the reason (disclosure: I am employed by editage.com). Thus it is best to disclose the reason for the change at the outset.

You might find the ICMJE guidelines on authorship criteria useful. The guidelines also state that if someone has contributed to the work, but has not fulfilled all of the four criteria mentioned, he/she should be acknowledged. In case your co-author has withdrawn because a section of the paper was later dropped, you could consider including his/her name in the acknowledgments section.

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