Q: Can we remove a coauthor's name from an accepted paper if we are unable to contact them?
One of the coauthors changed their job, after which we have not been able to get in touch with them even when we use their contact address. Now, our coauthored paper has been reviewed and accepted, but if we cannot get their approval, the paper may not be published. The coauthor’s contribution was rather minor among the coauthors. So, we would like to remove their name from the paper. We have repeatedly been informing them of our intention at their contact address.
This is a challenging situation indeed for everyone involved – you all (the other coauthors), the editor, and the untraceable coauthor. You all (the other coauthors) wish to be ethical, and have done the best so far. The editor would like to be ethical too, and would need the signed approval of all coauthors in the case of a changed coauthorship. Finally, the “missing” coauthor would like their contribution to be attributed correctly, but unfortunately, cannot be traced presently.
Given this scenario, we would suggest the following course of action.
- Contacting the coauthor: While you all already seem to have put in great efforts in tracing the missing coauthor, we would suggest striving just a bit more. There are multiple ways to attempt to contact someone, such as common friends, acquaintances, and colleagues; previous affiliations; and nowadays, even forms such as social media. You may have already tried some or all of these options, but for the purpose of doing complete diligence, it would be best to attempt all viable options. When doing so, you could set a timeline for this, let’s say, a month, so that you are not jeopardizing your publication even while doing your best to contact this coauthor. After that, if you are still unable to get in touch with them, you could proceed with the next step.
- Recognizing the coauthor’s contribution: Instead of removing the coauthor’s name completely from the paper, you could consider moving it to the Acknowledgements section, with a description of their contribution. This would be an appropriate ‘middle path.’ That way, if by chance, the coauthor later comes to know of the published paper, they would know that despite their unavailability, their contribution was still recognized.
- Consulting with the editor: For both the above suggestions, consult with the journal editor. This is because, as you may know, journals require the signed consent of all coauthors for a change of coauthorship. With one coauthor unavailable, they may not agree to the change in coauthorship. However, if they know that you all have done your best to contact the author, and after that, are still recognizing their contribution through the acknowledgments, they should be okay with proceeding to publish the paper.
- Keeping a record of communication: Finally, keep a record of all attempts to contact the unavailable coauthor and also of correspondence with the journal editor in this matter. This is because if the coauthor gets in touch later, you can share these with them as evidence of how earnestly you all sought to address the matter in their absence.
Here’s to a rapid, satisfactory resolution…