Q: How should a journal address an authorship dispute?

Detailed Question -

An article has been published in a journal which is indexed on PubMed. There is an authorship conflict. 5 out of 6 authors have not contributed to the study and the real guide and co-guide have been left out. The guides have written to the journal, providing a copy of the original dissertation and a copy of the initial manuscript with the original authors' names (which had been submitted to another journal earlier). What is the right course of action for the journal to take? If the journal does not act, what can the original authors do?

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Answer:

Since the whistle has been blown, the journal should ideally investigate the issue. As per the authorship criteria put forth by the International Committee of Medical Journal Editors (ICMJE), authors should have made substantial intellectual contributions to the conception or design of a study, and not just provided an oversight. Based on this, I think the first step that the journal should take is to contact the 5 other co-authors of the paper and confirm whether they have made significant contributions to the paper. They would also need to examine whether the guide and co-guide who have complained to the journal have made substantial intellectual contributions to the paper to merit authorship.

Once the journal is sure that this is a case of misconduct, they will demand an explanation from the author who is guilty. If the explanation is unsatisfactory, the paper can be retracted. In extreme cases, the author might be banned from submitting a paper to the journal for a certain period of time. The journal might also inform the author’s institution and take the help of the institution to investigate the issue. In cases where the journal is unsure of the right course of action, they sometimes contact the Committee of Publication Ethics (COPE) for guidance.

In case the journal does not take any action, I’m afraid there’s not much you can do. There is no clear legislation in place for the kind of action to be taken against people guilty of misconduct in authorship disputes. You can maybe write to the Editorial Board of the journal in case the Editor does not take any action. In extreme cases, people take to blogging or social media to expose the guilty party, but such extreme action is generally not advisable and can have damaging consequences for all parties involved. Since the journal is a reputable one, it's likely that they will investigate the issue and take the necessary action.