Here’s the story: A doctoral student named Varun Kesherwani was working in the lab of Ajit Sodhi, a U.S.-trained and well-published cell biologist at Banaras Hindu University. Kesherwani’s Linkedin page lists him as a postdoc at the University of Nebraska.
The two were co-authors on a 2007 paper in Cytokine, “Quantitative role of p42/44 and p38 in the production and regulation of cytokines TNF-α, IL-1β and IL-12 by murine peritoneal macrophages in vitro by Concanavalin A.” (That paper has been cited nine times, according to Thomson Scientific’s Web of Knowledge, including by the retraction notice.)
But it seems Kesherwani, who was listed as the paper’s corresponding author despite his junior status, did not have his mentor’s blessing when he submitted the manuscript.
According to Scott Durum, an editor of Cytokine, Sodhi saw the publication online and complained to the journal. Not only had Sodhi’s student failed to inform him of the article, Durum told us, he had not received permission to use the data, some of which had previously been published by the pair and some of which already was in submission.
He wanted the paper retracted. But we have the rule that all the authors must agree.
Kesherwani objected, saying that such a step might hinder his prospects of future publication. And he was probably right on that score: We’re guessing not many lab heads would be thrilled with the idea of hiring a researcher with a history of submitting data without permission and forging author names.
What followed was more than four years of bickering and he-said — he-said between the two scientists, with the journal caught in the middle.
After Sodhi’s complaint, the journal issued a retraction notice in June 2008 which tried to clarify the issue. But Kesherwani again complained, and convinced the journal to print another notice — modified by an erratum — but again he felt the notice was prejudicial.
For a while it was a standoff. If they don’t agree to the text of the retraction notice, what’s the right thing to do?
Well, more on that in a moment.
Unfortunately, neither of the earlier notices seems to be available online anymore, having been replaced most recently by the following:
The Editors-in-Chief would like to confirm the retraction of this article at the request of both authors, as it duplicates data that had already appeared in Nitric Oxide, 16 (2007) 294–305, doi:10.1016/j.niox.2006.11.001and J. Interferon Cytokine Res., 27 (2007) 497–506, doi:10.1089/jir.2007.0166, or had been submitted to International Immunopharmacology, later to appear in Int. Immunopharmacol., 7 (2007) 1403–1413, doi:10.1016/j.intimp.2007.07.004. The authors would like to apologize for this administrative error on their part.
Note that nothing here mentions the disputed authorship. And Sodhi, for whatever reason, accepts an equal share of the blame, in the form of the vague “administrative error.”
It certainly is reasonable for journals to adopt policies like the one Cytokine, an Elsevier title, has in place for disputed retractions. But we don’t think they’re as much at the mercy of antagonistic authors as this episode might indicate.
Journals have a responsibility to authors up to a point. But when they have to reverse themselves because authors squabble over the wording of a retraction notice, we think they have a right to step in and break up the fight. If not, they wind up being like the hapless ref who take a shot in the eye because he’s lost control of the bout.