“Ill communication” leads to retraction of tissue paper (sorry) for authorship issues

Like many researchers, Frank Walboomers frequently checks the scientific databases to see when his latest publications appear. He was doing so a few months ago when he came across his name on an article — “Effects of pro-inflammatory cytokines on mineralization potential of rat dental pulp stem cells” — published online in July in the Journal of Tissue Engineering and Regenerative Medicine, that he hadn’t written.

The first author of the paper, Xuechao Yang, was a former doctoral student in Walboomers’ laboratory at Radboud University Nijmegen. It didn’t take Walboomers long to figure out what had happened:

Mr. Yang was a former PhD student in our laboratory. After he graduated he moved back to his home country, China.  There he continued to do research, and published his results with my name on it as a co-author. Probably he was thinking to do his old supervisor a favor by having another publication. However since I was not involved in the study, and did not know of it prior to submission, I had asked my name to be removed. I only want my name on a paper if I was actively involved in the research and writing process. The magazine then retracted the paper as having a co-author without his/her approval is a violation of the publishing rules. I think this action was most unfortunate on Mr. Yang’s behalf and he apologised extensively.

In the end, he says, “ill communication” was the problem.

The retraction notice, which appears in the October 2011 issue of the journal, tells pretty much the same story:

The following article from the Journal of Tissue Engineering and Regenerative Medicine, ‘Effects of Pro-inflammatory Cytokines on Mineralization Potential of Rat Dental Pulp Stem Cells’ by Yang X, Walboomers XF, Bian Z, Jansen JA, Fan M, published online on 11 July 2011 in Wiley Online Library (onlinelibrary.wiley.com), has been retracted by agreement between the authors, the journal Editor-in-Chief, and John Wiley & Sons, Ltd. The retraction has been agreed due to two authors (Walboomers XF, and Jansen JA) not having been involved in the research described, nor made aware of their names being listed on the manuscript, nor told of its submission to the journal.

This case doesn’t seem quite like the conventional “forged authorship,” although one could argue that since the net effect is the same, what’s the difference? Still, it’s easy to imagine a grateful young researcher trying to pay back a mentor with a publication built on the knowledge that he or she gained from the relationship. And how far removed is it from the unreported — and, one might argue, commonplace — instances in which a venerable but disengaged lab head gets his honorific slot as senior author despite having done little more than obtain the funding to keep the rats in chow?

0 thoughts on ““Ill communication” leads to retraction of tissue paper (sorry) for authorship issues”

  1. The question of whether senior scientists who provided funding and space but were not directly involved in development of a particular idea, execution of experiments, and write-up of the results should be authors is debatable. There are reasonable arguments to be made on both sides. However, anyone who has attempted to obtain enough funding to “keep the rats in chow”– to say nothing of chow for the graduate students, post-docs, and staff– would probably not so flippantly dismiss this contribution to the process.

  2. A retraction seems a little harsh here, assuming the former post-doc was acting in good will. At some point, there needs to be some degree of common sense and, in this case, a correction of the author list with a full explanation would probably have been sufficient.

  3. Funding and space cannot make one an author of research, and that was settled by various organisations and committees from the start. “Ethical” rules, integrity rules, etc. all say this. I wonder why the senior scientist would not be involved in research in his lab also. Does he give the space and money (let’s point it out – not his personal money) in exchange for authorship? Years ago, many senior scientists had their name on all papers from their lab, but not just for money and space. These days now people take meaning of authorship literally.

  4. This is another case in which a correction would have probably been better than a retraction. As Retraction Watch is showing us, “retraction inflation” seems to be leading editors to resort to this drastic punishment for any and every ethical or procedural issue–and even, ocassionally, to “fix” errors caused by the publisher’s production errors. Shouldn’t retraction be reserved for cases when it can be shown that the authors set out to intentionally deceive readers?

    Why is it that researchers are promptly excoriated for any violation, no matter how mild or unintentional, of the rules, while editors and reviewers continue to commit misconduct with relative impunity? Peers in glory should also be peers in accountability. Just another opinion!

  5. In its Retraction Guidelines, http://www.publicationethics.org/files/retraction%20guidelines.pdf, COPE advises that

    ‘Retractions are not usually appropriate if a change of authorship is required but there is no reason to doubt the validity of the findings’
    ‘Journal editors should consider issuing a correction if the author / contributor list is incorrect (i.e. a deserving author has been omitted or somebody who does not meet authorship criteria has been included)’.

    It also stresses that the main purpose of retractions is to correct the literature and ensure its integrity rather than to punish authors.

    I share Karen’s concerns about retractions being sometimes used too readily and inappropriately. It’s up to editors to evaluate cases individually, using common sense and recognising when actions may have occurred not from any intention to deceive but, for example, out of ignorance of generally accepted publication and ethical norms. I have dealt with many authorship cases – it is one of the most common areas of concern and dispute for journal editors – and they can be very complex and often involve ‘ill-communication’ rather than deceit. In the case above, if there were no other issues, I think a correction with a full explanation of what happened would have been the right way to go.

    Irene (declaration: COPE Council member)

  6. I agree. The science was fine so the paper ought to stand. Unless there’s something we’re not being told. The postdoc was wrong but he was just trying to help, and this was a first offence. A retraction is much too harsh.

  7. I agree with the general tone of the replies here – a retraction seems an inappropriate response. As has already been said, if the research is sound then a correction should have been issued. I have noticed, however, that many journals now require signed permission from all named authors. Such a policy would have forestalled the issue entirely.

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