Lab squabble leads to retracted correction over authorship in British Journal of Haematology

Here’s a he said-he said that left one author with a publication, then nothing, and us scratching our heads.

In March 2010, the British Journal of Haematology issued a rather straightforward correction regarding a 2007 article by a group of researchers from Kansas Kansas City, Missouri.

The glitch? The manuscript evidently left out an author:

In Iyamu et al (2007), the list of authors was incorrectly published and should have read:

Efemwonkiekie W. Iyamu, Syed Jamal, Chiazotam Ekekezie and Gerald M. Woods

Or maybe not. The journal is now retracting the correction:

The following Corrigendum from the British Journal of Haematology, published online in Wiley Online Library ( on 22 March 2010 and in Volume 149, issue 2, page 307, has been retracted by the Journal Editor-in-Chief, Professor Finbarr Cotter, and Blackwell Publishing Ltd. The retraction has been made because it was subsequently determined that Mr Syed Jamal was never involved in the project that resulted in the original publication listed below. — Iyamu, E.W., Jamal, S., Ekekezie, C. & Woods, G.M. (2007) In vitro evidence of the inhibitory capacity of chloroquine on arginase activity in sickle erythrocytes. British Journal of Haematology, 139, 337–343.

The original paper has been cited four times, if you don’t count the correction and retraction, according to Thomson Scientific’s Web of Knowledge. Although we recently reported on a retracted retraction, we haven’t seen a retracted correction before; perhaps Retraction Watch readers can point us to other cases.

We’ve asked the BJH editor, Finbarr Cotter, to help us understand what happened here, but he hasn’t replied to our requests for comment.  Meanwhile, however, we spoke with Syed Jamal, who was glad to talk with us. Jamal said he worked in Iyamu’s lab between 2004 and 2006, but left when the two had a falling out over the direction of the research there.

I left because the grant ran out and he didn’t want to renew my contract. I was given the option to look for some other labs at the hospital but I didn’t.

Jamal said that although he was by no means the most significant author on the paper, his name deserves to be on the list.

There’s a lot of chemistry in that paper that I did. That article does have input from me, especially in the discussion section.

And he sees the retraction as a sign that the system tilts unfairly against junior authors.

 Corresponding authors basically have all the rights. Working with a student or junior investigator, you are basically at the mercy [of the senior authors] unless you have something in writing.

Which he did not.

Jamal may have a point about middle authors getting the short end of things, but the journal initially seemed sympathetic when, after seeing the article without his name on it, he complained to the editors.

In an email exchange with Cotter’s office over a 17 month period, the journal does a curious flip-flop on the case.

First, in response to a Jan. 26, 2010 email from Jamal, Cotter wrote:

Thank you for your email. While I appreciate that you may feel that your name was omitted from the paper I am not in a position to add names at your insistance. The issue lies with the corresponding author. Clearly you feel that an injustice has occurred and I am sorry that this has occurred. If your name has incorrectly been omitted it needs to be investigated. I will be writing to the corresponding author to clarify the situation and I would suggest you do likewise. Some supporting evidence from your laboratory book may be useful.

Less than a month later, however, after Jamal provided two pieces of data to the journal, he received this message from Cotter’s editorial assistant:

I have just heard from the Editor and the authors have apologized and realized they should have added your name so we are going to publish an erratum.

All of which makes the last message from Cotter, dated May 31 of this year, particularly puzzling:

The corresponding author has indicated that at no time did he consent to your name being added.  We therefore cannot permit your name to remain on the manuscript.  The issue lies between yourself and the corresponding author and without his consent, we cannot add a name to the manuscript.

We’d love to know what conversations occurred between Iyamu and Cotter after the correction ran. Had the journal acted without his consent — which seems unlikely given that Iyamu was the corresponding author — or did Iyamu change his mind in a moment after the fact?

Iyamu seems to have dropped off the radar. He had moved to Nebraska to train in internal medicine, and although his name appears on the website, no one there seems to know him.

We’re certain there’s a larger point here than the mere fact of a screw up. And we’re not prepared yet to say who screwed up worse, although there are a few obvious candidates. First of all, the journal could have handled the dispute better. If someone failed to get sign-off from Iyamu before changing the authorship, that’s big oops. But if Iyamu gave the okay and then changed his mind, the journal should have held firm — at least until the other original authors agreed.

Without Iyamu’s side of the story we’re left only with Jamal’s word here. But we wonder why he would work so hard to get his name into the lineup if he hadn’t contributed to the paper. Which brings us to the most important question: Where does authorship begin? Although we’ve argued that casting a shadow over a lab doesn’t earn someone the right to a mention on the manuscript, doing material work on a project is the kind of thing that would scratch our sniff test.

Hat tip: Luis M. Guachalla

0 thoughts on “Lab squabble leads to retracted correction over authorship in British Journal of Haematology”

  1. Although we’ve argued that casting a shadow over a lab doesn’t earn someone the right to a mention on the manuscript, doing material work on a project is the kind of thing that would scratch our sniff test.

    Yes, and unfortunately leaving junior lab members out of manuscripts is not uncommon – work long enough in academia and you hear plenty of anecdotes. The two that stuck in my mind involved undergraduate researchers, both studying molecular biology. One was told “undergraduates aren’t here to publish papers” (this was apparently the firm policy of the professor involved), and was relegated to the acknowledgment section. The other (at a different institution) was left off a Cell paper involving multiple labs, despite having performed most of the work contributed by her lab. The reason in this case was purely political: the corresponding author, who was a collaborator, wanted to keep the author list short, and for various reasons, a more senior researcher (who had contributed very little) received authorship credit instead.

    There is also the situation (probably more common) of giving first authorship to someone who didn’t perform most of the work, usually as a career boost (but sometimes also for political reasons). I suspect these practices are as widespread as “honorary authorship”. All of these amount to research misconduct, in my opinion, but since they rarely have any bearing on the reported research and the offended parties are usually very junior researchers, they fall under the radar.

  2. I never understood the deal about not including someone on an article if they have done some work on the project. What difference does it make to you (if you are the corresponding author)? Just another name on a paper, right?

    I always give credit where it is due, even to undergraduate students and technicians. I just don’t understand why I wouldn’t. No skin off my nose and it might even benefit these students down the line, which is surely a good thing.

  3. See the letter in NEJM below.

    I have a first-hand experience where a group I had worked with published a paper based on my protocol after I had left – most patients being mine – without my name in Blood. I pointed this out to the Editor (Ken Kaushansky) and sent a letter describing my clinical experience (which made it clear to any intelligent reader that I was responsible for the work in the published paper – without whining or complaining). He refused to publish it. The errant group then offered to put my name somewhere in the middle – in an addendum notice. I refused – but kaushansky went ahead and published it any way – making me the umpteenth author. Such disgraceful behavior – from authors and editors alike – is probably far more common than is appreciated.

    Authorship Limits

    N Engl J Med 2002; 347:1118October 3, 2002

    To the Editor:

    The change in the Journal’s policy on authorship (July 4 issue),1 which previously restricted the number of authors for an article, is appropriate and is to be welcomed. However, this change does not protect persons who have contributed substantially to a scientific work but who are deliberately excluded from the list of authors. To avoid this problem, we suggest that the Journal go a step beyond the guidelines of the International Committee of Medical Journal Editors2 and require authors to declare that no person who would meet the criteria for authorship has been excluded.

    Jayesh Mehta, M.D.
    Seema Singhal, M.D.
    Northwestern University, Chicago, IL 60611

    1 Drazen JM, Curfman GD. On authors and contributors. N Engl J Med 2002;347:55-55

    2 Authorship. Philadelphia: International Committee of Medical Journal Editors, October 2001. (Accessed September 13, 2002, at

    .Author/Editor Response

    Dr. Drazen replies:

    Drs. Mehta and Singhal raise the issue of exclusion of authors. We believe that the onus lies with the corresponding author to ensure that all named authors meet authorship criteria. It stands to reason that the corresponding author would also be responsible for ensuring that all authors who merited inclusion were included. Such matters need to be adjudicated locally, with the corresponding author making the final decisions about authorship.

    Jeffrey M. Drazen, M.D.

  4. I wonder how accurate medical textbooks are? I mean, textbooks are written based on published research. I am sure authors don’t really do a through search, weigh the evidence or cross check every fact.
    At one Cochrane Review workshop I attended, I happened to sit next to a Professor (and author of many books) who did not quite understand how randomisation was done in RCT’s.
    I am sure the day is not far off when medical students will ask us to defend our exam marking scheme in court.

  5. This kind of thing leaves me completely baffled.

    Authorship is deserved by anyone who has contributed anything of substance to the paper: significant intellectual input or labor, uncommon reagents or samples, or methods that aren’t prepackaged in citable form. Why does it matter if the person is an undergrad, graduate student, postdoc, lab tech, or senior researcher? The contribution was the same, as was the importance to the paper. It costs nothing to the first and corresponding authors, and it’s intellectually dishonest to not credit those who do the work.

    I have never understood why people feel the need to hoard credit in science. Anyone in science understands the collaborative nature of the work, and understands the importance of the first author and the corresponding author relative to the middle authors.

  6. Absolutely right. Credit should be given where it is deemed to be. However, in some cases, inserting director’s name to a paper published by a PI in an institute – is rather overboard. Sometimes, we might use the data obtained from a student who has left the laboratory a while ago, and therefore, he/she can be given authorship if the senior author is willing to do so. No harm done..

  7. In some countries, for the evaluation of scientists the impact factor of the journal is taken into account and put into correlation (usually by in a form IF/N) with the number authors on the same level, e.g. number of PIs (with the *), or number of grad students. So putting several undergrads on the paper impairs the career chances of your graduate students/postdocs. Let’s get rid of those stupid numeric evaluations!

  8. Ofcourse, spinning the facts are some of the things that academia thrives on these days instead of developing minds/skills that meets the market demands. Not surprised.

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