How does a paper get published without the alleged corresponding author knowing?

jmm iopThe Journal of Micromechanics and Microengineering ran a retraction yesterday that’s left us scratching our heads.

The paper, “Wettability-gradient-driven micropump for transporting discrete liquid drops,” was published on February 8 of this year.  For a paper published in a journal run by the Institute of Physics, the retraction notice reads like a mix of Hindenburg (read: disaster) and Heisenberg (read: uncertainty):

The science reported in this article is not incorrect. This article does not include all co-authors who contributed to the work. The article incorrectly attributes work performed at the University of California to the University of Jordan, and fails to acknowledge contributions from Georgia Institute of Technology. This article does not acknowledge the sources of funding for the work and the reference list is incomplete. This article was submitted by Hamzeh K Bardaweel without the knowledge of the other authors.

There’s a lot going on here, so we’ll unpack it.

First, the “science reported in this article is not incorrect.” This strikes us as a bit defensive, but more to the point, if the science is correct, and all that’s wrong is some attributions, why not an erratum? Sure, we see the need to let Bardaweel know he was in the wrong, but why a retraction?

What is perhaps most puzzling, however, is how the corresponding author of a paper — in this case, Cristina Davis of UC Davis — doesn’t know it’s being published. Surely the journal had some — what’s the word we’re looking for, oh! — correspondence with her before the paper was published? We couldn’t find a definition of corresponding author on the Institute of Physics site, but here’s Elsevier’s:

The Corresponding Author is the person who is responsible for the manuscript as it moves through the journal’s submission process.

This person must be registered with the Elsevier Editorial System as all correspondence pertaining to the manuscript will be sent to him/her via the system.

The Corresponding Author is the person responsible for making any edits/submitting revisions to the manuscript and is the only author connected to the manuscript who may view the progress of the manuscript as it moves from one stage to the next.

Did the journal never check with any of the alleged authors of the paper except Bardaweel, who is listed as a postdoc at UC Davis? We’ve seen cases in which a corresponding author submitted a paper without the permission of his or her co-authors, but we’re not sure we’ve seen a case like this. Some journals now copy all authors on all correspondence, precisely to avoid such issues.

The editor of the journal, Mark Allen, coincidentally, is at the Georgia Institute of Technology, one of the institutions whose contributions weren’t acknowledged. We’ve contacted Allen, and Davis, to find out what happened here, and will update with anything we learn.

Update, 4 p.m. Eastern, 5/24/13: Ian Forbes, the journal’s publisher, tells us:

The paper in question was submitted to the Journal of Micromechanics and Microengineering by Hamzeh K Bardaweel. Dr Bardaweel nominated himself as corresponding author, stating that he was acting with the knowledge and approval of all co-authors.

The article was peer reviewed and accepted for publication and during the production process Dr Bardaweel asked that Professor Cristina E Davis be listed as the author for correspondence on the final published paper. As noted by several of the commentators on your original piece, whilst this is unusual, this does occasionally happen.

Shortly after publication we were contacted by Professor Davis who advised us that she had not given permission to Dr Bardaweel for the paper to be submitted.  We investigated this further and after discussion with all parties agreed that under the circumstances a retraction was appropriate.

This situation is unusual and difficult for all so we have worked with all parties to resolve it as quickly as possible.

IOP is committed to providing first rate author service and aim to deal with any issues that arise in a fair and constructive way that makes any changes clear in the archival record and to the community.

Hat tip: Philip King

15 thoughts on “How does a paper get published without the alleged corresponding author knowing?”

  1. Some senior authors (in both meanings of the word) no very comfortable with email and electronic submission might let their postdocs handle paper submission? And therefore the postdoc had the email credentials of the corresponding authors? Used to be secretaries might handle this kind of thing, but in these austere times fewer and fewer profs have one.

    1. What about simply creating an account in the name of the professor but with an e-mail address that you create? Of course it sounds a lot more malicious, but to me that seems the only way to keep all e-mail communication from the professor…

      1. That sounds plausible here, and doesn’t seem like the kind of problem journals would anticipate. How often are people publishing papers trying to false give most of the credit to someone else?

  2. In some of the Journals that I publish, the submissions/revisions/responses-to-reviews can be handled by someone other than the corresponding author. The corresponding author, in this case, is the person to whom correspondence should be addressed after the paper is published. In one recent case, I was selected as the corresponding author because I was the person with the most permanent contact information (i.e., the other authors were likely to take positions at other Universities).

    A simple solution to the problem of authors being included without their knowledge from the perspective of the Journal/Publisher is to require an e-mail address for all authors and then to send all authors a notification of submission, decisions, etc. Several, but not all, journals do this.

  3. So, on my PLoS ONE, I listed Dr. Geiger as a co-corresponding author. This is because there was human pathology in the paper, and if there are questions about these images and her diagnosis, they ought to be addressed to the board certified neuropathologist. (I’ve gotten decent at this histopathology stuff, but I ain’t board certified!)

    I’m the other correspondent, because I know exactly what everyone did on the paper and can direct any questions about how the cells were grown to the appropriate parties, and answer any about the results and conclusions myself.

    Correspondents, I feel, should be the author that wrote the majority of the paper and are equipped to address questions from peers. It’s not who the journal should address during submission and revision, it’s who the community can send queries to once it’s out.

    1. ” It’s not who the journal should address during submission and revision, it’s who the community can send queries to once it’s out.”


      1. Frederic and Allison, 100% on the mark. Any T, D or H can submit a paper online. Allow me to be absolutely blunt. How can the world’s No. 1 science publisher, Elsevier, publish such a ridiculously off-the-mark definition of a corresponding author and then have the gall to retract papers because scientists commit errors. To be fair, and based on this logic, should Elsevier not be withdrawn from the scientific community? I have explored this issue further here:

  4. “Correspondents, I feel, should be the author that wrote the majority of the paper and are equipped to address questions from peers”

    Nope. The corresponding author is the one who corresponds with the journal. That’s formally what it means.

    ” it’s who the community can send queries to once it’s out.”

    Surely that is supposed to be any and all of the authors.

    I doubt that the phrase has any real utility anymore, so it might as well be dropped. But if we are going to use it, it must mean the person who submits the manuscript and communicates with the journal. It would avoid the problem in this retracted paper that the supposed corresponding author didn’t even know it was submitted.

    1. “To whom correspondence should be addressed” is what is listed on most journals under “author information”. This would imply that, if the community wishes to ask questions about the work, then that is the email they should use to get ahold of people. I have done this a few times, for my work as SBU- I had to get in touch with authors whose work I was replicating and expanding on.

      I have also submitted papers to journals where I was not listed as the correspondent author, since I was a grad student and about to leave the project. The submitting author is not necessarily the one the community should be getting in touch with.

      “Surely that is supposed to be any and all of the authors.”

      Nope, some of them are students who performed experiments, and therefore deserve to be recognized for their work- but may not yet understand the analysis. If there are questions about the particular lab experiment performed by a student, you should ask the supervisor to get in touch with them. Or look through their lab notes if they have left.

      This is why it’s typically the one with the most permanent position, so that if labs have replication issues, they can get in touch with the project leader.

      This depends a bit on the field, though. Theory papers tend to list students as correspondents, for example.

      1. “Some of them are students who performed experiments, and therefore deserve to be recognized for their work”.
        Perhaps a bit more than that; according to labtimes, linked on this blog[*], “authorship credit should be based on 1) substantial contributions to conception and design, acquisition of data, or analysis and interpretation of data; 2) drafting the article or revising it critically for important intellectual content; and 3) final approval of the version to be published. Authors should meet conditions 1, 2, and 3.”
        For that student #1 isn’t the issue, but if (s)he doesn’t qualify for #2 and #3 an acknowledgment may be more appropriate.
        I don’t expect all authors to be able to answer all questions on any detail of a study, but they should be able to act as a point of first inquiry and direct you to the proper other author if needed (better: relay the answer from that other author to you).

        1. OK, I see from your lab page you are from a non-USA funding system.

          In the USA system, the journals are, at their heart, intended to be an independent measure of a student’s work and potential.

          It is not just about pure scientific communication. (If the communication is from an institute or company, the rules are a bit different.) It is about an objective and independent grading of talented youngsters.

          For example, one of my students did an important experiment that supported my conclusions and is featured in several figures in my newest paper.

          I am no longer in contact with him, but his work was instrumental for my preliminary assignments. Since his work was fundamental to the story I was trying to tell, he is listed as an author. He did the assignment I gave him extremely well, and I think I may just be able to get a few more papers out of the data he collected.

  5. A paper submitted by an underling while a big name prof is listed as the corresponding author is not unusual at all. As a journal editor I have also come across a couple of instances where aside from not have to deal with the pesky minutiae of corrections and the likes, this also buys the PI plausible deniability if something goes wrong with the paper. I have had at least two-three cases where the papers had plagiarism or duplicate publication issues and the corresponding author/PI denied any knowledge of the papers’ existence, even though in at least one case it was listed on the lab’s publication list (you guessed it – another lackey ran the group’s webpage). In the dual publication instance a postdoc had published a paper with his supervisor’s and a bunch of other people’s names (all of whom denied knowing about it) in a journal so obscure it did not even show up in routinely performed plagiarism searches as it was not on any of the searched databases of papers. A reader (maybe that journal’s only one?) contacted us after it was republished about a year later with the PI’s knowledge (submitted by the same guy though).

  6. If there were a 2013 award for best (or at least most esoteric) writing in this genre, I would nominate this line: “the retraction notice reads like a mix of Hindenburg (read: disaster) and Heisenberg (read: uncertainty):”

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