A publication loophole? Authors can make changes editors won’t always see

SEEA few unusual acknowledgements added by authors after finalizing the manuscripts have highlighted a common element in science publishing – right before going to press, authors can make minor changes to manuscripts that editors won’t necessarily review before publication.

We were reminded of this when reading two opinion papers published in August by Science and Engineering Ethics.

For one, “Honor Killing: Where Pride Defeats Reason,” the acknowledgements read:

The authors are grateful to their respective universities (Manipal University and Panjab University) for encouraging research and publications in international journals of repute.

For the other, “Politics of Science: Unwarranted Encounters,” the authors say

The authors are grateful to their respective universities (Manipal University and Panjab University) for encouraging research and publications in international journals of repute. Corresponding author wishes to acknowledge the present Vice Chancellor Prof. Arun Kumar Grover and former Vice Chancellor Prof. RC Sobti for their untiring efforts to encourage quality research and publications for better research outputs.

These are not the typical notes we see at the end of papers (although some unusual ones — such as a marriage proposal — do occasionally come across our desk).

We contacted editor Stephanie Bird, saying the acknowledgments read “strangely.” She responded:

I believe both are designated as opinion pieces and neither has an acknowledgement.

We forwarded her the acknowledgements, and she told us she would look into it further and get back to us. In a subsequent phone conversation with Bird, she said she’d done some digging and the authors had added the acknowledgments during the final proofing stages; although she hadn’t seen them before going to press, another editor had. Authors are largely given free rein in their acknowledgements, she said: “We are not into acknowledgement policing.”

But the incident illustrates an interesting aspect of science publishing: Namely, that in the final publication stages, authors can make changes editors don’t see. That’s true, said Bird:

Which is disturbing.

Mind you, they can’t make major changes, Bird noted, such as altering the author list (about which editors have to be notified), or major text rewrites, since typesetters can’t move around much text at that point.

If it’s a dramatic change in the paper, I would expect typesetters would notify an editor. But they aren’t always in a position to necessarily know that something changes things dramatically.

We’re not sure how many journals let authors make unedited changes, but it’s certainly not just Science and Engineering Ethics, said Bird — based on what she’s experienced when publishing in other journals, it’s “common practice” to let authors make minor, last-minute changes that editors don’t approve before publication.

We referred to this as a loophole in the publishing process, but she didn’t agree with that term, since letting authors have the final say on a paper is actually a good thing. She’s often corrected small typos that change the meaning of a sentence in her papers’ final stages, and all authors should have this ability:

Ultimately, the modifications that authors make in the proofs is to make sure the message they are trying to convey gets conveyed.

Although an editor at Science and Engineering Ethics did review these particular acknowledgments before going to press, that can’t always be the case at every journal, added Bird:

I don’t see it as essential to check every dot and cross every “t” to make sure nothing is changed. It’s something that’s beyond what’s possible for editors to do, and take responsibility for. Because it’s the authors’ name on the papers.

We received a statement from two of the authors on both papers, Tanuj Kanchan at Manipal University in India and Kewal Krishan at Panjab University, which concurred they’d added the acknowledgments during the final stages of publication.

We agree that the acknowledgements were added later, however, we never realized anything unusual in it. We understand that acknowledging the universities for encouraging research and publication in international journals of repute no way can harm any individual or society. Besides, we were not aware that acknowledgements cannot be added at the ‘proof’ stage of the article. If that was the case, had the journal production team informed us, we would have removed that for sure. Though our intentions are fair, we regret if the acknowledgements stated by us is taken as unusual or has caused any concern or inconvenience to anyone.

Even though she didn’t okay these acknowledgments personally, Bird said she would have if she’d seen them before press time:

I would have been fine with them, although they are unusual.

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7 thoughts on “A publication loophole? Authors can make changes editors won’t always see”

  1. I recently published a paper (well, it’s in production now, hopefully soon in print) where the copy-editor flagged “data not shown” and said it was against journal policies. This resulted in a LARGE change in the paper. I wrote a letter back recommending that they send the paper back to the editors, and the production staff duly did so, causing about a two month delay. But the change was so big it really would have been inappropriate to leave it in the copy-editor’s hands (whole new figures, deletion of a previous figure, some changes to conclusions).

    I wonder what would have happened had I not warned them. Would it have gone through?

    1. To be quite honest as “data not shown” is generally for facts which, whilst perhaps pertinent, the paper does not rely upon; I would have been tempted either to delete the sentence which contained that comment or re-wrote it to avoid it. 2 months delay and a major re-write seems a heavy penalty to pay, especially as it had passed peer review!

  2. I was under the impression that the main purpose of proofs checking was to catch typos…

    Moreover, at this stage, many technical editors only require a list of corrections, generally sent by e-mail, and I don’t see how large sections, tables, or figures could be modified by this means. If something substantial should be modified upon editor request, that means that the status of the paper is still somewhere between “under review” and “typesetting in progress” (see the previous post, with the story of Mary Kuhner).

    For example, the proofs produced by the Royal Society of Chemistry clearly state:
    “Please check this proof carefully. Our staff will not read it in detail after you have returned it”.

    Finally, the acknowledgements section is a very special piece, which does not contain any Science. Last minute modifications in this section have very little consequences, and authors are free to acknowledge God, their pets, their wife/husband/boyfriend/girlfriend/ex-mistress, or the President of the Senate, if they wish.

  3. Can Dr. Bird please provide comment about three JSEE papers in discussion at PubPeer:

    Incidence of Data Duplications in a Randomly Selected Pool of Life Science Publications
    Morten P Oksvold, Sci Eng Ethics (2015)

    No One Likes a Snitch
    Barbara Redman, Arthur Caplan, Sci Eng Ethics (2014)

    Authorship Matrix: A Rational Approach to Quantify Individual Contributions and Responsibilities in Multi-Author Scientific Articles
    T. Prabhakar Clement, Sci Eng Ethics (2013)

  4. “Finally, the acknowledgements section is a very special piece, which does not contain any Science. Last minute modifications in this section have very little consequences, and authors are free to acknowledge God, their pets, their wife/husband/boyfriend/girlfriend/ex-mistress, or the President of the Senate, if they wish.”

    Sylvaine, I believe absolutely not. Only entities that have provided tangible material support or direct assistance with an aspect related to the study can or should be acknowledged. To place a pet or God in the same category as a financial donor or grant, or someone who assisted with actual parts of the experiments is plain incorrect, as I see it. Acknowledgements should be as fully vetted for validity by editors as the actual scientific content.

    SpringerPlus IFA:

    Please acknowledge anyone who contributed towards the article by making substantial contributions to conception, design, acquisition of data, or analysis and interpretation of data, or who was involved in drafting the manuscript or revising it critically for important intellectual content, but who does not meet the criteria for authorship. Please also include the source(s) of funding for each author, and for the manuscript preparation. Authors must describe the role of the funding body, if any, in design, in the collection, analysis, and interpretation of data; in the writing of the manuscript; and in the decision to submit the manuscript for publication. Please also acknowledge anyone who contributed materials essential for the study. If a language editor has made significant revision of the manuscript, we recommend that you acknowledge the editor by name, where possible.

    If you would like the names of the individual members of a collaboration Group to be searchable through their individual PubMed records, please ensure that the title of the collaboration Group is included on the title page and in the submission system and also include collaborating author names as the last paragraph of the “acknowledgements” section. Please add authors in the format First Name, Middle initial(s) (optional), Last Name. You can add institution or country information for each author if you wish, but this should be consistent across all authors.

    Please note that individual names may not be present in the PubMed record at the time a published article is initially included in PubMed as it takes PubMed additional time to code this information.

    Authors should obtain permission to acknowledge from all those mentioned in the Acknowledgements section.”

    Sylvaine, how does one obtain permission from God or a pet?

    By contrast, the JSEE IFA information related to acknowledgements is useless:
    “Acknowledgments of people, grants, funds, etc. should be placed in a separate section on the title page. The names of funding organizations should be written in full.”

    Who/what exactly is “etc”? Is God or a pet acceptable to acknowledge, Dr. Bird, using Sylvaine’s definition and relying on the vagueness of JSEE’s IFA?

    How can Springer-Nature have such varying IFAs for different journals?

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