Lead author changes co-author’s name on a paper without his permission. Why?

Here’s a rather odd case: A postdoctoral researcher says his former boss changed his name on a paper without his permission. According to the postdoc, Antonio Herrera-Merchan, his principal investigator at University of Granada insisted on the name change to distance them both from a scandal in Herrera-Merchan’s previous lab.

After publishing a paper in Oncotarget in October 2017, Herrera-Merchan’s name was changed on the paper. Now, two versions of the paper exist: an earlier version that lists Antonio Herrera-Merchan as first author, and the current version that spells his name without “Merchan.”*  

We’ve obtained an email exchange between his former boss, Pedro Medina, and Oncotarget, requesting the name change.

Medina told us Herrera-Merchan always used the name “Herrera” in his lab:

Antonio tried to do some unauthorised changes in the paper you cited and I reverted them, but his signature on the paper is the same as he has in the other papers from my lab.

Typically, a post-publication change comes with a correction documenting the fix, but in this case, the journal did not flag the change. (Oncotarget was recently delisted from U.S. government biomedical research database MEDLINE.)

The name Herrera-Merchan, now based at the University of Córdoba in Spain, may be familiar to readers. Herrera-Merchan, blew the whistle on once-prominent stem cell biologist, Susana González, while a postdoctoral researcher in her lab. Gonzalez—whose work has faced heavy scrutiny in the past few years—was recently dismissed from her position at the National Center for Cardiovascular Research (CNIC) in Spain, and lost a large grant over misconduct allegations. By our count, González has five retractions for issues including figure duplications and irregularities as well as missing raw data. Herrera-Merchan co-authored two of the now-retracted papers, which were pulled in early 2017.

After leaving González’s lab, Herrera-Merchan moved to the lab of cancer researcher Medina at the University of Granada in Spain in 2014. According to Herrera-Merchan, Medina was concerned that “Susana González’s case and retractions can affect his integrity.” Herrera-Merchan told us that Medina believed dropping the “Merchan” from his signature would create some distance from his previous affiliation with González.

Medina—who recently received the Young Investigator Award from the International Association for the Study of Lung Cancer—sent us links to two papers published in 2017 that list Herrera-Merchan’s name as “Herrera.” Herrera-Merchan, however, told us that he did not approve the name change in either of these other 2017 papers and wrote to the journals—Oncotarget and Clinical and Translational Oncology—requesting they change his name to Herrera-Merchan.

Herrera-Merchan left Medina’s lab in December 2016, and now works for Angel Salvatierra at the University of Córdoba in Spain.

We reached out to the Committee on Publication Ethics (COPE) about this issue—for instance, had it ever encountered a situation where an author asked to change a co-author’s name without their permission.  A spokesperson told us “COPE cannot comment on individual cases” and doesn’t believe it has “come across a case like this previously.”

*Update, 1800 UTC, 01/10/18: Yesterday, a representative of Oncotarget told Retraction Watch it is “investigating the case.” According to the journal:

…the paper was submitted with the last name Herrera, and not Herrera-Merchan.  Before submission all authors must agree on the whole content of the paper, including the names.  It is a gold standard of publishing. If the paper was submitted with the last name Herrera, then the first author should know about that.

Herrera-Merchan acknowledged today that he did submit the paper, and the original version did list his name as “Herrera,” not “Herrera-Merchan:”

I didn’t see this error that time.

But when he noticed, he changed his name to “Herrera-Merchan” during the revisions, so the paper was first published with his name listed as “Herrera-Merchan.”

Once Medina noticed the name had changed to Herrera-Merchan, he asked the journal to change it back to “Herrera” post-publication. When the journal made the change, Herrera-Merchan contacted it to voice his objections.

A representative of Oncotarget told us:

The authors are in direct conflict with each other and provide a contradictory information. We are talking to the authors and COPE to clear the situation.

Update, July 26 2018 15:30 UTC: Herrera-Merchan told us that Oncotarget had updated the paper with his full name.

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12 thoughts on “Lead author changes co-author’s name on a paper without his permission. Why?”

  1. I tried to do some unauthorized changes!!?? He did it!
    And, last papers publish:

    Only three papers (2 Oncotargets and 1 Clinical and translational oncology) have wrong my signature. All of them referenced on PMC and PubMed but not the others.

    Do you think is a normal situation that a researcher changes his signature in one way and not in others?

    I only want work in science. I need that you trust me, some years ago and now.

    1. I found that many, many academic colleagues are afraid to associate with people who report academic fraud. They are afraid that their reputations might be hurt if they collaborate with us. It sounds like you are an excellent researcher…. people want to work with you. However, they are afraid to be seen to be working with you. Whistleblowing is very professionally stigmatizing because of the nature of the reprisals, which include denigration and marginalization.

      It is sad to see people apparently distancing themselves from truth-tellers such as yourself. On the other hand, it seems that you had colleagues who were prepared to work with you, despite any potential fear that your stigma could rub off on them. These colleagues are a cut above the self-interested academics who would avoid working with you at all. Many whistleblowers have lost their careers and become modern-day lepers because of the fear of the stigma that is attached to reporting fraud in the workplace.

    2. Dr. Herrera-Merchan is entitled to write his name as he wishes in the author list of a paper that he has coauthored. The fact that the senior author removed part of Herrera-Merchan last name without his authorization is outrageous This should be thoroughly investigated and, if it these actions by the senior author are confirmed, Dr. Medina should be santioned. Altering Dr. Herrera-Merchan signature will affect his record in the literature searches and will raise questions on the motives of such an alteration when he submitt his CV for evaluation. Furthermore, since Herrera-Merchan has been the whistleblower on a confirmed case of scientifc missconduct, any action taken against him should be immediatly investigated by the corresponding ethics commitee and a correction of the literature record should be enforced by this committee.

    1. What he means is the name by you which you commonly author (“sign”) your paper, e.g. “Bill Clinton” instead of “William Jefferson Blythe III Clinton”

      To sign, in latin, just means to “mark”.

  2. How each of us wishes to be named publicly, for attribution, is a decision that should be up to each of us. Shouldn’t this be an inalienable right?

    Journal editors and publishers should require proof that the author involved has agreed to any requested change in how he or she is named in any publication.

    This looks like something journal editors and publishers need to develop explicit policies for. Otherwise, are we all to be subject to unauthorized changes in our name if a corresponding author or group leader requests such a change without our knowledge or approval?

    1. I totally agree!

      There is a very simple solution. The journals should publish corrections, indicate the author’s correct name and ensure that the indexing of his articles is complete and correct. End of story.

      Your name is the only way your field can evaluate your productivity.

      This is just another example of the trials and tribulations of a whistleblower. More often than not the person or persons conduction the misconduct go free, but the whistleblower see her own reputation drug through the mud.

      It’s one reason why retaliatory actions including the common practice making false accusations of misconduct against the whistleblower needs to have very severe consequences.

  3. This story is odd, my main question on this case is why if Herrera-Merchan submitted himself the article used the name “Herrera” without the Merchan. It makes no sense. The excuse that you had an error is not credible, the first thing you see during the submission of a job is that your name is well written and placed.

    1. I change 5 wrong name authors during revision. Name of corresponding author Pedro Medina include.
      All these changes didn’t supposs problem, except my name.
      Some times, a simple error and a simple question.

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