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.
@OncotargetJrnl I see my signature changed for third time. Could you tell me what this change is all about? My correct signature is Antonio Herrera-Merchan. Thanks in advance. I am sorry but I don’t understand pic.twitter.com/mfJ84F4Kwb
— Antonio Herrera M (@aherreramerchan) November 28, 2017
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.
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